Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Faulkner & Pronoun Ambiguity

I have all but given up on reading As I Lay Dying.  Faulkner called this novel his "tour-de-force," but I am willing to assert that it is a fundamentally flawed work.  Why?  Two words:

Pronoun Ambiguity.

Let me explain.  A pronoun is a substitute for a noun, such as using "she" after already introducing Addie Bundren.  The replaced noun (in this case, Addie Bundren) is the antecedent of the pronoun.  And here is where Faulkner fails.  Specifically, he uses pronouns with no antecedent.  Thus, "he" and "she" do certain things in certain paragraphs, but with no antecedent, the reader has no idea who the "he" or "she" is actually referring to.  This problem makes for a debilitatingly frustrating reading experience.

Now, you Faulkner fans will argue that Faulkner does this on purpose.  It's just his stream-of-consciousness thrown down on the page.  Right?  Well, perhaps.  But it leads to a flawed novel that is, in many passages, completely incomprehensible.

The following example is the first paragraph of chapter narrated by Darl:

"He has been to town this week: the back of his neck is trimmed close, with a white line between hair and sunburn like a joint of white bone.  He has not once looked back."

Who is Darl talking about?  Peabody? Jewel? Vardaman? I have no idea.  Just "he." This is my beef with Faulkner:  His damn pronoun ambiguity (to say nothing of the fact that we never completely understand who the characters are, and what relationship they have one to another).

It's a technically frustrating read.  And trust me, I'm trying.  But this is why I prefer Hemingway . . . so clear and concise and clean and beautiful.  Faulkner, on the other hand, is the literary world's equivalent of reading the tax code.  

And thus ends my unsuccessful journey with As I Lay Dying.


  1. Oh Tucker, quitters don't win- and winners don't quit. You are a literary loser.

    Just kidding.

    I actually loved As I Lay Dying. Read about it here. But I'll admit that a year before I wrote that post, I had my own aborted attempt to get through it.

    By the way, I believe Darl is talking about Jewel in that passage. But I could be wrong.

    1. But why are you complaining about pronoun ambiguity when he wrote an entire chapter without any pronouns at all? I'm talking, of course, about the chapter of Vardaman's, which reads, in its entirety:

      "My mother is a fish."


  2. So, I've officially put down As I Lay Dying and picked up Bolano's 2666. I'm 17 pages in, and it is so amazing! I'm not sure if my amazement is due strictly to the novel itself, or partly due to the fact that I am just coming off of Faulkner, which makes any other writer seem great.