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Teaching As I Lay Dying in an elective course at an engineering and science college in the Midwest, I struggle with the same challenges which face all teachers of Faulkner, with some magnifications. The narrative shifts, chronological shifts, and details which can't be definitively proven unsettle many students, who insist their fiction move linearly. While approaching the novel as a problem to be solved overcomes some of the students' discomfort, they still tend to see the narration as needlessly difficult instead of brilliantly complex. One of the most successful strategies I have used, for some readers, is an optional paper assignment which deals directly with narrative strategy and voice and gives students an appreciation of the process Faulkner employs.
Students may, if they choose, pick a character whose voice Faulkner does not include in the narration, or who does not narrate the particular events, and write a scene from that character's point of view. I stress that the voice must be consistent with the character if the person speaks in the novel, or be believably that person's if he or she does not. Students must think through how a character would view a particular set of events and model, or create, that person's voice.*
The first paper I received from this option recounted Darl's first session with a psychiatrist in Jackson, after the events of As I Lay Dying. True to his last section in the novel, Darl narrates the session in the third person, recounting his own words with "Darl said . . . " He attempts to explain to the doctor the events leading up to his family's committing him and their individual reasons for doing so. (For instance, he says that he doesn't blame Cash, because Cash could never forgive the destruction of a barn which someone had built.) The language matches, in style and content, Darl's sections in the novel.
Beginning and ending the paper with "Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes," the student showed great insight into Darl's tortured philosophical bent and his outrage at the indignities Addie suffered on her way to Jackson. In five pages, he created a compelling and accurate character study. This student never said a word about the novel in class, but proved by this paper that he understood the complexities of the narration and of Darl's character, plus his relationship with the rest of the Bundrens.
Another successful paper on the same novel narrated events from a character not included in the fifteen voices: the new Mrs. Bundren. This section began with Anse knocking on the door to borrow a shovel, recounted the duck-shaped woman's past, gave her first impressions of the Bundren family, and included her observation that Anse "looks much better with teeth." While the previous paper, from Darl's view, emphasized the tragedy of As I Lay Dying, this one emphasized the comedy. While the student's recreation of southern dialect fell short on occasion, he created a genuinely comic addition to the novel, proving that he, too, understood the novel much better than his classroom participation would have indicated.
This year, I received a paper entitled "Three Episodes Narrated by the Coffin," complete with instructions on where the additions fit into the novel (after Tull's third chapter, Vardaman's ninth, and before the last section). The paper begins, "I have become of this world for my purpose." The first section describes the creation and "scarring" (Vardaman's holes) of the coffin. The second describes how "My existence has been threatened twice so far" (the river and the fire). During the river scene, "Cash broke one of his planks." And during the fire, "Jewel saved me."
The third describes Addie's burial and sums up all three sections. "Cash's mother lies in my belly like Cash lay in her belly. In her belly he began his beginning and in my belly she begins her end. Since Cash is my father, Jewel is my mother." The section, and the paper, ends with "We are alone rotting together now. I was made on a bevel." This author included Cash's pride in his workmanship, Vardaman's confusion about his mother's death, Darl's preoccupation with Jewel's parentage, and Jewel's protectiveness of his mother, all from the coffin's point of view.
In other courses, I also assign The Sound and the Fury and Light in August and plan to offer the same writing option in those classes. The possibilities seem endless: Luster looking for his quarter, Quentin's thoughts as she climbs out the window, Doc Hines's wife as she watches the events unfold. This assignment gets students to the heart of the matter with Faulkner: how narration and voice control our perception of the events and how an alternate point-of-view enhances the others. Students who have chosen this option come away with a deeper appreciation for the complexities of Faulkner's methods of narration and for the novel; they also give me the pleasure of discovering the depths of their understanding and creativity.
*Students quoted, in the order given, are Mark Spinuzzi, Tom Wappes, and Nathan Schildt.