Self Seeking Heroism
Usually the heroes that we are accustomed to these days are ones that can powerfully fight crimes and take down evil. It is normally hard to associate someone who is meant to be a savior for the people as a person who is wholly self-serving. In the novel As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner uses a distinctly ironic view of duty and heroism through literary devices such as overall plot structure, imagery, and narrative point of view to further emphasize that heroic action stems from selfish will.
William Faulkner purposefully creates a twisted three act plot structure to showcase irony within the entirety of the book. In the first act, the family basically waits for Addie to die as the book begins with her son building her a coffin. “I go on to the house, followed by the Chuck. Chuck. Chuck, of the adze”(5). The onomatopoeia used in the sentence clearly shows the haste, and passion Cash had as he worked on the coffin. His actions can be considered heroic because he was taking responsibility for the prospective events that were soon to occur. He however, is not even there for his mother’s death, and is instead a character more interested in the work of his hands.
The journey that the Bundren’s take to Jefferson is in itself heroic considering all of the hardships they faced along the way. “…the reins running taut from his hand and disappearing into the water, the other hand reached back upon Addie, holding her jammed over against the high side of the water” (148-149). They struggled to save their mother, yet their entire expedition is based on gaining something from being in Jefferson. When Anse says “God’s will be done… Now I can get them teeth” (52) he seems as though he were waiting for Addie’s death to go to Jefferson. Whether it is a false pair of teeth, or a long awaited abortion, Faulkner arranged the plot to specifically contrast the traditional meaning of heroism.
Imagery also plays a big role when dissecting Faulkner’s intended definition of heroic duty. Unlike most of the characters in the book, Darl does not hide his selfish ambitions by seeming heroic, instead he acts on impulse and more importantly his brother Jewel’s anger. In Armstid’s narration, Darl refuses to help Jewel push the wagon “So I stood in the door and watched him push and haul at that wagon. It was on a downhill, and once I thought he was fixing to beat out the back end of the shed” (188). The imagery in this paragraph suggests that Jewel seems honorable because he is moving the wagon out of the shed, when in fact he seems to care more about himself and his horse throughout the book.
Towards the end of the novel, concrete imagery is used to display the ironic contrast of Anse’s heroic task of finally burying Addie. When Anse came back from town Faulkner writes that “Pa was coming along with that kind of daresome…look all at once…he knows ma aint going to like”(260). Faulkner emphasizes the swagger and character Anse’s new bride and false teeth had brought him by further saying “It made him look taller, kind of holding his head up, hangdog and proud too, and then we see her behind him” (260). Anse marries the woman he asked to borrow shovels from to bury his wife, yet his image has changed into one of pride and some sort of twisted accomplishment. The numerous instances of simple yet detailed imagery showcased by Faulkner strengthen his theory that heroism comes from selfish ambition.
By using a stream of consciousness narrative point of view, Faulkner uses his less prominent characters to convey ironic heroic duty. The Tull’s are a family that are meant to embody Christianity and its values, however, their heroic façade is one that can clearly be identified in the book. Tull shamelessly gossips about the Bundren’s to his family by saying, “Poor Anse… She kept him at work for thirty odd years. I reckon she is tired” (33). Faulkner uses a softer narrative tone as Tull speaks usually disguising his appearance of heroism and false religious practice. Another character whom Faulkner associates his theme of masked heroism is Whitfield.
The readers come to find out that he was the father of Jewel and had wanted to complete an honorable act by confessing his sin to Anse, as he was approached the house however, he is told that Addie is already dead(179). He concludes by saying “I have sinned, O Lord. Thou knowest the extent of my remorse and the will of my spirit” (179). Whitfield selfishly decides to leave his sin in the unknown because he does not want to hurt his honorable stature within the community, and instead describes it as a “blessing” that she died (179). Both these characters are a few of the narrative perspectives Faulkner uses to showcase that being heroic originates from a self seeking nature.
In light of trial and tribulation, being the hope for many can be considered heroic. The reason for your honorable actions, however, may seem questionable if your ultimate goal involves pleasing yourself. Often we forget that helping others, being trustworthy, and having courage to do or say the right thing involves selflessness. I believe William Faulkner reminds us of these values by emphasizing the wrong traits “heroic” people may have. William Faulkner highlights a distinctly ironic view of duty and heroism in the novel As I Lay Dying, through literary devices such as overall plot structure, imagery, and narrative point of view to further emphasize that heroic action instigates from selfish will.
- Faulkner, William. As I lay dying: the corrected text. New York: Modern Library, 2000. Print.