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Labeling And Deviance In Faulkner's As I Lay Dying

By Edited Jul 16, 2015 0 0


Labeling seems a necessary cognitive shorthand, a social extension of classifying instincts that enable us to quickly distinguish between the dangerous and desirable, the edible and the poisonous.  More directly, it serves our purposes to label others; so well that it seems to have risen to the status of reflex. The story of As I lay Dying provides a context in which labeling is used in order to leverage force against another. Anse could either reimburse the inconvenienced family for their barn or simultaneously vent his frustration with Darl and exonerate himself from financial obligation by allowing to proceed the labeling process that will declare Darl insane and worthy of the asylum. In the community as a whole there certainly exists enough anecdotal evidence of  Darl's eccentricity to make the label stick, even despite the fact that Darl is in fact perfectly rational and perhaps super-rational.

But the main thrust of labeling theory emerges from the consideration that although the generation of a label itself might be nebulous and somewhat illogical, its resultant force of characterization is very real. Darl’s complex consciousness in fact holds the key to deciphering the rest of the narrative, but nevertheless he winds up essentially insane, both conceptually, in that his paradigm is at odds with that of the status quo, and circumstantially, in that he will really be committed to the asylum. Of course, for Darl's declared status to become truly legitimized in the eyes of this theory, he would need to resentfully rebel against his new role.

Lemert speaks of isolated but robust subcultures in which an eventual deviant may receive training that will place him at odds against the conventional mainstream culture into whose midst he will rise. In this case, it is not so much that Darl is an imprinted member of a subculture in the social sense, yet he still exists in a personal milieu with unique symbols and relations that serves the same purposes for abrasive differentiation.

The interesting thing about the case Faulkner presents, and the very facet that makes it exceedingly applicable to labeling theory, is the fact that Darl is not necessarily challenging the mainstream mores of his society on the symbolic level of his action. This is not a clear case of a flowering delinquency in which one’s friction against society mounts until he is labeled egregious by an alarmed majority. Arson is indeed itself a violent and shocking act, but given that Darl projected himself into his mother’s framework intuitively enough to know that only an impromptu cremation would give her the rest and dignity she sought from her wayward family’s abject endeavoring, it cannot be soundly stated that he was traditionally transgressive.

Essentially, his actions were initiated from a highly lucid vantage, but the “insanity” leveled against him comprised a set of social exigencies stemming from his disruption. As Lemert says in Primary and Secondary Deviation, “Whatever the original reasons for violating the norms of the community, they are important only for certain research purposes...”, going on to describe the network of personal and social contingencies that must also be present in order to complete the transformation to secondary deviance. Primary and Secondary Deviation, while asserting the ubiquity of labeling processes and our natural facility with them, nevertheless emphasizes that the labels themselves do not spring solely and immediately from eccentricity or misbehavior, but are instead shaped and intensified by a number of personal and social factors working in conjunction.

We hear echoes of this viewpoint in Goffman's descriptions of the highly malleable criteria for admittance to an asylum. From such stances, it seems more accurate to define "crazy", for some, as "having exhausted the patience of one's primary group while suffering from bouts of fearful self-doubt brought on by the more extravagant symptoms of emotional episodes" than it does to define it as "mentally unwell". One of Faulkner’s masteries concerns the perfectly human casting of the stilted and fallible reports from which histories and consensus are constructed. Stories written in this way are particularly alive because they demand this essential activity of assimilation and representation on the part of the reader, while embroiling him in the same foggy struggle for meanings and distinctions that the characters undergo.

Indeed, if a body sufficient to confer labels were privileged to the striking scene in which Anse, seemingly untroubled by his wife’s recent death,  enjoys his usual breakfast in apparent serenity, it might be compelled to deem him insane, or at least insensitive enough to deserve that branding.  In the context of the story itself, the qualitative difference between Darl’s decidedly egregious act and the follies, shortcomings and improprieties of his more favorably labeled family members does not fall within a discriminating moral matrix but exists simply in the flagrancy that renders his arson unignorable. More importantly, the labeling he suffered served the interests of the majority, insofar as his family could not reasonably be held accountable for the lashings-out of a disturbed member, and his condemnation probably served as a catharsis, with a satisfying ring of finality, to a thoroughly twisted and tested group of individuals. Some neighbor of this annoyance it likely at work when beleaguered families finally consent to the admission of one of their own.

Goffman offers insight to the nebulous nature of consequential definitions on page 134 of Asylums: “Separating those offenses which could have been used as grounds for hospitalizing the offender from those that are so used, one finds a vast number of what students of occupation call career contingencies.” Two such contingencies are “socio-economic status” and “visibility of the offense” making this section, which discusses the complex intersections that must occur in order to label someone, directly applicable to Darl.

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