Thoughts on As I Lay Dying

Note: This book is over 90 years old…this post contains spoilers. I also mention an episode of sexual assault which happens in the book.
First edition cover of As I Lay Dying – via Heritage Auctions

William Faulkner’s famous novel begins with a set of descriptions of uncertain gravity and significance, but with an almost geometric precision (bolded lines and words mine, as well as ellipses):

…following the path in single file…The path runs straight as a plumb-line… to the cottonhouse in the center of the field, where it turns and circles the cottonhouse at four soft right angles and goes on across the field again… Square, with a broken roof set at a single pitch, it leans in empty and shimmering dilapidation in the sunlight, a single broad window in two opposite walls giving onto the approaches of the path. When we reach it I turn and follow the path which circles the house. Jewel, fifteen feet behind me, looking straight ahead, steps in a single stride through the window…  (1)[1]

And the novel proceeds in this manner, slipping unpredictably between abstraction and precision, asking us, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, what do we know about the world around us? What do we know about one another? What do we know about how others think and how do we convey our thoughts to others? How do we make sense of our lives, and of the fact that our death waits for us? These are nothing less than the fundamental questions of our lives, especially if you stand idle, thinking too much.

Published in 1930, the book describes a family, in a rural and isolated portion of Faulkner’s invented county of Yoknapatawpha, Mississippi, and their odyssey to bury their deceased matriarch next to her parents, grandparents, and other direct kin in the nearby town of Jefferson – pointedly not next to her husband’s family. Proceeding with horses and mules and wagons, as the world around them begins to team with cars and conveniences of modern life, this is an absurd family marooned in the rural past. The dirt-poor family with the hard life could be a source of pathos – and the novel is often dark, even depressing and maybe nihilistic, but Faulkner has us smiling at the family’s ignorance and mocking their duplicity.

Each chapter in the novel is voiced by a different character, with most of the chapters being spoken by members of the family which is the focus of the novel: the Bundrens. The family consists of the children Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell, Vardaman, and Cash, the father Anse, and even the dying mother from beyond(?) the grave, Addie. As far as stream-of-consciousness goes, the label often given to the writing in this novel, it is readable, unlike Joyce’s fevered works. We do get the different perspectives of people with unusual viewpoints, levels of education, intelligence, and age all in their own unique voice.

Things go wrong for the family from the beginning. While Addie lays dying, the family prepares for her departure and the impending travel to the town of her birth and upbringing. A storm that begins the night of her death which portends suffering and difficulty all around. All the normal routes over the river are impassable because flooding has destroyed the bridges, so they struggle, with the help of their neighbors, along their journey – sleeping in barns or being threatened out of small towns. During this journey, we also get to know the past and the various experiences and viewpoints of the family – their sins and aspirations.

Cash builds his mother’s coffin and breaks a leg, Jewel quarrels and curses, and loves and hates his horse, Vardaman dreams of buying a toy train and is convinced his mother is fish, Darl questions the nature of reality, starts a fire, and gets arrested, Dewey Dell seeks an abortion, and Anse laments his lack of teeth, and claims that if he has to work and sweat that he’ll die. He is passive and incompetent, maybe in order to manipulate everyone he meets. Anse drives the journey forward though, with his insistence that he promised Addie he would bury her in the town of Jefferson and that they must proceed no matter what.

The novel rewards deep reading as repetitions stream before your eyes to fill the pages after you orient yourself in the cataracts of the snaking chapters. In the chapter after that first one, described by Darl in mathematical terms, with its circles and squares and ones and twos, the next chapter also has many ones and twos as Cora Tull, the self-righteous, religious neighbor, counts her chickens and eggs and their output. And there’s repetitions of colors, and horizontal and vertical, and differences of perspective, and an importance attached to wood, and incessant references to characters’ eyes – windows to the soul as the cliché goes, after all. There is the confusing division between the living and dead (and the animal and human, apparently), the ill and healthy, the town and country, the educated and ignorant – all are subjective differences (to some at least) that have impact and import to the characters in the novel.

What stayed with me, after I had finished, and thought the novel curious because it was hard to categorize as a story, were the things that didn’t make sense to me. They returned to me over and over again, as I found myself wondering why Darl sets a fire, interpreting how comic the dark scenes are and the absurdity of dragging the rotting corpse in the coffin around with them, why the discussions of lineage, is the novel really about itself – the novel’s own structure revealing something about what Faulkner was hinting at without the use of inadequate words, especially in all that geometric language and repeated motifs of verticality (variously associated with living, immobility, the past…) and horizontality (associated with movement, change, and the future…)?

The primary narrator, Darl, stretches into abstraction to the point of madness throughout the novel, with early chapters lucid, if not odd, and later chapters growing increasingly bizarre. Darl also describes events in places where he is not present. He narrates early chapters about the completion of Addie’s coffin by Cash while he is on the road, attempting to bring a load of lumber into town. He seems to know things about other characters through uncertain means and his internal monologues underscore the existential questions posed by the novel, about what it means to live and die in a temporal world.

Addie turns up at the hinge of the novel, after a climactic scene just past halfway through, to narrate her own chapter from the grave (or perhaps, out of time altogether), and provides the missing context for understanding the family and adds depth to the motifs. Addie’s chapter is stunning in presenting her harshness, aloofness, and a streak of cruelty. She is presented as intelligent and educated in a way that her children and neighbors are not. Her psychological burdens and philosophical agonies load her from her youth, where she begins her chapter, telling the reader she found pleasure in whipping the children when she was a schoolmaster. Addie marries Anse and eventually cheats on him with her minister, producing the child Jewel, who, it is remarked over and over, never treated her well. Each character in some ways mirrors their mother’s experience as well. Jewel loves a horse that is ill-tempered, just as his mother loved him though he did not reciprocate. Dewey Dell is impregnated in an “immoral” manner, just as Addie was by the minister.

Faulkner’s sharpest commentary about the family comes from the mouths of his quirkiest (and least intelligent) characters, take these sentences from Dewey Dell’s first chapter:

Pa dassent sweat because he will catch his death from the sickness so everybody that comes to help us. And Jewel dont care about anything he is not kin to us in caring, not care-kin. And Cash like sawing the long hot sad yellow days up into planks and nailing them to something. And pa thinks because neighbors will always treat one another that way because he has always been too busy letting neighbors do for him to find out. And I did not think that Darl would, that sits at the supper table with his eyes gone further than the food and the lamp, full of the land dug out of his skull and the holes filled with distance beyond the land. (23)

This may not be an explication of the symbology of the entire novel, but it’s a good summary of the basic characters and natures of her family members.

The most expressive and poetic prose is within the thematic confines of the characters of the novel. Take Darl’s expressions in a middle chapter and a chapter near the end, as his madness grows:

Before us the thick dark current runs. It talks up to us in a murmur become ceaseless and myriad, the yellow surface dimpled monstrously into fading swirls travelling along the surface for an instant, silent, impermanent and profoundly significant, as though just beneath the surface something huge and alive waked for a moment of lazy alertness out of and into light slumber again. (123)

How do our lives ravel out into the no-wind, no-sound, the weary gestures wearily recapitulant: echoes of old compulsions with no-hand on no-strings: in sunset we fall into furious attitudes, dead gestures of dolls. (183)

Some of the foreshadowing of the slight mysteries of the novel that keep you turning the pages is almost heavy-handed, and their revelations are not a surprise – but the ending of the novel almost made me reimagine the entire preceding length. Not just “the ending” but, literally, the final two lines of the novel makes all the earlier chapters a set-up for a punchline:

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

Addie’s psychological agony and the humiliation of the Bundren family are played for dark humor but are also so tragic as to make the reader wince. Dewey Dell is impregnated out of wedlock (certainly a social disaster in 1930), an ignorant and stupid girl being taken advantage of, and then is subjected to what would now probably be considered a form of rape by a clerk in a pharmacist’s office. Darl’s mental illness condemns him to incarceration, Cash breaks his leg and almost drowns and then, out of miserliness, has a cast for his broken bone made from concrete – causing him intense pain and suffering. Jewel is burned, and Vardaman is left confused.

Photo of marker for Faulkner’s grave – photo by Natalie Maynor

Like other great works of fiction, its plasticity and ambiguity and richness will ensure a long life amongst readers, long after most of the social circumstances familiar to readers dissipates (as it mostly already has). It is hard to say what cultural context I’m missing reading this now, I have not read Faulkner’s other novels, and I know that most of them take place in his fictional county, and even contain similar characters. I know that a doctor who shows up at the house and in Jefferson, Peabody, is a recurring character in his works, and what I would be able to glean from that, I’m unsure. The South, and the position of the former Confederacy in American culture, is something that I do know has radically changed since 1930, as well as the nature of rural poverty. There is also a brief mention of, and encounter with, black people near the end of the novel, and I do not know what to make of it or what it may signify, or signified, to American readers at the time of the book’s publication.

Isolation from washed out bridges and fording rivers with teams of mules is something that would be familiar to generations of readers up through 1930, but is in an alien past now. Physical hardship of the level described throughout the novel was banished in America decades ago, and I doubt people would even stand for it now – I know I wouldn’t. The encroachment of civilization into their rural hideaway disturbs members of the Bundren family, but that kind of hermetic atmosphere is impossible, if nothing else it is impossible in a cultural sense because of television and the internet and the pervasive saturation of mass-produced goods into every community in America.

Some things still stick though. The stigma of social isolation and mental illness, quieter and less visible now but perhaps more prevalent strike home in the presentation of Darl as unfairly treated by the community. Dewey Dell’s exploitation by both the farmer who impregnated her and by the druggist’s assistant who extorted and defrauded her into having sex with him may not be far off from the mass objectification of women we see throughout social media – and that is without mentioning her futile quest for an abortion…

In other ways too, Faulkner’s book remains relevant. A collage of perspectives and uncertainties and constructed realities is not foreign to generations stretched out inside the metaverse, on discord and Twitter, watching videos on TikTok and, like someone I know, talking to their boss about their work schedule on Snapchat.

Uncertainty, metaphysics, and a collage of geometric precision and abstraction make this short novel profound, and it remains radical in its non-traditional construction (though readable). The story of the long, perilous journey toward a distant goal is as ancient and universal as stories themselves. This southern version is a vivid transformation of that odyssey into a psychological and parochial – and almost supernatural – examination of an absurd but realistic family, struggling with the most basic questions of life and death.

Miscellaneous Quotes:

“But those rich town ladies can change their minds. Poor folks cant.” Riches is nothing in the face of the Lord, for He can see into the heart.

  • Pg 7

The Lord can see into the heart. If it is His will that some folks has different ideas of honesty from other folks, it is not my place to question His decree.

  • pg 8

Now and then a fellow gets to thinking. About all the sorrow and afflictions in this world; how it’s liable to strike anywhere, like lightning.

  • pg 70

Vardaman Chapter:

My mother is a fish.

  • pg 84

I notice how it takes a lazy man, a man that hates moving, to get set on moving once he does get started off, the same as he was set on staying still, like it aint the moving he hates so much as the starting and the stopping.

  • pg 114

“Who’s talking about him?” she says. “Who cares about him?” she says, crying. “I just wish that you and him and all the men in the world that torture us alive and flout us dead, dragging us up and down the country——”

  •  pg 117

The land runs out of Darl’s eyes; they swim to pin points. They begin at my feet and rise along my body to my face, and then my dress is gone: I sit naked on the seat above the unhurrying mules, above the travail.

  • pg 124

It was as though, so long as the deceit ran along quiet and monotonous, all of us let ourselves be deceived, abetting it unawares or maybe through cowardice, since all people are cowards and naturally prefer any kind of treachery because it has a bland outside. But now it was like we had all—and by a kind of telepathic agreement of admitted fear—flung the whole thing back like covers on the bed and we all sitting bolt upright in our nakedness, staring at one another and saying “Now is the truth. He hasn’t come home. Something has happened to him. We let something happen to him.”

  •  pg 134

Addie’s Chapter:

I would hate my father for having ever planted me.

  • pg 169

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

  •  pg 171

And so when Cora Tull would tell me I was not a true mother, I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle from one to the other; and that sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words. Like Cora, who could never even cook.

  • pg 173

I believed that I had found it. I believed that the reason was the duty to the alive, to the terrible blood, the red bitter flood boiling through the land. I would think of sin as I would think of the clothes we both wore in the world’s face, of the circumspection necessary because he was he and I was I; the sin the more utter and terrible since he was the instrument ordained by God who created the sin, to sanctify that sin He had created. While I waited for him in the woods, waiting for him before he saw me, I would think of him as dressed in sin. I would think of him as thinking of me as dressed also in sin, he the more beautiful since the garment which he had exchanged for sin was sanctified. I would think of the sin as garments which we would remove in order to shape and coerce the terrible blood to the forlorn echo of the dead word high in the air. Then I would lay with Anse again—I did not lie to him: I just refused, just as I refused my breast to Cash and Darl after their time was up—hearing the dark land talking the voiceless speech.

  • pg 174

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.

  •  pg 233

[1] Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying: The Corrected Text. First Vintage international edition. New York, Vintage Books, 1990.