Thought and Language in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying

by Jason Voegele

Copyright © Jason Voegele


But we're way beyond waves or particles here. The human mind seems to be collapsing probability structures in the macro as well as the micro...
Which means what?
Bremen tries to find a way to limit the power of the concept to words. He can't.
Gail stares at him.

-- Dan Simmons, The Hollow Man


Human thought often does not take the form of language. People think without words and the mind works with concepts instead of words. Language, on the other hand, is a means of expressing these thoughts. When we hear the word "dog" we think of the four-legged, furry thing that makes the sound we call "bark." But what do we think when we hear a word like "love," or any other word representing an abstract concept? Here the use of language as a medium for expression of thought begins to break down. This is the problem faced by a writer like Willam Faulkner, who uses a stream-of-consciousness technique, which attempts to simulate pure thought patterns directly in language. How can a book, whose only possible means of expressing an idea is through the use of language, express "pure thought," where language is usually absent? In As I Lay Dying, Faulkner disembodies the language from his characters in order to create the thoughts and ideas of the characters in the readers mind.

Faulkner's use of the stream-of-consciousness in this book forces him to resolve the problem of language being an imperfect conveyance of thought. what he does to overcome this problem is to withdraw the language from the character. He uses his own language which can then create these thought's in the mind of the reader. We know the language isn't coming directly from the characters because their narrations use much more complex vocabulary and syntax than does their speech. Therefore, Faulkner must be applying the language, choosing his own words, to express what the characters are thinking. Thus, we get a first-person narration once removed, and we receive the thoughts and ideas of the narrator through the filter of the author's language.

Language's most limited form of expression manifests itself in the character of Vardaman, a young child. Vardaman's ability to use language has not yet fully developed. And although his thoughts may be somewhat simpler than those of an adult, they are no less difficult to express in language. Since Vardaman's use of language is so limited, Faulkner applies words to his thoughts, words theat create in the reader's mind the toughts and impressions that are in Vardaman's. For example, Vardaman is in a stall with a horse, and his perceptions of this horse and his surroundings are written thus:

It is as though the dark were resolving him out of his integrity, into an unrelated scattering of components--snuffings and stampings; smells of cooling flesh and ammoniac hair; an illusion of a coordinated whole...whithin which,...an is different from my is.

Obviously a child as young as Vardaman is incapable of talking, or thinking, in this manner. However, these are Vardaman's perceptions, not his words; those are Faulkner's. Vardaman smells a distinct scent, and his brain registers it. Faulkner then takes this distinct scent and applies to it a word with which the reacer can identify as that certain smell. In this way, the reader can experience what Vardaman does.

This limitation in expression causes the use of abnormal (sometimes nonexistent) words and structure. So, when a character's thoughts are of an abstract nature, Faulkner uses language that would convey that thought to the reader, even if it is not the normal way one would express it. When Darl, who is the narrator of many chapters in the book, hears the sound of an axe striking wood, then, his thoughts are not recorded as "The sound of an axe striking wood." Rather, Faulkner conveys this idea by giving us language (onomatopoeia in this case) that we can interpret as this sound. Darl says (thinks, rather):

I go on to the house followed by the
Chuck. Chuck. Chuck.
of the adze.

Obviously Darl is not thinking the word "chuck" every time the axe strikes, but Faulkner is applying words which stem from Darl's thoughts so that they can be conveyed more directly to the reader.

Even with these techniques, Faulkner's use of language for expression sometimes goes beyond the scope of what words can express. In these instances, the idea is usually related to some other concept for which we have a word. But if Faulkner is to stay true to the pattern of thought of his characters, he cannot use comparisons to express the idea. Instead, he often uses words that don't exist in any technical sense, but are comprehendible to the reader by virtue of their similarity to other words or phrases. In one instance, Addie says "It was not that I could think of myself as no longer unvirgin, because I was three now." The word "unvirgin" is essentially meaningless from the standpoint of everyday usage of language; it does not exist. However, we can all understand what it is Addie is thinking when she says this because this word is similar or related to words representing the same, or similar, concepts. The reason Faulkner uses this invented word rather than a similar pre-existent one is that this word expresses the concept most directly and follows the thought patterns of this character most closely.

In spite of the obvious limitations of language, thought often does take the form of words. It is in these instances that the reader comes closest to the mind of the character; in other words, the words seem to be emanating from the character, rather than being the writer's interpretation of his or her thoughts. This would explain the frequent use of colloquial diction in the book. But this seemingly direct conveyance of thought is actually merely an interpretation. When Jewel says, "It's because he stays out there, right under the window, hammering and sawing on that goddamn box," he isn't really thinking each word, individually, in his head, but he is conceiving the concepts that these words represent. In this case, the language comes closer to being a "thought," but remains detached from it.

Even with disembodied language, language which is separated from the character's thoughts but still represents the ideas, it is sometimes impossible to express a concept in words. People are capable of formulating thoughts beyond what words allow them the power to express. Expression of these particular concepts in words can be achieved only with the use of similes or metaphors: saying this idea is like this... Comparisons, however, fail to convey the exact idea; this gap cannot be overcome. Even giving credence to the idea that thoughts themselves are essentially inexact, begs the question fo whether words and language are capable of expressing them fully. Since metaphors can't be used to express an exact thought of a character, this thought must be represented, if not expressed directly, some other way. This problem is faced by Faulkner when one of his characters, Tull, is thinking of a shape which has no pre-defined name. He says "Cash made it clockshape...", but this metaphoric description fails to create a picture for the reader, so the narration continues "...like this Clock Shape."

NOTE: This image has been botched. I'll soon replace it with one that shows more clearly the shape in question.

This allows Faulkner to portray exactly what his character is thinking. Tull forms this image in his mind, and so that we can see his thoughts more directly, Faulkner allows us to envision this shape by use of a drawn image.

A book's restriction to words hampers somewhat its ability to express thoughts and ideas. In As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner overcomes this limitation by disembodying the language from his characters. In this way, he can express directly what his characters are thinking while still following the patterns of their thoughts. This technique has allowed his novel to beyond the boundaries of words into the realm of ideas.


jason@jvoegele.com
[an error occurred while processing this directive]