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Everything Is Illuminated and As I Lay Dying

Introduction to Comparison of Experimental Devices

Although the concept of ‘experimental writing’ is one that cannot be defined in great precision, it is more often than not associated with a type of writing technique which invokes meaning that is immediately clear to the reader and at the same time, obviates the urge and need to further discuss the ideas presented (Motte, 2018). Experimental devices used in literature often aim to reveal something about the story, or its characters. This essay examines the experimental devices William Cuthbert Faulkner uses in his As I Lay Dying and compare and contrast these devices with those used by Johathan Safran Foer in his Everything Is Illuminated.

Experimental Devices in Everything is Illuminated

Everything is Illuminated is Foer’s debut novel whose main character in the novel also happens to be named Jonathan Safran Foer. The story of the novel is based on an actual journey that Foer himself took to Ukraine. The novel has a storyline that far from the average one a reader would expect as it has three narrative strands with seem to connect is rather abstruse ways that may often confuse the reader but at the same time lead to astonishing testimonies of survivors of the Holocaust (Bentley, 2018). Apart from employing multivocality as an experimental device, Foer goes a step future and employs broken English, nonlinearity, and magic realism.

Through the use of broken English, Foer aims to prompt various discussions of linear narrative form and tradition and how such realism falls short in the discussion of the underlying Holocaust trauma presented in the novel. Additionally, the use of magic history as an experimental literary device is seen in the second strand of the book where Jonathan (the character in the book) is seen writing to Alex about the journey. These chapters can be read into as the magic realist faux history of Jonathan’s ancestors. Since Jonathan himself had not experienced the Holocaust first-hand, he had pieces of information mission which he filled magic-like moments (Hyzy, 2013). Additionally, since the trauma and horror of the Holocaust were so great, he can only explain the past by using the fantastic. Using magic elements allows Jonathan to relive the past but from a safe distance by attempting to make sense of a situation as seemingly impossible as the Holocaust with the help of magic.

The third experimental device Foer uses in this novel is the use of a dual perspective to explore intergenerational trauma suffered by those who had to experience the Holocaust. The two narrators of the novel, Jonathan and Alex, live out a dynamic of the Holocaust while they themselves are two generations removed from the experience. Foer makes use of inversions of both insides and outsides and the consequential disruption of boundaries to investigate ways to connect people who have been divided by barbarities such as the Holocaust (Propst, 2011).

The broken English of Alex, Johanthan’s tour guide often serves to provide a sense of comic relief in an otherwise serious novel. It is this style of narration that makes the impact of the novel all the more dramatic, sad, and funny all at the same time. Robert Kohn (2007) appreciates Foer’s narrative technique and clever use of experimental devices in Everything is Illuminated and says that the result of this is “an extreme postmodernism that could have been a spoof of the genre, except that is about the Holocaust”.

Experimental Devices in As I Lay Dying

In As I Lay Dying, William Faulker has presented himself as a modernist writer as far as his narrative technique goes. The novel is presented as being conscious by comprising of modern devices and techniques of narration as well as having a modern structure.

The first experimental device Faulkner employs in this novel is the stream of consciousness as his first method of narration. By using the stream of consciousness, Faulkner has attempted to express the chaotic flow of thoughts in the mind of his characters. As part of the experimental technique, Faulkner has also inculcated the soliloquy where characters not only introduce themselves but introduce other characters as well through soliloquies (Campbell, 1943). Much like how a typical experimental novel is expected to be, Faulker’s characters, too, are complicated and odd. While Darl is psychologically complex, Jewel was proud of being Addie’s most favorite son. Almost all characters are found to be afflicted with psychological complexities.

Apart from the stream of consciousness, Faulker also employs the mythic method as an experimental device. Faulkner has derived multiple characters from Greek mythology. For example, he describes Jewel's horse in terms of Pegasus, the mythical winged horse of Greek mythology. Also, Jewel is characterized and described as by some of the very same characteristics as god Dionysus and while Jewel is definitely not much like Dionysus, god Dionysus's characteristics are used as a yardstick to measure Jewel against and to indicate how fallen he is in comparison to the pedestal of Dionysian.

The third experimental device Faulkner uses in As I Lay Dying is the use of back flashes. To provide readers with important and intrinsic information of the past, Faulkner was under the pressure to use an effective narrative technique which can be seen in chapters 32, 39, 20, and 41 where he does so with special caution (bachelorandmaster, n.d.). It is through flashbacks that the reader gains insight into the crime of adultery committed by Whitfield. Additionally, the readers are also informed about how Anse and Addie came into marriage via loveness courtship. The narrative device of flashbacks used by Faulkner is an experimental technique to help fill in the gaps of the storyline.

Another technique Faulkner employs in this novel is not having one fixed protagonist but rather a number of them. While characters such as Darl are rather straightforward in the narration of their story, others such as Jewel and Cora tend to express their thoughts in a rather contradictory and confused manner. 

Comparing the Two Novels

Both As I Lay Dying and Everything is Illumotaed are experimental novels in techniques employed by Faulker and Foer in their respective novels. Since they are both experimental in nature, there are bound to be some similarities in the devices used in both the texts. One such similarity is the use of language in both novels. While Foer employs the character of Alex to use broken English, Faulker completely dismisses the use of punctuation in his employment of the stream of consciousness. The use of language in both texts plays a key role in the overall meaning of the novels. In the case of As I Lay Dying, the use of soliloquies and what the characters think is more important than the story itself (Shodhganga, n.d.), the use of broken English to display a historical tradition and culture of Jews in Everything is Illuminated, the use of langue provides details of the story more than the story itself. How the story is narrated is more important than the story itself. 

A noticeable contrast between the narrative technique of the two novels is the employment of a single protagonist versus the use of multiple protagonists. As observed above in this analysis, the main protagonist in Foer’s Everything is Illuminated is Jonathan while Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying has multiple storytellers and multiple protagonists. Additionally, while Foer aims to fill in the gaps of missing information unknown by the protagonist of his novel, Jonathan, with the use of the fantastic, Faulkner, on the other hand, makes use of flashback to fill in the gaps and to provide the reader a holistic view.

There is a similarity into an underlying theme of mortality as one explores circumstances from the Holocaust and the other aims to explore the responses of one's death in an attempt to make sense of the nature of existence. Additionally, While As I lay Dying alternates between colloquial and the stream of consciousness storytelling (Ross, 1975), Foer, in his Everything is Illuminated, does not alternate in this regard as far as his narration goes.

Conclusion on Comparison of Experimental Devices

Although the storyline of both As I lay Dying and Everything is Illuminated is almost similar in that they are both in a quest to understand the past and return to their homeland, the innovative techniques and devices used by both the writers are different sine they both aimed to provide different outcomes of their respective novels. Through the use of multivocality, dual narrative technique, and broken English, Foer has made effective use of the innovative technique to create an effective novel while Faulker has aimed to do the same but with different experimental devices such as the stream of consciousness, flashbacks, and mythic methods in his As I Lay Dying.

References for Comparison of Experimental Devices

Bachlorandmaster. (n.d.). Narrative technique in Faulkner’s as I lay dying. Retrieved from https://www.bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanfiction/narrative-technique-in-as-i-lay-dying.html#.X2rPTmgzbIV

Bently, E. (2018). A new way of speaking: Johathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated and effective forms of Holocauset literature. Retrieved from https://scholarworks.harding.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1002&context=honors-research

Campbell, H. (1943). Experiment and achievement: As I lay dying and the sound and the fury. The Sewanee Review, 51(2), 305-320.

Hyzy, E. (2013). The fantastic in Jonathan Safran Foer’s “everything is illuminated” to solve Holocuast dilemmas. Retrieved from https://publications.lakeforest.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1083&context=allcollege_writing_contest

Kohn, R. (2007). Foer’s everything is illuminated. Explicator, 65(4), 245-247.

Motte, W. (2018). Experimental writing, experimental reading. Studies in the 21st Century Literature, 42(2), 1-13

Propst, L. (2011). “Making one story”? Forms of reconciliation in Jonathan Safran Foer’s “everything is illuminated” and Nathan Englander’s “the ministry of special cases”. Ethics of Storytelling, 36(1), 37-60.

Ross, S. (1975). Shapes of time and consciousness in as I lay dying. Texas Studies in Lierature and Language, 16(4), 723-737.

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