Are You Insane? Is Anybody Insane?; Analysis of Darl, an Insane Character from As I Lay Dying and Assessment of William Faulkner’s Attitude Toward Insanity

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Insanity is an arbitrary term created by society to categorize people who do not fit in. Mental illness is often used as the scapegoat of all antisocial behaviors. Darl, in As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, is often categorized by other characters as an insane and mentally ill character. Through the ambiguous characteristic of Darl as both insane and sane, Faulkner proposes a deeper question to society: What defines insanity?

Darl is described to be insane by the community for his abnormal behaviors. Firstly, several characters analyze Darl’s peculiar characteristics from the earlier chapters of the book. Cora describes Darl to be “queer, lazy pottering about the place no better than Anse” (24). To add to her point, Tull describes Darl to have “queer eyes” (125). Faulkner’s constant repetition of the word “queer” (125) to describe Darl indicates abnormality and peculiarity in Darl’s behavior. These descriptions of Darl contribute to foreshadowing Darl’s revelation of his own insanity. Faulkner in the later chapters uses Vardaman as the core painter of Darl’s sanity. Vardaman through the last several chapters mentions that he has “[seen] something that Dewey Dell says [he] musn’t tell nobody” (225). He constantly builds tension and importance to the situation until Cash reveals the reality: “Darl set fire to the [barn]” (232). To other characters, Darl’s action of burning the barn, with no clear reason, is interpreted as the result caused by his previously mentioned mental illness. A single event, the incineration of Mr. Gillespie’s barn, leads the readers to conclude that Darl is insane.

His insanity is closely knitted with a major mental illness of the time Faulkner was writing; Faulkner implicitly states that Darl suffers from PTSD. The novel, As I Lay Dying, was written right after the First World War. This socio-political background that Faulkner wrote in inevitably affected him to write about concurrent issues: the effect of World War One on human psychology which later develop into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This idea is reflected upon several details that Faulkner leaves behind. Firstly, Darl describes his “little spyglass he got in France at the war” (254) and laughs deliriously at the “pistol” (254) as he is transferred to the facility in Jackson. These allusions to the First World War imply that Darl has participated in the Great War and is most likely suffering from PTSD. Several well-known symptoms of PTSD also affirm of the claim. According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, a major result of PTSD consists of jittering, laughing and being hyper-alert of the surroundings. Not only his last chapters where he asks himself, “why do you laugh?” (254), but also several other accounts of Darl’s insanity mentions his laughter. Cash comments that “[Darl] began to laugh… he couldn’t hardly say it for laughing… it was bad” (238). Also, in his last chapter, Darl’s “[head turn] like the heads of owls when he [passes]” (253) and later, “he foams” (254) deliriously shouting “yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes” (254). Both his behavioral traits of sudden seizure and frequent impulsive glances side by side are symptoms considered a part of hyper-alertness. Darl’s laughter in combination with his other abnormal behaviors is the foundation to Faulkner’s successful introduction of a social issue into the story.

Although Darl’s behaviors show traits of insanity, his narrative style and other characters’ reactions toward Darl testify against the notion. In the early chapters of the book, Cora describes Darl to be “different from those [other brothers]” (21) yet he makes her feel “the bounteous love of the Lord… and His mercy” (24) when she “[loses] faith in human nature” (24). The human comfort that Darl gives to Cora questions the lenses of mental illness that other characters have for Darl. If a person is subject to insanity, can he or she show love and mercy of the lord? Also, Darl uses the most cultured language of the narrators. He uses meticulous yet unfathomable selection of vocabulary such as “shimmering dilapidation in the sunlight” (4) and “smooth undulations the mark of the adze blade” (4) even describe his situation. He has the most correct and formal use of the English language. He possesses the predominantly educated method of conveying his ideas. Moreover, he poses philosophical questions and answers them using sophisticated logical argumentation that halts the readers for a moment to make them think of what he tries to say. He says that he “haven’t got [a mother]” (101) since “if [he] had one, it is was. And if it is was, it cant be is” (101). This quote demonstrates Darl’s capability of intellectual reasoning and furthermore, his sanity.

As it has been discussed, categorizing Darl sane or insane, black and white, is an impossible task. Darl’s characteristic of ambiguity creates chaotic rush of questions within readers. The breakdown of conventional distinctiveness of sanity raises fundamental doubts about society. If sanity and insanity is indistinct, what defines them? To counter these queries, Faulkner uses Vardaman and compares him with Darl. Doing so, Faulkner creates two different societies to address the very characteristic of sanity.

Vardaman is also considered insane by other characters. Primarily, Vardaman is the youngest of the narrators. Faulkner successfully distorts the innocent and pure voice embedded in Vardaman’s perspective into insanity in two distinct ways. Firstly Vardaman has a distorted perception of reality. He first comments on how his “mother is a fish” (84). He not only repeats the statement but also dedicates a whole chapter to the specific sentence: “my mother is a fish” (84). This distorted reality starts to conflict with Darl’s as they interact with each other in the context of their mother’s non-existence. Vardaman’s question: “then mine can be a fish, cant it, Darl?” (101), shows how Vardaman’s internalized reality starts to take over his relationship with other characters. This insanity in Vardaman is reinforced by other viewpoints. Tull describes Vardaman as “a judgement on Anse Bundren” (72). This explicitly shows that nurturing Vardaman has been a burden to the Bundrens. This then implies that the reasons behind hardship are founded upon the mental illnesses that Vardaman has.

Vardaman’s ideals, similar to Darl’s, are oppressed by the society; regardless of Vardaman’s sanity, and indeed through his impeccability, the society chooses to subjugate Vardaman. Vardaman, as a child had only his selfish yet innocent motives to continue his journey toward Jefferson. Vardaman comments on the train and expresses his desires toward it, although not explicitly. Vardaman comments that “the train is behind the glass, red on the track. When it runs the track shines on and off… When it runs on the track shines again” (66). He then adds that “[the train] will be behind the glass… waiting” (100). Vardaman’s implementation of his own aspiration on the toy train visualizes Vardaman’s pure sincerity toward his goal. Vardaman’s constant craving for train drives him to take on the journey. The reason may seem absurd compared to the main objective of the trip: the burial of his mother. However, it seems the most innocent compared to hidden goals that other family members had; Anse wanted new fake teeth, Jewel wanted a wild horse, and Dewey Dell wanted to get an abortion from the doctors near Jefferson. Although most of the character’s hidden desires are fulfilled, only Vardaman’s wish is left unsatisfied and instead, rejected by the society. Vardaman successfully communicates his desire for the toy train to Dewey Dell. However, every time Darl asks for the train, Dewey Dell declines the request with excuse of the journey. This vexation of Vardaman aspiration represents the society’s failure at accommodating the innocent and the naïve when those with higher social status yet an impure dream have successfully reached their objective. This shows that although Vardaman is innocent and pure in his inside, the society refuses to accept it and thus oppresses Vardaman.

Due to these similarities, Vardaman and Darl seem to emphasize the parallelarity of each other, especially in the later chapters. Firstly, they identify each other as a bonded brother. Vardaman’s continuous repetition of calling Darl “our brother” (101, 249) helps the reader associate Vardaman’s identity especially with Darl. When Darl and Vardaman discuss about their analysis of their mother’s death, comparing her to several animals, Vardaman recalls the fact that Darl is his brother. Also, when Darl is being sent off to mental institutions, Vardaman desperately and repetitively says “Darl he went to Jackson is my brother Darl is my brother” (249). Faulkner distinguishing these words from the general text by using italicization shows how for Vardaman, Darl’s identity as brother overwhelmed all his current situations. This analysis of Darl as Vardaman’s brother leads to several parallel traits between them. Like how Vardaman projects a distinct love for Darl, Darl also shows great affection for Vardaman in particular. When all other family members ignore Vardaman’s sophistication of his mother’s death, Darl reacted to his thoughts and commented on them himself. Moreover, Darl and Vardaman are the only characters that share their frank ideas. Vardaman and Darl share their internal thoughts of their mother and her death to all characters, and more importantly with each other. Vardaman’s perception of his mother as a dead fish had persisted for several chapters. However, his thoughts are projected outward only to Darl. Similarly, although Darl has constantly depicted his complex conceptions of his mother to other characters such as Jewel, the only moment in the book where he engages with other character regarding the topic is with Vardaman. They talk to each other about how their “mother is a horse” (101) and “a fish” (101). Their conversation builds up level as they move on to conversing about the fundamentality of death: “because if I had [a mother], it is was. And if it is was, it cant be is…” (101). The interruption of this dialogue by another character also shows specialty and intimacy in Vardaman and Darl’s relation. This association highlights the commonality between the two characters: the insanity and the inadequacy to adjust to society.

The common traits along with their parallel life creates a different society of the two among the characters. This society contradicts the general public and thus becomes the minority. The two, as the only characters that can approach philosophical questions with level of sophistication, are discriminated by the group created by other characters. Using Vardaman and Darl, Faulkner creates a society of minorities that is oppressed and called insane by the bigger society. Also, by addressing the insanity of the major society, Faulkner answers the fundamental questions addressed earlier: What is the standard of insanity? What defines society?

An analysis of insanity prevalent among the general society reveals the connection between insanity and society. As discussed earlier, it is not the innate character in Darl and Vardaman, but the society’s characterization of them that classified them as insane. Also, most characters had different motives in committing an action. Anse, trying to look like a loyal husband carries the journey out to Jefferson. However, his acts of buying the fake teeth and introducing the children to the new Ms. Bundren right after the burial of his first wife can be easily interpreted as the deterioration of his morality. Cash’s description of Anse in the very last chapter being “kind of hangdog and proud… with his teeth and all” (261) creates irony between Anse’s projected motives and his real desire. Dewey Dell, as the embodiment of her mother, tries to portray herself as the loyal and subjugated female. However, her main purpose of going to Jefferson lied on her desire to get an abortion, again creating contradiction between her shadow and persona. These paradoxes show that the society that Darl and Vardaman live in is already corrupted by the immorality and evil, perhaps much more insane that themselves. This ambiguity on who really is insane is again addressed by Cash. In his later chapters, Cash states that he “aint so sho that ere a man has the right to say what is crazy and what aint” (238). This quote shows envisions that in reality, no one is definitively sane nor insane. Thus, through this ambiguation of insanity and Cash’s comment on the society and its irony of blaming other people for being insane, Faulkner conveys that classifying a person as insane depends on the society. He declares that no matter what an individual may be, if the individual cannot adjust to the changing trend of society, he or she is excluded from the it, being called insane.

All in all, Darl can neither be classified insane nor sane, like how Vardaman cannot be too. Also, using them as targets of subjugation in society, Faulkner reveals a bigger theme of the novel; insanity is not innate in human character but defined by society as inadequacy to adjust to it. Looking back at the period that Faulkner was writing the novel, the perspective toward mental illness is redefined. The patients of PTSD have suffered a lot and were traumatized by the war. Through As I Lay Dying, Faulkner asks the society; What if the soldiers were those who were enlightened by the war, being able to see the reality of death?


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