While much literary criticism has been produced regarding William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, the commentary surrounding its “queering” element is particularly profound and provocative. As noted by numerous scholars, there are several characters whose identities constitute a distinct deviation from the normative ideologies and praxes that came to characterize the post-Reconstruction South. This reality seems particularly salient in the character of Darl Bundren. As made plain throughout the text, Darl’s cogitations and behaviors transcend the established parameters for acceptable personhood established by the South’s social codes, including prescriptive and proscriptive regulations for masculinity and the capitalism-induced valuation of property and money. As a result, Darl’s thoughts and actions throughout the novel undermine socioculturally dominant principles regarding gender and the value of capitalism.
To fully recognize the transgressive sphere that Darl occupies in As I Lay Dying, it is helpful to consider his identity and behavior in context of queer theory. In defining the term ‘queer,’ Watson points out that it is “another strand of theorizing which follows a general trend of interrogating the historical and cultural positioning of the unified ‘self’ (a self endowed with a coherent identity including gendered identity), characteristic of the Western constitution of the subject” (68). In this sense, the concept of queerness involves engaging, interrogating, and questioning normative concepts of self that have come to be considered appropriate or natural as a result of their historical import or acceptance within a contemporary culture. This exploration and deconstruction of a “self” includes interrogating the role that socioculturally instituted principles of gender play in creating the individual’s sense of identity. In context of Faulkner’s text, self-concepts were heavily influenced (and impeded) by a gender binary. This idea becomes plain upon consideration of prevalent paradigmatic lenses that pervaded the American South as well as the fictive world of As I Lay Dying. The story takes place during the 1920s, an era in which conservative ideologies about men and women were being deconstructed and challenged. Insomuch as the 20s became known as the era of the “New Woman,” the time period gave rise to women attaining more rights in the legal, political, economic, and sociocultural realms. Additionally, many women began challenging the idea that marriage and procreation should be their primary or sole goals in life. Moreover, political figures like Margaret Sanger exacted social change in a manner designed to teach women about intercourse and sexuality so that they could attain a greater dimension of control over their lifestyles and bodies.
At the same time that the liberationist ideology of the “New Woman” philosophy caused women to reevaluate their gendered identities and roles in the world, the era’s edicts also caused men to reconsider paradigms of gender. In accepting women’s liberation in the personal and public spheres as an important and advantageous mode of progress, many men supported political movements and social measures designed to grant the “second sex” greater freedoms. In many cases, this adaptation in thinking about what women could and should do caused men to reconsider their own roles in society. Thus the rise of the “New Woman” era periodically gave rise to “New Men” who no longer felt the need or desire to conceptualize manhood as a medium that warranted or necessitated the overt or covert control of women’s lives.
Despite the fact that the “New Woman” era was marked by profound sociocultural and political advancements for women as well as the challenging of prototypical paradigms regarding gender, the American South was still riddled with conventional, conservative ideologies regarding men and women. Specifically, women were still conceptualized as innately passive, emotional creatures who stood in stark contrast to male counterparts who were deemed indigenously active and rational. The gender binaries advocated and advanced within Southern culture also still incorporated the notion that it was admirable and appropriate for women to dwell within the domestic sphere and place primacy on marriage and motherhood. Men, on the other hand, were encouraged to make securing work and generating wealth for their families a primary goal. Moreover, the American South was still heavily influenced by heteronormative and heterosexist social constructs which deemed marriage between men and women as ideal and natural while lesbianism, homosexuality, and singleness were deemed aberrant to this ideal norm. That As I Lay Dying’s Darl exists outside this acceptable realm of normality becomes plain at numerous points in the text, including the scene in which his reflections on masturbation unfold. His rumination reads: “…After that I was bigger, older. Then I would wait until they all went to sleep so I could lie with my shirt-tail up, hearing them asleep, feeling myself without touching myself, feeling the cool silence blowing upon my parts and wondering if Cash was yonder in the darkness doing it too, had been doing it perhaps for the last two years before I could have wanted to or could have” (701). In this case, Darl’s rumination constitutes a deviation from gender norms insomuch as his sexual desires are not clearly directed towards a woman but rather constitute a mode of intercourse implying autoeroticism insomuch as he is feeling himself as opposed to a woman. It is also important to note that Darl’s masturbatory event incorporates curiosity regarding the sexual behavior of another man. In noting that he wonders whether Cash is also masturbating, Darl’s thoughts become even more queer insomuch as they transgress heteronormative ideologies and praxis dictating that male sexual desire and curiosity regarding intercourse be directed towards women.
Darl’s existence outside the normative, acceptable parameters of gender is not confined to his ruminations about masturbation. Additionally, Darl is deemed queer due to the fact that he has yet to marry a woman. Insomuch as the heteronormative, heterosexist social order renders male/female marriage the appropriate and acceptable union for men and women to engage in, individuals who have not made this commitment exist outside of its normative boundaries. Vernon draws attention to the negative lens through which Darl’s singleness is conceptualized upon noting “Darl: he just thinks by himself too much. Cora’s right when she says all he needs is a wife to straighten him out” (722). In making this statement, Vernon indicates that Darl’s queerness—manifest through both his proclivity for independent, abstract thought as well as an ostensible hesitation to marry—could be “cured” through his accedence to social mores regarding marriage. Thus as Southard accurately argues, “Oftentimes, other characters’ perceptions of Darl suggest his lack of outward masculinity. The Bundren’s neighbors, Vernon and Cora Tull, suggest a link between his strange intellectualism and questionable manhood” (49). Indeed, both his inclination towards deep thinking and ongoing status as a single man render Darl conspicuously queer in the minds of the people around him.
While the role Darl plays in queering normative constructs of gender is made plain through his masturbatory reflections and singleness, these are not the only textual realities which unveil his deviation from social norms. In fact, Darl’s queerness also manifests through his emasculation. This emasculation takes place near the end of the text as Darl rides a train to an asylum on the premise that insanity was the leading factor which caused him to burn down a barn with his mother’s dead body in it. In this case, Darl’s queerness becomes salient as prototypical constructs of masculinity are blown apart. As opposed to maintaining the prototypically powerful patriarchal position of spatial and economic freedom advocated within the world of the American South, Darl’s confinement to an asylum will render him unable to generate his own wealth and also limit his ability to move around freely. Darl’s emasculation is not confined to his forthcoming asylum confinement. Indeed, his inability to embody normative masculine constructs also becomes plain as he prepares to depart for the institution. In describing the scene during which Darl is transported to the asylum, the narrator notes that “They put him on the train…” (791). In referencing the fact that Darl’s course of action is being directed by other people, the narrator emphasizes his newfound lack of power and masculinity. The narrator’s delineation of Darl’s emasculation is further explicated with the following description: “They pulled two seats together so Darl could sit by the window to laugh. One of them sat beside him, the other sat on the seat facing him, riding backward” (791). Here, the reader learns that Darl’s sense of personal space and mobility has diminished dramatically, with the two people who have escorted him onto the train surrounding him and severely limiting his ability to move about freely. The narrator goes on to offer the following analysis of Darl’s burgeoning condition: “Darl is our brother, our brother Darl. Our brother Darl. In a cage in Jackson where, his grimed hands lying light in the quiet interstices, looking out he foams” (791). Here, the reader’s understanding of Darl’s thorough emasculation is amplified. The asylum is deemed equivalent to a cage, thereby crystallizing the idea that Darl no longer possesses the prototypical patriarchal position of freedom and self-will.
While Darl’s emasculation is expertly explicated through reference to his confinement within the asylum, the use of the phrase “he foams” is equally effective in demonstrating his loss of masculinity. In this case, the words “he foams” alludes to Darl’s insanity and thereby reveals that he no longer has full control over his mind. Thus in considering the role that Darl’s trip to the asylum plays in unveiling his emasculation and simultaneously revealing his queerness insomuch as he exists outside the normative gender realm, it is important to note that his ostensible insanity amplifies his unorthodox existence. Within the fictive, constructed world of gender in which Darl participates even as he chooses not to by exhibiting behaviors that defy its prescriptions and proscriptions, masculinity is conceptualized in terms of rationality and independent thought. Insanity, on the other hand, is a clear and dreaded deviation from this gendered identity insomuch as it involves an inability to think abstractly and independently. Moreover, insanity constitutes a mode of being and knowing in which the subject loses authority over the self as unwelcome cognitive realities like hallucinations and delusions complicate and compromise the individual’s ability to act independently. Thus insomuch as Darl is categorized as insane, he exists outside of the authoritative, independent realm of being and knowing associated with appropriate masculinity. In manifesting an inability to think clearly and independently, Darl is no longer categorically “male” but rather an othered being whose unacceptable actions entail his complete removal from society and relocation to a confined realm that will function to further emasculate him.
To grasp the full import of how Darl’s ostensible insanity unveils a form of queerness that is such because of its deviation from gender norms, it is helpful to consider various social realities pertaining to the onset of lunacy. Numerous research studies, both historical and contemporary, indicate that women are much more likely to suffer from mental disorders than men. This idea gains traction upon consideration of the prevalence of the rest cure in the 18th century. The rest cure was designed by neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell for the purpose of treating nervous illnesses. As made plain by research about the era, the incidence of nervous illnesses was much more prevalent amongst women than men. Data from contemporary studies regarding insanity reveal similar findings. For example, Daniel Freeman’s psychiatric work The Stressed Sex documents the fact that women are twice as likely to develop mental disorders such as depression than men (4). Discourse regarding the underlying causes for higher rates of female insanity are diverse, but much of the commentary references sexism as a leading factor for the divergences. Specifically, many people argue that the sociocultural and economical debilitation that women experience as a result of sexism make them more susceptible to numerous factors that can precipitate mental disorders, including low self-esteem and poverty. In addition to existing as a social reality in both historical and contemporary times, the concept of female insanity has been explored in a plethora of literary masterpieces, some of which include Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. In each text, a central female character exhibits traits that are associated with madness and therefore result in the sense or lived reality of social isolation and otherness. In light of both documented data regarding the prevalence of female insanity as well as its representation in the literary realm, the association between mania and women is strong. When recognized and understood, this association can lead the reader to grasp Darl’s ostensible mania as another component of his personhood that queers the gendered sphere by making insanity a character trait embodied by a man.
While Darl’s queerness becomes salient upon consideration of the way he transcends and defies normative paradigms and prescriptions for gender, his clear deviation from heteronormative principles is but one of numerous spheres through which his otherness becomes plain. This idea gains traction when the reader considers how Darl’s existence within the text demonstrates his dismissal of the culture’s valuation of capitalism. Before offering evidence of Darl’s divergence from this capitalist web, it is important to first demonstrate that the web indeed exists. That the Bundren family’s ideology and praxis is rooted on a valuation of accruing goods and personal property and using labor as a medium through which to obtain the money necessary to do so becomes plain throughout the text. For example, Cora notes the family’s reliance on livestock to generate money upon stating that “We depend a lot on our chickens” (699). The primary role that capitalism plays in the consciousness of the Bundrens resurfaces when Anse repeatedly notes that he and his family will “be beholden to no man” (704). This phrase references his commitment to ensuring that the family will always be capable of generating wealth for themselves as opposed to relying on the economic assistance of others. The primacy that capitalism plays in the text becomes even more evident when Cora reflects on the personhood of Darl. Specifically, she notes that Darl is the one “that folks say is queer, lazy, pottering about the place no better than Anse, with Cash a good carpenter and always more building than he can get around to, and Jewel always doing something that made him some money or got him talked about…” (705). In drawing this conclusion, Cora demonstrates that Darl’s ostensible laziness is an attribute to be loathed and shunned while the industrious behaviors of Cash and Jewel are deemed admirable because of their ability to produce wealth.
In recognizing that the Bundrens are immersed in a society that values capitalism and renders it an integral component of their daily lives, it is important to note that Darl’s behavior reveals his unwillingness to embody this value. This fact becomes plain at numerous points in the text, but it is particularly conspicuous when he opts to burn down a barn. The immense import of this destructive act becomes plain when Cash notes: “It wasn’t nothing else to do. It was either send him to Jackson, or have Gillespie sue us, because he knowed some way that Darl set fire to it. I don’t know how he knowed, but he did. Vardaman see him do it, but he swore he never told nobody but Dewey Dell and that she told him not to tell nobody. But Gillespie knowed it” (782). In burning the barn, Darl evinces his utter disregard for private property in his quest to obey what he perceives to be his mother’s final request that he hide her away from public sight. In a world where possessing property is viewed in a positive light because it functions as a signal of the individual’s ability to accrue wealth and use it as a vehicle through which to own space, Darl’s willingness to destroy another person’s property is not socially acceptable. Rather, it is conceptualized as an act of profound social deviance which reveals the perpetrator’s unwillingness to respect the power and importance of money and the property it can buy. Despite the presence and power of these capitalist values, Darl’s convictions regarding what he perceives to be his mother’s wishes induce a glaring indifference towards social mores. In a telling scene near the end of the text, Darl’s irreverence for capitalism is crystallized when the character-narrator notes that “They pulled two seats together so Darl could sit by the window to laugh. One of them sat beside him, the other sat on the seat facing him, riding backward. One of them had to ride backward because the state’s money has a face to each backside and a backside to each face, and they are riding on the state’s money which is incest” (791). The character-narrator goes on to point out that “A nickel has a woman on one side and a buffalo on the other; two faces and no back” (791). After noting this reality and Darl’s possession of a spy-glass depicting a woman and a pig with no face and two backs, the character-narrator asks: “Is that why you are laughing, Darl?” Darl responds: “Yes yes yes yes yes yes” (791). Here, the implication is that Darl’s motivation is rooted in his understanding that his actions have entailed the use of the state’s revenue and thereby constitutes an effrontery to the capitalist system that advocates individuals utilizing their own ingenuity and efforts to generate wealth as opposed to appropriating the government’s resources.
In recognizing the reality that Darl exists as an effrontery to the capitalist system and thus maintains an existence that is decidedly queer, it is important to note that this queerness incorporates the notion of the anti-hero and thereby furthers the reader’s understanding of his oddity and embodiment of inverted social norms. In discussing the anti-hero, Modernist scholar Stephen Kern notes that
“For modernists, stature is less about moral character and more about creativity and fulfillment. In assessing modernist protagonists, critics use the term anti-hero for one who lacks classical virtues of strength, beauty, courage, wisdom, and pride. As Lionel Trilling wrote: “Nothing is more characteristic of the literature of our time than the replacement of the hero by what has come to be called the anti-hero, in whose indifference to or hatred of ethical nobility there is presumed to lie a special authority.” But protagonists are never just anti. Modernist protagonists are rather neo-heroic, that is, admirable in new ways even when they are physically unattractive, sexually unconventional, impotent, cowardly, immoral, or even dead” (34)
As one may gather in reading Kern’s definition and delineation of the anti-hero, Darl clearly is one. This idea gains credence upon consideration of the fact that he demonstrates indifference to conventional concepts of morality and virtue by destroying the property of another individual. Yet at the same time that his behavior constitutes a deviation from normative conceptions of the hero, Darl’s actions are heroic insomuch as they manifest a move towards his fulfillment of a personally significant purpose: obeying his mother’s wishes to be kept from public sight.
The correlation between Darl’s queerness and his perceptions regarding his mother’s death and wishes does not end with the character-narrator’s conformance to principles of the anti-hero. In fact, Darl’s ostensible obsession with fulfilling what he perceives to be his mother’s final wishes further illustrates his oddity and otherness. Delville taps into this reality upon noting that “In fact, all of the Bundren characters except Darl seem to be relatively successful in dealing with Addie’s absence” (62). This is likely due to what Bassett refers to “the strong mental identification of Darl with Addie…” (131). The depth of Darl’s attachment to and identification with his mother is made plain by an important memory Cora has of him: “It was Darl. He come to the door and stood there, looking at his dying mother. He just looked at her, and I felt the bounteous love of the Lord again and His mercy. I saw that with Jewel she had just been pretending, but that it was between her and Darl that the understanding and the true love was” (705). In addition to having a strong mental identification with his mother, Darl is perceived to also embody her character traits. In drawing attention to this reality, Cora notes that “I always said Darl was different from those others. I always said he was the only one of them that had his mother’s nature, had any natural affection” (704). In making this assessment, Cora reveals that Darl’s personality is profoundly different from that of the other Bundrens, thereby furthering the reader’s awareness of how his personhood constitutes something decidedly queer.
When considered in totality, Darl’s personhood is a clear representation of both queerness and the role being defined as odd plays in ostracizing individuals from the communities in which they exist. It is also important to note that Faulkner’s construction of the queer character manifests the writer’s conformance to several ideologies and attitudes that became prevalent during the Modernist literary movement. In defining the literary era, Daniel Joseph Singal notes that Modernism “usually connotes radical experimentation in artistic style, a deliberate cultivation of the perverse and decadent, and the flaunting of outrageous behavior designed to shock the bourgeois” (8). Faulkner’s work clearly exemplifies a plethora of these realities, and they become particularly salient through the character of Darl. In terms of the perverse and decadent, Darl’s meditations on masturbation reveal the author’s conformance to Modernist principles. Additionally, Darl’s burning of the barn constitutes a manifestation of rebellious behavior that stood in stock contrast to the values and expectations of middle class people whose lives and worth were predicated on adherence to capitalist prescriptions and proscriptions.
In addition to manifesting principles of Modernism through the character of Darl, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is representative of the literary period given its incorporation of artistic experimentation. Specifically, the narrative incorporates the writer’s effective use of one of the era’s most prevalent literary styles: stream of consciousness. In discussing this literary technique, Stephen Kern notes that “Modernists also rendered inner space with a stream-of-consciousness technique that may include memories, expectations, emotions, judgments, fantasies, stimuli from five senses, bits of overheard or recalled speech, fragments of syntax, even parts of words or invented words that simultaneously course through the mind and make up a moment of consciousness” (87). The defining attribute of stream of consciousness writing is that it reflects a thought sequence that “…moves erratically in multiple directions both temporally and spatially with no fixed path” (87). Faulkner’s appropriation of this experimental literary technique becomes plain when character-narrator Vardaman deviates from the conventional, linear sequence of thought with the following stream of consciousness statement: “That’s why Jewel and I were both in the shed and she was in the wagon because the horse lives in the barn and I had to keep on running the buzzard away from” (769).
In addition to conforming to the Modernist principle of utilizing experimental literary techniques through his incorporation of stream of consciousness language, Faulkner’s work is also replete with other radical literary devices. For example, Faulkner constructs sentences that lack punctuation and thereby constitute a thorough departure from prototypical syntax. An example of this experimentation surfaces when Vardaman notes that “When I went to find where they stay at night, I saw something that Dewey Dell says I mustn’t never tell nobody” (779). The sentence-lacking-punctuation format surfaces again when Vardaman thinks “And I saw something Dewey Dell told me not to tell nobody. It is not about pa and it is not about Cash and it is not about Jewel and it is not about Dewey Dell and it is not about me” (775). By intentionally leaving the assertion unpunctuated, Faulkner creates an open, unfinished affect that gives deeper weight and mystery to a plot already rife with substantive suspense and import.
In addition to utilizing a plethora of literary techniques that situate As I Lay Dying as a decidedly Modernist novel, Faulkner’s narratorial liberties further the narrative’s conformance to the principles and paradigms that became prevalent during the artistic era. As noted by Stephen Kern, the Modernist era was one marked by a deviation from the single, third-person omniscient modes of narration that gained primacy during the Realist period. In the Modern literary world, narratives were likely to contain the voices and perspectives of multiple characters. This was certainly the case for As I Lay Dying. In discussing the text, Stephen Kern notes that “Separate voices come from fifteen poorly educated rural characters, most of them members of the discordant Bundren family, who narrate most of the fifty-nine chapters of As I Lay Dying” (189). This polyphonic narratorial structure affords the reader more than one lens through which to interpret action and understand characters as the plot unfolds. This narratorial mode is reflected in numerous other literary works from the Modernist era, some of which include Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers and James Joyce’s Ulysses.
In considering Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying as a composite whole, it is clear that the author has constructed a literary masterpiece rife with both cultural signification and linguistic innovation. While many components of the text warrant discourse and dissection, it is Faulkner’s Darl who stands out as a figure rife with socially transgressive thoughts and culturally transcendent behaviors. Darl’s ruminations about sex and willingness to masturbate constitute a deviation from socially designated gender norms, thereby rendering his existence within the text conspicuously queer. Additionally, Darl’s ostensible insanity and confinement within an asylum function as manifestations of his emasculation, thereby furthering the reader’s understanding of his role in queering normative paradigms regarding how men should exist and act. Darl’s queerness is heightened as a result of his dismissal of the cultural valuation of capitalism, a reality that manifests when he unapologetically burns down another individual’s property. In considering Darl’s queerness as manifested through both his inversion of gender paradigms and irreverence for capitalist values, his existence as a character-narrator that shocks and transforms the social world in which he exists becomes plain.
Bassett, John Earl. “As I Lay Dying”: Family Conflict and Verbal Fictions.” The Journal of Narrative Technique. Vol. 11, No. 2 (Spring, 1981), pp. 125-134.
Delville, Michel. “Alienating Language and Darl’s Narrative Consciousness in Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.” The Southern Literary Journal. Vol. 27, No. 1 (Fall, 1994), pp. 61-72.
Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. Print.
Freeman, Daniel. The Stressed Sex. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Kern, Stephen. The Modernist Novel: A Critical Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Singal, Daniel Joseph. “Towards A Definition of American Modernism.” American Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 1, Special Issue: Modernist Culture in America (Spring, 1987), pp. 7- 26.
Southard, Marybeth. “Aint None Of Us Pure Crazy”: Queering Madness In As I Lay Dying.” The Faulkner Journal. 27.1 (Spring 2013): 47-63, 99.
Watson, Katherine. “Queer Theory.” Group Analysis, 03/2005. Volume 38, Issue 1.