One of William Faulkner’s most celebrated qualities is his inventiveness. As I Lay Dying has fifteen unique narrators, one of them a dead woman, and the novel avoids traditional ideas of linear and chronological structure. Faulkner’s style demands that his readers are aware of his multi-faceted process of seeing a story: if he tells the events in four or five different ways, it is because he knows the reader can imagine twenty. The evolution of Faulkner’s stories grows past the creation process and into the fabric of the novels themselves. In As I Lay Dying, each character’s interpretation of the events represents a different facet of grief, sorrow, confusion, and countless other emotions. As each individual character shifts from actor to narrator, his or her description of an event becomes just as important as the action. Several examples described here serve to illustrate this characteristic of the novel.
First, in the eighteenth section Cash lists thirteen reasons why he constructed the coffin on the bevel. While some of his reasons are justifications of why the bevel is better, other lines seem to have very little significance. They are all important, however. The beginning lines are mostly related to carpentry: they discuss surface gripping space, nailing, and water runoff. The following lines relate the bevel itself with the vertical or horizontal position of a body. The sixth line is simply “except,” and the next line challenges the fourth and fifth lines before discussing “animal magnetism” in the seventh and eight lines. Then, the following reasons explain how a beveled coffin looks when placed in the ground. But Cash’s conclusion is in the last lines: beveling is better, so he did it.
Cash’s ideas on carpentry are closely tied to his personal philosophy. He believes that if things are done “on the line,” they will be successful, and therefore, better. His succinct bullet points speak to the orderliness of his character, but the items suggest that he has considered more than simply practical points in his construction of the coffin. The mention of animal magnetism-the attraction between animate objects as well as between animate and inanimate objects- suggests that Cash is considering the importance of Addie’s harmony with her surroundings. Animal magnetism is not a rational idea, but its mention suggests that Cash has taken into consideration how bodies interact with each other. Ironically, the lack of animal magnetism between the members of the Bundren family is striking: the entire family is estranged in some way. Darl, Anse, and Addie, specifically, are at a loss as to how to interact with others. Vardaman, not fully connecting with the events in the novel, lashes out. But Cash is the disciplined perfectionist (shown again in his exact knowledge of the distance he fell from the church roof) working on his masterpiece in his mother’s coffin. He invests all of his energies into this project, revealing his deep affection for her.
Cash’s narrative in the thirty-eighth section is two sentences: “It wasn’t on balance. I told them that if they wanted to tote it and ride on a balance, they would have to.” Even in his state of delirium, he is still devoted to the rules of carpentry like a religion: the answer to all lies in “balance” and “line.” When things are unbalanced, or out of line, they are doomed; if they are balanced and on line, then they will succeed. While it is obvious that no amount of balance would have helped the Bundrens cross the river, Cash still insists on this belief. Just as carpentry is Cash’s religion and Addie’s coffin is his masterpiece, the tools with which he made the coffin are like the weapons he uses to defend Addie, and their eventual loss is symbolic of emasculation.
The children’s differing responses to Addie’s death each reflect an aspect of their characters. Cash’s deadpan, mechanical list discussing the bevel seems at first a sign of coldness, or even, simple-mindedness, but his decision to assemble the coffin in front of Addie’s window is a touching and beautiful gesture of his love and dedication. In contrast, Jewel, his mother’s favorite, remains completely uncommunicative throughout the novel, as his he is the only Bundren child whose narrative does not follow after Addie’s death. While Dewey Dell speaks frequently, her thoughts are consumed with her own problem of pregnancy. She laments this inability to focus but feels powerless to change it. Vardaman’s struggle to understand the nature of his mother’s death reflects his sense of isolation more than his physical age. Cash and Jewel’s fierce desires to take care of Addie highlight not only their rivalry, but also their personalities and approaches to solving problems. While Cash cradles her, and later risks his life save the coffin, Jewel boldly wants to take her across the river on his horse.
One of the primary themes of As I Lay Dying is that sanity is not only frequently unsteady, but also unsteadily defined. Cash claims that sanity is defined by the community’s opinion of a person or event. For Faulkner, the distinction between sanity and insanity becomes a social construct. Darl, the martyred intellectual, is the most philosophically sophisticated, but regarded as insane. Characters in Faulkner’s stories are often overwhelmed by the problems and magnitude of themselves, the region, and the world. By approaching this question from the highly varied, deeply personal angle he assumes in As I Lay Dying, Faulkner allows the reader to consider the fluidity and varying degrees of sanity.