“What They are Trying to Say at”: A Defense of Words in the Face of Rational Criticism


The natural human response to a puzzle is to solve it. This precept lies behind systems of government, modern science, and—of greatest relevance—the constant inclination of English scholars to interpret literature. In some cases everything goes well, but, at other times, it can turn into an uphill battle. Though this may frustrate us immensely, though it may go against our human need to find answers, those cases in which rational interpretation eludes us serve as an important reminder. Words, we realize, do have inherent value beyond the message they are used to signify. One such case is found in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. 

When the novel was first released, it was highly controversial among critics and readers. Though the book is now accepted by most of the literary world as a masterful piece of writing, it is as surrounded by disagreement as ever. The thing is, no one is quite sure what the book means. The general concepts, of course, are established. The novel tells the story of a Southern farming family through the death of the matriarch and her survivors’ attempts to give her a “proper” burial. Their quest is related through a series of 59 first-person “monologues,” with perspective shifting between each of the seven family members—the main characters—as well as several minor characters. Most everything one might say about the novel beyond this, however, is liable to questioning.

Much of the work’s ambiguity results from the style of narration. Traditionally, critics have read As I Lay Dying as a series of formal internal monologues. Readings of this type are attempts “to find meaning as statement” (Slaughter 16) in the text. But meaning as we know it—a layer of rational definitions behind the words, logically moving forward with the narrative—is not to be found here. The issue lies in the fact that Faulkner’s particular “interior monologues” simply do not fit the standard form; they are plagued by anachronistic narration, inconsistent verb tense, incomplete thoughts, and impossible diction. Some decide he is “a botched realist” (Hale 5), while others simply feel he has misused this narrative technique. Either way, the question becomes, “if Faulkner seems to misuse a narrative convention [interior monologue] that most writers employ for the sake of ‘realism,’ then what kind of novel has he produced?” (Hale 5).

In an attempt to answer this question, literary scholars like Carolyn Norman Slaughter have come forward in support of more “nontraditional readings [that] are beginning to let the meaning lie while they follow Faulkner’s strange experiments with time and space, with memory and imagination, with consciousness and unconsciousness” (16). By divorcing As I Lay Dying from any idea of rationality, readers can gain much more from the book than a frustrating struggle of ill-fitting interpretations. Faulkner’s very specific use of language in his novel, when read for its own value, allows for an understanding of his characters that extends far beyond what they say and do, into the realm of each individual’s inner-most consciousness.

One of the most simple yet incomprehensible portions of the novel is Monologue #19. It consists of a single line from Vardaman: “My mother is a fish” (Faulkner 79). There is no doubt that Vardaman’s mother is not, in fact, a fish. Vardaman’s mother is Addie Bundren, an unmistakably human woman. If one were to attempt a logical interpretation of this line, then, it would make sense to interpret it as a representation of his disorienting grief. The metaphorical language is strange, perhaps, but not incomprehensible. Attempts to do this, though, are constantly set back by inconsistencies in the text. An interpretive theory can go through only so much reinterpretation—only so much bending, and twisting, and compressing to fit a new angle of the literature—before it loses all validity. In the end, it seems no theory about this line can fit the novel throughout. There is no making sense of this strange declaration.

The first appearance of the fish in the narrative comes even before Addie’s death. While she is sick in bed, Vardaman goes out and catches a gigantic fish to show his mother (Faulkner 30). Already, in this small way, the relationship between mother and fish is being established. In some sense, it seems reasonable that Vardaman displaces the concept of his dead mother onto the fish. When Addie dies, there is this sense that she no longer exists; as Darl puts it, “If it is was, it can’t be is. Can it?” (93). For Vardaman, then, it is not just a question of bringing her back to life but of bringing her back, period. In response to the lifeless body lying in his mother’s bed, ready to be laid in the coffin, Vardaman expresses, “I saw when it did not be her… It was not her because it was laying right yonder in the dirt” (63). The reader knows the “it” which had been lying “right yonder in the dirt” was the fish when Vardaman first brought it home. Here, he replaces one corpse with another—the mother with the fish—and, in so doing, misplaces their identities. Yet, with the slightest bit of pushback, this potential defense of Addie’s existence falls to pieces. To start, why would the boy choose something already dead as his mother’s replacement? He says the body in her bed “did not be her,” but why should the lifeless fish be any more her than that other lifeless body? Then there is the added trauma of ‘the killer’ in the fish scenario, as opposed to simply ‘the killed’ in the other. Vardaman is that killer. If he is trying to salvage his mother’s existence, why would he make her into something he’s killed? These explanatory loops just go on and on.

Psychology aside, there are also passages indecipherable at the linguistic level. Take for example:

I can feel where the fish was in the dust. It is cut up into pieces of not-fish now, not-blood on my hands and overalls. Then it wasn’t so. It hadn’t happened then. And now she is getting so far ahead I cannot catch her. (Faulkner 52)

This is one of those segments that leads eminent Faulkner critics like Walter J. Slatoff to write, “One is puzzled by the meanings of many of the events; one is far from sure what the book is chiefly about” (Kerr 5). If we can accept this fact—if we can decide not even to try to understand passages like this one, where does that leave us, the readers? According to one theory, this strange voice of Faulkner’s “makes us cease to regard language as a transparent medium by which agents communicate and instead forces us to recognize language itself as a determining agent” (Hale 8).

To take “language itself as a determining agent,” we must worry not about what the words are saying but about how they are speaking. In the passage quoted above, structure is of particular importance. The sentences are short, jerky, disjointed. If this is a view into Vardaman’s mind, it reflects the difficulty of his personal position at this moment. The youngest member of the Bundren family, Vardaman is going through the grieving process in a highly tumultuous and especially traumatic way. As one scholar explains it, Vardaman’s attempts to cope with his mother’s death are, at root, verbal solutions (Delville 63). The boy cannot process this tragedy, so his verbal expression breaks down. The lack of coherency in his monologues reflects the state of Vardaman’s mind: he is a child, and his mother is dead, and he cannot understand that.

So he tries to think it through, tries to explain it to himself in a way that doesn’t hurt so much, but there is nowhere he can go with that thinking. He remembers the dead fish and the dead mother and, in his mind, “Then it wasn’t so. It hadn’t happened then.” There is no knowing the antecedent of these pronouns. The “it” could be the fish’s death, the mother’s death, the killing of the fish, or even the catching of the fish. “It” could be all these things together or something else entirely. The fact that the reader cannot know is symptomatic of the fact that Vardaman cannot know either. At different moments in the narrative, the fish means different things—sometimes comprehensible, sometimes not, but always fluid according to Vardaman’s mental state. What is most significant here is that Faulkner has painted Vardaman’s character “not as he talks, acts, or otherwise appears to others,” but “as he ‘really’ is” (Hale 9). By breaking down the boy’s linguistic expression, the author has allowed a view of the private Vardaman, rather than his public persona, highlighting the discrepancies between an individual’s internal and external life. The reader is, now, not observing Vardaman from the outside, nor even just listening in on his thoughts. Instead, the reader has been put into the position of Vardaman himself, feeling the character’s private responses when he or she could just be witnessing them. As scholar Dorothy Hale writes, this “private identity is what makes each self not just unique but profound” (11). Through study of Faulkner’s illogical language and the way he employs it, the reader is able to gain access to that profound selfhood of characters. We do not know why Vardaman’s mother is a fish, but we can relate to how, on the most personal level, his child’s mind is comprehending her death.

Another important consequence of reading the novel’s language for its own sake is the network of linguistic connections it allows the reader to make. When one stops obsessing over the message the text is trying to convey, possibilities are opened for the text to express things that don’t make logical sense. From the start, we have been looking at Vardaman’s declaration, “My mother is a fish,” only in terms of Vardaman and his mother. If we are reading the text rationally, this is the only way to do it. When we let go of meaning, however, a connection surfaces between this repeated phrase and Vardaman’s sister, Dewey Dell. The word ‘guts’ is used ten times in the novel: once as a description of Vardaman’s fish, and the other nine about Dewey Dell’s pregnancy. Dewey Dell does not want to be pregnant, and her personal goal throughout the novel is to get an abortion, in order to spare herself the shame of a child conceived out of wedlock. She refers to herself as “a little tub of guts” (Faulkner 56) and feels that “everything in the world for [her] is inside a tub full of guts” (56). The child, too, growing inside of her, is guts. About her lover, Lafe, Dewey Dell thinks, “He is his guts and I am my guts. And I am Lafe’s guts. That’s it” (58). It is impossible not to tie this, on the purely linguistic level, to one of the first images portrayed of Vardaman’s fish, when he exclaims to his father, “It was full of blood and guts” (36). If one follows this image throughout the book, further connections between the fish and Dewey Dell’s pregnancy emerge.

There is one particularly powerful image in monologue #30, a Dewey Dell monologue: “I saw Vardaman rise and go to the window and strike the knife into the fish, the blood gushing” (115). When, in the space of her own mind, her own private ‘reality,’ Dewey Dell conjures this thought—this sight, given the context, she could not possibly be seeing—the reader knows it is a thought purely her own. Dewey Dell envisions this violence against that other “little tub of guts,” just as she wishes to destroy the invasive “guts” in herself. In the end, though, she is unable to succeed in getting the abortion. Likewise, she never is able to cook—and thereby destroy—that fish (58). It is this sort of connection, fascinating in its own right and curious in its implications, which the reader would never be able to get at if not through language alone. It cannot be explained in logical terms; the young woman never opens up to her brother about her pregnancy, and there is no way he could have known the situation she is in or, more specifically, the unique language she uses to describe her condition. Yet, somehow, he strikes a note that holds true for his sister’s most private struggles, cutting to the quick by making the fish a symbol of death and motherhood for both Addie and Dewey Dell.

In Addie Bundren’s sole monologue, the consideration of words and their value is taken up directly. Addie feels that “words are no good; that words don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say at” (Faulkner 163). This sentiment can be applied to the whole novel and everything Faulkner achieves through his manner of writing. Of course, one does not walk away from the book with the feeling that “words are no good,” but there is a sense that they don’t quite match what they are trying to convey. Faulkner uses this flaw of language to make it more powerful, giving his words permission not to say anything. They must simply exist. They must simply feel right. As Addie explains, “when the right times [comes], you [don’t] need a word for that anymore” (164). This is true for As I Lay Dying. When a character’s sentiment is true enough, deep enough, the words that would normally describe it are nullified. To make his readers privy to the most essential bits of his characters’ internal consciousnesses, Faulkner uses words that move in an around “what they are trying to say at,” allowing them, finally, to fit—to be good for more than empty signification.





Works Cited

Delville, Michel. “Alienating Language and Darl’s Narrative Consciousness in Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying.’” The Southern Literary Journal, vol. 27, no. 1, 1994, pp. 61–72.

Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 1930. Print.

Hale, Dorothy J. “‘As I Lay Dying’s’ Heterogeneous Discourse.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 23, no. 1, 1989, pp. 5–23.

Slaughter, Carolyn Norman. “As I Lay Dying: Demise of Vision.” American Literature, vol. 61, no. 1, 1989, pp. 16–30.

Works Consulted

Benstock, Shari, and Stephen M. Ross. “‘Voice’ in As I Lay Dying.” PMLA, vol. 94, no. 5, 1979, pp. 957–959.

Kerr, Elizabeth M. “‘As I Lay Dying’ as Ironic Quest.” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, vol. 3, no. 1, 1962, pp. 5–19.