Impermanent Identities of Vardaman’s Existential Crisis
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In William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, the Bundren family lives in the rural south of the early 1900s. After Addie, mother of the Bundren children, passes, the rest of the family embarks on an arduous journey to bring her to her gravesite in Jefferson. Addie’s death also sparks individual, mental journeys for the Bundren children, a few of whom begin to grapple with ideas of existentialism. As each character’s interpretations of the surrounding world evolve along his/her journey, the way characters perceive each other also changes. Thus As I Lay Dying discusses identity not only through introspection, but also through the eyes of others. In particular, Vardaman’s repetition and syntax display how his confusion about others’ existence reveals the instability of others’ existence and identity.
Vardaman’s panicked syntax, repetition, and tone after Addie’s death indicates that Vardaman enters an outwardly-focused existential crisis. The moment after Addie dies, Vardaman says the fish he caught earlier is “all cut up into not-fish now. [He] can hear the bed and her face and them and [he] can feel the floor shake”(53). Paralleling Addie’s death, the distinction between “fish” and “not-fish” reveals the confusion Vardaman faces in digesting the concept of death: because “not-fish” acts as a euphemism for dead fish, Vardaman exposes the lack of understanding he has of his mother’s death. This confusion also arises through the lack of punctuation in Vardaman’s latter sentence, expressing panic and showcases the chaos overcoming Vardaman’s mind. The latter sentence also reveals Vardaman’s panic through “floor shake,” whose dramatic connotation illustrates the distress in his own mind. Refocusing Vardaman’s confusion on Addie’s deat...
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...s, Jewel and Cash’s identities assume fragile and unstable qualities.
With his existential crisis precipitating from his mother’s death, Vardaman demonstrates through his panicked syntax the impermanence and fragility of identities. Because Vardaman is a child and the most impressionable of the Bundrens, he easily absorbs and clearly reflects his family’s concept of identity, thereby asserting the impermanence of identity as one of As I Lay Dying’s major themes. With its fluctuating, identity-questioning qualities, the impermanence of identity embodies the essence of Modernism in the early 1900s. In this Modernistic spirit, Faulkner illustrates the futility of trying to solidify one’s own identity, drawing upon sentiments from Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, in which Hester’s identity is at the mercy of the Puritan community’s many-layered and fluctuating judgement.