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[391] As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner

” I can remember how when I was young I believed death to be a phenomenon of the body; now I know it to be merely a function of the mind—and that of the minds of the ones who suffer the bereavement. The nihilists say it is the end; the fundamentalists, the beginning; when in reality it is no more than a single tenant or family moving out of a tenement or a town. ” (Section 11, 43-44)

As I Lay Dying reveals a single action over a limited number of days (roughly 10), as the Bundren family, braving disasters in the form of flood and fire, embarks on a journey from Yoknapatawpha County to Jefferson, where they will bury Mrs. Addie Bundred, who is dying as the book opens, at her family site. It’s obvious from the beginning that Addie was for most of the Bundrens a stabilizing force, whose death has not only aroused in every family member an inquiry to identity, but also provokes an adherence to her last words. As a promise to the dead, the preposterous journey is to fulfill the need to bury Addie in Jefferson even though it puts the family at risk of life and limbs.

It must have been like a piece of rotten cheese coming into an ant-hill, in that ramshackle wagon that Albert said folks were scared would fall all to pieces before they could get it out of town, with that home-made box and another fellow with a broken leg lying on a quilt on top of the wagon . . . (Section 45, 203)

Strange and bleak as the story sounds, it’s also hilarious and absurd. The absurdity of the situation somehow mingles with a heroic aspect that verges on the mock-heroic. Addie’s eldest son, a skilled carpenter, builds the coffin with calculation and passion, keeping his mother the progress of her final home. Anse, the sluggard of a husband, feels little sympathy for his dying wife. Later on the journey, after braving an overflowing river, instead of treating Cash’s broken leg, Anse, pining for some “goodstore teeth,” is bent on reaching the burial ground. As I Lay Dying is a drama of a damaged family, with each member, Addie included, searching for a wholeness that cannot be restored. Indeed, as the deceased Addie reveals, much later in Section 40, that Jewel, high-strung, impulsive, and heedless, is the illegitimate product of her affair with the preacher Whitfield, it explains Jewel’s secret employment at night in order to save money to buy a horse, which he assures Anse will not eat a bite of his food.

And at times when I went to go to bed she would be sitting in the dark by Jewel where he was asleep. And I knew that she was hating herself for that deceit and hating Jewel because she had to love him so that she had to act the deceit. (Section 32, 130)

The Bundren children, along with Addie and Anse, as well as other outsiders all contribute to the 59 narrative monologues that make up the novel. The story itself begins with the dying Addie and ends with her burial. She is the alpha and mega: her sons who in their different ways are obsessed with their mother, desperate for her approval and love, but perpetually dissatisfied. She is the center of the novel because even though she has betrayed her husband, she still controls everyone’s life. Whereas all exists in the same reality, the mode of language and perception alters this reality. Sometimes it’s the outsiders who possess a better grasp of this reality than the Bundrens. If the Bundren children do have a common ground in this reality, it would be an object or issue through which they filter their mother’s death: Darl with questions of existence and identity, Jewel with horses, Vardaman with fish (the famously succinct one-line chapter that equates his mother to a fish), Cash with his carpentry, and Dewey Dell with her sexuality.

Faulkner writes in a style characterized by great complication and variety, render a story that is simple in itself very difficult to read. The layered subjectivity that individualizes the monologues can be intermittently readable. The deluge of pronouns takes some getting used to. As the “homeward” journey presses on, the narratives also become more rational. Each narrative reveals just enough information to help understand the story, as the wagon metaphorically suggests, knowledge is obtainable only by friction and motion. This originality of style helps reinforce the implication that there is no absolute perception of reality.

261 pp. Vintage Softcover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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6 Responses

  1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. This is the only Faulkner novel that I like. I still have some of his to read but I almost stopped reading him after The Sound and the Fury because I hated it so much!

    • In college I had to read The Sound and the Fury for a literature course. I had a tough time truding through all the layered subjectivity and stream of consciousness. That experience defaulted my impression of Faulkner and his works: one that was not very positive, an intimidation that is the root to my reluctance in further perusal of his work. The Light in August, which I read recently is lighter and more accessible. I decided to try As I Lay Dying, which is also named one of his more difficult but canonical works, before I attempt The Sound and the Fury again.

  2. This novel was one of the last last assigned for my class on Literature of the American South and, as my second experience with Faulkner, I felt like it went much better this time. I was fascinated by the plant/earth motif running through the chapter Addie was given to speak, and my class had some great discussions on whether or not the story had a “villain” and what role the tension between Darl and Jewel made to the novel. Thanks for another great review of a fantastic book, Matt!

    • The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying are almost no escapes in most college humanity curriculum. I’ve never read this one but had such excruciating memory with The Sound and the Fury. I feels the tension right from the beginning, when Anse, insisting on fulfilling his wife’s late words, to embark on the excursion despite putting the entire family at risk. Although Darl is on a one-way ticket to madness, I feel that he is most in touch with issues and secrets of the family. He is prone to his sister’s pregnancy, and that Jewel is not his birth-brother. Because of his sensitiveness, he becomes the one who is least convinced about making that journey.

  3. Interesting review. I enjoyed reading As I Lay Dying, but in the end I felt like I had missed something. The events seemed so bizarre, albeit strangely humourous, but I kept feeling that there was some underlying message that had gone completely over my head. Your review has helped me to realize that I’m not a dunce after all 🙂

    • I think it’s more challenging book than Ulysses in some aspects. AT least Ulysses didn’t leave me as many questions as As I Lay Dying does. The most interesting character to me is Darl, who is also very “out there” with his sensitivity and delirium. I feel he is most in touch with his mother, as well as secret of each family member. He knows who Jewel’s father is. He knows Dewey Dell is pregnant. He is very much in touch with emotions—almost too much that he is slowly descending into madness. Although the family mission is accomplished, the ending makes me all in haywire! Especially the new Mrs Bundren!

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