As I Lay Dying
by William Faulkner
Modernism, Southern Gothic, Family Drama, Quest
Faulkner’s novel fits neatly into the beginning of literary modernism. At a time when normal literary conventions were no longer in vogue, writers like Faulkner pushed the envelope with experimental technique and function. That’s what you see here in As I Lay Dying, as Faulkner experiments with multiple narrative voices and often ambiguous plot lines. There is no reliable narrator, no clear protagonist, and no certainty for the reader as to what is going on or whom to trust.
Southern Gothic is an odd little genre that Faulkner basically stamped his name on. It is composed of literature which explores issues in the American South – like poverty, religion, or familial duty, in the case of As I Lay Dying – and relies on the eerie or supernatural to drive the plot. A dead chick in a coffin? Multiple narrative perspectives? Weird omniscience on the part of an otherwise normal kid? Check.
And now for our last two genres. Most of the conflict in As I Lay Dying revolves around family, not surprisingly. Questions of love and duty haunt the characters (and the reader) as they struggle to fulfill and define their various roles in the family unit. The story unfolds via what many critics refer to as an "ironic quest." The journey to Jefferson has all the hallmarks of a typical literary quest – obstacles on the way, perseverance against the odds, etc. – but without a legitimate end goal. Is this quest really necessary? Is Anse traveling to Jefferson for his own selfish purposes? Most importantly, does the completion of the journey really accomplish anything? Not really, and completing the quest simply results in more misery for the members of the Bundren family. This is what renders it ironic, a fruitless perversion of the traditional quest.