As I Lay Dying / William Faulkner

Meet the Bundrens. A dysfunctional family who struggle with the death of Addie Bundren, mother and wife, in their own ways while each plagued by their inner demons.

As I Lay Dying, written by American author William Faulkner and published in 1930, is considered a classic, one of the great twentieth century novels. One of Faulkner’s most renowned works, it is best known for its wide cast of narrating characters (over 59 chapters there are 15 different narrators…!) and unorthodox structure, with lengthy chapters interjected with sentence-long chapters. Faulkner too utilises a writing technique known as stream of consciousness, where the actions and speech of the characters is connected and dispersed with thoughts, ramblings and inner monologues.

While by no means the first to use such techniques as stream of consciousness and multiple narrators, Faulkner is considered somewhat of a pioneer in his ability to evoke such an emotional and intimate piece. We are given the monologues of the flawed Bundrens, and the observations rife with (or without) sympathy from outsiders who watch as they pass.

Any dysfunctional family needs a struggling father figure. Anse Bundren is a stubborn, self-obsessed, god fearing man. He is preparing for the death of his bedridden wife, Addie, who watches from her window their oldest son Cash as he slaves away on a coffin, the very coffin which will carry Addie Bundren to Jefferson, Mississippi, the home of her family, when she dies.

Sons Darl, a strange, almost omnipotent entity, and Jewel, the illegitimate but favoured son of Addie, bastard born of a preacher, are taken away on an errand during their mother’s final days. When they return, Addie is dead and together the Bundrens set off on a long trip to Jefferson, coffin loaded in their wagon.

It takes two people to make you, and one people to die. That’s how the world is going to end. DARL

Due to the methods Faulkner uses during As I Lay Dying there is no real central protagonist, but Darl narrates the most chapters and would be the leading candidate for the role. Darl is perhaps the most intriguing character, for Faulkner seemingly gives him internal thoughts high above his actual intellect, for his external diction comes across as simple and few. He is even given an air of omniscience as he is able to report back on events happening while he is not there. Hard to pin down as he seems somewhat unstable, this is mentioned several times by characters who seem to agree Darl has a somewhat mystical quality. He burns the barn and appears to lose his sanity towards the end (carted off to a mental asylum), he is disconnected from the family and perhaps his experiences during the war in which he fought have led to his unhinged state. He taunts Jewel while they are both away from the Bundren household for work, questioning his parentage, something that is apparently unknown to the rest of the family.

In a strange room you must empty yourself 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 or not. He cannot 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 bought 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 are 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 for sleep in a strange room. And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is. DARL

Indeed, it could be that Darl’s perception is so strong, rather than being crazy, that leads him to act the way he does. We see him crying after Jewel has saved their mother’s coffin from the fire, and perhaps, seeing the arduous task that lies ahead (and perhaps Anse’s selfish intentions), he attempts to end this farcical trip that threatens to tear the family apart.

How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home. DARL

Jewel is a man of action, devoted to his mother and her memory. We always see him proactively attempting to move forward. Singlehandedly getting the coffin onto the wagon, rescuing it from the burning barn, and even selling his beloved horse in order for the Bundren’s to keep on their way to Jefferson. A product of an affair between Addie and Reverend Whitfield, Addie has a child she does not share with Anse and therefore has a bond with him stronger than any of Anse’s biological children.

The reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time. ADDIE

Addie’s chapter, roughly halfway through the novel, is haunting. Are we hearing Addie from beyond the grave, or are these her thoughts before she died? Either way, her morbid pessimism and discontent with life is hard-hitting. Some of the bleakest quotes in the book come from Addie.

He had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that that word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack; that when the right time came, you wouldn’t need a word for that any more than for pride or fear….One day I was talking to Cora. She prayed for me because she believed I was blind to sin, wanting me to kneel and pray too, because people to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too. ADDIE
as i lay dying

That was when I learned that words are no good; that words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at. When he 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. ADDIE

Cash is the eldest of the Bundren children, and a skilled and dedicated carpenter. One short chapter Cash purely dictates in detail the process of building the coffin for his mother. Logical and understanding, Cash seems the most balanced of the Bundren children, but for all this he near drowns crossing the river and has lost the use of a leg by the time Addie is in the ground.

Sometimes I aint so sho who’s got ere a right to say when a man is crazy and when he aint. Sometimes I think it aint none of us pure crazy and aint none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way. It’s like it aint so much what a fellow does, but it’s the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it. CASH

I feel like a wet seed wild in the hot blind earth. DEWEY DELL

Dewey Dell is the second youngest of the Bundren’s, and the only girl. She is pregnant, and much of her chapters focus on her own problems and how she plans to deal with them. She comes across as naive, and her age dictates much of her behaviour. She struggles with her identity, with her sexuality, and seems to have similar feelings about children and motherhood that her mother had. What’s worse, she is to be a single mother; the father, a worker on their farm, has given her ten dollars for an abortion, but Dewey’s lack of understanding and knowledge on the subject, as well as being unable to speak to anyone (for noone except Darl knows – and he shows little sympathy) make her life unbearable. Her chapters come across as selfish and careless about the situation around her but it is hard not to feel any sympathy.

I said to Dewey Dell: “You want her to die so you can get to town: is that it?” She wouldn’t say what we both knew. “The reason you will not say it is, when you say it, even to yourself, you will know it is true: is that it? But you know it is true now. I can almost tell you the day when you knew it is true. Why wont you say it, even to yourself?” She will not say it. She just keeps on saying Are you going to tell pa? Are you going to kill him? “You cannot believe it is true because you cannot believe that Dewey Dell, Dewey Dell Bundren, could have such bad luck: is that it?” DARL

The youngest Bundren child is Vardarman. His mother is a fish. At just seven years old his chapters are difficult to comprehend. He is just a kid, but a traumatised and confused kid. His attempt to give Addie breathing holes in her coffin only to bore into her face is almost grotesquely amusing, as well as tragic.

My mother is a fish. VARDARMAN

as i lay dying 2

There are a number of set pieces that build up platforms for the characters to stand upon and they either stand or fall. Some can handle the pressure and sorrow, others fall by the wayside, lose themselves on the journey.

It can be difficult to follow the narrative. Some scenes overlap and are described from different perspectives. From a different point of view the same scene can come across very differently. The river crossing and the burning of the barn; some of the details are lost and not immediately revealed. It can take a while for the current situation to be clear, and past events clarified. Throughout, Faulkner scatters some beautiful prose, often through Darl’s stream of thoughts.

The river itself is not a hundred yards across, and pa and Vernon and Vardaman and Dewey Dell are the only things in sight not of that single monotony of desolation leaning with that terrific quality a little from right to left, as though we had reached the place where the motion of the wasted world accelerates just before the final precipice. DARL

The ending is almost comical; Anse returns with another woman, a new wife, taken just hours after Addie has been put in the ground. You can sense the children staring with mouths agape, and while his philosophy of isolation is flawed, at the end of the novel he has new teeth, and he has a new wife. His dishonorable actions have worked in his favour. And this, the father of these characters. He has ultimately used his family for his own wants.

“It’s Cash and Jewel and Varadaman and Dewey Del’, pa says kind of hangdog and proud too, with this teeth and all, even if he wouldn’t look at us. ‘Meet Mrs Bundren’, he says.” ANSE

As I Lay Dying can be a challenging read. Not immediately accessible, it may require patience. Still, I enjoyed it and appreciate the style and the feel Faulkner has used masterful effect.

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