Dying the American Family in Faulkner Research Proposal

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The American Family in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying

The transitional period between the Jazz Age and the Great Depression was an inflection point in American history. The promise and excess of the American Dream were subsiding, revealing in their broken place a great deal of exploited, neglected and excluded people. It is their struggle which concerned many of the period's most important literary figures. William Faulkner, a working class resident of the Mississippi that he discussed in so much of his work, would serve as an important vessel for illuminating the story of America's sad underside. In 1930, with the nation's economy collapsing and widespread poverty causing massive rural suffering, places such as Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County would be tragically revealing of the results of a failing capitalist society.

The fallout of the Depression would have a serious impact on the living standards, emotional state and collective stability for families trying to live in places such as Faulkner's home county. In his 1930 modernist work, As I Lay Dying, the author provides one of his most unsettling and bleak, but simultaneously one of his most horribly humorous narrative discussion on the topic.

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The chosen vehicle for Faulkner's critique of a society inclined toward an emotionally crippling insensitivity both within and without of the family unit is the Bundren family. Mourning the death of their mother, Addie, the Bundren's must cross the flood and fire-ridden trail from their home to Jefferson. The imperatives which cause the family peril and grief are greater than fulfilling the last request of their mother. The full course of events inexorably "moves toward Jefferson, despite all obstacles, set into motion by the Jefferson-raised Addie Bundren's desire for burial in the grave plot of her town father."

Research Proposal on Dying the American Family in Faulkner's as Assignment

But as the story continues forward, various literary elements of Faulkner's novel come to suggest that the journey to inter -- the Bundren matriarch is less inclined by a need to honor the old lady as by a desire to resolve the various conflicts imposed upon them by their conditions. In Faulkner's use of his distinctively American setting, his choice of recurrent symbolism and his challenging stylistic decisions, he creates a work which is effectively critical of American society and its effect on the family unit as well as the individual.

Such work as Faulkner's would have massive social implications at this time. For its frank and unabashed portrayal of the equally pitiable and scorn-worthy family, it would be a vision of America that diverged sharply from the optimistic impressions of writers just a generation prior. One critic describes reading Faulkner's work as "an experience that a lot of Southern boys spend the rest of their lives trying to recover from.' Southern girls, too."

This is a claim which rests primarily in the setting of such stories as the one presently up for discussion. Its grim but unforgiving representation of life in America for the impoverished commoner derives itself from the contention that there is a great unawareness amongst such individuals as to the causes of their circumstances as well as to any possible realities beyond such circumstances. Simultaneously, it is a work which presents to readers of such a disposition the inescapable revelation of the inherent indignities of what had largely come to be accepted as a proper standard of living in a land of opportunity. The constant geographical motion of the Bundren family, the strange emotional dispositions of the family's members and the dramatic series of events which cause either realization or a deepening of emotional protectionism by these figures together create a panorama of the American experience from the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

The ambivalence of the characters is evident in the author himself, who appears divided in his heart throughout the novel. Never quite permitting the characters to grieve their mother but giving them ample opportunity to pity themselves, Faulkner balances a dark tonality with a comic eye in order to remark upon the self-involvement of American individual culture. Beyond this, his propensity to depict an inherently tragic moment in the family's life with such stark cynicism is simultaneously condescending of the subject and humanizing of an emotional disposition which could otherwise appear as rather reptilian in its detachment. Especially in the brutal way he contends with Addie's omnipresent corpse, Faulkner utilizes the desensitized devotion that keeps family members at emotional arm's length while giving them over to bizarrely chosen acts of consideration. Fashioning a coffin for his mother just within her view, Cash reinforces for her the certainty of her own death even as he makes the implicit promise to her that her passing will be honored. This seems a pertinent commentary on the disconnect afflicting the American family unit. The stunted communication, the muted affection and the virtually absent display of regret over these impasses presents a family that is numbed by a culture where mortality, poverty and suffering are daily realities. Even beyond the delineation of his setting through the treacherous cross-county journey of the Bundren family, Faulkner continually reminds the reader of the subtextual America through the distorted irony of his family portrait.

The dark humor which often surfaces in the text helps to establish a detached sense of reality for the Bundren's, offering an arcane explanation for the emotional distance with which each figure initially deals with the passing of the family's matriarch. Vardaman may be an exception only in that his youth gives him over to the most unrestrained response to his mother's passing. Consistent with Faulkner's cynical assessment of the American family unit though, Vardaman's behavior is pure in intent but comically inappropriate. The incident in which he fears the effect of his dead mother being trapped inside a small wooden box is particularly intriguing. The family finds Vardaman next to his mother's coffin, "asleep on the floor like a felled steer, and the top of the box bored clean full of holes and Cash's new auger broke off in the last one. When they taken the lid off her they found that two of them had bored on into her face."

A startling but plainly delivered declaration, Vardaman's innocently informed effort to provide his mother with ventilation results in the defacement of her corpse. Horrific and humorous in a single breath, Faulkner's story reflects a gothic sensibility that is yet affixed to a rural, dustbowl American culture. This mix conspires to draw a tragedy that may almost pass as a satire. Still, the explicitness of despair facing his characters suggests that the dramatic elements of 'As I Lay Dying,' are intended to provide a spare and unflinching narrative of a personal and humiliating but common American disposition.

And it would be Faulkner's stylistically unique approach to the text that would distinguish his depiction of an American family. An author writing in an evolving form that would come to be known as modernist, Faulkner would break ground for his experimental narrative approach. With alternating chapters presenting first-person recollections of the story's events, Faulkner breaks away from a mold that might imbue the book with the prejudicial perspective of an omniscient narrative voice. Instead, he endorses the collectivist ideology in the subtext of his novel by delivering it through numerous individual voices. Each of these is less a character than a lens through which to view the events in the novel's universe. Their southern dialects, stunted abilities to express themselves effectively and the dominance of the prosaic in their lives converge to suggest an ideology at the center of Faulkner's work.

As a critic examining Faulkner's work explains, "ideology's focus is partly epistemological, addressing how or why we 'know' what we know, and partly ontological, addressing what we do and how we do it."

Faulkner's modernist style fulfills both of these impulses by delivering an ideology… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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