Do you consider As I Lay Dying to be primarily a comic or a tragic novel?
Critics have approached this question from radically different perspectives. Some have argued that As I Lay Dying is primarily a satire of the rural poor, while others have made the case that it is a more serious portrait of psychological tensions in a family under strain. Perhaps the novel is best described as a tragicomedy, a work with elements of both tragedy and comedy mixed together. It seems fair to say that, as the narrative progresses, the elements of tragedy and comedy both intensify, and the funniest moments are also the saddest. Cash’s martyrlike endurance of the pain in his leg is both upsetting and absurd, as is Anse’s final, sweeping statement of selfishness when he immediately takes a new wife and spends his daughter’s money on a pair of false teeth. Darl’s mad laughter at the end of the novel may provide the best—and most disturbing—clue as to how the novel should be read, as he challenges us with the question, “Why do you laugh? . . . Is it because you hate the sound of laughing?”
Comment on the novel’s structure. What does Faulkner accomplish by choosing an unconventional narrative style?
The multiple voices employed in telling the story give the narrative a richness that would be impossible to obtain through a single perspective. Because each character has his or her own set of moral views, the tension between these perspectives forces us to think critically about the issues at hand. Of course, Faulkner does run the risk of losing his audience by making his story so hard to follow at times. In a sense, Faulkner sacrifices psychological depth to achieve greater psychological breadth—instead of having us fully understand Darl, or Jewel, or any of the other Bundren children, we are given frequent tastes of all of them. Whether or not Faulkner’s style is effective for storytelling, his innovative technique certainly influences our perceptions of the novel’s content. Unsure which character’s perspective to adopt regarding events, we are inclined to concentrate less on events than on the images, words, and psychological processes that circulate in the characters’ minds.
How does the narrative style of As I Lay Dying affect the reader’s or the characters’ perceptions of time?
The phenomenon of time gets the same jarring, disjointed treatment as everything else in the novel, due to the fact that it too is subjective. A minute of mundane experience passes more slowly than a minute of excitement. Thus, the interior monologue of any individual can move through events with dizzying speed or excruciating slowness, and can refer to events from the past, present, and future in any order. This chronological disorderliness is not, however, limited to a jumbled conception of time within passages. The flow of time from one monologue to the next is every bit as disorderly as the flow of time within a single monologue. In each of the fifty-nine narratives in the novel, we have a different voice experiencing time in a different manner, through the lens of different hopes and concerns. Two different characters may experience the same moment in time in two completely different fashions. We, however, can process the various characters’ experiences only one at a time, and, consequently, the same event is often presented several times, from different perspectives. This approach can make it difficult for us to keep track of the passage of time and the sequence of events, but it furthers the novel’s goal of presenting a series of psychological portraits.