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Symbolism, Allegory, and Imagery in ‘As I Lay Dying’


“My mom is a fish” is perhaps the most famous quote from William Faulkner’s Southern Gothic book, As I Lay Dying (Faulkner, 1957, p. 84). William Cuthbert Faulkner was born in 1897 in Oxford, Mississippi. The setting of As I Lay Passing away, along with a lot of his other novels, resembles the bucolic nature of his hometown. He embodies his home town through the imaginary setting, Yoknapatawpha, that is consistent throughout all of his stories. Faulkner is popular for developing the category referred to as Southern Gothic, which exhibits Southern culture and tradition. He established this genre of composing through his experimental writing, such as the several narrators experienced in As I Lay Passing away. Faulkner’s stories do not try to represent the charm in southern culture, however the realistic, negative parts. This also helps to establish the gothic nature of his writings. Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying, is the embodiment of a Southern gothic writing and is a fantastic contribution to Southern literature. Faulkner uses As I Lay Dying to attend to the stress placed on household ties throughout a close death. Faulkner uses animal metaphors, eye importance, character tension, and textual voice to demonstrate an individual’s ability to manage the loss of a liked one.

Faulkner utilizes animal importance to optimize interaction between the storyteller and the reader to reveal the characters’ emotion. Faulkner skillfully juxtaposes the primary characters and animals to expose essential characteristics. Anse is compared to a “dipped rooster,” Gem’s mom is specified to be a horse, and Vardaman declares his mom is a fish (White, 2008, p. 1). Making use of these “animetaphors” stimulates the language and enhances the reader’s understanding of how each character sees the loss of Addie (White, 2008, p. 1). Due to the fact that the book provides just the inner ideas of the narrator, the observations and descriptions of the animals enable a sense of body movement. Every main character works out an animal metaphor in a different method. Dewey Dell’s description of the cow reveals her increased sense of perceptiveness due to her pregnancy (White, 2008, p. 7). She relates her emotional and physical state to that of the cow by her chiding, “You’ll simply have to wait. What you got in you aint absolutely nothing to what I got in me, even if you are a female too” (Faulkner, 1957, p. 63). The intimacy of her relationship with the cow relates to the loss of her womanly role model, even if her ideas on the topic are self-centered. Moreover, Darl’s description of the “unrestrained and inarticulate” mules not just juxtaposes with his “exquisitely controlled language”, however also foreshadows his descent into insanity (White, 2008, p. 7). Faulkner’s employment of animal symbols and metaphors produces a much deeper understanding of the characters’ emotional states and capabilities.

Faulkner utilizes another kind of symbolism to show the individual character and ability to cope. Through describing a character’s eyes, Faulkner relates the character’s emotion to the reader. Gem’s eyes are explained the most out of all characters, which is fascinating since he is the least present throughout the novel. His character is revealed to the audience through the description of “his eyes like pale wooden eyes” (Faulkner, 1957, p. 18). This represents Gem’s unyielding strength and reliability, which appears throughout the unique, supported by the commitment and hard work needed to purchase his horse. Another example of this is Darl explaining Jewel’s eyes as “alert and tough” (Faulkner, 1957, p. 146). Tull describes Gem as having eyes that “look like pieces of a broken plate” (Faulkner, 1957, p. 26). This represents Jewel’s brokenness at his mom’s death along with his hard and cold nature towards the rest of his household. The description of Addie’s eyes likewise provides important insight into the story. Addie’s death is described as her eyes being “2 flames [that] glare up for a consistent instant. Then they head out as thought someone had actually leaned down and blown upon them” (Faulkner, 1957, p. 48). The contrast between Addie and a flame shows her untamed nature that broke throughout her life with Anse. When the flame goes out, it signifies her life ending along with completion to her untamed spirit. The description of Dewey Dell’s eyes supplies more insight into her selfish nature than to her sensations on her mother’s death. However, Dewey Dell’s selfishness reveals her lack of appreciating her mom due to her own problems. Her eyes are typically described by associations with dark and dangerous items. The Bundren’s neighbor describes her as having eyes like “handguns” (Faulkner, 1957, p 115). This alludes to her anger and distrust of anybody due to her secret pregnancy. Dewey Dell’s eyes are also described “as black a pair of eyes as ever” seen (Faulkner, 1957, p. 199). The color black signifies the worry and regret she feels at her unwanted pregnancy, as well as grieving for her mother’s death. Through comprehensive usage of color symbolism and allusions to eyes, Faulkner grants insight into the character of the characters.

The tension in between Jewel and Darl is the puzzling conflict of the book which causes the reader’s understanding of how household bonds impact the ability to withstand after the loss of a member of the family. The most apparent example of this stress is Jewel’s continuous presence in Darl’s stories. This is evidence of Darl’s abnormal fixation with his more youthful brother. According to Elizabeth Hayes, the dispute is a result of Addie’s favoritism towards Jewel and his aversion to Darl (Hayes, 1992, p. 5). Another example of family ties connecting to a death is Gem’s absence of narratives after the death of Addie. His voice exists through the undependable word of Darl. Gem’s mom was the only thing that connected him to the rest of the household. Born out of an affair, he was not completely associated with Darl or any other family member, which resulted in his evident distance and coldness from the rest of his household. The strained, edgy dialogue in between the 2 brothers likewise shows this stress. Gem and Darl’s conflict ultimately leads to Darl’s alienation from the household that might mainly be responsible for his madness. This shows that household ties partake in a person’s capability to remain logical after a terrible loss.

The textual voice of each character reveals his or her emotional stability and composure, which exposes his or her strength after losing the matriarch of the household. Faulkner varies his use of italics, punctuation, paragraphing and speaker identification to enhance his uses of textual voice (Hayes, 1992, p. 1). In the beginning of the novel, Darl emerges as the most rational character as his language is controlled and punctuated, but as he loses control of language it appears that he is likewise losing control of his peace of mind. An example of Darl’s shift in textual voice exists in his last monologue when his tense switches between very first and 3rd individual. His rambling, “yes, yes, yes, yes, yes”, proves his shift in textual voice, which mirrors his shift in psychological and frame of mind (Faulkner, 1957, p. 253). Jewel’s brief, enthusiastic monologues reveal that he handles his mom’s loss through violent thoughts and actions (Delville, 1994, p. 2). Vardaman’s illogical train of idea, such as his well-known quote “My mother is a fish,” reflects his confusion and inability to comprehend his mother’s death (Faulkner, 1957, p. 84). Each character’s narrative voice reveals how she or he is dealing with Addie’s death.

Faulkner enhances the reader’s understanding on the Bundren household’s ability to manage loss through animal metaphors, eye significance, character tensions, and textual voice. The multi-narrator, stream of consciousness design of writing provides the reader with a restricted, choppy, and undependable story. Faulkner compensates for this through his usage of literary devices. “Animetaphors” give a sense of the character’s body language, while the meaning of eyes links the character and emotions of the characters. Both of these qualities associate with how the private characters handle the loss of the matriarch of the family. Character tensions mention the pressure sustained by member of the family in the face of a loss. It is evident in As I Lay Dying that the loss of a family member draws out the worst in everybody, so it is rational that there tends to be more conflicts and aggravations within the family unit throughout the mourning procedure. Considering that the first-person perspective is mainly undependable, Faulkner makes use of textual voice to reveal the psychological stability of each character. In the unique As I Lay Passing away, Faulkner effectively develops the epitome of a Southern Gothic novel that shows every element of the loss of a loved one.

Works Cited

Delville, Michael. (1994 ). “Alienating language and Darl’s narrative consciousness in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.” The Southern Literary Journal, 27.1. Obtained from http://www.go.galegroup.com

Faulkner, William. (1957 ). As I Lay Passing away. New York, NY: Vintage International.

Hayes, Elizabeth. (1992 ). “Stress between Darl and Jewel.” The Southern Literary Journal, 24.2. Retrieved from http://go.gale.group.com

White, Christopher. (2008 ). “The modern magnetic animal: As I Lay Dying and the exceptional Zoology of modernism.” Journal of Modern Literature, 31.3. Recovered from http://gogalegroup.com

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