Self-Identity in “As I Lay Dying”

“As I Lay Dying” by William Faulkner is one of the prominent books written by the author. At the same time, this novel is different from many other books written by Faulkner since the author uses a stream of consciousness technique to convey the story. Nevertheless, the use of such original technique allowed the author to reveal the complexity of human relations and the life of an individual in the society at the beginning of the 20th century. In fact, it is even possible to estimate that the stream of consciousness was intentionally used by the author to fully reveal the theme of self-identity and society in his book because the use of this technique allowed the author to show the extent to which individuals are isolated and separated from each other. In such a situation, it becomes obvious that one of the central themes of the books is the focus on main characters on their own self, while the society grows more and more individualistic and egoistic. Obviously, the author attempted to convey his idea and his vision of the society, the idea of individualism, search of self-identity which eventually leads to destructive social relations of an individual.

In fact, the theme of self-identity is closely intertwined with the theme of relationships or, to put it more precisely, the conflict between an individual and society. Basically, this trend can be traced in the life of many characters depicted by Faulkner in his book in one way or another. In this respect, it is possible to refer to the main character, Addie Bundren, who is the mother of four children dying in the course of the novel. The entire novel is based on flashbacks which reveal the past life of the main characters and reveal their relationships and problems each character had in his or her life. As for Addie Bundren, she is one of the most important characters in regard to self-identity and society.

At first glance, she is a successful woman, in the traditional, patriarchal sense, which was actually a norm in the first half of the 20th century. She has a family, including husband and four children. In such a situation, it is quite difficult to speak about any conflicts between her self-identity and society because, according to existing social norms, she is supposed to be a happy woman. At any rate, from a conventional point of view, she had everything a woman could dream of in the early 1920s since in a patriarchal society a woman was supposed to be a good wife and mother that should make her happy. However, Addie does not really seem to be happy. In stark contrast, it turns out that her life was almost unbearable. She lived with the man whom she hated. Her children seem to be her salvation from despair and the life with the man she does not love. The relationship of Addie and Anse, her husband, reveal the fact that these people, even though they are spouses, do not really understand each other. They lead a routine family life but it is quite symbolic that, when Addie is dying she asks Anse to bury her in Jersey. She does it intentionally to revenge on Anse for all the years she spent with him, regardless of her hate to him, because she knows that the trip to Jefferson will take much time and efforts that will make Anse suffer.

In such a way, the author shows that human relations have degraded.  Even people, who are supposed to love each other, understand each other, be a perfect match, are egoistic and concerned with their own interests and needs. It seems as if they live in their own world and their family life is rather a duty than an element of happy life. At the same time, it is obvious that Addie as well as many other characters of the book have serious problems with her self-identity, because it is not fully shaped practically until the end of her life. She does not live the life she wants to live.

Therefore, the author shows that the main character cannot understand her own self.

On the other hand, the growth of her self-consciousness starts after the birth of Jewel, who is an extramarital son, whose father was Addie’s preacher. Since this moment Addie’s self-identity starts to shape definitely. Symbolically, the author shows that it is only after the violation of social conventions and norms an individual can arrive to understanding of his or her own self as is the case of Addie. The formation of her self-identity is a very complex process since she cannot break up with Anse that means that her self-identity is still restrained by social norms. At this point, it is obvious that the author shows that the society at the epoch had a destructive impact on an individual’s self-identity because people could not be what they wanted to be. Instead, they had to play role defined by the society and social norms and traditions.

Anse is similar to Addie in regard to his self-identity, which tended to isolation, exclusion from the society. However, unlike his wife, Anse does not really struggle against the society and he does not really care about the society as well as about his family. For instance, after Addie’s burial he hastily remarries. In such a way, the author shows that his marriage with Addie did not really matter for him. Otherwise, he would hardly re-marry so fast.

At the same time, Anse is a typical egoist, a person whose self-identity is not absolutely clear for himself, but he does not really try to find his way in life. He is just doing nothing, although, that is probably his way to self-identity. Nevertheless, he does not attempt to challenge social norms by extramarital liaisons. On the other hand, his lifestyle is highly individualistic, egoistic and oriented on the satisfaction of his own needs and interests. He is a lazy person, who does not work because he fears that he will die for he had a serious illness in his childhood.

Consequently, the author creates another character whose self-identity, being not clearly shaped, still dominates over his social life, which is apparently secondary to him. He prefers to live in his own world, where he feels at ease and does not bother about problems he might have faced in the life if he worked and was more concerned with the life of his family and society at large.

At the same time, their elder son, Cash is even more pragmatic and concerned with his self than his parents. At first glance, he is a good person. He is a skillful carpenter and he is quite successful in his life. However, his self-identity is highly egoistic because utilitarianism prevails in all his actions and lifestyle at large. For instance, he starts making a coffin for Addie when his mother has been still alive. Nevertheless, he works pragmatically and methodically with appalling calmness. At this point, the author probably attempted to emphasize utilitarianism of Cash and his indifference to other people around him. His mother loved him since he was her first child and he seemed to love his mother too, but, as the matter of fact, this love was rather pretended than real. It is possible to compare his love to his mother to the love of Addie to Anse since this love is not sincere. At any rate, the personal life, egoism of Cash are obvious that proves that self-identity of Cash has stopped developing when he understood the importance of his own needs and interests, while he has failed to develop his self-identity to the extent that he could take care of other people, develop basic humanistic values, etc.

In this respect, the only daughter of Addie and Anse, Dewey, seems to be different. In fact, the process of formation of her self-identity is very painful. Dewey Dell Bundren is pregnant, but neither the father of a child nor the family of Dewey does want this child to be born. For instance, Lafe, the father of the child, gives Dewey money to make an abortion. In such a way, he simply attempts to escape his responsibility for the future of the child. At the same time, the father of Dewey also insists on the abortion, while the position of Dewey is not taken into consideration at all. In this respect, it is worth mentioning the fact that Dewey cannot actually take decision as for the future of her child on her own because she is totally dependent on the support of men. What is meant here is the fact that even her father as well as the father of her child, are not her masters as Rufus is in relation to Dana in Butler’s book, but they still have the power of Dewey because without their financial support she can neither make the abortion nor raise up her child. In such a way, it is men who actually take the decision in relation to her yet unborn child, but not Dewey herself. Thus, she learns that other people do not really care about her and this knowledge apparently changes her character and her self-identity. She has lost her naivety, but it is obvious that she is still alone in this world where all people are concerned with their self and seem to be indifferent to others. For instance, the pharmacist seems to be supportive and helpful, even altruistic, but, eventually it turns out that the only thing he wants is to rape Dewey. This event accomplishes her disillusioning and her self-identity is totally shaped since she understands that all people care about their own interests, desires, needs, but they do not care about others. This is probably one of the main messages Faulkner attempted convey with the help of his book. He shows that people develop an extremely egoistic self-identity which prevails over their social life, which they do not really care about. They want to be happy, but their happiness is limited by their interests and needs and even closest people, such as spouses, parents or children, are not really important.

In this respect, characters depicted by Faulkner seem to be thoughtless. They do not think much of their life, their problems or problems of other people. At this point, Darl, the eldest son of Addie, is probably exceptional. Unlike other characters, Darl is intellectual, he thinks a lot. However, even this character is unable to socialize to overcome boundaries of his egoistic self-identity. He is intellectual, but he does a little of practical work. In other words, he has plenty of ideas but he does practically nothing to make them true. As a result, he also lives in the world of his thoughts and ideas, being isolated from the rest of the world and his relations with other people, including his relatives are rather formal than warm and sincere.

Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that William Faulkner, in his “As I Lay Dying”, raises a very important theme of self-identity and society. He depicts a variety of characters who are different, but still they have something in common this something is their self-identity which is characterized by the domination of selfish interests of people and their concerns with their own success and happiness. However, the problem is that each individual lives in his or her own world and they pay little attention to their social environment.

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