Literary Authors

As I Lay Dying

As I Lay Dying

As I Lay Dying, one of the finest examples of William Faulkner’s distinctive writing style, was first published in 1930. The novel is the first to introduce Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County, which serves as the setting for many of his novels and short stories. As in his other works, As I Lay Dying showcases Faulkner’s ability to reveal the intricacy of the human psyche. Told from multiple perspectives, the novel has 59 sections written mostly in stream-of-consciousness— a literary style marked by a character’s uninterrupted flow of thoughts. Also, Faulkner uniquely employs symbols throughout his work. For example, he substitutes a coffin symbol in place of the actual word and uses a blank space when one of his characters is unable to express her thoughts. As I Lay Dying tells the story of the Bundrens—a poor family from the Deep South—that faces trials and tragedy on their journey to bury their dead wife and mother in the town of Jefferson. Throughout the story, the reader is introduced to the family members and discovers that each has his or her own reason for traveling to Jefferson. For instance, Anse Bundren, husband and father, sets off for Jefferson to buy a new set of teeth and to remarry, while his daughter, Dewey Dell, goes to town to get an abortion. Each character shares his or her perspective on the journey, with the exception of Jewel Bundren, the only character who does not have his own section. Through the Bundrens’ expedition, Faulkner discusses such themes as family, death, individual and society, religion, and suffering. As I Lay Dying is a complex story that causes the reader to question the characters’ motives in their actions and interpretations of events. Most of all, it is a story that explores the complexities of human nature. HanaRae Dudek Family in As I Lay Dying William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying centers on the Bundrens—a poor southern family that embarks on a journey to the town of Jefferson to bury the dead wife and mother. Throughout the novel, the Bundrens exhibit their dysfunctional relationships with one another as each family member offers his or her own perspective on the other characters and their actions.

In As I Lay Dying, Faulkner demonstrates how a group of people can band together in times of adversity and tragedy yet can criticize and even abandon each other in pursuit of their own selfish exploits—all in the name of “family.” From the beginning of the novel, members of the Bundren family display their complex relationships with one another. While Addie Bundren lies dying, her son Cash builds a coffin outside of her window.He insists on finishing the coffin because he values his carpentry work more than spending time with his ailing mother. However, Cash also believes that he is helping her more by building her coffin than he could if he were sitting with her inside of the house. Surprisingly, Addie does not seem offended by her son building the coffin right in front of her. When Addie dies, her husband, Anse, insists upon the family traveling to Jefferson to bury his wife, at any cost. He maintains that she must be buried in Jefferson because that had been Addie’s only request. Seemingly, all of the children agree to travel to Jefferson in order to fulfill their mother’s wish. However, each family member—with the exception of Jewel—reveals his or her own reasons for going into town. For example, Anse admits that he wants a new set of teeth. Cash wants to display his carpentry work and look for a gramophone. Although not directly, Dewey Dell reveals that she is pregnant and wants an abortion, and the youngest, Vardaman, wants a toy train. While he does not have a materialistic desire, Darl travels to Jefferson in order to keep track of his family’s actions and to make sure his mother gets her burial. Throughout their journey, the Bundrens face multiple obstacles. For example, Vardaman, who does not fully comprehend his mother’s death, drills into Addie’s face while trying to create air holes in the coffin so that the corpse can “breathe.” Also, when the family discovers that a bridge has collapsed, they ford a river, dragging Addie’s coffin under water. Cash breaks his leg while trying to rescue the coffin. Then, when the family stops at Gillespie’s, a local farm, the barn burns down—almost destroying the coffin. Although the family seems to work together in its struggle to get Addie to Jefferson, each family member works to fulfill his or her own desires. For instance, the Bundrens could have spent the evening at a neighbor’s home instead of dragging Addie’s coffin through the river. Also, Cash reveals that he jumps into the river not only to rescue the coffin, but also to retrieve his carpentry tools. Later, Anse sells Jewel’s beloved horse in order to buy a new team of mules.

Even Addie speaks from the coffin to reveal her selfishness. She admits to having an extramarital affair with the local preacher, who is Jewel’s biological father. Further, Addie admits that she wants to be buried in Jefferson because she wants to spend eternity as far away from the Bundrens as possible. Throughout the expedition, Darl—the son whom most people refer to as “queer” because of his alleged telepathic ability—is the only Bundren who questions the family’s motives. After eight days, Darl tires of the spectacle of dragging his mother’s corpse through the county and sets fire to Gillespie’s barn in an attempt to burn the coffin and Addie’s putrefied body. Out of respect for his mother and a belief that she should have been buried earlier, Darl tries to burn the coffin in one of the most selfless acts in the novel. Ironically, the rest of the Bundren family deems Darl insane and has workers from a sanitarium take him away from the middle of town shortly after Addie’s burial. After facing the difficulties of the journey to Jefferson, the Bundrens remain unified at the end of the novel. When Anse gets his new teeth, he immediately remarries and introduces his children to the new Mrs. Bundren. Perhaps from their own understanding of selfishness, the children are able to accept their father’s actions. Through the Bundrens in As I Lay Dying, Faulkner explores the complexities of human beings and their relationships with one another and demonstrates that each member of a family is, after all, only human. HanaRae Dudek Grief in As I Lay Dying Within the confines of the narrative in As I Lay Dying, grief clouds the day to day existence at the Bundren household. While Addie Bundren lies on her deathbed, her children and husband negotiate their way through her imminent but uncertain death, the urgency to prepare a coffin for her, arranging for her burial far away in another town, as Addie so desires, and the need for the family to not let go of the opportunity to earn a few more dollars.

Life among the southern American poor must be lived on a daily basis. Faulkner accords grief a palpable presence in the novella. We share the burden of grief that envelops the Bundrens as well as those it touches incidentally, such as the neighbors. Faulkner also allows us a glimpse into the minds of characters through a series of monologues, which is the narrative strategy of the novella. The Bundrens articulate their anguish, which arises from a death in the family as much as from life’s larger context in which death is only one of life’s many preoccupations. Faulkner’s remarkable plotting lets us discover their secret sorrows— as opposed to their public distress couched in the death of a mother and wife—after we have fully absorbed their settled grief resulting from Addie’s death and the family’s struggle to reach Jefferson for her burial in extremely inclement weather that thwarts their intentions in more ways than one. As seen in Cash’s painful injuries, his father’s thoughtless handling of his son’s predicament, Dewey Dell’s unwanted pregnancy, her seduction, her struggle to secure an abortion and Jewel’s sense of betrayal when his father deprives him of his beloved horse he had bought with money earned through hard labor, Darl’s descent into insanity and his incarceration for arson, the local minister Whitfield’s battle with his conscience to confess his adulterous relationship with Addie and the fact of Jewel being their bastard son—grief is a factor in their lives, generally and individually. As they confront their grief and deal with their grief-stricken lives, the Bundrens may appear passive and helpless. But they establish an inescapable truth of the human condition when they accept that life must go on. If their grief appears to have no sting, that is how it appears on the surface. Their sorrows are, much like uninvited guests, both a distressing burden as well as an unavoidable component of existence. However sharply and richly drawn they strike the readers, the characters in As I Lay Dying draw their vivid fashioning from belonging to a group. Even though Anse and his children form a family, they act more like Thomas Hardy’s rustics, motivated by common desires and a common code of life and living. Often reminiscent of the humorous dimensions in Hardy’s rustics, the Bundrens’ tragic drama is played out in comic terms. Addie had been laid in her coffin “head to foot so it won’t crush her dress. It was her wedding dress and it had a flare-out bottom, and they had laid her head to foot in it so the dress could be spread out, . . .” No conflicts mar their homogeneity as a family and a group.

They seem bound to stay committed to each other. The neighbors and others who are close to them must participate, as members of the community, in such common occurrences of life as Addie’s death and Sunday rituals. Such being the case, Faulkner’s treatment of grief takes the form of a living rendering of the fate of a community rather than a scrutiny of the griefstricken heart of an individual. “Doom” and “defeat” are words often used to describe Faulkner’s characters. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said in another context, “There are people who have an appetite for grief.” But the Bundrens counter grief with strategies of survival as well as their ability to withstand pressure. Above all, they endure. Addie’s monologue points to deeper meanings in human existence and suggests a pragmatic view of life. Life is important.Living is important. Whether one lives in joy or in sorrow is of little consequence. Addie breaks open the cocoon of inherited familiarities when she says: “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 to people to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is words too.” She thus offers testimony to the truth of her father’s words—“. . . the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead for a long time” —as well as to the inevitability of grief and anguish as the defining values of human existence. Gulshan Taneja FAULKNER, WILLIAM

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