Taking Measurements

For a long time I was sure that if there was a question at the heart of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, it was one of those sweeping humanist questions so common to American literature of the interwar period. Something to do with dignity, something to do with honour. Something along the lines of “What is the value of a single human life?” Now, though, I’m not so sure that the novel is animated by a question as abstract as that one. As I Lay Dying strikes me these days as a novel with little patience for abstractions. In fact, it strikes me as a novel that generates dramatic conflict through each character’s impatience with the abstractions in which the people who surround them have invested their energy. If there’s a question that animates it at all, it must be a question of less certainty with regard to the notion that human life has any fixed value at all: something like “How can we possibly determine the value of a human life?” or, better, “Within what frame of reference can we, do we, and should we, assign value to a life?”

Take a look at the opening words, narrated by the headstrong Darl Bundren as he stalks the outskirts of his family’s property in the company of his hapless half-brother Jewel:

Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single file. Although I am fifteen feet ahead of him, anyone watching us from the cotton-house can see Jewel’s frayed and broken straw hat a full head above my own.

The path runs straight as a plumb-line, worn smooth by feet and baked brick-hard by July, between the green rows of laid-by cotton, to the cotton-house in the center of the field, where it turns and circles the cotton-house at four soft right angles and goes on across the field again, worn so by feet in fading precision.

The novel begins with one person’s attempt to navigate his way across unsteady terrain by tracing his position relative to both the fixed points in an absolute system of reference (“straight as a plumb-line,” “between the green rows,” “in the centre,” “turns and circles,” “four soft right angles,” “on across the field again”) and other, unfixed features including Jewel, who is moving at equal pace with Darl but remains “fifteen feet” behind him. The opening passage also includes an attempt on the part of Darl to take the measure of the world from the perspective of a person distinct from himself: it’s not simply the case that Jewel’s straw hat rises “a full head above” Darl, but that, conspicuously, “anyone watching [them] from the cotton-house” would see it rise so high above him. In other words, the novel begins with an attempt to fix in place a mutable experience by aligning it with a complex of values, some of which are environmental while others are interpersonal. And what is the remainder of As I Lay Dying if not a long succession of further attempts, on the part of various characters, to do the very same thing? The values are delineated chapter by chapter, as the narratorial perspective jumps from one character to another, and the experience aligned to them is the life of Addie Bundren.

Whatever the gripes and distresses of any one character at any one moment, they all issue from each character’s efforts to find, in the face of Addie’s death, a way of being in the world that allows their actions to be somehow commensurate to the loss of the Bundren matriarch. Each character in As I Lay Dying is confronted with this question: “What is, or was, the value of the life of Addie Bundren?” Each character fumbles towards an answer to that question, with reference to his or her own particular complex of values. Those values determine the ways in which each character attempts to pay respect to Addie: by showing scrupulous precision in the building of her coffin, by dwelling on memories of the mortality of a fish in order to apprehend the finality of her death, by keeping one’s promise to a dying woman no matter what the cost in blood and treasure. But of course, because every character’s values are distinct from those of every other character, each character, while assessing the value of Addie’s life, is required also to compromise on his or her assessments and adjust the means of measurement in response to the behaviour of others. The conflict that besets the Bundren family therefore comes not just from the clash of personalities, or the clash of individuals enmeshed in certain circumstances, but from profound disagreements about the most proper way to determine what the life of the matriarch was finally worth and then to decide how to proceed in her absence.