A Discourse Analysis of Darl's Descent into Madness in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying

Shannon Terry Wiley, The John Cooper School, The Woodlands, Texas

Darl Bundren, a central character in As I Lay Dying, narrates 19 of the 55 interior monologues that comprise this tour de force. With more monologues than any other character, Darl becomes in essence the spokesman for the work. This paper will focus on Darl Bundren’s interior monologues as they feature the progression of his insanity. By examining deictic personal pronoun references and the syntactic use of embedded clause construction, one sees Faulkner’s linguistic mapping of Darl’s dissolving sanity. In the initial monologues, Darl outlines through purely narrative speech the exposition of the novel; however, by his final monologue, Darl has little narrative speech and, in fact, has experienced a split in his personality. His deictic references, along with linguistic repetition, highlight this chasm. By his final monologue, Darl sees himself as an onlooker, having lost his distinctness as character. Additional linguistic markers that offer insight include a stylistic shift in clause construction from initial to final monologue. The final monologue features relatively few prepositional phrases diminishing the intensity of his perceptions. The loss of adjectival modifiers colors the fading landscape of the speaker as his world becomes more inward. Faulkner’s skill in creating such an original voice as Darl’s should be viewed linguistically; by doing such, the reader cannot dismiss Darl to the padded cell to mumble in lunacy. Using discourse analysis as one tool to unlock this amazing novel, one can appreciate the linguistic brilliance of its construction.

Darl’s sanity was a subject that Faulkner himself commented upon in a series of lectures at the University of Virginia:

Darl was mad from the first. He got progressively madder because he didn’t have the capacity not so much of sanity but of inertness to resist all the catastrophes that happened to the family. Jewel resisted because he was sane and he was the toughest. The others resisted through probably inertia, but Darl couldn’t resist it and and so he went completely off his rocker. But he was mad all the time.  (110)

When Faulkner was asked if his madness was why he spoke more beautifully than anyone else, his one-word response was simply, “Yes” (110).

By his author’s own admission, Darl’s character descends into madness as the events of the novel spin out of control. His mother dies, and the family is duty bound to take her body for burial to a cemetery forty miles away. The Bundrens encounter the oppressive heat of July in northern Mississippi, and the rising flood waters of the rivers they must cross, all while transporting a rapidly decaying corpse. Eventually, Darl, the most sensitive member of the family, commits an act of despair and sets the barn housing his mother’s corpse on fire. His act of arson, while perhaps a desperate attempt to end the journey, nonetheless lands him on a train bound for the state mental institution where he will live out the remainder of his days.

Faulkner chooses to illustrate Darl’s descent into madness with free, indirect style, which produces a stream of consciousness narrative. Beckson writes that “interior monologue should be reserved for those occasions when there is little or no sense of the author’s presence and the fragmentary material of consciousness comes to the reader as directly as possible” ( 241 ). Gresset in Fascination: Faulkner’s Fiction examines this varied use of narrative voices:

Although the multiplicity of viewpoints, presenting each part of the novel through the consciousness of a particular character, may create the illusion that Faulkner has disappeared as the all-powerful manipulator, it is the style that makes him visible again. Composed of a colloquial diction, freely mingled with high rhetoric, it is this style, often approaching poetry, which is largely responsible for the novel’s great power. (232)

Joseph Blotner remarks that “He was striving for a wide range of effects in these interior monologues” (252). Volpe also addresses the function of these monologues: “There is no author’s voice in the novel. No single character can be designated as a spokesman for the author, and no single character can be considered as objective recorder of events.  Because each character is so individualized, his monologues reveal only his personal view of an event” (129). However, Darl’s significance is evident by the sheer volume of monologues assigned to him.

Faulkner both confirmed Darl’s insanity and individualized his voice when he answered questions about the extent of Darl’s madness:

Darl was mad. He did things which seemed to me he had to do or he insisted on doing. His reasons I could try to rationalize to suit myself, even if I couldn’t rationalize his reasons to please me I had to accept the act because Darl insisted on doing that. I mean that any character that you write about takes charge of his own behavior. You can’t make him do things once he becomes alive and stands up and casts his own shadow. Darl did things which I am sure were for his own mad reasons quite logical. I couldn’t always understand why he did things, but he did insist on doing things, and when we would quarrel about it, he always won, because at that time he was alive, he was under his own power. (263)

In Darl’s initial monologue that opens the novel, he appears to be clear and observant. His comments serve to outline not only the parameters of the farm and field but also establish the plot. His evaluations of Jewel, his headstrong brother, and Cash, the good carpenter, are valid. This Darl, while clearly the most sensitive and indeed intuitive member of the family, seems centered and rational as the novel opens. Only when Faulkner decides “to expose the family to the two greatest disasters known to man: flood and fire” (Bowman 61) does Darl unravel, and his dialogue become unhinged. By his last monologue, his nineteenth, Darl has, in fact, experienced a split in his personality. Gresset observes, “Darl falls a victim to the tyranny of his own, divided glance having become literally his own voyeur the voyeur who spies on himself he ends a victim of schizophrenia” (219).  This voyeurism finds a linguistic home in the clear distinction of personal pronouns.

Deictics according to Traugott and Pratt is “the part of the language involved in locating what is talked about relative to the speaker’s point of view, whether in space, time, discourse or social relations” (403). Keith Green in “Deixis and the Poetic Persona” also provides a working definition: “A deictic term is part of a grammatically closed set which includes the personal and demonstrative pronouns, certain adverbials, definite referring expressions and the vocative particle” (122). There are three clear linguistic manifestations in Darl’s language. References to self, clearly absent in monologue one, play an integral role in monologue nineteen.  In monologue 19, the role of question-answer adjacency pairs firmly establishes the self-questioning that reflects Darl’s dissolving mental state. Finally, the use of repetition in both monologues is purposeful. Faulkner uses the repetition of the word Chuck as an onomatopoeic device to remind the reader of the adze Cash uses to build the coffin, the novel’s central symbol. The conclusion of the monologue with the repetition and strategic placement of Chuck provides phonological cohesion. The final monologue has no onomatopoeic devices, but rather uses repetition in the affirmation yes-phrase and the phrase our brother Darl, which illustrates Darl’s diminishing connection to himself.

As far as personal pronoun references, in monologue one, Darl uses I 7 times to refer to himself, we 3 times to refer to him and his brother Jewel, and he/him 8 times to refer to either Jewel or Cash. By monologue 19, all he/him references are of Darl referring to himself in the third person. He is the detached, separated Darl. His use of first person pronouns by the last monologue is relegated to the constructions, “I said,”  I know,” and “I don’t know.” There is no separate recognition of Darl united with any family member as in monologue one. Gone are the references to we. These occurrences can be interpreted as a result of the objectification and disassociation that has occurred in his persona. This schizophrenic split is also confirmed by the addition of the pronoun you. In monologue one, Darl does not make use of any second person personal pronouns. Consequently during that monologue, there appears an even balance of first and third person pronoun use which alternates between references to himself and to his brothers. Monologue one also has Darl’s use of first person I to distinguish his own thoughts.

By comparison, monologue 19 offers a startling contrast in the use of referential expressions. In the balance of monologue 19, the reader notes an even mix of first, second and third person references. The irony here is Darl’s narration is using all three of these persons to refer to himself and his position. This mixture of indistinguishable person variation goes so far as to include the use of the proper noun Darl as the onlooker, indeed almost without person. By monologue 19, Darl is unable to clarify himself and his distinctness as a character. Bloom comments on, “the psychic splitting, the doubling, that has taken place in Darl’s personality. This doubling is clear from the start of the section in which Darl describes his departure for the asylum, for Darl talks about himself in the third person, and then the first-person Darl carries on a dialogue with himself” (253). Gresset offers:

What Darl embodies in the overall structure of the novel as a work of fiction is the symbolic function of the glance in any literary text. Without this, there would be no “fiction” in Faulkner’s work. Whether it is Darl the voyeur or Darl the voyant, who is given a privileged place is relatively unimportant. Technically, Darl is both, because his role is essentially that of an onlooker – a kind of Ur-anschauer or primordial peeping Tom. (225)

Faulkner also has Darl asset himself as both onlooker and participant through the use of a question and answer structure. There are six variations of the question, “Is that why you are laughing, Darl?” throughout the final monologue. Each question concerns the source of laughter, which has become central to Darl’s madness. This question leads to a series of yes affirmations. Beginning one paragraph into monologue 19, yes is repeated five times. Two paragraphs later, it is repeated with six yes responses. The final use of the yes marker is an entire line composed of seven yes affirmations. Patrick O Donnell’s article, “Metaphors of Transference in As I Lay Dying,” notes:

Darl has been too concerned about forward movement. He is obsessed with having to go somewhere, designated and specific, despite his insights about the failure of this desire, hence, his despairing act of giving the journey a contrived ending by burning the barn in which Addie’s coffin rests. The failure of completion, connection, and signification is represented by his final doomed words, “Yes yes yes yes yes  yes yes”...Thus Darl’s road ends in this paradoxical, static, and perverse vision of ceaseless flux and repetition. (69)

Additionally, by examining the sentence structure Darl uses in the two monologues, the reader recognizes the shift that occurs. Although Faulkner punctuated his writing inconsistently, for the purposes of a linguistic examination, the punctuated breaks in thought can be considered units for study. Monologue one is comprised of 22 sentences, which feature multiple layering and subordination. The third sentence with its 12 prepositional phrases shows the level of detail that Darl elucidates in his narrative. He uses embedding with its deep layering and co-ordination which expands the sentence through listing. James Mellard remarks about this famous opening:

It is fairly plain, from the beginning of the novel, that Faulkner is at least laying down a realistic base. We see that in the paragraph that opens the novel... we see Faulkner eschewing figurative eloquence; we see the particularization of character and background; we see the use of naming, the invocation of temporality, the reliance on causation, and the precise evocation of a physical environment...The opening of As ILay Dying, in short, names characters, moves them through time, and presumes an external world available to representation through description, nominalization, and spatial extension. (220-221)

Monologue 19 reveals a stylistic shift in clause construction. Its 26 sentences contain a variety of structures, but all the narrative viewpoint reflects Darl’s commentary on the surroundings without regard to his immediate situation. Sentences here reflect this objective and removed voice that represents the split in Darl’s psyche. This last monologue contains less than half the adjectives of monologue one. The rich description of “green rows,” “ laidby cotton,” and “soft, right angles,” disappears as the structure of 19 offers fewer modifiers to color the landscape of the fading speaker. He no longer connects with his environment, and as his world becomes an interior one, so his diction turns inward. Here phrases, “to Jackson,” “at the war,” and “on the train,” are notably absent the depth of color and description. He looks to his grim future, a “cage in Jackson where, his grimed hands lying light in the quiet interstices, looking out, he foams.” Darl’s grim fate is echoed by the few adjectives chosen to detail it.

Bloom says:

As I Lay Dying may be the most original novel ever written by an American... As I Lay Dying is Faulkner’s strongest protest against the facticity of literary conventions, against the force of the familial past, which tropes itself in fiction as the repetitive form of narrative imitating prior narrative. The book is a sustained nightmare, in so far as it is Darl’s book, which is to say Faulkner’s book, or the book of his daemon. (3)

This novel offers the linguist both the sustained nightmare that Bloom alludes to and the most original novel he believes that America has produced. The task of decoding greatness, unraveling the tools an author uses to demonstrate his craft, is no small feat.  Clearly with the creation of Darl, and so many of his other characters, Faulkner gave us a profoundly interesting character worthy of study. He does not deserve dismissal; in fact, his language provides so many levels that we may consider. Surely Darl’s insanity was genius.

Works Cited

Beckson, Karl.  Literary Terms: A Dictionary. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1962.

Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1984.

Bloom, Harold. ed. William Faulkner: Modern Critical View. New York: Chelsea Street, 1986.

Bowman, Sylvia. ed. William Faulkner. Twaynes Author Series:1966.

Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. New York: Vintage Books, 1985.

Green, Keith.  “Deixis and the Poetic Persona.” Language and Literature. 2 (1992): 121-134

Gresset, Michel. Fascination: Faulkner’s Fiction 1919-1936. Durham: Duke UP, 1989.

Gwynn, Frederick and Joseph Blotner, eds. Faulkner at the University. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1995.

Mellard, James. “Realism, Naturalism, and Moderinsm: Residual, Dominant, and   Emergent Ideologies.” Faulknerand Ideology: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha 1992. Oxford: U of Mississippi P, 1995.

O Donnell, Patrick. “The Spectral Road: Metaphors of Transference in As I Lay Dying.” Papers in Language and Literature 20.(1984):60-79

Traugott and Pratt. Linguistics for Students of Literature. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1980.

Volpe, Edmond.  A Reader’s Guide to William Faulkner.  New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1964.

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