Critiquing a Critic: A second look at "As I Lay Dying"

by Gayla Nelson

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Reading this novel brings with it a variety of emotional responses. It sometimes goes from the sublime to the absurd.  The characters are fascinating and different from any other characters I have ever experienced by any writer. In order to better understand this story, I did my research.  I found “Faulknerian Tragedy: The Example of As I Lay Dying” by Robert Merrill to be an excellent criticism and analysis of the book. 

Initially, I had trouble really placing As I Lay Dying into the tragedy category, but Merrill’s analysis of it as “an unusual version of modern tragedy” indicates that it is important to keep in mind that tragedy “walks a tightrope between the bizarre and the terrible."  This did help me see it as such.  Merrill does see Darl as insane, and I really did not see him that way, but rather as more of an isolated individual who was ultimately powerless and as someone who played the role of head of the family instead of  his own father. I am sure part of my opinion was also based on the fact that  so much of the book was written from Darl’s perspective.  He seemed sane to me considering the events that unfolded around him.  Obviously, Merrill has studied this character far more than I have, so I will bow to his opinion rather than challenge it since the rest of his analysis was so accurate in my opinion. That is the beauty of critiques.  They do help us understand that our initial perceptions may not be entirely accurate.

The comedy that permeates this novel is crucial to it.  Without it, the book would be so utterly depressing as to make it unbearable reading.  One of the most bizarre aspects of it, in my opinion, was the building of the coffin right under Addie’s window.  I am a visual person by nature and that image has stayed with me since reading this book.  The idea that Cash drills the holes in it is humorous to me now, but at the time, I remember wondering to myself if this entire family was just downright mentally retarded. It makes the statement that the dysfunctional family are not a “new condition,” but have been here since the beginning of time. 

Merrill sees this balance between the tragic and the comic as deliberate and that neither component can be emphasized or the entire balance of it falls apart.   Writers who can achieve this balance amaze me.  As an undergraduate at Cameron University, I took a semester course in Faulkner.  This was in the 1970’s and unfortunately I have forgotten much of the course, but I do remember being impressed by Faulkner and his ability to bring characters to life.  We did not study As I Lay Dying, but I do recall discussing, in class, Faulkner’s ability to make his reader sensitive to impending doom, almost from the beginning.  Even as you would be chuckling over an event, or something a character said, you knew that soon the other shoe was going to drop and something really terrible was going to happen. Faulkner always has a victim.  

Whether they are self-victimized or not, tragedy is caused by forces outside their control, and the reader knows it’s going to happen; that it is just a matter of time. What an exercise in the study of character!  We look for clues to discern the truth of this question with every character.  One thing is certain.  Faulkner had a gift of making characters appear so real that his novels come alive and have as much impact on readers today as they have ever have.  I believe that As I Lay Dying truly is deserving of the title of “The Great American Novel.”

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