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faulkner - as i lay dying & sound of fury
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Everything In Its Ordered Place: 

Faulkner's As I Lay Dying & The Sound and the Fury

The Southern Renaissance has often been described as a way of “perceiving and dealing with the past” as Richard King put it. As Lewis Simpson has observed, the obligation of the Southern writer "to serve as a witness… to the remembrance of [the civil war]” was a force in shaping their vocation, and can be seen as a way to come to terms with the inherited values of the South which Cash famously described as "not quite a nation within a nation, but the next thing to it”.

Early readings of Faulkner’s novels often made use of certain stereotypes described by George O’Donnell in his often-cited argument that Faulkner’s works constitute a series of interrelated myths built around the conflict between traditionalism and an anti-traditional modern world, dramatized in the clash between the aristocratic Sartoris clan and the Snopes as representatives of the new mercantile spirit.

Faulkner has been read as a traditional moralist drawing his creative strength from the Southern myth of a “civilization whose ideal is social existence rather than production” as Stark Young put it. However this reading has been qualified by critics such as Cowley who have argued Faulkner’s legend of the South includes both the virtue of “living single-mindedly by a fixed code”, and a sense of the guilt inherent in that code’s foundation on slavery. As Jehlen argues the tensions in Faulkner’s novels can be seen as expressing a “profoundly discordant view of southern life.” While Faulkner said he had never thought of The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying in the same words, they have often been compared as family dramas. TSAF is often seen as a rewriting of the Southern Family Romance which King describes as suffused with nostalgia, telling the story of the fall of a house and the collapse of a provincial aristocracy into insanity and psychological perversion.

AILD on the other hand, deals with the “tragedy of death among white trash” as Julia Baker put it. Each novel “revolves around a single sorely tried family” as Kartigner says and deal with "the deep South dead since 1865 and peopled with garrulous outraged baffled ghosts” as Faulkner put it in Absalom! Absalom! Yet as Henry Nash Smith argued, Faulkner can be seen as “both provincial and universal” using the anatomized southern family as a metaphor for the modern crisis of meaning. TSAF is often described as having “a largeness of reference” in Howe’s words, “whether taken as the study of the potential for human destruction or a rendering of the social disorder.”

Brooks argues that the fact that Faulkner’s country is provincial “does not prevent its serving as an excellent mirror of the perennial triumphs and defeats of the human spirit.” In TSAF, the paintless house with its rotting portico is itself an image of isolation and disintegration, while in AILD the journey itself can be seen as a systematic process of degradation, symbolized by the smell of Addie’s decaying corpse which as Sundquist suggests, can be seen as emblematic of the burden of the southern past. The original title for TSAFm ‘twilight’ as Millgate has argued, suggests the moment of “dimmed glory about to fade into cultural extinction.”

In AILD, Addie’s death is linked with the dying of the day throughout the journey, reinforcing the sense of her simultaneous presence/absence. As Millgate argues, AILD and TSAF can be seen as comic and tragic masks of a meditation on absence, revolving around the figures of Caddy and Addie, who as Sundquist suggests can be seen as the centre that no longer holds, as AILD “elaborates the intricacies of loss TSAF broached.” Both these characters are ‘mothering’ figures, “the literal embodiment of the loss, separation and grief Faulkner finds at the heart of cultural and familial history.” In both novels the “vacant space in which Caddy and Addie stood” is as Millgate says “an absence waiting to be filled with meaning.”

In AILD Cash’s obsession with the coffin “as though perfection will give bodily integrity” in Sundquist’s words, can be seen as an attempt to gain control of and dignify death and in this sense it seems similar to Quentin’s attempt, through the fiction of sin he creates, to “transform meaningless degeneracy into significant doom” in O’Donnell’s words.

As Sundquist has suggested, Quentin madness is equivalent to the South’s, his obsession with Caddy suggesting the South’s fascination with gynealotry and his Byronic fable standing for the nostalgia which in Sundquist’s words “makes pure what is impure”, paradoxically creating the story of incest to regain innocence.

As Jehlen notes, Quentin’s obsession can be seen as less for the sake of cavalier values than a need for moral reference amid the anomie of his surroundings, an attempt to create a ground of permanence in which change is eliminated, linking him to the South which R.P Warren saw as offering an “image of vast immobility”.

Millgate argues that Quentin’s preoccupation with and attempt to escape time derives from a recognition of “time as the dimension in which change occurs”, and in this sense can be compared to the Bundren’s undertaking which perhaps can be seen as based on an indifference for time or change, from the moment of Addie’s death to her burial. InTSAF Quentin’s clinging to the past and to the moral codes of the Southern antebellum myth is contrasted to Jason moving towards a future Brooks describes as “an empty mirage” towards which he is “constantly flinging himself”, as is suggested in his futile mad car chase.

As a petty businessman and representative rational man, Jason is linked with the Blands who portray the new vulgarity, making him a symbol of the future of the new commercial South. The progression towards an increasing sense of social reality in TSAF is paralleled in AILD where the Bundren’s journey increasingly brings them into contact with society represented in the 8 outsider figures whose reactions chart a range of social responses through which as Bleikasten says the anonymous voice of the community can be heard, emphasising the opposition between social and individual. In TSAF the action of the novel is increasingly presented through a social, economic and political perspective, as Millgate has argued, with Jason presented as “wholly in the world” his detachment from the fixed codes of the past making him the only Compson able to cope with Caddy’s defection, “the first sane compson since before Culloden” as Faulkner put it.

However, as Snead notes, Jason’s efficiency is questionable, his exchanges symbolic acts that paradoxically act against the agent. While he seems to be contrasted to Quentin’s living in an illusory world, he similarly dissolves boundaries between fact and invention, arguing that “money has no value” while hoarding it, his hypocrisy revealed in the double irony of Quentin’s thieving of his theft. Jason’s Snopesian materiality can be contrasted to the Bundren’s in Addie who despite being “infected with amorality…of a physical nature” in O’Donnell words, see fulfilling a promise as an ethical duty.

As O’Donnel argues the Bundren’s living more remotely from the Snopes world than the Compsons, are able to carry out “a genuine act of traditional morality”. Kartigner points out that while both TSAF and AILD portray family tribulations as part of a wider picturing of disintegration, in TSAF the madness and alcoholism can be seen as symptoms of the fall of the aristocratic South, while in AILD the Bundrens despite having their own tribulations and madness, “have nowhere to go but up”.

The representation of the Bundrens is usefully illuminated by contemporary representations of the poor white. Kenneth White has argued that fiction dealing with poor whites tends to confine itself within a small circle of events which Faulkner “enlarged but little. However he sees Faulkner as having “increased the intensity and explicitness of their emotional states and experiences.” Similarly R.P.Warren has argued that AILD, is “charged with sympathy and poetry”, the representation of the Bundren’s revealing the misconception of equating the Snopes with poor whites, in that “they are at least capable of heroic effort”.

Reading AILD as a comic tale of perseverance, Kartinger points out the Bundren’s are “unburdened by governors and generals” who in TSAF fill the appendix and suffuse the text. However as Brooks argues, the darkly comic overtones of AILD should not obscure the seriousness of the issues dealt with in the text, as the code of honour usually associated with Faulkner’s representation of the aristocracy is exhibited by poor whites. The family’s honour is upheld even by Darl who sees the absurdity of the literal fulfilment of the promise, while Cash and Jewel in Brooks reading show “true heroism”. The journey itself, as the fulfilment of an ethical duty in spite of obstacles, becomes “a legend… a procession not unlike the journey of individual souls towards redemption” as O’Donnel argues.

In TSAF the failure of the moral code can be seen as encapsulated in Mr.Compson’s nihilism, who Quentin describes as “teaching us that all men are just accumulations, dolls stuffed with sawdust.” This sense of life’s meaninglessness is contrasted with Dilsey’s religion of “endurance”. In this house of disintegration, only the kitchen, Dilsey’s domain, seems lived in, and as Vickery has argued she alone effectively challenges the validity of Jason’s world. As AILD ends with Cash taking over from Darl as the mature witness, finally able “integrate modes into one human response” in Vickery’s words, TSAF ends with Dilsey having seen the “first and the last”, in the service which functions as the structural and ethical high point of the novel, its almost theatrical impact suggesting resolution and communion.

Reading Dilsey as the ethical norm, what Robert Penn Warren referred to as “Faulkner’s wasteland” offers “no easy solutions” but a sense of future, ending with Easter and “a promise of reconciliation”. In this sense both AILD and TSAFcan be seen in terms of the optimistic reading of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha Country, which Brooks sees as “bound together by unspoken assumption…a true community” with the disorder itself is eloquent of the possibilities of order, and the “special problems of modern man...set off against the concrete particularity of its old-fashioned order”.

However this reading can be seen as eliding what Jehlen describes as the “moral ideological antagonisms rooted in a discordant class structure” in Faulkner’s novels. As Hagopian points out, Dilsey’s transcending of chaos through a vision of Chrisitan order seems remote from the rest of the novel, as is suggested by the fact that her vision is unavailable to the other characters, with Frony pointedly asking "First en last whut?"

Simialrly in AILD as Howe notes Cash’s integration of modes is achieved only through enduring a “preposterous excess of pain” and Kartinger points out that the journey itself seems to comprise an empty story, as Kartigner points out it is “action as a form of control” the journey itself a symbol of rigidity, “of imagination imprisoned in an action remote from its own desperate motives” as Kartigner puts it. The way the characters motives vary from the alleged motive for the journey is perhaps most evident in Dewey’s desperate attempts to get an abortion.

In this sense, the funeral as a public event becomes as a “denial of the significance it should have affirmed” as Quentin would put it.

Rather than being an uplifting spiritual accomplishment, it becomes “a travesty of the ritual of internment” in Vickery’s words – not an inspiring gesture of humanity. A similar ambiguity can be seen in the context of Faulkner’s concern with empty forms and rituals in TSAF, evident in Quentin’s abstractions and concern for actions significance as gesture. One of the most striking and effective examples of this concern with forms can be seen in his fight with Ames, which he acts out not for any practical purpose but for its ritualistic and symbolic aspects. Quentin wants to believe in the power of words “I’ll make you know we did” but like Addie in AILD, he feels that words “don’t ever fit” but are rather “shape to fill a lack”.

As Sundquist has noted, in this novel in which “the authorial I lies dying” the form reflects Faulkner’s concern with the multivalence of truth. While TSAF’s structure reveals truth as “the meaningless sum of its four parts” as Kartigner puts it, in AILD fragmentation is taken one step further, from 4 parts to 59.

Like the families whose story they tell these novels are as Sundquist says “held together in..a pericarious fashion” continually on the verge of decomposition, their integrity maintained only by “heroic imaginative effort”, the problematic techniques driving one another to “the perilous limits of narrative form Faulkner would require for novels on the prolonged tragedy and grief of the south.” Some critics such as Slatoff have suggested that AILD and TSAF, arguably Faulkner’s most experimental novels suggests a movement away from coherence and order to a quest for failure. However Kartigner argues this quest for failure was in fact a quest for form appropriate for a modern writer, as the failure to create a sufficient form becomes itself the form.

This search for form ends in the seeming restoration of order in both novels, in TSAF everything is finally “in its ordered place”, while in ad the journey is completed and we return to the beginning as the repudiated son is sent away, and the replacement mother instated.

In both novels however what seems to be a return to order is a false restoration, symbolized in AILD as Bleikasten notes in the reference to Anse’s false teeth and the substitute Mrs Bundren who is a grotesque understudy of Addie. In TSAF the idea that “everything is in its ordered place” is undermined finally by the fact that this order exists only for an idiot and as Millgate notes is an order of habit restored by Jason for social appearance.

Jehlen has argued that the irony of the final sentence implies Faulkner’s radical disbelief in the meaningfulness of all orders, including the order of fiction, making Faulkner’s vision “one of the most troubled and unresolved visions in America’s troubled and unresolved literature.”

However, this radical disbelief includes a hope in the purpose of creating “out of the human spirit something which didn’t exist before,” as Faulkner says, an enduring work rooted in “ the old verities and truths of the heart.”


written: 2008
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