As I Lay Dying (novel)
|As I Lay Dying|
First edition cover
|Genre(s)||Modernist novel, Southern Gothic, black comedy|
As I Lay Dying is a novel by American author William Faulkner. Faulkner said that he wrote the novel in six weeks and that he did not change a word of it. Faulkner wrote it while working at a power plant, published it in 1930, and described it as a "tour de force." Faulkner's seventh novel, it is consistently ranked among the best novels of 20th century literature. The title derives from Book XI of Homer's The Odyssey, wherein Agamemnon speaks to Odysseus: "As I lay dying, the woman with the dog's eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades."
The novel utilizes stream of consciousness writing technique, multiple narrators, and varying chapter lengths.
Plot summary 
The book is narrated by 15 different characters over 59 chapters. It is the story of the death of Addie Bundren and her family's quest and motivations – noble or selfish – to honor her wish to be buried in the town of Jefferson.
As is the case in much of Faulkner's work, the story is set in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, which Faulkner referred to as "my apocryphal county," a fictional rendition of the writer's home of Lafayette County in that same state.
Addie Bundren, the wife of Anse Bundren and the matriarch of a poor southern family, is very ill, and is expected to die soon. Her oldest son, Cash, puts all of his carpentry skills into preparing her coffin, which he builds right in front of Addie’s bedroom window. Although Addie’s health is failing rapidly, two of her other sons, Darl and Jewel, leave the farm to make a delivery for the Bundrens’ neighbor, Vernon Tull, whose wife and two daughters have been tending to Addie. Shortly after Darl and Jewel leave, Addie dies. The youngest Bundren child, Vardaman, associates his mother’s death with that of a fish he caught and cleaned earlier that day. With some help, Cash completes the coffin just before dawn. The women have Addie placed in the coffin backwards so that the flared part of the coffin will allow the wedding dress she is buried in to be unwrinkled; Cash complains that this has caused his carefully designed coffin to become unbalanced. Vardaman is troubled by the fact that his mother is nailed shut inside a box, and while the others sleep, he bores holes in the lid, two of which go through his mother’s face. Addie and Anse’s daughter, Dewey Dell, whose recent sexual liaisons with a local farmhand named Lafe have left her pregnant, is so overwhelmed by anxiety over her condition that she barely mourns her mother’s death. A funeral service is held on the following day, where the women sing songs inside the Bundren house while the men stand outside on the porch talking to each other.
Darl, who narrates much of this first section, returns with Jewel a few days later, and the presence of buzzards over their house lets them know their mother is dead. On seeing this sign, Darl sardonically reassures Jewel, who is widely perceived as ungrateful and uncaring, that he can be sure his beloved horse is not dead. Addie has made Anse promise that she will be buried in the town of Jefferson, and though this request is a far more complicated proposition than burying her at home, Anse’s sense of obligation, combined with his desire to buy a set of false teeth, compels him to fulfill Addie’s dying wish. Cash, who has broken his leg on a job site, helps the family lift the unbalanced coffin, but it is Jewel who ends up manhandling it, almost single-handedly, into the wagon. Jewel refuses, however, to actually come in the wagon, and follows the rest of the family riding on his horse, which he bought when he was young by secretly working nights on a neighbor’s land.
On the first night of their journey, the Bundrens stay at the home of a generous local family, who regard the Bundrens’ mission with skepticism. Because of severe flooding, the main bridges leading over the local river have been flooded or washed away, and the Bundrens are forced to turn around and attempt a river-crossing over a makeshift ford. When a stray log upsets the wagon, the coffin is knocked out, Cash’s broken leg is reinjured, and the team of mules drowns. Vernon Tull sees the wreck, and helps Jewel rescue the coffin and the wagon from the river. Together, the family members and Tull search the riverbed for Cash’s tools.
Cora, Tull’s wife, remembers Addie’s unchristian inclination to respect her son Jewel more than God. Thereafter follows a chapter narrated by Addie herself (it is not made clear whether she is speaking from beyond the grave or this chapter represents her deathbed thoughts and is placed out of chronology) recalling events from her life: her loveless marriage to Anse; her affair with the local minister, Whitfield, which led to Jewel's conception; and the birth of her various children. When Whitfield hears Addie is dying, he heads for the Bundren's, intending to confess to Anse. On arrival he learns that Addie is already dead, realizes that she has not revealed their affair, and decides that his sincere intention to confess was just as good as an actual confession, and abandons his plan.
A horse doctor sets Cash’s broken leg, while Cash faints from the pain without ever complaining. Anse is able to purchase a new team of mules by mortgaging his farm equipment, using money that he was saving for his false teeth and money that Cash was saving for a new gramophone, and trading in Jewel’s horse. The family continues on its way. In the town of Mottson, residents react with horror to the stench coming from the Bundren wagon. While the family is in town, Dewey Dell tries to buy a drug that will abort her unwanted pregnancy, but the pharmacist refuses to sell it to her, and advises marriage instead. With cement the family has purchased in town, Darl creates a makeshift cast for Cash’s broken leg, which fits poorly and only increases Cash’s pain. The Bundrens then spend the night at a local farm owned by a man named Gillespie. Darl, who has been skeptical of their mission for some time, burns down the Gillespie barn with the intention of incinerating the coffin and Addie’s rotting corpse. Jewel rescues the animals in the barn, then risks his life to drag out Addie’s coffin. Darl lies on his mother’s coffin and cries.
The next day, the Bundrens arrive in Jefferson and bury Addie. Rather than face a lawsuit for Darl’s criminal barn burning, the Bundrens claim that Darl is insane, and they give him to a pair of men who commit him to a Jackson mental institution. Two of the Bundren children, Jewel and Dewey Dell, help the men from the mental institution by leading the attack against Darl. This familial betrayal, combined with Darl's experience in the Great War and his realization that Jewel is not Anse's son, leads Darl to legitimate mental instability. Dewey Dell tries again to buy an abortion drug at the local pharmacy, where a boy working behind the counter claims to be a doctor and tricks her into exchanging sexual services for what she soon realizes is not an actual abortion drug. Anse then takes the ten dollars that Lafe had given her to buy an abortion drug and uses it to treat himself with a day on the town. The following morning, the children are greeted by their father, who sports a new set of false teeth and, with a mixture of shame and pride, introduces them to his new bride, a local woman he either meets while borrowing shovels with which to bury Addie, or with whom he had plans to meet at Jefferson.
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (January 2010)|
- Addie Bundren – Addie is the wife of Anse and the mother of Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman. She had an extramarital affair with her minister, Reverend Whitfield, which led to the conception and birth of her third child, Jewel.
- Anse Bundren – Anse is Addie's widower, the father of all the children but Jewel.
- Cash Bundren – Cash is a skilled and helpful carpenter and the eldest son of the family. In his late twenties, he builds Addie's coffin.
- Darl Bundren – The second eldest of Addie's children, Darl is about two years younger than Cash. Darl is the most articulate character and objective narrator in the book; he therefore narrates 19 of the 59 chapters.
- Jewel Bundren – Jewel is the third of the Bundren children, most likely around nineteen years of age. A half-brother to the other children and the favorite of Addie, he is the illegitimate son of Addie and Reverend Whitfield.
- Dewey Dell Bundren – Dewey Dell is the only daughter of Anse and Addie Bundren; at seventeen years old, she is the second youngest of the Bundren children.
- Vardaman Bundren – Vardaman is the youngest Bundren child, somewhere between seven and ten years old.
- Vernon Tull – Vernon is a good friend of the Bundrens, who appears in the book as a good farmer, less religious than his wife.
- Cora Tull – Cora is the wife of Vernon Tull, a neighbor of Addie's who is with her at her death. She is very religious and this shows in her language.
- Peabody – Peabody is the Bundren's doctor; he narrates two chapters of the book. Anse sends for him shortly before Addie's death. This is far too late for Peabody to do anything, and he is unable to do anything more than to watch Addie die. Toward the end of the book, when he is working on Cash's leg, Peabody gives an excellent assessment of Anse and the entire Bundren family from the perspective of the community at large.
- Lafe – Lafe is a farmer who impregnates Dewey Dell and gives her $10 to get an abortion.
- Whitfield – Whitfield is the local minister with whom Addie had an affair, resulting in the birth of Jewel.
- Samson – Samson is a local farmer who lets the Bundren family stay with him the first night on their journey to Jefferson. Samson's wife, Rachel, is disgusted with the way the family is treating Addie by dragging her coffin through the countryside.
- Other narrators: MacGowan, Moseley, and Armstid
Literary techniques 
Throughout the novel, Faulkner presents fifteen different points of view, each chapter narrated by one character, including Addie, who, after dying, expresses her thoughts from the coffin. In 59 chapters titled only by their narrators' names, the characters are developed gradually through each other's perceptions and opinions, with Darl's predominating.
Like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, Faulkner stands among the pioneers of stream of consciousness. He first used the technique in The Sound and the Fury, and it gives As I Lay Dying its distinctly intimate tone, through the monologues of the tragically flawed Bundrens and the passers-by whom they encounter. Faulkner plays with the narrative technique by manipulating conventional differences between stream of consciousness and interior monologue. For example, Faulkner has a character such as Darl speak in his interior monologue with far more intellectual diction than he realistically possesses. This is directly playing with conventions of interior monologues because, as Dorrit Cohn states in Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction, the language in the interior monologue is "like the language a character speaks to others ... it accords with his time, his place, his social station, level of intelligence ..." The novel helped found the Southern Renaissance and directs a great deal of effort as it progresses to reflections on being and existence, the existential metaphysics of everyday life.
As I Lay Dying is consistently ranked among the best novels of 20th century literature. The novel has been reprinted by the Modern Library, the Library of America, and numerous other publishers, including Chatto and Windus in 1970, Random House in 1990, Tandem Library in 1991, and Vintage Books in 1996. Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949 for his novels prior to that date, with this book being among them.
The novel has also directly influenced a number of other critically acclaimed books, including British author Graham Swift's 1996 Booker Prize-winning novel Last Orders and Suzan-Lori Parks's Getting Mother's Body: A Novel, which is a reimagining of Faulkner's novel from an African American point of view.
In 1998, the Modern Library ranked As I Lay Dying 35th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.
The character Darl Bundren also appeared in Faulkner's 1935 short story "Uncle Willy."
Film adaptation 
In 2012, filming began on a film adaptation of the novel, which has been adapted for the screen and directed by James Franco. Franco also stars as Darl Bundren.
Theatre adaptation 
- W.Faulkner made the claim in the introduction to Sanctuary, (Modern Library ed. 1932) cited A. Nicholas Fargnoli, Robert W. Hamblin, Michael Golay, William Faulkner; A Critical Companion Infobase 2008, pp.43-56 p.44
- The Modern Library lists it among the top 100 recent novels, accessed Jan. 2, 2009, as does best 100 novels of all times lists it, accessed Jan. 2, 2009.
- The New Lifetime Reading Plan: The Classical Guide to World Literature by Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major, Collins, 1999.
- The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages by Harold Bloom, Riverhead Trade, 1995.
- Peter Ackroyd. Foreword to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Peter Boxall (Editor). Universe Publishing, 2006. ISBN 0-7893-1370-7.
- 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die by Peter Ackroyd (Foreword), Peter Boxall (Editor) Universe Publishers, 2006.
- Modern Library's list of the top 100 recent novels, accessed Jan. 2, 2009.
- ISBN 0-7011-0665-4
- ISBN 0-679-73225-X
- ISBN 0-8085-1493-8
- ISBN 0-09-947931-1
- "A Swift rewrite, or a tribute?" by Chris Blackhurst, The Independent (London), March 9, 1997.
- "Review of Getting Mother’s Body by Suzan-Lori Parks" by Dan Schneider, Cosmoetica, 2005-04-30, accessed Jan. 2, 2009.
- Women Pulitzer Playwrights: Biographical Profiles and Analyses of the Plays by Carolyn Casey Craig, McFarland, 2004, page 270.
- 3:13 AM. "Interview With Tim Lambesis From As I Lay Dying—in Interviews". Metal Underground.com. Retrieved 2010-02-10.
- Full text of As I Lay Dying as an encrypted DAISY Digital Talking Book, from the Internet Archive and bundled with The Sound and the Fury
- On publishing the novel
- Literapedia Page
- As I Lay Dying analysis and resources for teachers and students
The Sound and the Fury
|Novels set in Yoknapatawpha County||Succeeded by