Paradox and the human psyche in William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying"

Seminar Paper, 2006

10 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents


Problems of the Human Psyche in Modernity

Trapped in Both Isolation and Community

Trapped Between Life ans Death

Obscurity and the Construction of Reality / Comedy


Works cited


Full of opposing thoughts and paradox situations, Faulkner’s Southern gothic novel As I Lay Dying succeeds in making a philosophical statement about the absurdity of life, smiling upon the desperation and futility of the characters and their actions, but at the same time causing a feeling of sympathy in the reader for what they are prepared to endure. Concerning Faulkner’s recurring themes, Leary explained that they were inspired by the “depth of his compassion toward people who struggled and wrangled, destroying each other and themselves, but whose indomitable spirit would not only endure, but finally prevail.”[1]

Forcing upon themselves the illusion that their odyssee be morally inspired, the Bundren family carry their mother’s corpse on a dangerous journey to Jefferson, where she wished to be buried with her ancestors. All but Darl, the only family member who has not fallen victim to insanity, insist that they proceed in the execution of Addie Bundren’s will, despite all obstacles they encounter, not noticing that the grotesque events and circumstances have long stripped the journey and their omnipresent mother of their dignity.

Despite the work’s popularity and status as a classic, it is not easy to make sense of the novel’s bizarre plot – neither is it unproblematic to understand what is happening in the first place. To explore the themes of the novel and suggest interpretations of the characters’ attitudes towards life shall be the topic of this essay, especially with respect to the formal structure and narrative technique applied. This will include a discussion on how Faulkner has created a picture of the human psyche and how this seems to be dominated by controversial thoughts, and how he portrays the struggle of human life as closely connected with the paradox of being in an uncertain state of existence: in between “a dying life and an active death.”[2] Finally, it shall be explained why the novel is, after all, still a comedy – and a difficult though worthy read.

Problems of the Human Psyche in Modernity

Written shortly after the stock market crash in 1929, As I Lay Dying can be interpreted as a reflection of problems that were commonly addressed in modern works. Of course the novel is not set in an urban or industrial area like other modern classics such as Manhattan Transfer, neither does it talk about the threat of technology or promote expressionist ideas in romanticizing a life hand in hand with nature. Though missing these criteria that human conflict in modernity is often associated with, it shows a world “in moral confusion. It does suffer from a lack of discipline, of sanctions, of community of values, of a sense of mission.”[3] The problems depicted are not to be confused with Faulkner criticizing a common lack of religion, since Faulkner was not a friend of the church. As in many of his other works he expresses his views on this topic in the hypocrisy of Brother Whitfield, who proves, when revealed to be Jewel’s father, not to be too virtuous. Yet coming back to Warren’s quote, one could talk about the modern problem of the absence of a God, and the uncertainty about one’s purpose in the world, one’s role within society, the absurdity of one’s existence and the vain search for an explanation for life resulting from this. Darl, the only character to whom the journey is neither spiritual nor rewarding, expresses such ideas in a very poetical manner: “ How do our lives ravel out into the no-wind, no-sound, the weary gestures wearily recapitulant: echoes of old compulsions with no-hand on no-strings: in sunset we fall into furious attitudes, dead gestures of dolls."[4] As Warren further puts it, Faulkner offers a nostalgic view upon the world of traditional values that is now lost, “upon the world in which, as one of Faulkner’s characters puts it, men ‘had the gift of living once or dying once instead of being diffused and scattered creatures drawn blindly from a grab bag and assembled.’”[5]

Trapped in Both Isolation and Community

Darl’s quote leads onto another aspect concerning the human psyche and another cause for the feeling of alienation that both the characters and the reader may feel from time to time: “dead gestures of dolls” may not only be seen in the context of bodily expressions, but also as the emptiness of words and the difficulty of communicating what one truly thinks and feels, the unsatisfactory medium of language that can not overcome the separateness of people. “Isolated consciousness is a condition of life – trapped, as human beings are, in separate bodies and minds – and it is a harsh burden for all to carry.”[6]


[1] Leary, 37

[2] Bleikasten, 115

[3] Warren, 80

[4] As I Lay Dying, 207

[5] ibid

[6] Weiskel, 46

Excerpt out of 10 pages


Paradox and the human psyche in William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying"
University of Bayreuth
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Paradox, William, Faulkner, Dying
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Swantje Tönnies (Author), 2006, Paradox and the human psyche in William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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