As I Lay Dying
by William Faulkner
Analysis: Writing Style
Stream of Consciousness, stylistically varied from narrator to narrator
You’re probably familiar with the literary term "stream of consciousness." If you’re not, relax, because it only means what it sounds like: a loosely-formatted babble of thoughts. If someone asked you to sit down with a piece of paper and write everything you thought out, without worrying about grammar or form, what you would write would be a stream of consciousness. To see the best example of this in As I Lay Dying, read section Thirty-Five, narrated by Vardaman.
In case you were wondering, yes, there is a point to all this. Faulkner has very skillfully imitated the way the human brain processes images and puts them into words. As readers, we are really placed inside the various characters' heads. This all sounds pretty crazy, so how about an example? Let’s say you’re sitting at your computer reading our very cool discussion of Style in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Then your mother walks over and tells you that it’s time for dinner. How do you register that information? First you notice that someone is walking over. Then you see that it is your mother. Now look at this line from Cora’s point of view: "Someone comes through the hall. It is Darl." If the point of the narrative is to tell us a story, this is wasted text. It would be much cleaner and more efficient to say, "Darl comes through the hall." But the point isn’t just to tell us a story – it’s to get us to go through the thoughts of the characters. Did you notice that we get very little physical description of the characters? Apply the same logic. Vardaman doesn’t see a teenage girl with brown hair and brown eyes; he just sees his sister Dewey Dell. So that’s all he uses to describe her.
This sort of stream of consciousness is about the only stylistic continuity between all fifteen narrators of As I Lay Dying. Faulkner personalizes the language and style used by each character, and of course each particular style tells us more about each particular character. Jewel is a man of few words, reminding us that he’s a rugged man of action instead. Darl is incredibly cerebral, eloquent, incisive, and even poetic in his language. Vardaman looks at the world, predictably, with the eyes of a small child. Anse is poorly educated and his language reflects it. Cash is incredibly logical and regimented in his thought-process.
Compare these passages:
- Dewey Dell said we would get some bananas. The train is behind the glass, red on the track. When it runs the track shines on and off. Pa said flour and sugar costs so much. Because I am a country boy because boys in town. Bicycles (15.3).
- From here they do not appear to violate the surface at all; it is as though it had severed them both at a single blow, the two torsos moving with infinitesimal and ludicrous care upon the surface (37.68).
- I have done no wrong to be cussed by. I am not religious, I reckon. But peace is my heart: I know it is. I have done things but neither better nor worse than them that pretend otherlike, and I know that Old Marster will care for me as for ere a sparrow that falls (9.15).
Before we’re done, you might want to check out how Faulkner uses repetition on many different levels. The easiest to identify is the repetition of single words: "The shirt across Pa’s hump is faded lighter than the rest of it. There is no sweat stain on his shirt. I have never seen a sweat stain on his shirt" (5.4).
But you’ve also got structural repetition. Look at this passage:
I say, "Wait." He stops, looking at Pa. Vernon spits, without moving. He spits with decorous and deliberate precision into the pocked dust below the porch. Pa rubs his hands slowly on his knees. He is gazing out beyond the crest of the bluff, out across the land. Jewel watches him a moment, then he goes on to the pail and drinks again (5.2).
Look at the first two words of every sentence: "He stops," "Vernon spits," "He spits," "Pa rubs," "He is gazing," "Jewel watches" – they all begin noun-verb.
There’s also repetition of specific images (animals, wood, tools) or themes (duty, luck, justice, God) woven throughout these 59 sections, but we’ll let you search for the text for those examples. Our point is that these various repetitions all add up. Just like the "one lick less" or the "chuck, chuck" of Cash’s axe beating out a tempo at the beginning of the novel, all this repetition forms the same sort of dull thud, over and over and over, for the reader. It sets a certain mood, a wasteland of a background against which events take place. Nothing is really being accomplished by the characters in this novel. Obstacle after obstacle, prayer after prayer, disaster after disaster, all is for naught.