Literary Shelf

Show Not Tell

Although language is the most powerful medium of communication, often times, words are used to take the place of other important entities. We tend to talk our way out of important things that should be expressed in other, more effective, ways. In As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner illustrates that although people use them to replace actions, emotions, and people, words are in inadequate substitute for most things. Through specific relationships and events in the novel, Faulkner says that words can not fully hide the absence of particular key elements in life. They are meaningless entities used as a scapegoat to free from things that should be otherwise accomplished. 

Faulkner illustrates this theme most appropriately with Addie and Anse Bundren. When Anse promises to bury Addie in Jefferson after her death, his promise (the words he uses) become a replacement for his love. She says that "he had a word… love he called it. But [Addie] knew that that word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack," of love she felt from Anse. (pg. 172) She says that instead of showing her love, Anse replaced his actions with mediocre syllables. Anse's words did not fulfil the gap left behind by his insufficient actions. Through these characters, Faulkner conveys the message that in the world of love, words are never a stand in for true physical affection. He says that love is an action emotion. People need to be shown love instead of merely told about love. Words can lead you so far, but they do not completely overcome the absence of true devotion. Faulkner says that Anse and Addie did not understand each other's affection because it was never shown it was only talked about. Actions of love speak louder than words. Words should be an accessory to the actions of affection instead of a replacement. 

When Addie speaks in her only monologue, she further emphasizes Faulkner's point of words taking the place of more important topics. She confesses that she uses the word "mother" to replace real love for her second born son, Darl. Addie says, "motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for [love]." Since Addie believes that motherhood can be a word for love, she puts her thoughts into action when she is "tricked" into having Darl. Instead of showing Darl that she loves him, she carries out her motherly duties hoping that they will adequately replace love. Even she admits that these duties are only a copout for her true affection. She uses her duties to say love, instead of showing love itself. The duties are merely duties, and even she knows that these do not show Darl the love that he yearns to see from her. Addie uses words to characterize things that are not as they seem. To escape from actually loving Darl, Faulkner shows that Addie comes to understand that her word for love is not an actual replacement for it. The word merely ineffectively attempts to fill the lack of love between a mother and her son. 

Language is an empty craft without proper confirmation. The relationship between Addie and her first born son Cash, illustrates Faulkner show not tell theme. Addie knows that she never had to tell her son she loved him because it was a mutual understanding through their respective actions. She knew that "when the right time came, you wouldn't need a word for [love] anymore. Cash did not need to say it to [Addie] nor [Addie] to him" to prove their love. (pg. 172) They showed their emotions and affection through their deeds instead of words. Faulkner says that the words were meaningless once the actions were displayed and words are just used when the true feelings of individuals aren't displayed through actions. Cash's labor is his love. He shows his mother that he loves her by working very hard to make the coffin ready for her death. He works "all day long right under the window, hammering and sawing" and letting his mother see the effort of his hard work. (pg. 19) That way she knows that he is working for her and this work is translated into meaning that he loves her. Addie sees this and knows that her son loves her without him having to actually say those words. Faulkner means that love is more powerful and unquestionable when expressed through one's actions. Words become meaningless and unnecessary when people show their affection. 

To solidify his point, Faulkner gives another example of a relationship where actions are effectively used instead of meaningless chatter. Jewel, Addie's favorite son is a man of action. Faulkner allows Jewel to save his mother's coffin twice during their journey to Jefferson. In doing this, Jewel emphasizes his love for his mother. Addie sees that her son loves her because he continually tries to save her from an untimely and inappropriate burial. Faulkner uses these scenes of saving Addie to indicate that Jewel's actions of heroic deeds show Addie more love than then the words he could have spoken to her. Jewel's inarticulate forceful ways are used to show his mother how strongly he feels for her. In this sense, action is a perfect replacement for Jewel's words. Addie values his actions more than any of the words he might have shared with her. Again, Faulkner emphasizes that there is a mutual unspoken love between a mother and a son that is understood through actions.

Towards the end of the novel, Faulkner's theme of meaningless words is further proven when he forces the reader to think about the title of Mrs. Bundren. Faulkner says that the name Mrs. Bundren is a mere word that can be occupied by any individual. Within days of Addie's death, Anse marries a duck - shaped woman and proclaims the woman by saying, "meet Mrs. Bundren". The words here are specific and important because Anse did not say meet my new wife. Instead Anse calls her Mrs. Bundren, implying that a new woman has taken the title. If Anse believed that Addie was the only person that could be Mrs. Bundren, he would have not allowed another woman to take her place in that role. However, his actions show that the name was just an entity and not a person. The word was just as meaningless as the marriage between Anse and Addie. The title (the word) becomes just an article that can be passed around from person to person. In this manner, Faulkner shows that words take the place of real people. The word Mrs. Bundren is not an individual, but a title that can be carried by any woman. The title itself has no meaning it is just a word.

Language is the universal method of arbitrary communication. We use words to get out of more difficult things. We talk instead of implementing those words into critical actions. We believe that this talk will sufficiently replace those important deeds. In As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner illustrates that words hide important feelings and they are used as an escape from action, emotion, and title. Words are worthless if they are not accompanied by proof. Faulkner illustrates that we must show not tell our affections and feelings. We must actively make sure that we convey the correct messages to other people through various forms of interaction. Language may be the most widely used form of communication, but it is not always the most affective.    


More by :  Tanvi Patel

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