Faulkner’s style in this novel varies according to the character who is narrating the section. The subtle variations in the style are one of the notable achievements of this novel. There is not a glaring and abrupt change from section to section; there is still the continuity of the same author behind each section, but there is enough variation to make each narrator distinctly different.
The technique that Faulkner uses in many of the sections is called the “stream-of-consciousness” technique. Prior to the twentieth century, an author would simply tell the reader what one of the characters was thinking. Stream-of-consciousness is a technique whereby the author writes as though he is inside the mind of the characters. Since the ordinary person’s mind jumps from one event to another, stream-of-consciousness tries to capture this phenomenon. Thus in many sections, notably in the Vardaman and Darl sections, everything is presented through an apparently unorganized succession of images.
Each of the fifty-nine sections in this novel, therefore, represents the inner thought of the character who is narrating the section. This technique reflects the twentieth-century development, research, and interest in the psychology of “free association” and the inner thoughts of people. As a technique, stream-of-consciousness was popularized by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. But Faulkner’s use of this technique is probably the most successful and outstanding use that we have yet had. Even while using this technique, Faulkner varies it enough so as to capture the essence of each character.
Darl is the most complicated character in the novel, and so his sections reflect a mind that is contemplating the intricacies of life. The style is more complicated and the presentation is essentially through poetic imagery. From Darl we receive views of the other characters that penetrate into the very heart of that character. And these views are often expressed with an acute eye for detail. Thus Darl’s sections are complicated and the most difficult to penetrate because Darl is the most complex character and his thought process is the most involved.
But Cash’s sections are quite different. Cash can think of only one thing at a time. While he is building the coffin, he can realize no other concept. Therefore, his narration is exceptionally simple and is captured in the section where he lists in thirteen steps exactly how he is building the coffin. Thus, whereas Darl was a complicated character and his resulting narration was complicated, Cash’s narration is extremely simplified because Cash can handle only one thought at one time.
Dewey Dell’s narration is again quite different. She says that she wishes she could worry, but she also confesses that she can’t think about anything long enough to worry about it. Since she is so basic, so earthy, and so elemental that she can’t think about one thing very long, her sections seem to jump from one thought to another. The closest that she comes to logical thought is when she tries to reason about her own seduction. Therefore Faulkner adapts his style to presenting a careless, elementary woman who functions only on a physical level.
With Vardaman, we have another type of difficulty. Faulkner wanted to show us the confused mind of a mentally slow youth. In order to convince the reader that Vardaman was able to confuse his mother with a fish, Faulkner had to show a mind that jumped from one thought to another. He tried to show how one association led to another rather similar association. There are no difficult words because the mind of a boy like Vardaman would naturally be simple. But the sections are not simple. Since this mind does not function logically, Faulkner records the mind’s thinking in terms of basic images. For the most part, these images involve the death of the fish, the death of his mother, being caught in a barn, and being unable to breathe. Gradually these associations are made into one image with the resultant statement by Vardaman: “My mother is a fish.” Thus Faulkner has achieved a stylistic success by suggesting the functioning within the mind of an illogical person but has still brought enough order to that mind so that the reader can follow his thoughts.
In Jewel’s one section, Faulkner has Jewel contemplating mute acts of violence. This is a mind that can express itself only through acts of violence and thus Jewel narrates only one section.
Addie’s section is narrated in terse, cryptic, and expository prose because Addie is a person who has tried to solve some of the basic problems of life and has failed. Therefore, she tends only to state her views in rather direct terms, especially since she maintains that words are useless.
Anse’s sections reveal the hypocrisy of the man and furthermore comically reveal how he has deluded himself into thinking himself sincere. He narrates his sections rather simply and in a chronological order because he is not concerned with anything except that which affects his own person.
The outside narrators all function to enlighten some aspect of the Bundren world or to fill in with some factual material. Thus the outside narrators all present their sections without any degree of complication. Each varies according to the personality of the narrator. For example, Cora Tull expresses herself in terms of superficial religious imagery, and Dr. Peabody expresses himself in terms of blunt, sarcastic accusations.
So Faulkner’s virtuosity is seen by the way he adjusts his style to fit the mind of each individual narrator. From Darl’s poetic observation to Vardaman’s confused associations to Cash’s literal-mindedness, Faulkner’s style shifts in order to lend additional support to his subject matter.