As I Lay Dying has no fixed narrator, and is instead composed of a number of different protagonists’ successive interior monologues, the rendition of a character’s inner thoughts and feelings. Each voice is subjective, shaped by the particular character’s views and perceptions, but also makes factual observations about events, moving the story along in a staggered but continuous narrative. While some characters, particularly Darl, narrate in a straightforward, storytelling fashion, others, such as Cora and Jewel, express their thoughts in a confused and contradictory jumble. We have none of the simple comfort of an entirely objective narrator who can reveal the truth—when the various voices present the same character or event in different lights, we have to make decisions about which voice to trust. Faulkner’s approach is challenging, but by employing a narrative in which events are described, judged, and interpreted from several different perspectives, he is able to probe his characters’ minds deeply. We are not passive observers of dialogue and events; rather, we experience the characters as they experience themselves. When Darl encounters Anse and Tull on the porch, for example, an eternity of thought passes in Darl’s mind during the pause between his father’s mundane question about Jewel’s whereabouts and Darl’s equally mundane reply. In Faulkner’s world, what a character thinks is frequently more relevant to the story than what a character says.
Faulkner helps us get a grasp on his characters by associating them with objects: before we meet Tull, we encounter his wagon; before we hear Cash speak, we hear the roar of his saw and the chucking of his adze, a cutting tool used for shaping wood; and, of course, before we meet Addie, we see her coffin being assembled. These objects come to stand for the individuals themselves, as symbols of, and clues to, their respective identities. Tull’s wagon implies that he is a man of wealth and industry, Cash’s saw and adze signify that he is a skilled craftsman, and Addie’s coffin signals that her primary role in the novel is played out in her death. We also learn from what the characters do not say. When Darl comes upon Cash, they exchange no words, leaving us to ponder the dull chops of the axe. This tendency toward mute interaction, which is certainly not limited to Darl and Cash, demonstrates how thoroughly the characters in As I Lay Dying are cut off from each other. Again, the use of multiple points of view underscores this separation, with the characters so isolated from each other that even their thoughts cannot be mixed.
Faulkner appears to make a sly reference to his own narrative technique with Darl’s reflection on the voices “out of the air about your head.” While this comment refers specifically to the sound of many voices mixing in the hallway, we can also read Darl’s words as an indirect reference by Faulkner to the mosaic of individual voices that constitutes As I Lay Dying. When Darl’s reflection ends, for example, Cora’s monologue begins, describing Darl’s good-bye to Addie as “the sweetest thing I ever saw.” The tone of these two characters’ perspectives is quite different, but the second picks up seamlessly where the first ends. These fluid transitions from one passage to the next allow the story’s narrative to progress rather than become inextricably mired in the same incident.