As I Lay Dying: Character's Words And Insight To Underlying Meanings
Fulfilling a promise they had made to their mother, Addie, Cash, Darl,
Jewel, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman, in William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, journey
across the Mississippi countryside to bring her body to be buried in Jefferson,
alongside her immediate family. Each one, in turn, narrates the events of this
excursion as they are perceived. Though all of the family members are going
through the same experiences, each one expresses what they see and how they
feel by exercising their individual powers and limitations of language. What
each character says as well as how he/she says it gives insight into that
character's underlying meanings.
Darl, for example, uses his linguistic skills to gain power as narrator.
He possesses the ability to pick up on things unsaid and to read other
people's actions. Dewey Dell describes his intuitiveness when she says that "
he said he knew without the words, and I knew he knew because if he had said
he knew with words I would not have believed...and that's why I can talk to him
with knowing with hating with because he knows" (27). He uses his gift of
realizing things without them having to actually be told to him to gain
credibility with the reader. Who would doubt a narrator who possesses that
type of adroitness? Also, his language is clear and reflective. He uses
similes and metaphors and appears to have an acute awareness of spatial
relationships. Darl's sophisticated perception and poetic linguistics give him
the means of reaching for and maintaining his role as a competent observer and
reporter. However, his position does create certain problems for his siblings.
Tull describes Darl's "look" as being uncanny.
"He is looking at me. He dont say
nothing; just looks at me with them
queer eyes of hisn that makes folks
talk. I always say it aint never
been what he done so much or said or
anything so much as how he looks at
you. It's like he had got into the
inside of you, someway. Like somehow
you was looking at yourself and your
doing outen his eyes." (125)
It is the same penetrating gaze that gives Darl so much power that
makes the others around him so uncomfortable, especially Dewey Dell. She feels
that his strange knowledge of what has not been said is an invasion of her
privacy. "The land runs out of Darl's eyes; they swim to pin points. They
begin at my feet and rise along my body to my face, and then my dress is gone:
I sit naked on the seat above the unhurrying mules, above the travail" (121).
If Dewey Dell interprets his "knowing" as crossing some personal boundary that
she created then that would explain her fantasizing about killing Darl and why
she reported his setting fire to the barn. In fact, everything about Dewey
Dell is extremely personal. Whereas her brothers report what happened, she
tells how she feels about it. She uses language not as a means of describing
but rather as expressing.
"He could do so much for me if he just
would. He could do everything for me.
It's like everything in the world for
me is inside a tub full of guts, so
that you wonder how there can be any
room in it for anything else very
important. He is a big tub of guts and
I am a little tub of guts and if there
is not any room for anything else
important in a big tub of guts, how can
it be room in a little tub of guts.
But I know it is there because God gave
women a sign when something has happened
She is not describing the sun as "poised like a bloody egg upon a crest
of thunderheads" (40) like Darl would or explaining how to do something in a
step by step manner like Cash. Dewey Dell is attempting to express her
confusion and her fears. She is a young girl who became pregnant and doesn't
know what to do about it. She knows she can't tell her family and she has no
means of taking are of herself. Instead of using language to describe the
world around her, she uses it to show how she feels on the inside. Language
is a personal thing to Dewey Dell and though she does not possess Darl's
polished quality of speaking, she demonstrates its power as well as he does.
Cash, like Darl, uses language as a means of gaining authority. He
begins the novel as not having any control because Darl possessed the role of
narrator. His first narration is in the form of a list. The second and third
are not even complete thoughts because nobody takes him seriously. He has no
power as a narrator; he is simply a character. It is not until Darl goes
insane, losing his role. The weight of that role is then passed onto Cash who,
in his last two narrations, finally has the ability to tell things as he sees
them. Language has importance to Cash in of itself. It gives him what he
previously lacked - the simple right to express what he thinks.
"Sometimes I aint so sho who's got ere
a right to say when a man is crazy and
when he aint. Sometimes I think it aint
none of us pure crazy and aint none of
us pure sane until the balance of us
talks him that-a-way. It's like it aint
so much what a fellow does, but it's like
the way the majority of folks is looking
at him when he does it." (233)
Whereas language is a power to Darl, Dewey Dell, and Cash, it is a
limitation to their mother. She feels that words made up to describe certain
experiences are inadequate to the experiences themselves. She says that "words
dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at" (171). Phrases like "
motherhood" and "love" according to Addie, are completely separate from what
they actually mean; they are simply tools. How could the balding man wearing
glasses who spent hours staring at the alphabet to spell out the word "pride"
know that that's what a mother would feel when she's watching her child act out
the lead part in the school play? And how could that brilliant young woman
just out of college possibly understand the word "death." It has no meaning to
her - it is only a term used to describe the transition from living to
nonliving. Language is crucial to all of Addie's children, except Jewel, to
mark who they are but it is experience that matters to their mother.
The power and limitation of language can be used to explore different
perspectives of the same events. Although Darl, Dewey Dell, Cash, and Addie
all saw the same things, they each use different methods of expressing them to
portray what is important. The funcion of language is different for each
character but plays an equal part for each.