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Disintegration for Modernist Writers Essay

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The motifs of disintegration in the modernist literature

Modernist currents in world literature represent a total departure from the 19-th century understanding and realization of the literary form and content. Moreover, being the ideological product of late western society, modernist literature was destined to become an embodiment of those manifold social processes and contradictions tearing apart the fabric of western society as a cultural entity. On the level of personal experience and human life, which is the most frequently used material in the literature, these processes deeply influenced human consciousness and people’s relations to their living conditions. The dissolution of the religious explanation and image of the world, changes that had taken place in economic and social structure, a new role of “inhuman” science, and life rationalization in society undermined existing identities and personal orientations and led to “depersonalization” of human relations. There is no denying the fact that these real conflicts found a specific incarnation in the literature that is characterized by its own expressive means and is heavily dependent upon formal parameters. The abovementioned social processes can be described as disintegration on different levels: the ideological disintegration – loss of faith in the future, in God, etc., various forms of social and personal alienation, and the dissolution of traditional socially predetermined structures – family, friendship, relations between men and women, etc.

The disintegration as it happens on these levels made many writers revisit the widely spread canon of literary work that dominated world literature for many years. The new motif of disintegration becomes the major feature of the works of such modernist writers as diverse as J. Conrad, T.S. Eliot, J. Joyce, F. Kafka, M. Proust, A. Camus (and other existentialists), etc.

Different and sometimes opposite currents within modernism itself make it difficult to create a comprehensive picture of this literary phenomenon in this essay that is why we are going to draw our attention to the analysis of the disintegration in the masterpiece of the outstanding representative of American modernist literature William Faulkner – “The Sound and the Fury & As I Lay Dying,” which is in my view is the best example of such phenomenon as disintegration. We shall analyze different levels of realization of disintegration content such as literal and symbolic ones, which requires a comprehensive analysis of literary form peculiar to such modernist writers as Kafka and Proust. And, in conclusion, we shall describe how the utilization of disintegration images is tied into the work’s greater meaning and purpose.

Disintegration in Faulkner’s “As I lay dying”

The plot and composition of this literary work provide us with striking examples of disintegration. It is evident that Addie Bundren, who is by no means, not the main character of the novel, can be described as the “transcendental object” (in the Kantian sense) of the disintegration images Faulkner produces. Disintegration is first realized in relation to the dying Addie and then to her corpse that accompanies the unfolding of the story and “arranges” characters’ relations vis-à-vis Addie and each other.

As Robert Merrill notes, what makes the novel look so modernist is a unique combination of tragic and comic that cannot be characterized as tragicomedy but constitutes two at the same time separate and interconnected processes.

This combination counts for the unique sense of desperation and disintegration that Faulkner’s novel (“As I lay dying”) produces on the reader. Addie’s eldest son Cash builds the coffin for his dying mother, which she can see while lying in her bed. Vardaman makes the holes in the coffin, so Addie can breathe.

Darl reassures his brother Jewel that he can feel comfortable for the people who gathered after the death of their mother, which is good evidence that Jewel’s horse hadn’t died. Jewel feeling insulted by the fact that non-relatives would see his mother on the death bed, and that’s why he nurtures the obsessive idea to hide his mother’s body on a high hill and stay with it. Anse Bundren, Addie’s husband, finds a good pretext to fulfill his promise to bury Addie in the city in the possibility of buying new false teeth and finally to find a new wife the day after he buried Addie.

Such examples are in abundance in Faulkner’s novel. The combination of tragic and comic makes clear the absence of something essentially human – love, kindness, tenderness. These feelings are absent even in relation to Addie – mother and wife. Faulkner hyperbolizes this hollowness and stupidity of alienation, which makes it even more pronounced. But the absence of love cannot be described in terms of subjective perspective, dependent on the personal “inhumanity” of the main characters. It is more profound and seems to be a quite objective projection of the total disintegration of intersubjectivity.

This phenomenon can be characterized as a kind of isolation. As Calvin Bedient defines it: “In As I Lay Dying life is conceived as the antagonist, living is “terrible,” the protagonist self is alone: a naked and isolated consciousness in a broad land. This nakedness, this dreadful isolation, is already a kind of defeat, a form of abjectness so that the utmost to be expected from the mind in its continual conflict with the world is simply a capitulation without dishonor… In Faulkner, then, pride binds but at the same time lacerates; there is a distance between people which, except in rare instances, cannot be closed… In both the characters and the form that presents them, it is the isolation that is basic and substantive”.

This all-embracing isolation is fully evident in the character of Darl, who is well aware of it and, at the same time, is the only one who really loves Addie and mourns for her. But even here, Faulkner doesn’t make any concessions – Darl is rejected and despised by his mother. This two-fold metaphor ties, on the one side Addie and her relatives, and on the other, Addie and Darl shows the impossibility to break the vicious circle of isolation, where everything human is marginalized. Whatever the term used to describe this phenomenon (isolation, disintegration, alienation), it deeply affects the consciousness of the main characters in “As I lay dying.”

The levels of disintegration and the greater meaning of the literary work

As I mentioned, modernism deeply transformed the structure of literary work. Modernist writers paid special attention to form, which as they thought was the main component of literary work. Symbolism became dominant current in modernist literature. As T.S. Eliot, one of the most subtle modernists, wrote, the “mythic method” was a great advance in literature in comparison to the «narrative method”. The temporal attitude to history was replaced by concentration on a deeper discursive level, which exists autonomously of time and social space.

The symbolism as a method found different realizations in the works of modernist writers. Such modernist writers as Kafka and Proust represent widespread tendency to overestimate the importance of form, which inevitably leads to the loss of the plot integrity and destruction of the form itself (the latter is evident in the works of postmodernists.

This formalistic approach led Kafka to the dissemination of the “life absurdity thesis” and Proust – to the infinite regress into subjectivity not tied with the rest of the world, encapsulated and closed within its own meanings and prejudices.

This formalistic approach results in the vagueness and diffusiveness of the greater idea of the literary work and makes the unjustified attention to small clusters of reality prevail. These segments of reality are supposed to reveal the monadic structure of the world. The deeper level of reality is not even a problem for such formalistic-style modernism, for it asserts that “the deepest thing is skin” (famous utterance of Paul Valerie).

The disintegration by means of formalism is reproduced just at the other level and is left perpetual. The unrestrained domination of form led this modernist current to the inevitable elitism. As N. F. Cantor notes, “From science to literature and art, Modernism was a culture of the elite”.

Faulkner’s modernism represents another approach to literary form, which is characterized by the protest against the literary form hypostasis. Faulkner’s method, which can be deduced from his immortal formula of “smelting worldly into apocryphal,” goes in line with his personal understanding of the writer’s humanistic and social role. That is why the symbolism in his novel “As I lay dying” is playing a subordinate role. To state it plainly, symbolism in Faulkner’s use ties the literal meaning of disintegration with the greater meaning and aim of the whole literary work. The literal level of disintegration in the novel can be characterized as the dissolution of interpersonal ties and the cognitive dissonance resulting from that. The lack of love for mother, alienation, desperation, and loss of faith can be well-produced in a simple narrative manner for which the 19-th century novelists are well-known. This narrative manner of real contradictions’ expression was abandoned in modernist literature, and Faulkner was not an exclusion from this rule. In fact, the disintegration phenomenon, which became evident at the beginning of the 20-th century in the West, required changes in a literary method. As I noted, its realization was not always appropriate and balanced. But Faulkner managed to find the golden middle between outdated narrative method and formalistic approach.

The symbolism used in “As I lay dying” can be described as an expressive tool to maximize the effect of disintegration.

Among the main symbols/metaphors Faulkner used to this end are Addie’s coffin and corpse, the dead Addie’s monologue, various tragicomic exaggerations of characters which is evident in Darl’s, Cash, Dewy Dell behavior. Combined with literal terrifying images that are abundant in the novel, these symbolic meanings deliver a great sense of disintegration rooted in reality reproduced in the novel.

But unlike the representatives of “radical modernism,” Faulkner manages to save the positive ideological meaning of the formal modernist approach. Faulkner makes form be dependent upon content and builds the dialectical interrelation between them, which allows him to state the author’s position and formulate the greater idea of the novel.

Faulkner, as I noted above, thought that the “registering” of crude factual material and coquetry with form are not enough for the writer. A writer, according to William Faulkner, has to be socially responsible and must try to find the possibility for change even in the disintegration. Faulkner was a great humanist and always believed in a better future for humankind, which literature could help to build. Despite the tragic characteristics of Faulkner’s novel, he reserves the place for positive changes and the idea of overcoming disintegration. The characters such as Cash, Dewy Dell, Jewel, Darl, notwithstanding the symbolic exaggeration of their personal drawbacks, are endowed by Faulkner with some positive, deeply human feelings. They are the victims of life falling apart but are by no means the cause of disintegration. Disintegration is the “second nature” exerting pressure and suffering on them, autonomous and objective process of social being. Faulkner sees love in retreat but never defeated – that is a great meaning of Darl’s love to Addie. The disintegration as it is presented in the main characters is not meant to invoke anger or disdain; it is deeply tragic and moving. Hence Faulkner’s combination of symbolic and literal levels not only serves the function of “estrangement” (in Schklovsky’s sense) of disintegration but leaves room for realization of his greater idea of humanism. That what gives Faulkner such an outstanding place in modern literature and explains the progressive character of his personal and professional position.


  1. Bedient, Calvin. “Pride and Nakedness: As I Lay Dying,” William Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying’: A Critical Casebook. Ed. Dianne L. Cox. New York: Garland, 1985. 95-110
  2. Cantor, Norman F. Modernism to Deconstruction Modernism to Deconstruction. New York: Peter Lang, 1988.
  3. Eliot, Thomas S. “Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” The Dial LXXV (1923): 483.
  4. Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying: The Corrected Text. New York: Vintage Books, 1987.
  5. Merrill, Robert. “Faulknerian Tragedy: The Example of ‘As I Lay Dying.” The Mississippi Quarterly 47.3 (1994): 403-418.
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