18 March, 2011

Part Three: Faulkner

Despite the vast differences between their narrative styles, both Austen and Flaubert seek to understand an individual through externals. Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, by contrast, uses a variety of first-person narrators to give the reader direct access to individual consciousnesses: these consciousnesses, then, become the defining aspect of each character. Within the framework established by a controlling, selecting “narrative consciousness” are fifteen different accounts of the novel's action, each given by a secondary narrator with his or her own understanding of reality. The portion that Addie Bundren narrates from her coffin is strikingly different in focus from Cora Tull’s hypocritically religious interpretation of events or Anse’s unthinkingly self-centered understanding. Whereas the rest of the characters address and interpret the action and events of the novel directly, she explains the journey to the cemetery in Jefferson in terms of the deep, underlying motivations that led her to request this burial in the first place. The following passage is taken from her account of her early marriage to Anse, just after the birth of her first-born, Cash. Central to the paragraph is her preoccupation with the randomness and insecurity of language, a preoccupation that directs the course of her gradual withdrawal from husband and children into what she attempts to make a world of pure act, unmediated by the forms and words that seem to her to betray the truth of experience.

“He had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that that word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack; that when the right time came, you wouldn’t need a word for that anymore than for pride or fear. Cash did not need to say it to me nor I to him, and I would say, Let Anse use it, if he wants to. So that it was Anse or love; love or Anse: it didn’t matter.” (164)

The narrative consciousness that frames Addie’s account preserves the idiosyncrasies of her stream-of-consciousness, to the point of using punctuation less in a conventional manner to separate discreet portions of dialogue (as an Austen would do) than in a manner that reflects the pauses and progressions of the experienced thought process. Commas mark mental pauses rather than grammatical units, and quotations are incorporated into Addie’s thought without the distinguishing quotation mark to set them off from her consciousness. This technique allows the reader, even as Addie explains her suspicion of language, to garner much additional information about her personality and character simply through the way in which this argument is presented.

The triad of short, dismissive sentences with which she commences indicates the skepticism that controls the paragraph; yet these abrupt dismissals of Anse’s “word” contrast with the complexity of structure and length at which she recounts her own visceral rejection of Anse’s perspective. She is either unwilling or unable (likely both) to examine the nuances of his consciousness, and will thus retain hers as the measure of everything she confronts. The anadiplosis and repetition of structures (I knew that. . ., that) also leads us to a sense of her everywhere-apparent intensity. She rejects Anse’s words out of hand and elsewhere rejects the verbal even violently, because she feels strongly about the insufficiency of this mode of understanding. Words cannot bring about the mingling of blood that she longs for as a means of defeating her isolation; Cash, as the fruit of her womb, is the only creature, at this point, she believes, to have “violated” her aloneness, and he correspondingly does not need words to communicate with her. One cannot truly, she argues, “fill a lack” satisfactorily with a “shape”; she has found this to be consistently the case in her experience, pointing to “the others” that have also failed to be of any use at “the right time”.

By the time we reach the end of the paragraph, the narrative consciousness has made clear precisely how Addie's rant about language relates, not merely to her personality and ideas, but to the plot unfolding as she speaks. Not only are words useless to convey meaning; Anse also is meaningless to her. His name can be interchanged with no alteration of what is being said with the “empty” term, “love”: despite being her husband, he too has failed to fill the lack, to connect blood with blood in the manner that she feels necessary. This point is crucial to her motivation for demanding the trip to Jefferson. Anse and love both are things that to her “d[on’t] matter,” and by the time she has had her affair with Whitfield she has similarly rejected both Cash and Darl, thinking them away so that “it doesn’t matter what they call” these two sons either. All that is left to her now as the root of her identity is the blood of her forbears in the soil in Jefferson; the family that she has acquired through ritual and verbal assent has no meaning for her. She demands the trip as “revenge” for being tricked by “words older than love or Anse”; her revenge is to get the better of this deception at Anse’s expense, to affirm the meaning of her roots above the meaning of the new life she rejects even as she participates in it.

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