The Subversion of the Epic in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is a modernist masterpiece, where most of the conventions of the epic genre are overthrown. Traditionally, an epic poem was a narrative account of the exploits of a great hero. As a rule, the epic was concerned with a set of incredible adventures, in which the hero had to take part in order to attain a state of awakening and transformation.
Therefore, the epic had a highly symbolic content, focusing on major truths about life or humanity in general. The tribulations undergone by the hero had as the ultimate purpose his spiritual purification and advancement. Usually, the work would culminate with the hero’s initiating journey and his descent into the underworld, which served to give him a fresh perspective on life. The epic also celebrated the victory of good against evil and verified the validity of well-known facts about existence.
By contrast, Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying, seems to focus on the absurd adventure of a poor family, carrying a dead body to a specific burial site. The subject of Faulkner’s novel, its alembicated narrative structure and its daring language all seem to be grotesque rather than sublime.
The author deconstructs of the traditional narrative mode and substitutes the epic hero with a common, poor family on a solemn but petty mission. However, as it shall be seen, Faulkner’s subversion of the traditional epic form does not deplete the work of profound meaning and symbolism. In a grotesque replica of the conventional grand narrative, the writer gives a poignant representation of life as seen and understood by the modern eye. With highly unusual tools, Faulkner opens the doors of perception into the hidden realities of human existence. The constantly shifting and chameleonic language of the text serves to hide or destroy meaning, rather than disclose it. Thus, Faulkner seeks to demonstrate that the relationship of the self with the world and of the ontological with the epistemological is constantly mined by the linguistic factor. The sublime purpose and unique meaning of a traditional work is here paralleled by the fogginess and uncertainty of language.
Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying completely dismantles the unity of action and theme which characterizes the traditional epic. At first sight, the Bundrens’ saga appears to be solely a mock imitation of the conventional epic. The family sets out on a farcical and complicated voyage to Jefferson, carrying the corpse of the dead matron, Addie, who expressed her wish to be buried in the aforementioned town. Moreover, the traditionally unique hero is replaced here by the disparate and haranguing voices of the main characters in the story. The omniscient narrator of the epic is supplanted by multiple points of view, which hack the narrative into fragmentary monologues. It is at the linguistic level that most of the experience of the family is concentrated. Lacking an authorial voice, the narrative is supported only by the stream of consciousness of the characters. Faulkner molds each of the monologues so as to suit each speaker. Thus, the same event is perceived in different ways by the multiple voices. However, the plurality is not only interpretational but also experiential, each of the personages being able to live the experience of Addie’s death in a different way. While the narrative is apparently centered on the single event of the mother’s disappearance and her funerary, the story seems to expand infinitely due to the many different perspectives which are incorporated into it. Of the many voices present in the narrative, that of Darl is clearly the most heard and the one which seems to stand for a poetic point of view in the novel. Darl’s tragic end is all the more significant in this context. Being ostracized and betrayed by his own family, who proclaim him mad in order to escape punishment for incinerating Gillespie’s barn, Darl and his voice are completely annihilated. Thus, the only voice which seemed to resemble the traditional author in the novel is mutes and the text is further deprived of the possibility to mean and be coherent. The fact that he is eventually considered to be mad for setting the barn of fire further hints at the lack of coherence and meaninglessness of the world. The mosaic of voices in the text and the defeat of the single authorial instance indicate the chronic absence of sense in the world described by Faulkner. Unlike the traditional epic where the great deeds of the hero amounted to the victory of good over evil, here, Faulkner shows that unity of meaning and omniscience are logical impossibilities. The shifting language of the narrative points to the idea that truth can have as many faces as it has linguistic expressions.
Also, there are other aspects of Faulkner’s novel which subvert the traditional epic. For instance, the initiating journey, which constitutes the centre of the book, parallels that in the epic. The road, which appears obsessively in both Darl’s and Anse’s monologues, is not a means of enlightenment here. In his first monologue, Anse proclaims his indignation with respect to the obstacles posed by the road: “Durn that road. And it fixing to rain, too. I can stand here and same as see it with second-sight, a-shutting down behind them like a wall, shutting down betwixt them and my given promise” (Faulkner 10). Indeed, the series of misfortunes that accompanies the funeral procession of the Bundren family seems to be caused by the difficult journey. According to Anse’s philosophy, men are not meant to be travelers and spend their time journeying, precisely because they were created as vertical beings: “But I told her it want no luck in it, because the Lord put roads for travelling: why He laid them down flat on the earth. When He aims for something to be always a-moving, He makes it longways, like a road or a horse or a wagon, but when He aims for something to stay put, He makes it up-and-down ways, like a tree or a man. And so he never aimed for folks to live on a road, because which gets there first, I says, the road or the house?”(Faulkner 10). The traditional journey is replaced by an arduous and absurd endeavor to transport the dead body over impractical roads, a river, bad weather and the race against time and the laws of nature which made the body decay. The symbolic ascent and descent of the cart pulled by mules alludes to the tortuous course of human existence in general:“Life was created in the valleys. It blew up onto the hills on the old terrors, the old lusts, the old ‘despairs. That’s why you must walk up the hills so you can ride down” (Faulkner 71).Ultimately, the trip is successful and the mission accomplished, but the family has to sacrifice Darl for this purpose.
Another important difference between the traditional epic and As I Lay Dying is given by the result of the quest. In an epic work, the hero usually obtains a significant victory which has a broader meaning. Here, while the body is eventually taken to its destination, the solemnity of the moment is undermined by the father’s hasty remarriage. The book significantly ends with a new marriage and a quick replacement for the dead Addie. The situation seems to corroborate Darl’s philosophy of life, which stresses the fact that the beginning of life is marked by a pair of separate people, while its end only requires one individual: “It takes two people to make you, and one people to die. That’s how the world is going to end” (Faulkner 11). Anse’s remarriage is thus an announcement of life beginning but also an ironic interpretation of the vulnerability of the individual.
As I Lay Dying subverts both the language and the structure of traditional epic narratives, bringing to light a new way of looking at the world. On the modern scene single interpretations and coherent answers are no longer possible. To stress this point, Faulkner’s narrative plays with all the elements of epic and points to the ultimate impossibility to attain either ontological or epistemological completeness.
Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. New York: Modern Library, 1972.
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