Multiple narrators, stream of consciousness writing and a family airing its dysfunctions while carting along their mother's coffin. You'll find all that and more in William Faulkner's Modernist masterpiece 'As I Lay Dying.'
A Modernist Masterpiece
Modernist literature was all about trying new narrative forms and experimenting with the very nature of how a story is told. Think of a movie like Memento, where the story is told backwards and you slowly piece together the plot as it unfolds in reverse. Or The Usual Suspects, where we get bits of the story through a potentially unreliable narrator.
What if, instead of one narrator, we have 15? And what if we have to figure out the plot and understand the characters through 59 chapters, while the narrator is constantly changing? Oh, and what if the whole thing is written in stream-of-consciousness style, where thoughts and feelings flow like a river from the narrator's mind, sort of like an unfocused interior monologue?
That's William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. And if it sounds like a challenge, it most definitely is.
Writing As I Lay Dying
Faulkner wasn't a successful author when he wrote As I Lay Dying. In fact, he was working a graveyard shift at a power plant. It was there that he wrote most of the novel. From midnight to 4 a.m., over a period of just six weeks, he cranked out what is considered one of the best novels of the 20th century and one of the works that helped earn him a Nobel Prize in Literature.
Meet the Bundrens
Before we get to the story, let's talk about the family at its center: the Bundrens. First, there's Addie Bundren. She's the one who is dying. Her husband is Anse. They're poor farmers living in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. This is the fictional setting of most of Faulkner's novels, and it's based on his home of Lafayette County.
Their children are Cash and Darl (who are in their 20s), Jewel and Dewey Dell (who are teens) and Vardaman (who is still a child). Dewey Dell is 17 and the only girl. Oh, and Jewel is actually the illegitimate son of Addie and Reverend Whitfield - scandalous!
As the story begins, Addie is dying (hence the title!). Cash is building her coffin right outside her window - that's not morbid. Their neighbor, Cora Tull, is watching over her. Darl and Jewel go to the Tull farm to make a delivery to Cora's husband, Vernon. Then Addie dies.
Cash finishes the coffin, and she's placed in it backwards so as to not wrinkle the wedding dress she'll be buried in. Young Vardaman is upset about his mother being nailed inside a box, so he secretly drills holes in the lid, with two going through his mother's face. Dewey Dell is less distraught over her mother's death, but then, she recently got knocked up by a local farmhand.
Darl and Jewel see buzzards flying over their house as they return home. Since Jewel has a reputation for being uncaring, Darl sarcastically tells Jewel that these symbols of death don't mean that his beloved horse is dead.
And then we get to our big journey. You see, Addie demanded that she be buried in the town of Jefferson, not at home. Anse feels obligated to follow her wishes. Plus, he wants to buy some false teeth, so why not? So off they go. Cash has a broken leg, so Jewel loads the coffin into the wagon. But Jewel refuses to sit in the wagon, preferring to follow behind on his horse.
They need to cross a river, but there's been a big flood, so the bridges are gone or impassable. The Bundrens try to ford the river. A log hits the wagon, and the coffin falls out. In the melee, Cash reinjures his broken leg and loses his carpentry tools, which the family tries to recover. Vernon Tull shows up and helps get the wagon and coffin from the river, though the mules drown.
Then we get a chapter from Addie. And yes, she's dead. This is either a flashback or she's narrating from her coffin - we can't tell. Anyway, we learn about her loveless marriage. There's a great passage that sums up so much of Modernist literature as Addie questions the meaning of words:
'That was when I learned that words are no good; that words don't ever fit even what they are trying to say at. When [Cash] was born I knew that motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the ones that had the children didn't care whether there was a word for it or not... [Anse] had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that that word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack.'
The next chapter is narrated by Whitfield, who notes that he was on his way to confess to Anse about the affair, but since Addie died before he got there - well, why bother?
Back to the journey. Cash gets his leg reset, though he's losing blood and it's a bad wound. Anse gets new mules by using the money he was saving for his new teeth, mortgaging farm equipment and trading in Jewel's beloved horse.
They get to Mottson, where the townsfolk are appalled at the smell of the rotting corpse they're carrying. Dewey Dell goes to a pharmacist to get an abortion drug, but he suggests she gets married instead. Darl makes a sort of cast from cement for Cash's broken leg, which is just a different kind of agony.
They spend the night at a farm. Darl, who thinks this journey is messed up, burns down the barn where they put the coffin, hoping to put an end to the trip. But Jewel risks his life to rescue the coffin from the fire.
Then they make it to Jefferson and bury Addie. Darl, of course, should be locked up for arson, but they say he's insane and send him to a mental institution. Cash has another good Modernist reflection on the nature of crazy:
'Sometimes I ain't so sho who's got ere a right to say when a man is crazy and when he ain't. Sometimes I think it ain't none of us pure crazy and ain't none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-Way. It's like it ain't so much what a fellow does, but it's the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it.'
In other words, it's not that Darl is crazy; it's that he's crazy because of how we view him. It's us projecting crazy onto him that makes him crazy.
Dewey Dell again tries to get an abortion drug. This time, she's tricked by a clerk posing as a doctor into performing sexual favors. Then her father takes the $10 the farmhand had given her for the drug and goes out on the town. He returns in the morning with new teeth and a new bride. The last words of the novel are Anse saying 'Meet Mrs. Bundren' to his kids. Yep, just like that.
In summary, William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying is a Modernist masterpiece. It uses over a dozen narrators and a stream-of-consciousness style to piece together the story of the Bundren family.
Their matriarch, Addie, dies early in the novel and then the family sets out to bury her in nearby Jefferson. Along the way, their problems and issues bubble to the surface. Through the shifts in perspective, we gain a remarkably detailed portrait of this troubled Southern family.
When you have finished this lesson, you should be able to:
- Identify the main characters in As I Lay Dying
- Understand the plot of As I Lay Dying