In William Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying, the dysfunctional Bundren family embarks on a telling journey from their farm in Yoknapatawpha County to bury their recently deceased and unmatronly matriarch, Addie. Composed of 59 sections narrated by 15 different people, Faulkner’s novel is a display of man’s primal selfishness told through many different streams of consciousness that more often than not reveal contradictory information. By utilizing this technique and deliberately withholding meaning from the reader, Faulkner constantly develops his story and comments on society’s obsession with absolute truths while, also, forcing the reader to become more active.
From the novel’s beginning, Faulkner establishes that the reader will not have things explained for them in an orderly way and must synthesize, on their own, what is presented. Darl, the first narrator, opens the tale with an account of a strange procession where he “turns and follows the path which circles the house” while Jewel, who has been given no background information either, “looking straight ahead, steps in a single stride through the window” with the “rigid gravity of a cigar store Indian dressed in patched overalls” (4). The scene seems ritualistic but, at the same time, puzzling and random to the reader who is left without any explanation. This absence of information used by Faulkner, effectively, draws the reader into the story and makes them more involved as they must try and make sense of the events instead of taking a passive role.
Additionally, Faulkner’s use of stream of consciousness emphasizes the reality that everyone’s perception is unique and biased, but also accepted as the absolute truth by the holder. A prime example of this is Darl’s assertion that Addie’s coffin, which is being made right outside her window and she dies, will give her “confidence and comfort” (5). On the other hand, Jewel criticizes the coffin making and scorns the “others sitting [by Addie], like buzzards” for being insensitive and cold (15). Both sons believe wholeheartedly in their opinions and do not doubt for a second that they are wrong. This contradictory distorted reality leads the reader to a state of skepticism where they never know who to trust. All of Faulkner’s characters are biased and, thus, all their narratives can be taken only as opinion. Another example of the character’s immensely varied outlooks on life is when Addie’s coffin falls in the river. While the youngest Bundren, Vardaman, repeatedly asserts that his mother is a fish, Anse complains about the hardships he has faced in life and decides that the fact that he will soon “get them teeth… will be a comfort” (111). Although both family members are experiencing the same situation, neither reacts to it in any way similar to the other. By using stream of consciousness, Faulkner directly illustrates to the reader each narrator’s organic thoughts and how they justify them. Ultimately, this can be extended as a universal observation by Faulkner of the human world- all individuals have a unique interpretation on the world and what is truth to one, may not necessarily be truth to another.
Lastly, Faulkner uses outsiders and their actions to reveal information that is left out by the family. On their way to Jefferson, the Bundren wagon passes a group of pedestrians and Darl notes:
We hear sudden voices, ejaculant. Jewel has been looking from side to side; now his head turns forward and I can see his ears taking on a still deeper tone of furious red. Three negroes walk beside the road ahead of us; ten feet ahead of them a white man walks. When we pass the negroes their heads turn suddenly with that expression of shock and instinctive outrage. “Great God,” one says: “what they got in that wagon?” (229)
Their reaction, which is an unsurprising reply to being met with the smell of a rotting corpse, strangely enrages Jewel who pulls a knife on the group. However, this incidence, also, serves as a reminder to the reader of the absurdity of the situation that the Bundrens are in and, additionally, that the Bundrens lack objectivity to their situation. The brush with outsiders who notice that the coffin reeks adds detail to the story that would have been absent had it been only an account of the lone family. Moreover, it highlights the grander truth that many find it difficult to see and understand things from another’s point of view.
Throughout the novel, Faulkner withholds meaning and explanations- choosing to make the reader infer for themself or wait for the details that are slowly revealed as the story progresses. In doing so, Faulkner forces readers into becoming immersed in his story that utilizes the “steam of consciousness” narrative which, ultimately, emphasizes that every experience produces unique reactions from different people.