When I was assigned to read a timeless novel by a classic writer for my English class, I chose William Faulkner. Why? He’s supposed to be one of the most influential Southern writers of the twentieth century; he even won a Nobel Prize. Though I had never read much Faulkner, I had enjoyed one of his short stories, and I knew that if an author could hook me in a mere ten pages, he could certainly capture my attention in over 200.
I selected “As I Lay Dying” because it featured a plot set in Faulkner’s famous fictional town of Yoknapatawpha County, a frequent setting in many of his works. Just as it sounds, “As I Lay Dying” is a book about death. But rather than just feeling like a funeral, Faulkner actually explores all sides of death, particularly the turmoil faced by loved ones of the deceased.
“As I Lay Dying” is the story of the Bundren family who has just lost a wife and mother, Addie. The novel is told from the perspectives of 15 different narrators, with all of their accounts juxtaposed by chapter. We’re introduced to Anse, Addie’s stubborn but lazy husband who has promised he will bury her body in her hometown of Jefferson, Mississippi. Cash is the oldest son, a skilled carpenter who obsessively builds Addie’s coffin rather than grieving openly. Darl is the odd one, very insightful and intelligent but ostracized by the rest of his family. Then there’s Jewel, Addie’s illegitimate son from a secret affair. Jewel is completely callous, despite being his mother’s favorite child. Dewey Dell is the only daughter, and she is hiding an out-of-wedlock pregnancy from the rest of her family. Last is Vardaman, the youngest child, who is confused by his mother’s death and offers a very unique and innocent perspective on the situation.
Neighbors and friends also comment throughout the novel as the Bundrens embark on a long journey to bury Addie. Always cursed by bad luck, the family encounters every obstacle imaginable on this Homer-esque odyssey across the state.
Despite all their external troubles, the story is more focused on the inner plight each character faces, whether they are struggling to accept Addie’s death or just to accept one another. Oddly enough, this family severely lacks love, so the extreme measures they take to fulfill Addie’s dying wishes seem quite ironic. Their perseverance is likely the result of unreasonable pride rather than true respect for the dead.
At times, the characters are hard to like, but their selfish ways make them all the more real. Faulkner never glosses over an ounce of pain or resentment, but instead reveals each and every flaw, so that there is no real protagonist or antagonist. Death isn’t the enemy; quite frankly, it almost seems more tragic to be alive in this novel.
Additionally, Faulkner’s “stream of consciousness” technique allows readers to get inside each character’s head. This makes the story more realistic, but it also makes it harder to follow due to the many incoherent thoughts of the main characters and the rough Southern slang. That being said, “As I Lay Dying” is a book that will infuriate you, sadden you and confuse you, but it is also a book that you will never forget.
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