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


“My mother is a fish” is possibly the most popular quote from William Faulkner’s Southern Gothic novel, As I Lay Passing away (Faulkner, 1957, p. 84). William Cuthbert Faulkner was born in 1897 in Oxford, Mississippi. The setting of As I Lay Dying, along with a lot of his other novels, looks like the bucolic nature of his hometown. He embodies his home town through the fictional setting, Yoknapatawpha, that is consistent throughout all of his stories. Faulkner is well-known for creating the category know as Southern Gothic, which exemplifies Southern culture and custom. He established this category of writing through his speculative writing, such as the numerous storytellers experienced in As I Lay Passing away. Faulkner’s stories do not try to represent the charm in southern culture, but the practical, negative parts. This likewise assists to develop the gothic nature of his works. Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying, is the embodiment of a Southern gothic writing and is a fantastic contribution to Southern literature. Faulkner makes use of As I Lay Dying to address the pressure placed on household ties throughout a close death. Faulkner utilizes animal metaphors, eye significance, character stress, and textual voice to show an individual’s ability to handle the loss of a loved one.

Faulkner uses animal symbolism to optimize communication between the narrator and the reader to expose the characters’ emotion. Faulkner expertly juxtaposes the main characters and animals to reveal essential attributes. Anse is compared to a “dipped rooster,” Jewel’s mother is specified to be a horse, and Vardaman claims his mom is a fish (White, 2008, p. 1). Using these “animetaphors” invigorates the language and boosts the reader’s understanding of how each character sees the loss of Addie (White, 2008, p. 1). Because the book provides only the inner ideas of the narrator, the observations and descriptions of the animals allow a sense of body language. Every main character works out an animal metaphor in a different way. Dewey Dell’s description of the cow reveals her heightened sense of perceptiveness due to her pregnancy (White, 2008, p. 7). She relates her psychological and physical state to that of the cow by her chiding, “You’ll just need 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 good example, even if her ideas on the topic are selfish. Moreover, Darl’s description of the “unrestrained and inarticulate” mules not only juxtaposes with his “exquisitely regulated language”, but also foreshadows his descent into madness (White, 2008, p. 7). Faulkner’s employment of animal symbols and metaphors produces a deeper understanding of the characters’ emotional states and abilities.

Faulkner uses another kind of symbolism to demonstrate the specific 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 given that he is the least present throughout the novel. His personality is revealed to the audience through the description of “his eyes like pale wooden eyes” (Faulkner, 1957, p. 18). This symbolizes Gem’s unyielding strength and dependability, which appears throughout the novel, supported by the commitment and hard work needed to buy his horse. Another example of this is Darl explaining Gem’s eyes as “alert and hard” (Faulkner, 1957, p. 146). Tull explains Gem as having eyes that “appear like pieces of a damaged plate” (Faulkner, 1957, p. 26). This signifies 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 also supplies crucial insight into the story. Addie’s death is described as her eyes being “2 flames [that] glare up for a consistent instant. Then they go out as thought somebody had actually leaned down and blown upon them” (Faulkner, 1957, p. 48). The contrast in between Addie and a flame reveals her untamed nature that broke during her life with Anse. When the flame heads out, it signifies her life ending in addition to the end to her untamed spirit. The description of Dewey Dell’s eyes provides more insight into her self-centered nature than to her feelings on her mother’s death. However, Dewey Dell’s selfishness reveals her absence of appreciating her mother due to her own issues. Her eyes are typically explained by associations with dark and unsafe items. The Bundren’s next-door neighbor explains her as having eyes like “handguns” (Faulkner, 1957, p 115). This alludes to her anger and distrust of anyone due to her secret pregnancy. Dewey Dell’s eyes are also explained “as black a pair of eyes as ever” seen (Faulkner, 1957, p. 199). The color black signifies the worry and remorse she feels at her unwanted pregnancy, as well as mourning for her mom’s death. Through substantial use of color meaning and allusions to eyes, Faulkner grants insight into the personality of the characters.

The tension in between Gem and Darl is the cryptic conflict of the novel which results in the reader’s understanding of how family bonds affect the ability to endure after the loss of a relative. The most apparent example of this tension is Jewel’s constant presence in Darl’s stories. This is evidence of Darl’s unnatural fixation with his more youthful bro. According to Elizabeth Hayes, the conflict is a result of Addie’s favoritism towards Jewel and his aversion to Darl (Hayes, 1992, p. 5). Another example of family ties relating to a death is Jewel’s absence of stories after the death of Addie. His voice exists through the unreliable word of Darl. Gem’s mother was the only thing that linked him to the remainder of the family. Substantiated of an affair, he was not completely related to Darl or any other member of the family, which led to his evident range and cold from the rest of his household. The stretched, edgy discussion in between the 2 siblings also proves this stress. Gem and Darl’s conflict eventually causes Darl’s alienation from the household that could mainly be accountable for his insanity. This shows that household ties take part in an individual’s capability to remain logical after a traumatic loss.

The textual voice of each character exposes his or her emotional stability and composure, which reveals his or her strength after losing the matriarch of the household. Faulkner varies his use of italics, punctuation, paragraphing and speaker recognition to enhance his usages of textual voice (Hayes, 1992, p. 1). In the start of the unique, Darl becomes the most logical character as his language is managed and punctuated, but as he loses control of language it is evident that he is also 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 in 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 expose that he deals with his mother’s loss through violent thoughts and actions (Delville, 1994, p. 2). Vardaman’s illogical train of idea, such as his popular quote “My mom is a fish,” shows his confusion and failure to comprehend his mom’s death (Faulkner, 1957, p. 84). Each character’s narrative voice reveals how he or she is managing Addie’s death.

Faulkner boosts the reader’s understanding on the Bundren family’s ability to manage loss through animal metaphors, eye significance, character tensions, and textual voice. The multi-narrator, stream of awareness design of writing presents the reader with a limited, choppy, and unreliable story. Faulkner makes up for this through his usage of literary gadgets. “Animetaphors” offer a sense of the character’s body movement, while the symbolism 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 strain withstood by family members in the face of a loss. It is evident in As I Lay Dying that the loss of a family member brings out the worst in everyone, so it is sensible that there tends to be more conflicts and disappointments within the family unit throughout the grieving procedure. Considering that the first-person perspective is largely undependable, Faulkner uses textual voice to reveal the emotional stability of each character. In the novel As I Lay Passing away, Faulkner successfully develops the epitome of a Southern Gothic novel that demonstrates every element of the loss of a loved one.

Works Mentioned

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

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

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

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

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