Interiority and Depth of Field in As I Lay Dying

Michael Zeitlin

When Faulkner claimed that "he had never thought of TSAF [The Sound and the Fury] and AS I LAY DYING in the same breath" (Blotner, Selected Letters 221), he was objecting to the joint publication of these novels in one Modern Library volume. Writing to Robert Linscott of Random House on February 4, 1946, Faulkner continued:

I dont agree with you about printing TSAF and AS I LAY DYING together. It's as though we were saying "This is a versatile guy; he can write in the same stream of consciousness style about princes and then peasants," or "This is a universal writer; he has written about all the kinds of people in Miss. in the same style." (Blotner, Selected Letters 228) 1
Faulkner was also uneasy about writing an introduction to the volume, and referred to the introduction he had already written in the late summer of 1933 for a new edition of The Sound and the Fury.2 He suggested that this introduction "may be somewhere in the office now" and that it "will have to cover both stories" as he knew "little about [introductions]" and had no inclination to attempt another one, even though he would "do a lot for $250.00" (Selected Letters 221). In the end Faulkner wrote no new introduction, having already described in the 1933 introduction how he had come to write his first seven novels. Here As I Lay Dying is singled out as having been most unlike The Sound and the Fury as a creative experience for its author. As I Lay Dying was a "deliberate book," a "tour-de-force" which had given him a "cold satisfaction" upon finishing it:
Before I ever put pen to paper and set down the first word, I knew what the last word would be and almost where the last period would fall. Before I began I said, I am going to write a book by which, at a pinch, I can stand or fall if I never touch ink again. (Meriwether, "An Introduction to The Sound and the Fury" 709)
Faulkner had learned from the writing of Sanctuary "that there was something missing," but when he began As I Lay Dying he "had discovered what it was and knew that it would be also missing in this case" (709). Since he had known "too much" about it before he began to write it, As I Lay Dying lacked a special quality which the writing of The Sound and the Fury alone had given him:
. . . that emotion definite and physical and yet nebulous to describe: that ecstasy, that eager and joyous faith and anticipation of surprise which the yet unmarred sheet beneath my hand held inviolate and unfailing, waiting for release. It was not there in As I Lay Dying. (709)
    In the introduction of late November 1931 to the Modern Library edition of Sanctuary, Faulkner had also spoken of his two "stream-of-consciousness" novels together, claiming that he had undertaken the rewriting of Sanctuary in order "to make out of it something which would not shame The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying too much" (Faulkner, Introduction; see also Meriwether "Manuscript"). In fact, he told Marshall J. Smith and Henry Nash Smith in separate interviews during this period that As I Lay Dying was his best novel, or the one he tended to like the best (Meriwether and Millgate, 8, 32). The Sanctuary introduction, however, also sets out the basic terms of a distinction between these novels that Faulkner would elaborate in later years: As I Lay Dying was pure "tour de force," the novel he had written on the night shift of his job at the power plant, "in just about six weeks," without changing a word (Meriwether and Millgate 244). The Sound and the Fury, in contrast, was the novel into which Faulkner had written his "living guts" (Meriwether, "Manuscript" 477).
    Taking our cue from Faulkner himself is always hazardous, as the notorious reception of Sanctuary, influenced by Faulkner's introduction to the novel, should have made us aware by now. Nevertheless, an impressive number of critics have followed Faulkner in seeing something "cold" and "technical" in As I Lay Dying, which is deemed somehow to lack the "living guts" of The Sound and the Fury: "Sometimes technique charges in and takes command of the dream before the writer himself can get his hands on it" (Meriwether and Millgate 244). As one reviews the critical literature, in fact, one might be struck by the frequency with which the critics have reminded us of "the great haste in which [As I Lay Dying] was written" (Franklin 65), as if that might somehow account for a variety of the novel's supposed "flaws" (see, e.g., Franklin, Seltzer, Monaghan, Ross). The common thread running through such essays is that, "in a work where the author has supposedly excluded himself totally, a frequently intruding voice can be perceived" (Monaghan 216-217). "Faulkner" may have refined himself out of the work, yielding entirely to the monologues of his characters, yet his hand and voice are everywhere in evidence, including in what Stephen Ross has called the novel's "textual voice" ("Voice" 300)--Tull's drawing of the coffin, various typographical devices, italicized passages, the space in Addie's narrative, and so on (see also Adamowski 209).
    The most common point made about the author's "presence" is that the characters seem to speak or think in a language far more poetic and sophisticated than their Mississippi hill-country origins would warrant, and only "Faulkner" could be responsible for this. In observing the "astonishing violence to plausibility (in the reflections and language of reflection, of the characters") (Aiken 653), Conrad Aiken sounded a note in 1939 that would reverberate throughout the criticism for years to come. In an essay published in 1982 for example, François Pitavy claims that "verisimilitude at times is stretched to the breaking point by unexpected variations in tone and linguistic competence" (40). But among those who perceive a "gap" between character and voice there are two groups: those who consider any "violence to plausibility" a flaw, and those who find in it an essential locus of the novel's magic. Aiken, it should be noted, was not at all troubled by "the violence to plausibility," for by it Faulkner was able to create effects of the "utmost reality and immediateness" (653; see also Brooks 160).
    To perceive a gap between "character" and "voice" is in fact to perceive two voices. There is the voice of "Mississippi" idiom, the voice of realism and verisimilitude; and there is "Faulkner's voice." This includes "textual voice" but also, more importantly, the poetry of awareness and sensation, the beautiful, often sophisticated language ranging beyond the "literal capacities" (Blotner, Faulkner 638) of the characters themselves. All the characters seem to possess these two voices, but it is Vardaman who captures most of the attention when he describes Jewel's horse as "an unrelated scattering of components . . . an illusion of a co?ordinated whole" (56), and so on, in his first monologue of the novel. For years it seemed important to make the point that Vardaman's language
is not appropriate to the mind of a child. Good rhetoric or not, as a verbal medium the passage gives little plausibility to its referent, and the existence of another person--that of the author-narrator--is postulated even though . . . the narrative arrangement of As I Lay Dying includes no narrator. (Franklin 59)
Unlike Darl, Vardaman is a particular problem since the reader is unable to naturalize the boy's lyrical description of the horse by calling to mind any special poetic or expressive talent he might be expected to possess.
    In As I Lay Dying, then, the formal absence of the author-narrator would not be a "problem" if he had been more delicate, apparently, in his creation of the illusion??if he had written 59 interior monologues distributed among 15 writers, artists, philosophers, and princes. It is precisely because the "peasants" and children of Yoknapatawpha County use sophisticated, beautiful language that the novel's illusion is "stretched to the breaking point":
[Darl uses] a highly sophisticated diction certainly incongruent with his condition as a farmer. (Pitavy 40)

. . . the author attributes his own ornate rhetoric to the thoughts of ignorant children. (Ross, "Shapes" 723)

[Faulkner] . . . clearly [puts] terms in Darl's descriptions to which a simple country boy could hardly have access. (Allen 191)

    A characteristic solution to this "problem" began to emerge in the 1980s under the sway of Jacques Derrida's dissolution of "presence" into the infinite play of textual signification. The dematerialization of the referent coincides with the foregrounding of language "itself". Vardaman, in this view, is not a person at all but merely a voice, words, black marks on the page. The problem of verisimilitude is a mirage, a relic from a naive epoch devoted to obsolete reifications: author, character, realism, referentiality. We were reminded that in As I Lay Dying there are no subjects, no landscape, body, mind, earth, sky, water, or mud. There is only language. Yet the illusions projected by narrative discourse were not so much deconstructed altogether as subsumed under the sign of "voice," that puny, inexhaustible, stubborn last vestige of the dying humanist subject (see Ross, Fiction's).
    That is to say, the subject, along with his body, had disappeared; only his voice remained. Thus does Stephen Ross subvert Vardaman's ontological status by reducing him to a purely vocal identity. "Although Vardaman is represented as a character in his and others' narrative sections, as a narrator he is his voice and nothing more" ("Voice" 303). Ross further maintains that Vardaman is "never depicted narrating since the novel contains no storytelling scenes;" hence the reader is "inescapably caught in . . . a paradox" similar to that which traps the reader of John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse. There the narrator of "The Menelaid" claims "this isn't the voice of Menelaus; the voice is Menelaus, all there is of him. . . . I am this voice, no more" (qtd. in Ross, "Voice" 300). Barth's narrator, however, is deliberately self?conscious of his own narrative technique, and his disclaimer seems a form of "epistemological [and ontological] self?mockery" (Barth 68) in which the reader is implicated. Vardaman, of course, makes no such claim, and even if he did, we would not believe him. Ross further explains:
The "person" named Menelaus is to be discovered only "in" his voice; "he" has no existence without voice, before or after voice, beyond or behind voice. Such is the nature of all things in fiction: they "exist" only by virtue of discourse. ("Voice" 300)
The essential response to this point is provided by Proust, who reminds us that literary characters as much as living persons are real or unreal according to our imaginative capacities:
It is true that the people concerned in [the books I read as a child] were not what Francoise would have called "real people." But none of the feelings which the joys or misfortunes of a "real" person arouse in us can be awakened except through a mental picture of those joys or misfortunes; and the ingenuity of the first novelist lay in his understanding that, as the image was the one essential element in the complicated structure of our emotions, so that simplification of it which consisted in the suppression, pure and simple of "real" people would be a decided improvement. A "real" person, profoundly as we may sympathise with him, is in a great measure perceptible only through our senses, that is to say, remains opaque, presents a dead weight which our sensibilities have not the strength to lift. If some misfortune comes to him, it is only in one small section of the complete idea we have of him that we are capable of feeling any emotion; indeed it is only in one small section of the complete idea he has of himself that he is capable of feeling any emotion either. (91)
We are isolated in the interiority of our own perceptions, yet we feel the pressure of the other's intentions, of the other's selfness. We ourselves, in turn, are real, if at all, only in "one small section" of the other's "complete idea he has of himself." Knowing this, Addie
would look forward to the times when they [her students, but also, I suggest, her children] faulted, so I could whip them. When the switch fell I could feel it upon my flesh; when it welted and ridged it was my blood that ran, and I would think with each blow of the switch: Now you are aware of me! Now I am something in your secret and selfish life, who have marked your blood with my own for ever and ever. (Faulkner, As I Lay Dying 170)
    Upon reading Vardaman's monologues, that is to say, it should not occur to us (unless we've come fresh from a reading of Barth or Ross) to limit Vardaman to his voice "alone." He has a secret and selfish life, as we all do. The continual foregrounding of his own body should also help us to imagine the interiority inherent in his presence. In his first monologue (53-57) Vardaman describes himself running, feeling and hearing his own tears, "vomiting" his crying, striking the horses of Peabody's team. In the reader's mind, that is, Vardaman achieves his liberation from ink, paper, or pure textuality; Vardaman has a body because we have one.
    Though Ross admits that "Vardaman is represented as a character in his and others' narrative sections" ("Voice" 303), Pitavy, in his assessment of Darl, is unwilling to go that far. In posing the question "Who is Darl? or, rather what is Darl," Pitavy concludes that Darl "recedes behind the narrator, is apprehended as narrator??as a voice which, of course, implies the existence of a speaker, but does not necessarily by itself lead to an adequate rendering of him as a character" (40). The "textual presence" of the narrative "goes counter to its representative function and tends somehow to prevent the narrators from standing fully as characters, from casting shadows, Faulkner would have said" (39). In 1943 Harry M. Campbell made a similar point about Darl, whose "magnificent speeches enrich the texture of the story, but they never succeed in making Darl seem more than the dimmest of shadows" (309-310).
    If the effect of Proust's observation noted above is to throw the problem back onto us as readers, it is therefore up to us to see how Darl and Vardaman are themselves living proof of their own human corporeality. The first direct reference to Vardaman appears in the sixth monologue where Cora speaks of "`that little one almost old enough now to be selfish and stonehearted like the rest of them'" (23). Like Wall Snopes of The Hamlet, Vardaman is often perceived as a "miniature replica of the men themselves" (304). A child, he is treated as a man: as the narrator of Light in August says, "though children can accept adults as adults, adults can never accept children as anything but adults too" (140). Yet the image of the "durn little tyke" is reiterated throughout the novel, poignantly suggesting his isolation in an adult's world.
    The novel's first image of Vardaman is provided by Tull in the eighth monologue; and while Tull is extremely sensitive to the child in Vardaman, he also suggests the boy's resemblance to what Anse calls his "man?growed brothers" (38) from whom Vardaman has evidently learned to spit and swear ("I jerk my hand, cursing her like Jewel does") (55). In Tull's monologue we also learn that Vardaman has been "fishing down to the bridge" (30) and we are thus able to grant the boy a retrospective narrative presence in the gaps among the first seven monologues:
That boy comes up the hill. He is carrying a fish nigh long as he is. He slings it to the ground and grunts "Hah" and spits over his shoulder like a man. Durn nigh long as he is.
    "What's that?" I say. "A hog? Where'd you get it?"
    "Down to the bridge," he says. He turns it over, the under side caked over with dust where it is wet, the eye coated over, humped under the dirt.
    "Are you aiming to leave it laying there?" Anse says.
    "I aim to show it to ma," Vardaman says. He looks toward the door. (30-31)
Vardaman's absence until Tull's monologue suggests both his forced independence and the unconsciousness of the adult world by which the child is "out of mind" until he comes into view.
    Tull's first view of the boy also establishes the basic cluster of images and concepts that will be fused into one rich condensation: "My mother is a fish" (84). The reader will need to come back to Tull's description of the boy and the fish in order to make sense of the inner workings of the child's mind. The fish is "full of blood and guts as a hog" (38). The fish, the dead eye, the slime, have
all the equivalences in terms of significations, all the condensations you want. Everything blends in and becomes associated in this image. . . . There's a horrendous discovery here, that of the flesh one never sees, the foundation of things . . . the flesh from which everything exudes, at the very heart of the mystery. . . . Spectre of anxiety . . . the final revelation of you are this--You are this, which is so far from you, this which is the ultimate formlessness. (Lacan 154, emphasis in original) This is the message inherent in the terrible power of Addie's eyes as she stares at her youngest son:
She looks at us. Only her eyes seem to move. It's like they touch us, not with sight or sense, but like the stream from a hose touches you, the stream at the instant of impact as dissociated from the nozzle as though it had never been there. She does not look at Anse at all. She looks at me, then at the boy. Beneath the quilt she is no more than a bundle of rotten sticks.
    "Well, Miss Addie," I say. The girl does not stop the fan. "How are you, sister?" I say. Her head lies gaunt on the pillow, looking at the boy. "You picked out a fine time to get me out here and bring up a storm." Then I send Anse and the boy out. She watches the boy as he leaves the room. She has not moved save her eyes. (43-44)

She lies back and turns her head without so much as glancing at pa. She looks at Vardaman; her eyes, the life in them, rushing suddenly upon them; the two flames glare up for a steady instant. Then they go out as though someone had leaned down and blown upon them. (48)

    Such passages place the boy's small size and little mind against realities of the greatest possible magnitude. The consistent perspective given to the littleness of the boy is akin to the manner in which a painter or photographer creates depth of field, placing a small human figure in the foreground of the panorama in order to suggest something of its awesome power. Vardaman is represented dialectically, the focus alternating between the "backdrop of cosmic scale" (Millgate 110) and the child's diminutive isolation:
Peabody: That durn little tyke is sitting on the top step, looking smaller than ever in the sulphur?coloured light. (45)

Tull: "That poor boy," Cora says." The poor little tyke." (34)

Samson: They had done put him to bed in the trough in a empty stall. (117)

Tull: So when Cora waked me it had set in to rain. Even while I was going to the door with the lamp and it shining on the glass so he could see I am coming, it kept on knocking. Not loud, but steady, like he might have gone to sleep thumping, but I never noticed how low down on the door the knocking was till I opened it and never seen nothing. I held the lamp up, with the rain sparkling across it and Cora back in the hall saying "Who is it, Vernon?" but I couldn't see nobody a-tall at first until I looked down and around the door, lowering the lamp.
    He looked like a drownded puppy, in them overalls, without no hat, splashed up to his knees where he had walked them four miles in the mud. "Well, I'll be durned," I says. (69)

    When, after peering out into the rain, Tull locates the source of the thumping, he lowers his lamp, and Vardaman's face is brought into sudden and illuminated focus: "He looked at me, his eyes round and black in the middle like when you throw a light in a owl's face" (70). Wide-eyed with secret and terrible wisdom, Vardaman is a composition of roundnesses--head, face, pupils, all encircled by the light of Tull's lamp. When Vardaman says, "You mind that ere fish," we might well imagine Tull's equally baffled and rounded expression as he mirrors the boy's face (Tull is astonished and paralyzed; it is Cora who comes to the door and pulls the child in out of the rain). As in Edvard Munch's The Scream (1893), roundness signifies the soul's trauma:
Pa stands beside the bed. From behind his leg Vardaman peers, with his round head and his eyes round and his mouth beginning to open. (47)

From behind pa's leg Vardaman peers, his mouth full open and all the color draining from his face into his mouth, as though he has by some means fleshed his own teeth in himself, sucking. He begins to move slowly backward from the bed, his eyes round, his pale face fading into the dusk like a piece of paper pasted on a failing wall, and so out of the door. (49)

Unlike Anse, who ignores Vardaman throughout the ordeal, and against Addie, who appears deliberately, if not maliciously, to horrify and madden her youngest son with her deathglazed eyes,3 Peabody, Tull, and Darl are sensitive to the pathos of Vardaman's isolation.Tull: It was about a mile from the house we saw him sitting on the edge of the slough. It hadn't had a fish in it never that I knowed. He looked around at us, his eyes round and calm, his face dirty, the pole across his knees. (92)

Darl: He too has lost flesh; like ours, his face has an expression strained, dreamy, and gaunt. (226)

    Faulkner's technique of characterization is fully dialectical in the interimplication of such exterior views with Vardaman's interior monologues. In an outburst of rage and anguish following Addie's death, Vardaman runs down to the barn where he "vomits" his crying and attacks Peabody's team. In the dark, "warm, smelling, silent" barn, Vardaman is all "depth," all interiority. The language expresses the slowing of his heartbeat, the pooling of his being and consciousness, the dilation of his senses in the darkness. Like the voice of Louis Hatcher recalled by Quentin, Vardaman's sensory experience will become "part of darkness and silence, coiling out of it, coiling into it again" (The Sound and the Fury 115) in synaesthetic spirals ("I can see hearing coil toward him") (57). Hence the words called by Dewey Dell, "Vardaman", "You, Vardaman" represent as much the sound of her voice as the boy's inner sounding of his own name. In the paragraph following, Vardaman's voice is transcribed: "Then hit want. Hit hadn't happened then. Hit was a?layin right there on the ground. And now she's gittin ready to cook hit" (55). Framing the famous stream-of-consciousness passage at the heart of the monologue, Vardaman's sound ("Cooked and et. Cooked and et.") produces an effect of radical contrast while defining a living soul's depth of field:
It is dark. I can hear wood, silence: I know them. But not living sounds, not even him. It is as though the dark were resolving him out of his integrity, into an unrelated scattering of components--snuffings and stampings; smells of cooling flesh and ammoniac hair; an illusion of a co-ordinated whole of splotched hide and strong bones within which, detached and secret and familiar, an is different from my is. I see him dissolve--legs, a rolling eye, a gaudy splotching like cold flames--and float upon the dark in fading solution; all one yet neither; all either yet none. I can see hearing coil toward him, caressing, shaping his hard shape??fetlock, hip, shoulder and head; smell and sound. I am not afraid. (55)4
Here the principle that each character's unique processes of thought and experience should be matched with a unique and distinctive stylistic texture is transcended with spectacular effect. Moved by the painful and sudden orphanage of the boy, the author assumes an amniotic function, enveloping Vardaman in the opaque, warm textures of the barn, of language, of his "own" voice. The fusion of Faulkner and Vardaman is reminiscent of the soothing, sheltering effect of Rev. Shegog's voice upon his Easter congregation in The Sound and the Fury:
And the congregation seemed to watch with its own eyes while the voice consumed him, until he was nothing and they were nothing and there was not even a voice but instead their hearts were speaking to one another in chanting measures beyond the need for words. . . . (294)


1The volume was published nonetheless. Faulkner was asked about it at the University of Virginia, on May 6, 1957:
"Q. Is there any particular reason, Mr. Faulkner, why As I Lay Dying is published along with The Sound and the Fury?
A. Yes, a very good reason. The two of them together made exactly enough pages to make a proper-sized book that the publisher could charge the regulation price on" (Gwynn and Blotner 109).
2This new edition of The Sound and the Fury was never published. The introduction, not published in Faulkner's lifetime, exists now in three closely related though distinct versions: Meriwether, "An Introduction to"; Meriwether, "An Introduction for"; Cohen and Fowler.
3 Cf. May Dedalus in Ulysses: "Her glazing eyes, staring out of death, to shake and bend my soul. On me alone. . . . Her eyes on me to strike me down" (12). "She was no more: the trembling skeleton of a twig burnt in the fire. . ." (28). Cf. also Emma Bovary: "her eyes, as they rolled, grew paler, like the two globes of a lamp that is going out, so that one might have thought her already dead but for the fearful labouring of her ribs. . ." (Flaubert 237).
4The horse which Bloom sees in Ulysses is equally "defamiliarized": "Bloom looked at the head of a horse not worth anything like sixty-five guineas, suddenly in evidence in the dark quite near, so that it seemed new, a different grouping of bones and even flesh, because palpably it was a fourwalker, a hipshaker, a blackbuttocker, a taildangler, a headhanger, putting his hind foot foremost the while the lord of his creation sat on the perch, busy with his thoughts" (646). Cf. our first exterior view of Benjy in The Sound and the Fury: "She heard the feet cross the diningroom, then the swing door opened and Luster entered, followed by a big man who appeared to have been shaped of some substance whose particles would not or did not cohere to one another or to the frame which supported it" (342).


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Copyright (c)2001 Michael Zeitlin