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At the crux of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is the issue of communication. The characters’ methods of communicating are many and vary, in some cases, depending upon the characters’ relationships with one another. Verbal communication is curt and generally without special significance; the very value of words – the vehicle by which verbal communication moves – is called into question both explicitly and through Faulkner’s nuanced semantic games. As a counterpoint to the potentially problematic mode of verbal communication, more esoteric and pure forms are postulated: Darl and Dewey Dell are able to communicate notions and facts without words in something akin to telepathy; looks reveal undiluted emotional truth, and characters are occasionally able, through gaze alone, to see very profoundly into those who surround them. The question becomes: How does the novel ultimately reconcile these differing modes of communication and what light does this reconciliation shed on words and communication at large, in the world?
Conversation is infrequently used to express anything of substance in As I Lay Dying, rather it is relegated to the realm of the banal and practical. When the local men convene on the Bundrens’ porch the day of Addie’s funeral, they speak not of Addie’s death or of the futility of Anse’s proposed journey to Jefferson, but of the weather and of Cash’s fall: “’You feeling this weather, aint you?’ Armstid says,” “’A fellow can sho slip quick on wet planks,’ Quick says” (90). This banter is vacuous and uninteresting even to those engaged in it. Faulkner counterpoints that which is spoken aloud with alternate italicized text representative of what the speaker would like to have expressed. Tull marvels – mentally – at Anse’s foolishness in insisting on waiting for Darl and Jewel to return with the Bundren team and not instead borrowing Tull’s and setting off to Jefferson days sooner, before the route had flooded: “ [Addie] laid there for three days in that box, waiting for Darl and Jewel…on the third day they got back…and it already too late…’Take my team, Anse.’ ‘We’ll wait for ourn. She’ll want it so’ (92). It is as if there exists an understanding silently acknowledged by the characters that one should not speak aloud of such matters, for in doing so some misplaced sense of propriety would be violated; it is only appropriate to speak superficially of matters mundane and irrelevant.
Alternately, Darl is given to frequent challenging and abstract interior musings, focusing heavily on matters of being. “I don’t know if I am or not,” he says. “Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not” (80). (To fully grasp his meaning, one may need to read such lines very carefully and/or more than once.) Darl is utilizing the only tool at his disposal to narrate his thoughts: semantic expression.
His ruminations become gradually more difficult to follow: he asserts that when one begins to fall asleep, he “empties” himself of being. Darl concludes that because he is awake and has not emptied himself, “…I am is” (81). He says, “Yet the wagon is, because when the wagon is was, Addie Bundren will not be” (80). The divers formulations of “to be” that Darl here employs become so complicated and pregnant with meaning and double entendre that they cease to mean anything and become self-reflexive. The attention is as much on the transmutations of the verb as on its suggested meanings; one questions if indeed the meanings are not so abstract as to no longer have any worldly application or referent. Faulkner uses Darl’s penchant for metaphysical rumination to draw attention to words’ brittleness: the form of to be can only signify and suggest so much before falling wholly apart. For this reason, Darl is unable to very lucidly render his thoughts; language is his limitation.
Addie Bundren, the Bundren family matriarch, has a profound distrust of words. She is offended by words such as “fear”, “motherhood”, “pride” – “I knew that fear was invented by someone that had never had the fear” (172). The word itself is meaningless, a superfluity: all words, even love, are “just a shape to fill a lack…when the right time came, you wouldn’t need a word for [love] anymore than for pride or fear” (172). She knew that Anse did not truly love her because he used the word. “Love” is a shape to fill a lack: Anse lacked the true feeling, the real sensation that love signified, and so he used the word in an attempt to disguise this; using the word is then, in effect, a mode of trickery. Addie and her son Cash, her first child, did not need to use the word – the sensation was sufficiently meaningful.
Her ideas about the naming – wording – of feelings and its inherent meaninglessness is comparable to her understanding of the names of human beings: Anse’s or Cash’s or Darl’s name, once pondered for a time, melts away and becomes a shape, an empty container for the person whom it signifies – this container devoid of meaning when divorced from its referent, and therefore without inherent meaning. “It doesn’t matter what they call them,” Addie says (173).
Samson, a man who gives shelter to the Bundrens for a night, thinks of a man he knows, MacCullum, yet whose first name he cannot recall: “Durn it, the name is right on the tip of my tongue” (113). This is a man with whom he has “traded off and on for twelve years”, whom he has known “from a boy up” – “But durn if [he] can say his name” (119). There is a disconnection between knowledge of the signified – a living, breathing human being in this case – and the signifier – that human being’s name: knowledge of the name does not necessarily indicate knowledge of the man, and by the same token one may know the man without knowing the name. The name is an abstraction, the concrete thing – its human referent – is the object of value and meaning.
Because the characters of As I Lay Dying are hostile to language and names (things used to verbally communicate in the world), non-verbal communication is the preferred method by which feelings – and secrets – are expressed. “I always kind of had a idea that [Darl] and Dewey Dell kind of knowed things betwixt them,” Cash says. Darl knows that Dewey Dell has been impregnated, yet she has told no one. The novel posits that this type of communication has more value than verbal communication: the non-verbal, almost telepathic, connection that they use to communicate has consistent veracity where the information passed via verbal communication is subject to human error and general subjectivity. This mode bypasses issues of propriety and fear which might inspire attempts to occlude truth. Dewey Dell says: “…and then I saw Darl and he knew. He said he knew without the words like he told me that ma is going to die without words, and I knew he knew because if he had said he knew with the words I would not have believed that he had been there and saw us” (27).
Dewey Dell affirms the telepathic communication’s authenticity. She only knows that Darl truly knows of her sexual encounter with Lafe and the subsequent pregnancy because of the wordless method by which he communicated it to her. She, like her mother, distrusts words; people can use words to lie and deceive. Her bond with Darl, however, supersedes such things as that: it is a sophisticated method of communication, not affected by human fallibility; it operates on a higher plane.
The eye is a motif in As I Lay Dying; it is a vehicle for truthful non-verbal communication of impressions, thoughts, and feelings. Looks, stares, and flashes of life and color convey meaning more truthfully and holistically than does language. Nearly every page of the novel, regardless of who is narrating, is peppered with allusions to characters’ eyes: “pale rigidity of his eyes” (128), “his eyes fumbling” (132), “her eyes, the life in them, rushing suddenly upon them” (48).
Gaze has the power to reveal feeling in a distilled, simplified manner. Dewey Dell has specific reasons for needing to get to town and Samson’s attempts to coerce Anse into giving up the trip infuriate her: “…and then I found that girl watching me. If her eyes had a been pistols, I wouldn’t be talking now” (115). “…I sholy hadn’t done nothing to her that I knowed,” Samson says; though he cannot locate why her gaze projects such anger, her eyes betray absolutely her feelings.
Darl’s eyes – his gaze – Tull theorizes, are what “makes folks talk” about him; they are true culprit of his attaining the status of “other” within the community. “I always say it aint never been what he done so much or said or anything so much as how he looks at you” (125). Darl’s gaze then has communicated something to those with whom he has come in contact, some part of himself has become evident through his mode of looking. What is communicated, however, is unexpected and unsettling. The eyes are the window into a person, the space through which one must pass to access another human being; therefore, the significance of the look in As I Lay Dying is immense. Through their respective gazes, Darl and Cash are able to connect in this way: “…he and I look at one another with long probing looks, looks that plunge unimpeded through one another’s eyes and into the ultimate secret place where for an instant [we] crouch flagrant and unabashed…alert and secret and without shame” (142).
The two are “without shame” in this instant; they are in supernatural and complete communication – a communication in which words play no part – and they achieve a kind of peace through it. Tull says that Darl’s way of looking is “like he had got into the inside of you, someway” (125). What is unsettling then is that the person being seen will enter into a kind of unwilling (and unfamiliar) communication in which Darl is able to see and understand that individual in a, perhaps, disturbingly complete way.
Language is an imperfect means of expression: under its strictures, emotions and human beings are reduced to abstract signs (words and names, respectively) and complicated ideas are often unable to be properly brought to fruition, the shallow signs collapsing under the weight of the ideas’ levels and nuances. The people who populate the novel (the Bundrens, the Tulls, the various neighbors and others) do not have great respect for the spoken work, their conversations reflecting this in their terseness and general irrelevance. The characters’ instinct is that it is inappropriate to speak of certain things in certain contexts (this sense of propriety part of a unique code of American Southern cultural mores that Faulkner draws on) and, even with command of and will to use language, for certain things it is flatly insufficient. To counterpoint the reductive and faulty mode of conventional verbal communication, other marginal modes of expression, modes bordering on the supernatural in some cases, are presented.
Holistic and perfect modes of communication – Darl’s beyond-human telepathy – do not exist in reality; human beings in the world face the same communicative problems as do the characters in As I Lay Dying. Darl, the one character who mastered the esoteric art of “[getting] into the inside” of people and communicating in a pure non-semantic manner, is in the end institutionalized – his mode of seeing the world too provocative and upsetting. And despite being occasionally abetted by the undiluted truth in an involuntary gaze or flash in one’s eye, the remaining characters must – as all human beings must – cope with the imperfect, human modes of communication, modes stifled by issues such as shame, propriety, and subjectivity; however, an attempt must also be made to exploit as fully as possible these limiting communicative modes – as Faulkner has – in the hopes of revealing some kind of fundamental truth.
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