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Exploring Expressionistic Inexpressibility in William Faulkner and Edvard Munch

Veronica holds a Master's Degree in Literature from American University and has a passion for literary and film analysis.

(Figure 1) Edvard Munch, "The Dead Mother and the Child" (1897-9)

(Figure 1) Edvard Munch, "The Dead Mother and the Child" (1897-9)

Exploring Expressionistic Inexpressibility in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Edvard Munch’s The Dead Mother and the Child

When looking at the various classifications of modernism in painting and literature of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, William Faulkner and Edvard Munch are not typically paired in sharing a similar modernist perspective. In terms of intertextual, literary-painterly studies, Faulkner’s novels, particularly As I Lay Dying (1930), are often analyzed alongside pieces from the Cubist or Impressionist movements, and though his Expressionist qualities are recognized they are rarely examined. Faulkner as a writer lends himself to many of these modern art movements fairly well, and this may have to do with the fact, as Richard P. Adams remarks, that “Faulkner has also been a draughtsman and painter in his earlier youth, and he always looked at things with a painter’s eye” (Tucker 389). He is also believed to be directly influenced by Impressionism, but many Faulkner-Impressionist theorists evoke a suggestive Impressionism in his work that “cannot be shown to be false, but their truth is equally indemonstrable” (Tucker 389). Faulkner theorists who examine literary-painterly analogies, such as John Tucker, find that Faulkner is primarily a Cubist, though others like Ilse Dusoir Lind, find that his links to Symbolism and Expressionism are more vital to his modernistic goals, particularly when considered alongside As I Lay Dying:

I do not myself view As I Lay Dying as being primarily a cubistic work, but rather as a symbolist or even possibly an expressionistic undertaking – as the projection of the thoughts and feelings of many individuals (and of the artist himself) around the idea of dying (Tucker 389).

Through their different styles and mediums, Faulkner and Munch express many of the same thematic issues, including death, anxiety, and alienation, but also horrifyingly comical, perceptual exaggeration. It is possible that Faulkner may have never viewed the works of the Expressionists or was in any way influenced by their movement, but there are striking similarities between the alienated and often grotesque portrayal of Munch’s subjects and the perceptions of the characters of As I Lay Dying. By looking specifically at the character Vardaman Bundren in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying alongside Munch’s Dead Mother and Child (1897-9), I hope to demonstrate these modernists’ common aim of intermingling horror with ‘humor,’ distortion with ‘reality,’ and alienation with connection in order to produce lingering effects of disorientation, and a modern conveyance of inexpressibility that stays with the reader/viewer.

Faulkner and Munch’s common modernist goals, much like modernism in general, are not easily defined. There are certain characteristics of modernism, however, that were important to both artists’ techniques, and it is these aspects that reveal a foundation in Expressionistic thought and serve as a link between the two modernists’ artistic achievements in complicating simplified notions of personal experience—such as life, death, and the relationship between a mother and child. According to Daniel J. Singal, who analyzes Faulkner’s specific type of modernism but looks at the goals of modernism in general, “Modernist thought represents an attempt to restore a sense of order to human experience under the often chaotic conditions of contemporary existence” (8). Singal goes on to say that modernists attempt to “fus[e] together disparate elements of experience into new and original ‘wholes’” (10). Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane insist that Modernism involves “the interpenetration, the reconciliation, the coalescence, the fusion – of reason and unreason, intellect and emotion, subjective and objective” (Singal 10). Both Faulkner and Munch’s modernism works within these definitions, but do not strictly adhere to them. Through their different techniques, Faulkner and Munch do not mimic human experience so much as they attempt to render it both recognizable, as a kind of universal inner truth, and inexpressible. By fusing together “disparate elements” and emotions, such as horror and humor and reason and unreason, Faulkner and Munch use art ‘experience’ to evoke new ideas surrounding our impressions of human experience.

These definitions of modernism tie in well with the Expressionist movement, and with the notion of the grotesque in particular, in that the Expressionists usually put greater emphasis on strong feelings than their modern art contemporaries in order to “reduce[e] dependence on objective reality […] to an absolute minimum, or dispensing with it entirely” (Denvir 109). Bernard Denvir defines Expressionism as moving away from realistic description, to the exaggerated expression of emotion:

In its wider sense [Expressionism] is taken to describe works of art in which feeling is given greater prominence than thought; in which the artist uses his medium not to describe situations, but to express emotions, and allows it to be manipulated beyond currently accepted aesthetic conventions for that purpose (109).

In Munch’s painting, as with Vardaman in Faulkner’s novel, inexpressible feeling is given greater prominence than thought, highlighting the idea that emotions are able to transcend the barriers of language and realism where thought is unable to do so. Denvir goes on to say that “Above all else, [Expressionism] emphasized the absolute validity of the personal vision, going beyond the Impressionists’ accent on personal perception to project the artist’s inner experiences […] on to the spectator” (109). The “validity of personal vision” is enhanced for the spectator by the subject that the artist chooses “which in itself evokes strong feelings, usually of repulsion – death, anguish, torture, suffering” (Denvir 109). These powerful themes are capable of reaching the spectator/reader on an emotional level first and foremost and render thought, language, and ‘realistic’ description as incompatible with what is being presented. The reader/spectator then feels the experience without being able to truly articulate that experience.

“Death, anguish, torture,” and “suffering” which are used by Expressionists to “evoke strong feelings” of repulsion, seem incompatible with humor, but horrifying humor in the form of the grotesque is prevalent in both Munch’s paintings and As I Lay Dying, and is a common theme with several Expressionists. The Oxford dictionary describes the Expressionists as:

characteristically reject[ing] traditional ideas of beauty or harmony and us[ing] distortion, exaggeration, and other nonnaturalistic devices in order to emphasize and express the inner world of emotion […] [they] insisted on the primacy of the artist’s feelings and mood, often incorporating violence and the grotesque (my emphasis).

In the context of Expressionism, the grotesque represents the “logically impossible combination” of “comedy and tragedy” (Yoo 172). This seemingly simple definition opens up many complications for traditional ways of thinking, and it is in this way that it suggests a modernist agenda. According to Young-Jong Yoo, the grotesque in literature:

calls into question the adequacy of human beings’ way of organizing the world. Through its deformation of generic categories, the grotesque foregrounds an epistemological skepticism because it shatters the reader’s confidence in his or her rational faculties.

Furthermore, the grotesque presents a worldview characterized by flux, paradox, and indeterminateness (178).

The paradox of combining comedy and tragedy not only “shatters” the reader/viewer’s “confidence,” but also bring about “a metaphysical anxiety and uneasy laughter to the reader because the world described through the grotesque is an estranged world where ordinary logic and hermeneutics does not apply” (Yoo 178). According to Yoo, the “unnatural merging of different categories […] foreground the problem of understanding reality” (184), and this is highlighted by the viewer/reader’s complicated emotional response. The grotesque is ultimately disorienting; by breaking down the “normal categories that we use to organize reality” it “insinuates that reality is not as familiar or comprehensible as we have thought,” exposing the familiar and natural to be strange and ominous (Yoo 185).

Edvard Munch’s Dead Mother and Child (Figure 1) illustrates fear, anxiety, alienation, incomprehensibility, and grotesque qualities that parallel Faulkner’s depiction of Vardaman in As I Lay Dying, and point towards their similar modernist achievements. Munch was known to have frequently stated “I paint not what I see – but what I saw” (Lathe 191), and it is this statement that seems to separate him from the Impressionists by showing that art is capable of working like a memory; it can portray a purely emotive experience outside of thought, reality, and the present moment, and without attempting to achieve sensual realism. Many of the subjects Munch paints are often believed to be reflections of his personal life, and often appear memory-like in their blurring of detail and the inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Munch’s mother died when he was five, and one of his favorite sisters when he was thirteen, and these deaths are believed to be profoundly significant to his work. He also grew up with a doctor for a father who worked in poverty-stricken neighborhoods, which promoted “an atmosphere dominated by the ideas of death, disease and anxiety, and the images of this period of his life were always to remain with him” (Denvir 122).

Dead Mother and Child is oil on canvas, approximately 105 x 178.5 cm. The painting depicts a windowless, mostly bare bedroom, where a child in a red dress, presumably a young girl, stands in front of the bed where the dead mother is lying. Five men and women appear on the other side of the bed, somewhat behind it, and seem to be pacing, mourning, paying their last respects, and giving their condolences. The representation of these people contrasts heavily with the young girl, who is clearly the focal point of the painting, and serves as a source of anxiety, fear, horror, and other indefinable emotions that would otherwise be absent from the scene. We can only really make out the faces of the mother and the child; the mother’s sleep-like peacefulness contrasts with the child’s wide eyes and mouth. The position of the little girl, with her arms up and her hands on the side of her head as if in terror or seizure of strong, inexpressible emotion, is a popular position of Munch’s subjects. Ashes (Figure 2) and, Munch’s most famous painting The Scream (Figure 3) show subjects in a nearly identical position to the little girl, and though they are within different contexts, all three suggest the subject’s alienation through her/his inner angst.

(Figure 2) Edvard Munch, "Ashes" (1895)

(Figure 2) Edvard Munch, "Ashes" (1895)

In Dead Mother, this alienation is highlighted by the contrast between the child and the other people in the painting. Unlike the others who only suggest movement with their bodily stances, the girl actually appears to be moving in spite of her bodily stance, and in a faster motion than everyone else. This movement is suggested by her arms and dress. The girl’s dark-colored arms are surrounded by several translucent arms, as if the arms are moving quickly, and her red dress at certain points blends with the orange tones and curvy brushstrokes of the floor, whereas the adults’ clothes are clearly outlined and distinct. These adults are also occupying a separate space from the girl despite the fact that they are in the same room, and the bed in between them increases the feeling of her alienation. Also, unlike the adults, the girl is looking straight at the viewer, pulling the spectator into her experience as she looks out with urgency.

Among the adults, who are dressed in black, there is one woman in white, perhaps a nurse, who almost seems attached to the bed where the dead mother lies. The outline of the woman’s dress actually continues into the outline of the sheet that covers the dead mother, as if the dress that covers her body is no different than the sheet that covers the mother’s body. The woman in white is not only visually attached to the white bed, but almost acts like a mirror image of the mother; both have pale skin, dark hair, and are facing the door of the bedroom. These parallels subtly underscore the incomprehensibility of annihilation that the child is experiencing: that one moment a mother may be alive, the next moment dead; from a moving figure about the room to something that has dissolved into the inanimacy of the bed. With the exception of some outlining, the mother in the painting completely blends with the bed that she lies on as if accentuating the idea that she has transformed from subject to object.

Though the mother and child’s faces are discernible, they lack significant detail, and the adults’ faces are primarily missing, making their expressions unreadable. Yet, it is the child’s face that is evoking such powerful emotion, in an exaggerated, almost cartoonish, mode of facial expression: raised eyebrows, black dots that indicate wide eyes, and a mouth in the shape of a circle. According to Carla Lathe, Munch “distanced himself from conventional reproductions of people’s physiognomy, and tried instead to express their psyche and personality, sometimes exaggerating in order to stress important features” (191). The child’s face, in spite of the anxiety and anguish it expresses, is comical in its exaggeration; though viewers may not find the child necessarily ‘funny,’ her cartoonish face becomes grotesque in its comedic rendering of exceedingly tragic emotions. Though the child is not the most clear-cut example of Munch’s implementation of the grotesque in his work, she still retains characteristics of the grotesque that successfully disorient the viewer; the strange yet familiar expression causes the viewer to question if he/she actually knows what the child is experiencing, and complicates our simplistic notions of that experience as outsiders.

(Figure 3) Edvard Munch, "The Scream" (1893)

(Figure 3) Edvard Munch, "The Scream" (1893)

Dead Mother along with many of Munch’s paintings almost seem as if they could be illustrations of scenes straight from Faulkner’s novel (for example, Dewey Dell could easily be either woman from Fertility II [1902] or Man and Woman II [1912], and something about Jealousy [1895] and Spring Plowing [1916] is reminiscent to Darl and Jewel), and this most likely has to do with their similar expressionistic characteristics and modernist agendas, such alienation, death and dying, the grotesque, and finding ways of expressing the inexpressible. Vardaman from As I Lay Dying very well could be the child in Munch’s painting at the moment of his mother’s death; both artists express the transition from the mother subject to object, and the inability of the child to cope with such a transition. While the family gathers for Addie Bundren’s final moments, Vardaman personally connects with Addie during her transformation from life to death and is unable to comprehend this inexplicable moment: “She lies back and turns her head without so much as glancing at pa. She looks at Vardaman; her eyes, the life in them, rushing suddenly upon them; the two flames glare up for a steady instant. Then they go out as though someone had leaned down and blown upon them” (42). The impact of this transition from subject to object turns Vardaman into the child in Munch’s painting, a grotesque, round-mouthed cartoon that is both tragic and comedic:

From behind pa’s leg Vardaman peers, his mouth full open and all color draining from his face into his mouth, as though he has by some means fleshed his own teeth in himself, sucking. He begins to move slowly backward from the bed, his eyes round, his pale face fading into the dusk like a piece of paper pasted on a failing wall, and so out of the door (43).

Though theorists speculate on whether Vardaman is a young child, mentally challenged, or is experiencing a “regression sparked by emotional upheaval” (Tucker 397), it seems more likely that he is, as Faulkner explains, “a child trying to cope with this adult’s world which to him was, and to any sane person, completely mad. … He didn’t know what to do about it” (Yoo 181). Just like Munch’s child that is separate from the adults that visit the dead mother with an irrational (yet normal in terms of societal conventions) calm grief, Vardaman emphasizes the incomprehensible madness of death itself. As Eric Sundquist points out, the “problem presented by the mother’s death is that for her sons especially she is both there and not there; her body remains, her self is missing” (Porter 66). For Sundquist, this contradiction is “reflected formally in the fact that Addie herself speaks after her death has apparently occurred” (Porter 66). Indeed Addie’s chapter emphasizes the ability for certain things, in reality, to be beyond words, and verifies Vardaman’s experience:

That was when I learned that words are no good; that words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at. When [Cash] was born I knew that motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the ones that had the children didn’t care whether there was a word for it or not. I knew that fear was invented by someone that had never had the fear; pride, who never had the pride (159).

Going along with Addie’s line of thinking, death is another invented word for an inarticulable experience, especially the death of a mother. The relationship between a mother and a young child is as powerful and inexplicable as the violent breaking of that bond through death. Vardaman and the child in Munch’s painting convey an inarticulable emotional experience that is immediate and recognizable to the viewer/reader while emphasizing that what they are conveying cannot truly be understood through language or in any tangible terms.

Vardaman’s grotesqueness, like Munch’s child, stems from his fusion of the tragic and comedic, but also reason and unreason (this is another characteristic of the grotesque that Yoo points out), and it is this fusion that actively participates in disorienting the reader. Vardaman in many ways is similar to his older brother Cash in that he is highly logical and rational, but his youth and the trauma of his mother’s death transform rationality into empty reasoning that will never reach the understanding it seeks. André Bleikasten notices that Vardaman consistently “breaks any whole down to its constituent parts; thus, instead of ‘we’re walking up the hill,’ he says ‘Darl and Jewel and Dewey Dell and I are walking up the hill’”(Yoo 181). Breaking down the “whole” is one of the ways that Vardaman attempts to understand the world around him, but it is not as successful when dealing with death, since death proves to be incapable of being broken down into understandable, relatable parts. Vardaman also makes efficient use of comparison and contrast in order to make sense of the world around him (Yoo 181): “Jewel is my brother. Cash is my brother. Cash has a broken leg. We fixed Cash’s leg so it doesn’t hurt. Cash is my brother. Jewel is my brother too, but he hasn’t got a broken leg” (210). It is his tendency for comparison and cause-and-effect analogies that lead him into absurdity when it comes to attempting to understand and cope with Addie’s death: drilling holes into her coffin; blaming the doctor for murdering her with his arrival; and, most importantly, his attempt to recapture the moment prior to her death by linking that moment with the cutting up of the fish he had caught (“Then it wasn’t and she was, and now it is and she wasn’t” [60]), and then later encapsulating that inarticulate desire and fear within Addie herself, as a faux conclusion and representation of the failure in reaching the understanding he strives for (“My mother is a fish” [75]).

Both Faulkner and Munch successfully promote a modern Expressionist disorientation through their child subjects. As children, Vardaman and the girl from Munch’s painting are separate from the adult world and its conventions, and because of this separation and alienation, they are able to evoke a pure emotional experience that is not yet tainted by adult modes of thinking – which only dull and simplify that experience through language and adherence to conventions (such as funerals, coffins, and the naming of ‘death’). By using the grotesque, Faulkner and Munch use a distorted logic (Vardaman) and exaggeration (the child) that shatter the confidence of the audience and complicates their perceptions of grief and grieving, death and dying. The reactions of Vardaman and the child over the death of the mother reawaken the idea of the inexpressibility of powerful experience and return the audience to a state of awe at these typically oversimplified or overlooked moments. In this way, Faulkner and Munch share a modernist agenda and demonstrate that they have more in common than most critics and theorists care to imagine. Their foundations in Expressionist concerns, and their similar interpretations of those concerns, make them unconscious allies in breaking with literary and painterly tradition and returning audiences to the spectacle and grotesqueness of personal experience.

Works Cited

  • Denvir, Bernard. "Fauvism and Expressionism." Modern Art: Impressionism to Post-Modernism. Ed. David Britt. London: Thames & Hudson, 2010. 109-57. Print.
  • "Expressionism." Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press, 2013. Web. 2 May 2013.
  • Lathe, Carla. “Edvard Munch’s Dramatic Images 1892-1909.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 46 (1983): 191. JSTOR. Web. 01 May 2013
  • Porter, Carolyn. "The Major Phase, Part I: As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, and Light in August." William Faulkner. New York: Oxford UP, 2007. 55-103. EBSCO Host. Web. 01 May 2013.
  • Singal, Daniel J. “Introduction.” William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist. The University of North Carolina Press, 1997. 1-20. Print.
  • Tucker, John. “William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying: Working Out the Cubistic Bugs.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 26.4 (Winter 1984): 388-404. JSTOR. 28 Apr. 2013.
  • Yoo, Young-Jong. "Old Southwestern Humor and the Grotesque in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying." 7Sesk (2004): 171-91. Google Scholar. Web. 28 Apr. 2013.

© 2018 Veronica McDonald