Title: As I Lay Dying
Author: William Faulkner
One of William Faulkner’s finest novels, As I Lay Dying, originally published in 1930, remains a captivating and stylistically innovative work. The story revolves around a grim yet darkly humorous pilgrimage, as Addie Bundren’s family sets out to fulfill her last wish: to be buried in her native Jefferson, Mississippi, far from the miserable backwater surroundings of her married life. Told through multiple voices, As I Lay Dying vividly brings to life Faulkner’s imaginary South, one of literature’s great invented landscapes, and is replete with the poignant, impoverished, violent, and hypnotically fascinating characters that were his trademark. (from Goodreads)
Thoughts: I read this book in high school, but it was a real pleasure to revisit it again. Told through 15 different points of view, the story concerns the Bundren family and their dying matriarch Addie. When the story opens Addie is on her sick bed; propped up on pillows, she faces the window, outside of which she can see her son Cash constructing her coffin. Despite his wife facing imminent death, Anse insists that his sons Jewel and Darl complete an errand for their neighbor as ‘it’s worth three dollars.’ When they return, their mother has died. Years ago, Addie made Anse promise that he will have her buried in the town of Jefferson, where she is originally from and where her family is buried. Despite the fact that recent rains have washed away all nearby bridges, Anse insists on fulfilling her last wish.
Well, that’s this book on the surface, but in truth its much more then that. The novel is told in a stream of conscious narrative and, in fact, the novel is more about what is going in the characters’ minds in response to increasingly horrible circumstances: Addie’s death, the disaster fording the river, Cash’s injury, the barn fire, and the eventual events that take place in Jefferson, then about the journey to town. The events unfold amongst a background of black comedy and a growing sense of tragedy.
While outwardly the Bundren family is grieving Addie’s death, inwardly this is not the case. Besides fulfilling Addie’s last wish, Anse is just as insistent on burying her at Jefferson so that he can get a new set of teeth while he is there. Dewy Dell is so consumed with worry over her out of wedlock pregnancy that she does not grieve her mother’s death; all her attention is focused on how she is going to obtain an abortion once she reaches town. Jewel, his mother’s favorite, cares for his horse more then he does his own mother, and doesn’t even say goodbye to her. Young Vardarman, struggling to understand his mother’s death, becomes convinced that she was turned into a fish, associating his mother with the fish he caught the day she died. Darl is the only family member who truly morns his mother and understand just how ridiculous their situation is, dragging their’s mother’s water logged coffin through the hot woods for days, vultures following their every move. After several disasters, Darl attempts so stop his family’s lunacy by burning down the barn her coffin is kept in one night while they are traveling. Fearing that the owner of the barn will sue him, Anse, and the rest of his children, agree to have Darl committed to a mental institution when they reach Jefferson. The sanest and most normal member of the family ends up being locked up for mental instability!
But as I said, the book really isn’t about the plot. It’s more about exploring the interiors of the character’s minds. What Faulkner does so well, and what I enjoyed the most, was the distinct voices he created for each character. All of the characters are uneducated and speak ungrammatically, but each voice is distinctive with its own rhythm, thought process, and its own way of viewing the world. And the characters manage to convey deeply introspective and sometimes movingly philosophical musings despite their lack of formal education. Here’s an example:
In a strange room you must empty himself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I don’t know what I am. I don’t know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is not. He can not empty himself for sleep because he is not what he is and he is what he is not. Beyond the unlamped wall I can hear the rain shaping the wagon that is ours, the load that is no longer theirs that felled and sawed it nor yet theirs that brought it and which is not ours either, lie on our wagon though it does, since only the wind and the rain shape it only to Jewel and me, that are not asleep. And since sleep is is-not and rain and wind was, it is not. Yet the wagon is, because when the wagon is was, Addie Bundren will not be. And Jewel is, so Addie Bundren must be. And then I must be, or I could not empty myself out for sleep in a strange room. And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is. – Darl, 76
… obviously this sort of writing can take some getting used to, just as all stream of conscious writing can be a bit of an adjustment. But what’s great is that in these passages there are some really beautiful, thoughtful moments placed within the near constant overflow of thoughts:
It takes two people to make you, and one people to die. This is how the world is going to end.- Darl, 38
How often I have lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.- Darl, 76
And of course, the one passage that is so important that it get’s a chapter of it’s own!:
My mother is a fish.- Vardaman, 79
The structure, format, the different narrative voices, and the black comedy are what make this book, in my opinion, special. I really enjoyed rereading it and rediscovering things that I had forgotten! If you’re interested in reading a staple of Southern Literature, exploring stream of consciousness in writing, or want to experience a master of narrative voice, then you should definitely check this book out!
Have you read this book? What is your favorite Faulkner?