Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Words: Inadequate and Plentiful

Creative Commons License 2.0 / Jeffery Wright

I didn’t like it at all. I didn’t like the time period, the setting, or the strange and tragic plot. 

I had to read As I Lay Dying for my AP Literature class during my senior year of high school, and it was a struggle. In that class, we would read the book first, and try not to discuss it in too much detail until the date upon which everyone should have finished (which I didn't do). Then, we would begin together. Our teacher would take the black and white print and transform it into a compendium of literary genius and philosophical insight. 

Through our discussion, what at first was an incomprehensible string of “is’s” and “is nots” in a paragraph narrated by the apparently insane character, Darl, slowly developed into a deeply profound and unsettling thought process about the reality of human existence. Reminiscent of Descartes’s “Cogito ergo sum” (“I think, therefore, I am”), Darl comes to the conclusion,
And since sleep is is-not and rain and wind are was, it is not. Yet the wagon is, because when the wagon is was, Addie Bundren will not be. And Jewel is, so Addie Bundren must be. And then I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room. And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is. (Faulkner 72)
I must be honest and say that most of this is over my head. However, Faulkner’s mastery of the English language—his bold use of stream of consciousness and his manipulation of verbs into nouns—affected me then and deeply affects me now. In this way, language is magic. 

It can express any indescribable thought or feeling with a combination of words. Initially, reading this paragraph is like walking in circles through an untamed forest. But upon closer inspection, every word functions and every phrase flows from the character’s unique, but totally logical, cognition, creating an intricate garden of thought. 

What then affected me about this book was how the narration transcended much farther into the characters’ thoughts, feelings, and understanding than did the dialogue. A little boy from a poor family on an early 20th century farm in Mississippi would never speak the way the character, Vardaman, narrates. But first-person narration is not a representation of the exact words that a character thinks; rather, it is a polished and organized expression of the emotions, complexities, and observations that happen within the character. 

Vardaman’s dialogue, referring to the fish that he caught, is coarse, repetitive, and childlike: “’Then hit want. Hit hadn’t happened then. Hit was a-layin right there on the ground. And now she’s gittin ready to cook hit’” (52). This is immediately contrasted with his eloquent observations of the world around him:
It is as though the dark were resolving him out of his integrity, into an unrelated scattering of components—snuffings and stampings; smells of cooking flesh and ammoniac hair; and illusion of a co-ordinated whole of splotched hide and strong bones within which, detached and secret and familiar, an is different from my is. I see him dissolve—legs, a rolling eye, a gaudy splotching like cold flames—and float upon the dark in fading solution; all one yet neither; all either yet none.
Again, the character turns the verb “is” into a noun, giving each “is” an owner, in order to express the lonely grief that he feels after his mother’s death. Along with the captivating diction, “snuffings and stampings; smells of cooking flesh and ammoniac hair,” and the oxymoronic simile, “a gaudy splotching like cold flames,” I loved the chiasmus structure that seemed to capacitate endless meaning: “all one yet neither; all either yet none.” 

Still, the aspect of the book that impressed me the most was its insight on human nature and relationships. In high school, I was unfamiliar with any sort of romance beyond a crush, but I was just beginning to become interested in the complexities and importance of human nature, and the deep feelings and struggles that people experience. Addie Bundren’s dysfunctional relationship with her husband, Anse, and her observation of the emptiness of his words must have affected me then, but at a less personal level. 

Now that I have come to a better understanding of the disparity between words and actions and its causation of emotional confusion—where the words formed a needy attachment, while the actions facilitated pain and tentativeness—I understand Addie when she says,
He had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that that word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack; that when the right time came, you wouldn’t need a word for that anymore than for pride or fear. (158)
After studying this statement, I began to understand the imagery of a word as “a shape to fill a lack.” Feelings are much more complex than words, and sometimes words just aren’t capable of expressing what is felt. Then again, after experiencing the treachery of words, I’ve realized that along with their inability to describe what is there, I know that people can also use them to describe something that’s not there. It’s confusing and damaging. Thus, Addie states, “That was when I learned that words are no good; that words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at” (157). 

In this way, Faulkner is able to take the words and make them sufficient. In As I Lay Dying, the words are so manipulated and fashioned and the rules of the language are so cheated, that they actually do express feelings. As Darl observes, there “lurks a wisdom too profound or too inert for even thought” (45). As Faulkner reaches past actions, past words, and past thought, he delves into the feeling, and that is where, though I do not yet fully understand it, the text cuts me. 

This book made me want to write in a way in which I can describe, like no other work has yet described, emotions felt by everyone--where someone will read my words and know that there is no other way words would be able to represent an emotion so deep and intangible.

Work Cited: 
Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. New York: Vintage Books, 1987. Print.


  1. I first read As I Lay Dying last year and I absolutely hated it also. But after I started to dig into it more, suddenly it really became fascinating, and I now think that I would definitely teach it in high school. I loved your discussion on Faulkner's play with words, I think you could compare that with Carroll's play with language. I think both of them challenge the dictionary meaning of words (for Carroll especially with Humpty Dumpty) but they do it in different ways and maybe for a different purpose. I think while that could be a complex idea, it would be a super interesting paper.

  2. It's always the books you hate at first that end up being your favorite! The application to personal things like words and feelings is great because it adds so much depth. I've always heard either really good or really bad things about this book but I'm now convinced! It's sounds like a awesome read thanks to your narrative.

  3. Amazing Sophie! Your phase "language is magic" magic! :) You have a way of writing which first makes me feel stupid ;) then secondly draws me in and wants me to be apart of that "magic". Bravo :)

  4. I love your insight about words and action. It touched me deeply. When you say, "sometimes words just aren't capable of expressing what is felt," after reading your review I believe you are very capable of expressing anything you feel. Well done!

  5. Your experience with As I Lay Dying is so similar to my own experience with The Sun Also Rises. I hardly ever read the books that we were assigned to read. It wasn't until somebody, usually my teacher, opened up the doors of perception and let the light come in that I began to appreciate the beauty of the work. I think I had a similar experience with Faulker's novel during my Freshman year of college. I'm grateful for enthusiastic people who changed my mind about stories like these.