Words are merely symbols for the notions they designate. Depending on our respective experiences and imagination, they can be interpreted in a number of ways, rendering our individual perspectives unique and impossible to communicate. Like humanity, language is imperfect. Modern writers mean to display the often forgotten weaknesses of the written word, how it ultimately leaves us in a state of eternal solitude.
Take, for example, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which follows the mourning process of each member of the Bundren family as they try to cope with the passing of their matriarch, Addie, during the Great Depression. Shifting between fifteen different streams of consciousness, the novel takes us on a journey of loneliness and isolation wherein the connection between death and solitude is used as a metaphor for the modernists’ elucidation of the solitary confinement in which language leaves us.
Ironically, death comes as a salvation for Addie herself: “I knew that living was terrible.” Revealed twenty-six chapters after her passing, her perspective can be heard or understood by no other character in the novel. In fact, Addie’s relatives can barely understand one another, especially regarding her death: “Darl begun to laugh. Setting back there on the plank seat with Cash, with his dead ma laying at his feet, laughing. How many times I [Anse] told him it’s doing such things that makes folks talk about him, I don’t know.” Each member of the family perceives Addie’s death in a different manner:
“‘Jewel’s mother is a horse,’ Darl said.
‘Then mine can be a fish, cant it, Darl?’ I [Vardaman] said.
Jewel is my brother.
‘Then mine will have to be a horse, too,’ I said.
‘Why?’ Darl said. ‘If pa is your pa, why does your ma have to be a horse just because Jewel’s is?’
‘Why does it?’ I said. ‘Why does it, Darl?’
Darl is my brother.
‘Then what is your ma, Darl?’ I said.
‘I haven’t got ere one,’ Darl said. ‘Because if I had one, it is was. And if it was, it can’t be is. Can it?’”
Addie’s demise affects her relatives on such complex and intimate levels that it becomes difficult for even the readers to follow their reasoning: “Then it [the fish] wasn’t and she [Addie] was, and now it is and she wasn’t. And tomorrow it will be cooked and et and she will be him and pa and Cash and Dewey Dell and there won’t be anything in the box and she can breathe.” Incapable of communicating the intricacy of their mourning, they lash out at one another: “Jewel, I [Darl] say, Who was your father, Jewel? Goddamn you. Goddamn you.” The depth of their grief alienates the characters from the rest of the world.
At the end of the novel, Darl, the most recurring narrator and the most articulate, is even estranged from his own identity. He refers to himself in the third person: “Darl had a little spy-glass he got in France at the war. In it, it had a woman and a pig with two backs and no face. I know what it is. ‘Is that why you are laughing, Darl?’” Prompted by his mother’s death to question existence itself and, ultimately, to contemplate his inescapable solitude, the misunderstood Darl loses his sanity.
In As I Lay Dying, death, the ultimate manifestation of human limitation, brings to light a solitary existence. This correlation between limitation and isolation is applicable to the modernist take on verbal communication. Modern writers believe that because language is merely a system of signs susceptible to interpretation, humanity is doomed to an eternal state of estrangement. If words and phrases have different meanings depending on our experiences and imagination, how can we efficiently communicate an instant or a state of being that is exclusively ours? And, since every instant is lived from our individual perspectives only, what experience is not exclusively ours? As Addie says, “I learned that words are no good; that words don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say at.”
To convey the imperfection of language and thus of his work, Faulkner places obvious and deliberate inconsistencies in his novel, such as the chapter Addie narrates well after her death: “And then I could get ready to die.” Another such discrepancy occurs when Addie dies. Though Darl is miles away with Jewel, on a “yellow road neither of earth nor water, down the hill”, he is capable of narrating the circumstances of his mother’s death as if he were there:
“She [Addie] lies back and turns her head without so much glancing at pa. She looks at Vardaman; her eyes, the life in them, rushing suddenly upon them; the two flames glare up for a steady instant. Then they go out as though someone had leaned down and blown upon them.”
I guess what I’m trying to convey in my own overly academic way is that the reason As I Lay Dying is celebrated as one of the greatest works of literature in American history has less to do with its deeply human plot or the complexity of its characters than its metatextual thesis. Written in six weeks between shifts at a power plant, the novel captures our own, inherent existential longing on a near universal level. In other words, Faulkner didn’t just expose the limitations of language. In doing so, he transcended them.