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William Faulkner: As I Lay Dying

Faulkner himself declared this to be a masterpiece and, I have to say, it is my favourite of his works and the one I am inclined to re-read first. This is, in part, because I still have not fully grasped it. Why, for example, is it called As I Lay Dying? Addie Bundren is dead for most of the novel. Moreover, though many of her family repeatedly comment, she does so only once and then at a time when she is dead. Why does Vardaman think that his mother is a fish and why does Darl burn down Gillespie’s barn? While there are explanations for both of these and other mysteries, they are not fully satisfactory. Of course, that’s what makes it such a fine novel. Things are not easily explained and the normal logic of the world does not fully apply.

As with other of his works, it tells a story from multiple points of view. The Bundren family as well as others all have short pieces, some of them numerous times. We gradually learn the background to the family through the voices of these people. Anse Bundren was a single man, apparently with no family but his own farm. He seems (to Addie) to drive out of his way to see her and one day he stops and proposes. She accepts but soon regrets it. She produces two sons – Cash and Darl – before becoming really tired of him and then has an affair with the Reverend Whitfield, which results in the birth of Jewel (a boy). Feeling guilty she then lets Anse have two more children, the only girl of the family, Dewey Dell, and, finally, Vardaman. The family struggles as Anse is lazy and inefficient. At the beginning of the book Addie is dying and Cash, the carpenter, is outside making her coffin, while Dewey Dell is fanning her. Darl, who is, according to others, peculiar, has figured out somehow that Jewel is not his father’s son and that he is their mother’s favourite. He therefore contrives to have Jewel be away delivering a load while their mother is dying so he will not be at her side when she dies. This indeed does happen, particularly as their cart loses a wheel when they are delivering.

Addie duly dies and Anse makes it clear that he is going to do one thing for Addie and that is keep his promise made many years ago to bury her in Jefferson County, where she originally came from. However, soon after Addie’s death, it starts to pour and very soon two key bridges are out and the only way is via a long detour. Nevertheless, the family sets out, not least because some of the others, as we later learn, have an ulterior motive for going to Jefferson. Anse wants a new set of false teeth, Dewey Dell, pregnant by Lafe (whom we never meet) has ten dollars from him for an abortion. Cash wants a new”graphophone”, as he calls it. The journey is an epic journey, encompassing fire (Darl’s burning of Gillespie’s barn) and water (they try to cross the bridge and end up losing their mules, nearly losing the coffin and with Cash breaking his leg). Despite the journey taking nine days (the body is starting to smell by then), they do make it, though, as in all epic journeys, at a price. Darl has been sent off to the state lunatic asylum for his arson, Dewey Dell has been rebuffed in her attempt to get some help with her abortion and Cash is in danger of
losing his leg. Anse, however, does get his false teeth and a new wife.

Faulkner’s skill is not just in describing this epic journey but in the different points of view. Vardaman, for example, is clearly mentally unstable, mixing up the large fish he caught shortly before his mother’s death and his mother (my mother is a fish). Darl is bitter and strange. Yet it is he who seems to see things. He is the only one to have worked out that Jewel is not Anse’s son and that Dewey Dell is pregnant. Jewel is completely independent. Though the most reliable – he saves the coffin both from the fire and the water – he does not really see himself as part of the family and, as we learn, has gone off on his own at night to earn money to buy himself a horse. All of these characters, as well as the neighbours – the religious Cora Tull and her solid husband, Vernon – tell the story not only from their point of view but in their own unique manner, which is what makes this book such a fine one.

Publishing history

First published 1930 by Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith