January 23, 2018

Faulkner’s Attitude towards Verbal Communication in _As I Lay Dying._

Faulkner’s Attitude towards Verbal Communication in As I Lay Dying

 by Shahinur Islam & Rezaul Karim


Most of the modernist writers are obsessed with words for their multidimensional significations as a medium of expression. But in his literary works, William Faulkner deliberately challenges their adequacy as a transparent communicative medium. This challenge is echoed in the voice of Addie, in the novel As I lay Dying as “Words are no good.” Words fail to certify her identity and absorb her feelings like motherhood, sexuality, passion, hatred, etc. Faulkner maintains that words cannot produce anything without the contact of reality, just as a virgin girl cannot till she gains the real experience. The real purpose of words is fulfilled through action. Faulkner, therefore, tries to make the patterns of feelings in visual images and adopts graphic signifiers rather than verbal signifiers in As I Lay Dying. Besides experimenting with ‘italics’, ‘unpunctuated words’, ‘paragraphs’ and ‘blank space’, he attempts a pictogram of a coffin  which is associated with the womb, with the body upside down. Hence this paper aims to explore Faulkner’s attitude towards words and communication as an attitude of declination.

Key Words: stream of consciousness, interior monologue, surrealism, cubism, visual image, alienation


William Faulkner was thoroughly obsessed with experimentation of language, meaning and communication in his literary works. Critics think that he is greatly influenced by two of the most celebrated modernists– T.S. Eliot and James Joyce. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Joyce’s Ulysses play a significant role in shaping his literary career. They attempt visual arts to replace the words and, thereby, deliberately challenge the traditional medium of communication, their adequacy as a transparent communicative medium. For example, James Joyce uses a number of narrators to present different perspective of the same thing and Eliot uses different vivid imageries in his poem ‘The Waste Land’ to present the modern chaotic world as we get the image of water through which  he represents the modern drought and flood in the spiritual arena of man.  The world Eliot deals with is the world of deception, barrenness, lustfulness, alienation, miscommunication and spiritual death. Likewise,  Faulkner, who is exclusively concerned with the nature of words, deals with characters grappling with loss of traditional belief after the destructiveness of World War-I. These characters are alienated from their past and present, and very often suffer from an inability to communicate with words. His experimentation with narrative perspective, his focus on language and its failure and the theme of alienation are apparent in his novel, As I lay Dying. Regarding language, Faulkner says that a writer should create his own language which is not only his right but also his duty. Faulkner then creates his own way of expression. This paper critically reads the novel, As I lay Dying and is intended to present Faulkner’s attitude towards verbal communication, its fundamental inadequacy along with focusing on the modernists’ view of language. This will also show, by analysing various characters—Addie, Darl, Jewel, and Anse, etc.—the distrust of post-war generations towards words, and how Faulkner approaches them.


This paper analytically explores and argumentatively deals with Faulkner’s novel As I lay Dying. This research is accomplished by following an organised and decorative methodology. Firstly, it concentrates on and evaluates the materials found from different sources. Secondly, data are analysed carefully and an outline of the paper is made. Thirdly, it generalises all the materials and prepares the first draft of the paper and then the second draft. Fourthly, the confirmation or rejection of data and modification is completed which makes the final draft. Finally, the paper is submitted following the mechanics of writing.

The extent of the study:

The research contained in this paper is on a very limited area, concentrating on Faulkner’s attitude towards words and verbal communication in As I Lay Dying. It also contains some critics’ views of Faulkner’s idea of language.

Basic concept of language:

Language is considered the most authentic medium of communication. Through using words, man has been expressing his ideas, feelings and views for ages. But the modernists approach this medium in a critical way. Among the modernists, Ferdinand de Saussure is a key figure who contributes significantly to the development of these modernists’ approaches to language. Saussure basically concentrates on the patterns and functions of language in use today with the emphasis on how meanings are maintained and established. Saussure’s theory of language consolidates the modernists’ new perception of language. Saussure’s influential book Cours de Linguistique Generale, the transcription by the students of his lectures delivered between 1906 and 1911 at the University of Geneva is considered one of the most important texts representing the new attitude towards language. Saussure defines language basically as a system of sign. While giving the definition of sign, he asserts:

The linguistic sign unites not a thing and a name, but a concept and a sound image. The latter is not the material sound, a purely physical thing, but the psychological imprint of the sound, the impression that it makes on our senses. The sound image is sensory, and if I happen to call it material; it is only in that sense, and by way of opposing it to the other term of the association, the concept which is generally more abstract (Saussure 66).

From this definition, we find that the meanings that we give to words are quite arbitrary. To put it more precisely, the relation between two components of the linguistics—the ‘signifier’ (acoustic image or speech sound) and the ‘signified’ (the mental corresponding to the verbal sound), is, in principle, utterly arbitrary. There are no intrinsically fixed meanings in language. These meanings are maintained by connection only. Words, therefore, are unmotivated signs that bear meanings, and in between there is no inherent connection. For example, the word ‘dog’ is not anyway appropriate to its meaning. After hearing this word, we think of a four-legged animal with fur which makes a sound we call ‘bark’. It is our experience that makes us call this ‘dog’. But it could have any other name or designation rather than ‘dog’. All linguistic signs are thus arbitrary.

For this reason words are always slipping away and can never be pinned down. Like Joyce and Eliot, being influenced by this notion of limitation and function of language, Faulkner makes the inadequate use of words in his works to give vent to the deep feelings of his characters like love, hatred, sexuality, motherhood, etc. These feelings are abstract, and so do not have any physicality or embodiment which words can absorb properly. The modernists encounter this difficulty very acutely and so attempt to explore different techniques to provide an expression as precisely as possible.

Literature Review:

A number of critics have opined on William Faulkner’s works, attitude, brilliance, techniques, etc. Here some of the arguments of the critics are reviewed in order to show Faulkner’s work as experimentation with language, its function and the way he approaches  the inadequacy of words.

One of the prominent critics of Faulkner avers that As I Lay Dying is quintessentially a cubist novel. Faulkner has used many cubistic techniques here such as lines – both vertical and horizontal, circles, collage fragmentation and multiple points of view (Broughton 93). Besides, Faulkner has incorporated 15 narrators in a fragmentation of 59 sections to show his points of view.

Another critic holds the view that many of Faulkner’s characters are, in fact, quite unable to find suitable words for their deep and complex feelings. According to him, Faulkner knows, as few poets do, that thoughts which lie too deep for tears are not the peculiar possession of those who can express them. In this difficulty, he unties the knot; at times his people think in bad grammar and in dialect, as they would actually speak. At other times they think in sentences most skillfully constructed from a rich vocabulary to give as nearly as possible an impression of their incommunicable thoughts (Tredell 36-37).

In Faulkner’s writing, we see that he attempts to make the readers see what he wants to show. He is, in fact, very much influenced by the cubist and surrealistic image and expression. So in the novel, Faulkner

…frequently documents the characters’ reluctance to employ verbal discourse. Darl and Dewey communicate without words; Addie realizes that words are no good; Vardaman finds he ‘couldn’t say it’ when he understands that his mother is about to be placed in a coffin. Whitfield ‘frames’ rather than speaks his confession (Clarke 36-37).

A famous critic opines about word’s inability to project the deep feelings of Vardaman in As I Lay Dying. He maintains:

…A breakdown of language of which the most obvious signs are irregularities in spelling (darl for Darl), the absence of punctuation…and the dislocation of syntax. A riot of words dash and crash into each other, disappear and appear. Sentences are started and lost, repeated and mixed up, unable to find their rightful place of order (Bleikasten 63).

According to a prominent critic of Faulkner, in the reading of As I Lay Dying, readers “participate in an open ended linguistic process of assembling worded experience into significance yet necessarily dissolving and dispersing it” (Wadlington 208). He also opines that the significance of this kind of reading is that it makes us understand that, “ language similarly both constructs and deconstructs the meaning because words always say both less or more than we mean” (Wadlington 208).

Faulkner imposes his own language on the characters to enable the readers discern their thoughts, which may or may not be true. To put it precisely:

…in spite of the “external” incoherence of the language used by the narrators (the discrepancy between their linguistic competence as inferred from the story and some of their actual performances in the narrative), internal coherence is safeguarded. Each character uses the same “style” throughout, so that the very stylistic inferences, far from undermining their credibility as narrators, create specific timbres that the reader can progressively learn to identify (Delville).

Discourse Analysis:

If we intensively go through the novel As I lay Dying, we see that this is actually a visual text. In addition to the experimentation with italics, unpunctuated words/ paragraphs, and blank space, he has attempted a pictogram of the coffin. In this novel, the picture of the coffin is associated with the womb, with the body upside down in it. The coffin, like a small box for containing things, is the container of the body of the mother who herself is the container of many children. The coffin is called “clock shaped”. It is like a grand father’s clock which relates her again to the patriarchal descent. Faulkner has frequently associated work of arts with the female body. To him words are associated with masculinity and pictures with femininity. This might be the reason why he portrayed the picture instead of describing in words.

In As I Lay Dying, Faulkner has used blank space… the real gaps between the words, which suggest the inadequacy and lack of authenticity of words. In her monologue, Addie describes her body in the shape of ….. This gap also suggests the feminine gap signifying nothing.

We are again introduced to Faulkner’s attitude towards language in the following indictment against words by Addie Bundren:

So I took Anse and when I knew that I had Cash, I knew that living was terrible and that this was the answer to it. That was then I learned that words are no good; that words don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say at. When he was born, I knew that motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the ones that had the children did not care whether there was a word for it or not (Faulkner 159).

Here it seems that Addie has the real understanding of Saussure’s concept of the arbitrary relationship between the signifier and the signified. Language cannot accurately give the meanings of her own experience of abstract feelings and concepts like motherhood, love and sexuality. She doesn’t have any trust in words of Anse as she says, “I know that that word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack” (Faulkner 160).

Addie believes in action rather than in words. She understands Cash and so does Cash through action not through words. “Cash did not need to say it to me nor I to him and I would say, let Anse use it, if he wants to use it. So that it was Anse or love; love or Anse: it didn’t matter” (Faulkner 159-60). To her, words are to no purpose as she continues the act of violence in order to assert her self-identity. This act of violence paves the way for the release of her pent-up feelings. When she was a school teacher, she used to whip her students in order to overcome the barrier between her and others:  “I would think with each blow of the switch: Now you are aware of me! Now I am something in your secret and selfish life, which have marked your blood with my own forever” (Faulkner 157). We can see her selfishness here. However, she violently imposes herself on others without opening herself to them. Similarly, she holds her back from her children maintaining an impenetrable individuality except for Cash and her favourite Jewel. Her contradictions highlight the fundamental composition to maintain one’s private self while yearning to connect with others.

Words are useless until they come into the contact of reality just in the same way as when virginity is violated, something is produced. Again words are dead when their meanings (the objects or ideas they refer to) are taken. We find Addie saying:

The shape of my body when I used to be a virgin is in the shape of a…. and I couldn’t think Anse, couldn’t remember Anse. It was not that I could think of myself as no longer unvirgin, because I was three now. And when I would think Cash and Darl that way until their names would die and solidify into a shape and then fade away, I would say, all right. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what they call them (Faulkner 162).

In the novel it is seen that the characters do not communicate effectively in words with one another. The passivity of words is reflected in their activities. The characters are very much reluctant to employ verbal discourse. Jewel’s fierce love for his mother cannot be explained in terms of his violent words. In the same way, the degree of Addie’s profound love for Cash and Jewel cannot be measured through words. Verdaman’s feelings deep inside his mind are impossible to project in words. Verdaman opens his unpunctuated dialogues and gets lost on the way. Words, here, fail to absorb his feelings. Another character Darl, who is the narrator of one third of all the sections, does not communicate in words in most cases. His apparently mad activities cannot be interpreted with the employment of words. Through his penetrating insight, he can go into the heart of each character in the novel and know their hidden motives for going to Jefferson except for the apparent reason to bury Addie. He can discern the ludicrousness of such a hazardous and futile journey with everyone having their own personal reasons. But words cannot certify it. The limitation of expression causes the use of abnormal words and structure. So when a character’s thoughts are of an abstract nature, Faulkner uses language that can convey the thought to the readers, even if it is not the normal way one would express. For example, the chopping sound of axe-Chuck Chuck Chuck- used by Darl. If we analyse other characters’ sections, we find their observation about Darl who hardly speaks in the novel though he can penetrate anyone’s mind through his intuitive power. We find Cora asking Darl, “What you want Darl?” (Faulkner 21). Darl and Dewey Dell communicate with each other without words, which prove that some non-verbal gestures may be more powerful than words. Words are no good and these are even worse when one cannot organise them in an effective way. It is also noticed in the case of Verdaman who cannot express his feelings in words.

Faulkner, thus, exhibits that words really cannot convey our true feelings. When action takes place or a man directly comes with this experience, words for that experience become useless. For instance, motherhood was only a heard term to Addie until she has experienced it in reality. While giving birth to Cash, Addie experiences bloodletting. Her feelings of motherhood– what it is really like to be a mother– cannot be exposed in words. In the novel, we hear her saying:

And Cora Tull would tell me I was not a true mother. I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle from one to the other; and that sin and love are just sounds that people who never have for what they never even cook (Faulkner 162).

Addie’s distrust in words is further elaborated in her attitude towards Anse, her husband. Anse is a word to her all throughout his life. In one of her statements, she reveals Anse’s nature, “I would watch him liquefy and flow into it like cold molasses flowing out of the darkness into the vessel, until the jar stood full and motionless” (Faulkner 161). So Addie takes revenge by making Anse give her words to take her to Jefferson in order to bury. Anse, while taking her to Jefferson undertakes a lot of pain and this is Addie’s revenge on his words which he always uses as excuses, and without any effectuality. This is, in fact, Addie’s retribution on words and their fragility.

But it is a matter of fact that though Anse takes her body to Jefferson, he goes there for his own interest. He goes there for his own false teeth and justifies his journey by repeatedly saying, “I give her my promised word.” It is really ridiculous and here we find the words being a medium of exploitation and deception.

In the novel the same thing occurs in the case of Cora Tull when she worries about losing the cost of the eggs that goes into the cakes for it is on her say so, “that they bought the hens”. Her daughter resents the lady who changes her mind about buying them insisting, “She ought to take them. But those rich town ladies can change their minds, poor-folks can’t.”(Faulkner 4). This comic undercutting of the word reveals Faulkner’s skepticism regarding language’s ability to represent truth and delineate human experience, reflecting his modernists’ agenda.

 Analysis and Argument:

William Faulkner, as a modernist writer, deals with the unreliability of words and the alienation, frustration, misunderstanding and human’s grappling with expression caused by this inadequacy of verbal communication in his novel As I Lay Dying; and thus he consolidates his position as a grappler with words with other modernist writers who were experimenting with various techniques like ‘stream of consciousness’—a loosely formatted babble of thoughts, ‘interior monologue’—the semi-constant internal speech one has with oneself at a conscious or semiconscious level, and so on. By employing these techniques, they approach to make their readers go inside his characters’ mind as they are very rigid to express their true feelings. The characters are alienated from each other and they have lost their belief on one another. Faulkner presents the situation of post world war-I when people were losing their traditional beliefs and feelings; and they were grappling with loss of language. So Faulkner tries to show his attitude towards words through the characters’ non-verbal communication, using gaps between words, italics, unpunctuated sentences, visual images and scenes and so on.

Faulkner makes us convinced that “words are no good”; it is only a “shape to fill a lack” through the different techniques he employs in his literary work.

As Faulkner was embarking on his literary career in the early twentieth century, a number of Modernist writers were experimenting with narrative techniques that depended more on explorations of individual consciousness than on a string of events to create a story. For example, James Joyce’s Ulysses is among the most famous and successful of these experiments, but Faulkner also made a substantial contribution to this movement.

As I Lay Dying is written as a series of stream-of-consciousness monologues- a loosely-formatted babble of thoughts- in which the characters’ thoughts are presented in all their uncensored chaos, without the organising presence of an objective narrator. This technique turns character psychology into a dominant concern, and is able to present that psychology with its fuller originality. Through this technique, 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.  Now let us look at this line from Cora’s point of view: “Someone comes through the hall. It is Darl” (Faulkner 168). 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 is not just to tell us a story – it is to get us to go through the thoughts of the characters.

This type of stream of consciousness is about the only stylistic continuity between all fifteen narrators of As I Lay Dying. Faulkner personalises 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 is 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.

Faulkner uses many surrealist and cubist techniques to overcome the inadequacy of words. For instance, as like as the cubists, Faulkner presents a number of different perspectives of the same object or person on a same plane by using fifteen narrators.  We find another instance in the very first pages of the story. Although Jewel is behind him, Darl describes him as if he can see him:

Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single file…… The cotton house is of rough logs….when we reach it, I turn and follow the path which circles the house, Jewel, fifteen feet behind me, looking straight ahead, steps in a single stride through the window. Still staring straight ahead, his pale eyes like wood set into his wooden face, he crosses the floor in four strides.    (Faulkner 1-2)

We find the surrealist, nightmarish imageries at several instances of the text. The Bundrens attempt to ease Cash’s pain by encasing his broken leg in cement. While talking about Cash’s decaying leg, Vardaman says: “your foot looks like a nigger’s foot, Cash.’ (Faulkner 224). The Bundrens are blind to the reality of the smelling, rotting corpse and continue their funeral journey to Jefferson with the coffin in a wagon, followed by a number of buzzards. The most horrible scene occurs when Vardaman drills holes in his mother’s coffin so that she might breathe. Like those of surrealist paintings, such images or scenes are apparent in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

Besides, in the novel, like the surrealists, Faulkner shows several different images at the same time. Addie is portrayed in various images. In the novel’s shortest chapter, Vardaman states “My mother is a fish” (Faulkner 76).  Darl also makes a similar statement that “Jewel’s mother is a horse” (Faulkner 101). Darl and Vardaman express their inner realities through these vivid pictorial images. Here, Addie is a woman and, at the same time, a fish and a horse. As in surrealist works of art, the world of the Bundrens is an absurdly disturbing world which blurs and breaks down the boundaries between reality and dream, life and death, human and animal, comedy and tragedy, sanity and insanity, and natural and supernatural.

These visual signifiers attempt to express inexpressible ideas and experience. Faulkner’s extensive use of visual images as a privileged mode of expression is closely related to his recognition of the fragility of language. He attempts to fill in the gaps between reality and verbal representation by various images and techniques borrowed from the visual arts.

Besides, Faulkner disembodies language from his characters in order to create the thoughts and ideas in the reader’s mind. We see that the language is not directly coming from the characters because their narrations use much more complex vocabulary and syntax than does their speech. Faulkner, therefore, must be applying the language choosing his own words to express what the characters are thinking. Thus we get a first person narrative once removed, and we receive the thoughts and ideas of the narrator through the filter of the author’s language. For example, Vardaman’s perception is not described in his own words, those are Faulkner’s.

Even with disembodied language, the language which is separated from the characters’ thoughts, represents the ideas. It is sometimes impossible to express a concept in words. People are capable of formulating thoughts beyond what words allow them the power to express. Expression of those particular concepts in words achieved only with the use of similes and metaphors, however, fail to convey the exact idea. This gap cannot be overcome since metaphors cannot be used to express an exact thought of a person. This thought might be represented, if not expressed directly,  in some other ways. Faulkner faces this problem when one of his characters, Tull is thinking of a shape which has no pre-defined name. He puts it: “Cash made in the clock shape…”(Faulkner 125). But this metaphoric description fails to create a picture for the reader. So Faulkner allows us to envision this shape by employing a drawn image.

Thus throughout the novel As I Lay Dying, Faulkner’s skeptical attitude towards language is well-reflected in the characters’ uneasy relationship with language. And the language of the novel and that of Addie in particular, express deep suspicion and frustration with the preferentiality of all languages.


To wind up, we can insist that Faulkner is exclusively concerned with the nature of words. He demonstrates an attitude of declination towards words that are not so much authentic as they cannot always absorb our feelings in the true degree of experience. In the novel As I Lay Dying, Faulkner resorts to pictures and images in order to substitute his verbal discourse. He, indeed, attempts graphic signifiers in place of verbal signifiers. Thus he manifests directly what his characters are thinking while still following the patterns of their thoughts. This technique has allowed his novel to exceed the boundaries of words in the realm of ideas.

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