Faulkner's As I Lay Dying: Summary and Analysis

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  • 0:05 A Modernist Masterpiece
  • 0:56 Writing 'As I Lay Dying'
  • 1:17 Meet the Bundrens
  • 1:55 Plot Summary
  • 6:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jeff Calareso

Jeff teaches high school English, math and other subjects. He has a master's degree in writing and literature.

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!

Plot Summary

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:

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