In William Faulkner's novel As I Lay Dying, identity is ambiguous, fragile, and changeable. The story begins by introducing a very ill Addie Bundren, whose dying wish is to be buried in a faraway town of Jefferson. Once she died, Addie is put into a coffin, while her husband, Jewel, Darl, and her other children set off for a journey to fill Addie's dying wish. However, their trip is loaded with various obstacles, whether it is trouble while crossing the river, or dealing with Cash's broken leg that often slows down the family's journey. Faced with those obstacles and the stench of Addie's rotting corpse, the Bundren family members are forced to deal with their individual frustration, while unknowingly undergo the alteration of identity. When I first read this novel, I was perplexed with the contrasting portrayals of each character. Yet upon contemplation, I realized that such portrayal is what makes As I Lay Dying realistic, and thus able to pierce into the readers' mind. The novel highlights the impossibility to truly understand a person's personality, as everyone has different sides and personas. I was intrigued by Faulkner's realistic way of describing all of the characters, as he does not depict any character as especially good or evil. There are no villains or tragic heroes, but simply normal characters who try to find a sense of purpose, though sometimes without success. As a high school student who often wonders about the concept of identity, I decided to explore to how Faulkner uses a combination of various narrative techniques to explore the psychological complexity of the characters that is revealed beyond verbal communication. By structuring the novel as successive streams of monologues, the readers are faced with the richness of each character's unspoken thoughts and emotions. However, this provides an ambiguous description to the identity of each character, as each monologue expresses its own distinct viewpoint towards another character's action and persona. This narrative style forces the readers to examine techniques such as mute interactions, actions, and interior monologues in order to fully understand the distinctiveness of the portrayal of one's characterization and personality. By exploring the characterization of Jewel through various points of views, Faulkner suggests that identity is subjective according to the perspective of the observer. The alteration of Darl's character that takes place as the novel progresses also conveys how time and pressure are able to distort one's identity. Similarly, the process of Addie's death demonstrates the inevitability of change and the fragility of existence, as in the same way the body disappears, so too, does the soul fades into fractured memory. Therefore, Faulkner utilizes the mutability of characterization to depict the fragility of identity and the vulnerability of human existence.
Due to Jewel's uncommunicative and silent nature, his characterization is defined through his actions, as filtered through the eyes of other characters. For instance, Addie's neighbor, Cora, initially describes Jewel in her interior monologue as someone who is "always doing something that made him some money", instead of being with his mother at her deathbed (20). In this case, Jewel's identity is described as an uncaring and uncommunicative son. However, what Cora does not know, is that Jewel uses the money that he earns to purchase a horse, and take care of it. As Darl states that "Jewel's mother is a horse", the readers are able to understand that for Jewel, the horse represents Addie (86). Through this association, any care that Jewel gives to the horse symbolizes the concern that he offers for Addie. In this context, Faulkner uses the complexity of Jewel's personality to illustrate how assumptions based on one's mindset create a filter that prevents a character from delivering an objective narrative. As a religious housewife, Cora reproving views on Jewel's seemingly materialistic lifestyle cause her opinion to be unconsciously biased towards him. Instinctively, Cora portrays Jewel in a disparaging manner, without considering the reason of his behavior. For instance, she does not understand the underlying meaning of Jewel's affection towards his horse, and thus simply labels him as an "uncaring son". Such biased causes Jewel's identity to be subjective. This same kind of subjectivity is also evident in the point of view Peabody, a doctor, who claims that Addie "never [was] more than 'pack-horses' for Jewel", in a mocking tone (41). There is an irony in this statement, as Peabody also does not understand the importance of a horse to Jewel, and the fact that being portrayed as a horse should not be seen as derogatory. In fact, Darl realizes that the only living creature that Jewel shows devotion to happens to be his horse, as he attends to it regularly. Moreover, as horse symbolizes vigor and strength, Jewel's devotion towards it suggests that he continues to see Addie as a strong willed woman fighting for her life, rather than a sick body. Hence, behind Cora and Peabody's reproving assumptions, Jewel's actions toward his horse reveal the affection that he shows towards his mother, and shapes his identity as a devoted yet somewhat distant son. This contrast between Cora's perception and Darl's observation of Jewel's actions suggests the subjectivity of Jewel's identity.
Furthermore, Jewel's characterization is also depicted through his heroic actions of guarding the coffin during the journey to bury her corpse. Although Jewel was not present during Addie's last breath, he is the one who keeps hold of the coffin and the wagon when crossing the river, and dives into the water to gather Cash's scattered tools that are needed to fix the coffin. The river is "where the motion of the wasted world accelerates just before the final precipice", the final frontier that separates the Bundrens from the next life (133). While Jewel's absence during Addie's dying moment conveys his indifference towards her death, Jewel's action of "diving into the river" suggests that Jewel accompanies Addie during her soul's final moment on earth (148). In this context, this is a more personal gesture of goodbye compared to being a bystander along with his family at witnessing Addie, as she takes her last breath. On the other hand, by keeping hold of the coffin and wagon in the middle of a sweeping current, Jewel offers his protection and respect to the remnants of his mother. The interconnectedness between the symbolism of horse and river helps Faulkner to communicate Jewel's compassion that is not revealed through his distant and reserved façade, or through Cora's and Peabody's disparaging monologues. Therefore, the conflicting notions of Jewel's characterization demonstrate the fragility of identity, as it is subjective, and is depended on the circumstances.
Similarly, the distortion of identity that is caused by anxiety and the passing of time is illustrated by the shift in the portrayal of Darl's character from a silent, yet affectionate thinker into a callous and sarcastic madman. In the exposition of the novel, Cora perceived Darl as "the only one that had any natural affection" towards Addie (17). During Darl's silent interaction with Addie, Cora reflects that "it was between [Addie] and Darl that the understanding and the true love was" (20). In this case, Darl's philosophic mind seems to be able to understand grief that Addie feels as she is dying away. Hence, as Darl demonstrates a "natural affection" between a son and a mother by constantly visiting Addie, his identity is portrayed as a silent yet loving son. However, as time passes, Darl gradually develops a cruel streak towards his brother Jewel, and adopts a narrative style with jumbled words and incongruous nouns that reflects anger and despair towards the condition of his family. Darl mocks Jewel, who is the bastard son of Addie and Whitfield, by repeatedly asking, "Who was your father, Jewel?" (198). Yet by questioning Jewel's identity, Darl does not realize that his own identity has ironically shifted from being an compassionate family member into a sardonic outsider. Darl's change of attitude is mainly caused by the stress that continues to build up, as the Bundrens' journey seems to face endless obstacles, and he feels humiliated by bringing a rotting body into Jefferson. Furthermore, as Darl feels a sense of responsibility in taking care of his family, Cash's rotting leg and the stench of Addie's corpse constantly remind Darl of the family's desperate situation. When the tension that he feels is added to the resentment that he holds toward Jewel because Addie loved Jewel more, Darl lashes out by crudely taunting Jewel of his fatherless status. Darl's lack of control over his emotions demonstrates how his frustration erases his rational thoughts and the "natural affection" that he had. In his frustrated mind, Darl seeks to stop the cycle of putridity by burning a barn. Although fire is destructive, it is able to erase the smell of the rotten stench, which symbolizes the Bundrens' hopelessness, while at the same time ends Addie's disgrace, as she will no longer be paraded as a rotting corpse. Hence, for Darl, the "nimbus of fire" of the barn's incineration promises a purification for the whole family, as it will cremate Addie's corpse, and shake the family out of its stupor of despair (208). On the other hand, it also further emphasizes Darl's irrationality, as barns were seen as a key part of the agricultural industry of that time. By burning the barn without considering its consequences, the readers are able to see how Darl's emotion overpowers his logical thoughts. His family then decides to send Darl to a mental asylum in order to prevent the family from being sued by the Gillespies, who owns the barn. Hence, the deterioration of Darl's character from a responsible, pensive thinker to an emotionally unstable and impulsive actor illustrates the impermanence of one's identity as it is able to deteriorate over time due the pressure and distressing condition of the people around him.
The descent of Addie's character from being portrayed as a strong willed and intelligent woman to a decaying corpse further emphasizes how identity can be easily distorted with the passing of time. During Cora's interior monologues, she claims that "a woman's place is with her husband and children, alive or deadâ€¦ and surrounded by loving faces, carrying the farewell kiss of each loved ones" (19). As the Bundren is a poor southern family with a patriarch culture, Cora argues that a woman's true identity is to always be with her loving family. However, as Addie is lying on her deathbed, her sons and husband are away working, and she lies alone in her room. In this context, Addie's condition prevents her from reaching the expected identity of a true woman, as she is "dying alone, hiding her pride and her broken heart" (19). The concept of "dying alone" suggests a sense of loneliness that is contrasted the warmth of the "farewell kiss" that Cora describes earlier. Furthermore, although Addie is still breathing, Peabody describes her as if "she has been dead these ten days", as "her face is wasted away so that the bones draw just under the skin in white lines" (38, 5). Here, Addie is no longer viewed as a mother or a wife, but rather as a dying entity, regardless of her still beating heart. Whereas the "white lines" and the paleness symbolizes her lack of life, the metaphor of "wasted away" also highlights how her identity is fading, as she is no longer able to do anything. In addition, as Addie dies, she is going to be buried in Jefferson, which is located miles away from her home. The contrast with the belief that "a woman's place is with her husband and children", suggests the loss of Addie's identity, as she is no longer with her family. Hence, Addie's process of dying that is contrasted with the expected identity of a woman illustrates the inevitability of change in one's identity.
Furthermore, just as the identities of these characters are mutable and subjective, Faulkner also conveys the fragility of human existence through describing Addie's death. During the exposition of the novel, Peabody says, "When I was young I believed death to be a phenomenon of the body; now I know it to be merely a function of the mind - and that of the minds of the ones who suffer the bereavement" (38). This remark highlights the inevitability of death, as it suggests that one can still have a living body and yet cease to exist. In this context, Faulkner depicts death as a rather banal occurrence. Just as it is common for someone to feel sorrow and "suffer [from] bereavement", he suggests that death holds no importance. This then infers that the true cause of Addie's death is not so much of her sickness, but it is in fact caused by her grief of being unable to love her coarse husband Anse and the children she bears him. Through her affair with Whitfield, the readers are able to assume that Addie sees marital love and mother hood as nothing more than empty concepts. This conflict between this notion and her conscience or her sense of duty causes her to grieve, as she seems to unable to find her true identity. Hence, by suggesting that one's thoughts have the power to bring someone to death, Faulkner reinforces that human existence can easily be corrupted. The banal portrayal of death is further illustrated by the saying that, "the nihilist say it is the end; the fundamentalists, the beginning; when in reality it is no more than a single tenant or family moving out of a tenement or a town" (38). This description erases any significance to death, as it is neither the end nor the beginning of someone's life, but simply the disappearance of an existence. Moreover, although the image of "a single tenantâ€¦ moving out of a tenement" conveys loneliness, it does not signify any significant loss or any sorrow, as it is simply a natural occurrence that happens periodically. In the end, the disappearance of one's existence is simply a process that is not necessarily worth any grief from either the family that is left behind or the person who is dying. Similarly, the loneliness of one's death is highlighted by Darl's observation that, "it takes two people to make you, and one people to die" (34). While the process of birth and life consists of the interactions of human beings, the process of dying lies solely on the individual. The description that it only takes "one people to die" also implies that a dead man does not need anyone to remember or be a witness for his death, as he will simply "diminish and disappear" (93). The description of "one people to die" also implies the tone of loss and loneliness, as the soul will simply fade into the fractured memories of remaining family members. As one's existence depends solely on memories that are subjective and mutable, Faulkner then reiterates the theme of the mutability of existence.
In addition, Darl's narration of Addie's death demonstrates the instantaneous process of dying: "Her eyes, the life in them; the two flames glare up for a steady instant. Then they go out as though someone had leaned down and blown upon them" (43). Through the metaphor of a candle flame to illustrate Addie's life, Faulkner reiterates the fragility of human lives, as the action of "[blowing] upon" one's life demonstrates how a life force can be easily erased by a seemingly gentle gesture. The imagery of the glaring flame highlights Addie's strong will and determination as she is fighting for a live that is ultimately easily defeated. As it only lasts for an "instant", the readers are able to understand the inevitability of death. And unlike the flame of bonfire that relies on a number of woods, the flame of a candle relies solely on the candle itself. This individuality reiterates the loneliness of the process of one's death, along with its certainty, as there is nothing that can stop it.
The concept of the disappearance of one's existence is reinforced by the reaction of other characters towards Addie's death. Peabody observes that "beneath the quilt she is no more than a bundle of rotten sticks" (39). The use of the words "rotten sticks" instead of bone indicates that Addie is no longer regarded as a human being, but as a decaying object. Her existence has been replaced by a lifeless entity, simply according to how Peabody chooses to describe her. Darl also considers Addie as a non-existent person after her death as he says that, "I cannot love my mother because I have no mother" (86). In this context, as memory is not a trace of one's existence, Faulkner conveys how death is able to completely erase any remaining fragment of one's life, including emotions that people used to hold for them such as love. As Darl also claims that, "If I had one, it is was. And if it was, it can't be is", when describing his mother, the readers are able to see that human existence is depended on how one is regarded by another (91). By using the past tense of to be, Darl implies that she no longer exists in this world, and cannot be referred as an object that continues to exist, whereas the subject "it" instead of "her", suggests how Addie is viewed as a non-existing object yet again. Therefore by regarding Addie as "it is was", Faulkner suggests the control that language has over one's existence. Moreover, the use of symbolic animals that describe Addie implies on how one's existence is subjected to language and the perception of another character. The reliance of existence on language and perception of another character is also emphasized through the use of symbolic animals that describe Addie. As Addie is no longer human, the Bundren children seize on animals as symbols of their deceased mother. At first, Vardaman claims that "my mother is a fish", because like the fish that "is cut up into pieces of not-fish now", Addie has been transformed to a different state than when she was alive (76, 48). In this context, Vardaman associates the transformation of a "fish" into "pieces of not-fish" with the transformation of Addie from a person into an indefinable non-person. However, as Vardaman begins to associate his claim that Addie is a fish with other characters' perception towards Addie, her identity is being altered yet again. Vardaman says that, "Jewel's mother is a horse â€¦ Jewel is my brother â€¦ then mine will have to be a horse too" (90). By this association, Addie's identity as a fish in Vardaman's perspective is distorted into a horse. In effect, Faulkner reemphasizes the mutability of one's identity, even after death. The ultimate loss of Addie's existence is illustrated in the last sentence of the novel, when Anse introduces a new wife and says, "Meet Mrs Bundren" (248). As one's name is ultimately the final trace of an existence, the fact that the title "Mrs Bundren" is passed to another woman suggests that Addie's existence seems to be completely erased at this point. This final transfer offers a haunting message, as it conveys that one's identity can be altered and passed on simply by the casual use of language and the calling of names.
In the midst of this depiction of the impermanence of existence, Faulkner utilizes the notion of an everlasting God and the concept of faith in Him to give humanity a sense of satisfaction and contentment towards their fate. As Cora watches Addie who is lying on her deathbed, Cora states that "the eternal and the everlasting salvation and grace is not upon" Addie (5). "Eternal" and "everlasting" suggest the immortal nature of God and religion; it implies that in the midst of transient lives, religion is seen as the foundation of all existences, as it is steadfast and eternal. As Addie is not a religious person, Cora believes that the absence of God's "grace" in Addie's life causes her to die in anguish and pain. Yet as the word "grace" implies God's gift, Faulkner seems to suggest that the life of any human being, whether they are sinful, atheist, or religious, is in fact a gift from God. This links back to the concept of the inevitability of death, as God has created humans to live as mortals. Furthermore, as Whitfield claims that "eternity is a fearsome thing to face", then perhaps one must be content in the transient nature of existence (106). Hence, Faulkner conveys the role of God and religion as a saving grace that provides resolution and hope for mankind while dealing with the unavoidability of death.
In Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, the ambiguity of one's characterization is utilized to question the nature of identity, and the existence of human lives. Through the complex portrayal Jewel's characterization, and the deterioration of Darl and Addie's character over time, the readers are able to see the mutability of identity. Whereas the contrast between subjective observations in various interior monologues and actions illustrates the fragility of identity, the description of Addie's death suggests the impermanence of existence, as death is a part of the cycle of life. The concept of religion that is embedded in the morality of the characters, balances out the darker theme of death found in this novel. Thus Faulkner is ultimately suggesting that to live one's life to the fullest, one must accept the inevitability of death, as the beauty human lives lies within its transient nature.