January 11, 2016


As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner / Ulysses by James Joyce

The great modernists did not share postmodernists’ suspicion of science. Leopold Bloom, for example, the protagonist of James Joyce’s Ulysses, has physics concepts banging around in his head that reflect Joyce’s genuine curiosity about new discoveries in astronomy and other fields. In the Ithaca chapter of Ulysses, Bloom points out constellations in the night sky, a “heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit,” and reflects on the startling revelation, new at the time, that all stars are in motion. He speaks of “the parallax or parallactic drift of socalled fixed stars, in reality evermoving wanderers from immeasurably remote eons to infinitely remote futures in comparison with which the years, threescore and ten, of allotted human life formed a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity.” (Ulysses, p. 573) Parallax is a word that appears repeatedly in Bloom’s thoughts throughout the day of June 16, 1904 as he himself wanders like a star around Dublin, and in Joyce’s hands parallax becomes a poetical trope—perhaps the organizing trope in that novel.

Parallax means a perceived difference in the location or direction of an object depending on your particular vantage point. You can see an example of parallax just by holding up your finger and closing one eye and then the other—the finger appears to move relative to a more distant background. If you hold the finger really close to your face, you actually see different sides of the finger with each eye. Joyce employs a sort of literary parallax when he attempts to see a single event, place, or person through the eyes of one character and then through another; we see Stephen Dedalus’s introspective view of himself and Leopold Bloom’s view of him from without. The effect is a multidimensional kind of seeing, a simultaneous apprehension of multiple facets of one thing that reveals reality in more detail, just as the integration of the different viewpoints of our two eyes allows us to see reality more clearly, in three dimensions.

Since William Faulkner considered James Joyce “the father of modern literature” (Inge ed., p. 79), it seems likely Faulkner was following Joyce’s example in his poetical uses of parallax. But Faulkner goes even farther with it than Joyce. The Sound and the Fury retells the same events from three different perspectives and then from an omniscient authorial perspective. In As I Lay Dying, there are 15 different narrators who reflect on the same principal events and characters from their differing points of view. Furthermore, Faulkner sometimes likes to flip his lenses as quick as an optometrist. For example, Dewey Dell Bundren sees Vernon Tull as she rides by in a wagon:

We turn into Tull’s lane. We pass the barn and go on, the wheels whispering in the mud, passing the green rows of cotton in the wild earth, and Vernon little across the field behind the plow. He lifts his hand as we pass and stands there looking after us for a long while. As I Lay Dying, p. 122

And the next moment, in a literal parallax that comes just three sentences on, we see the wagon in which Dewey Dell sits from inside Vernon: “After they passed I taken the mule out and looped up the trace chains and followed. They was setting in the wagon at the end of the levee.” (As I Lay Dying, p. 123) A quick-fire parallax also occurs on pps. 248-250. In a chapter written from a druggist’s perspective, the druggist asks the young boy Vardaman, “You want something?” Then comes a chapter from Vardaman’s perspective; in it, the boy hears the exact same words: “You want something?” Notice that the effect of the literary parallax is not to call into question what was actually said, but to see different sides of one objective fact.

Vernon Tull never mentions parallax by name, nor ponders the latest astronomy, but like Leopold Bloom he takes a direct interest in the concept of parallax, thinking on it with a seriousness that’s partly obscured by his country speech. When he crosses the river with the Bundrens, leaving his mule on the other side, he imagines his former viewpoint, holding the two parallactic positions in mind together:

I looked back and saw the other bank and saw my mule standing there where I used to be…. When I looked back at my mule it was like he was one of these here spy-glasses and I could look at him standing there and see all the broad land and my house sweated outen it…. p. 138

It’s Darl Bundren, however, who’s the master of imagining other perspectives. He gets more chapters than any other character in As I Lay Dying; like an author, he describes vividly certain scenes at which he wasn’t present; and his interior monologue hews closely to that “labyrinthine-poetic” mode which is the hallmark of Faulkner’s style across all his books. Vernon Tull says that Darl looks at you “like he had got into the inside of you, someway. Like somehow you was looking at yourself and your doings outen his eyes.” (p. 125)

Darl and William Faulkner, masters of parallax.