As I Lay Dying: William Faukner (Nobel Prize)

As I Lay Dying

By William Faulkner (1897-1962)

Reviewed by The Individual Voice

This is a novel about the impoverished Bundren family in post-Civil War southern Mississippi, waiting for the death of the matriarch, Addie Bundren, then following the family’s journey through floods, a fire and accidents for ten days with an increasingly rotting corpse they are taking to bury in Addie’s original town, Jefferson. The family travels by rickety wagon from their home in the fictional southern Yoknapatawpha county to Jefferson, located in the north of the county. The five Bundren children, Cash (an accomplished carpenter), Darl (a semi-crazy but heroic son), Jewel (the product of Addie’s affair with a priest), Dewey Dell (the only female) and Vardomon (the semi-retarded youngest) loyally follow their irresponsible father, Anse’s, unwise decisions and martyr-like determination to give his wife what she wanted after death, though he was a completely inadequate, lazy provider and spouse during Addie’s miserable life.

The children nobly troupe to Jefferson in spite of their original mule-train drowning in a flooded river, where Addie in the wooden casket Cash built for her as she was dying nearly floats away as well. Anse exploits his children for every resource any of them seems to have. He trades the horse of Jewel, who earned it secretly working long nights clearing a neighbor’s field. Anse demands the ten dollars from Dewey Dell, who got the money from her boyfriend to pay for an abortion she never gets during the two months she is pregnant prior to her mother’s burial. She is either rejected or exploited by every pharmacist she approaches along the way. Each day, more and more buzzards circle round the wagon, smelling the stench of the corpse that leads local townspeople to cover their noses and flee in the wake of the wagon. On top of it all, Cash breaks his leg during the fiasco of crossing the flooded river, and his father gets the hare-brained idea of setting the broken leg with concrete, that only leads to greater infection, pain and loss of parts of the leg when the doctor hammers off this makeshift cast stuck to layers of Cash’s skin.

The book is written in alternating short chapters from the points of view of all the different main characters. Vardomon, the slowest of the children, narrates in an incomprehensible stream of consciousness in local dialect. Darl, the second oldest, on the other hand, alternates inconsistently between dialect and sophisticated vocabulary with poetic narration. Cash, the eldest, tries not to complain at all about his great physical pain due to the leg broken during the journey, which he spends a good part of lying on top of his mother’s stinking casket in a wagon that looks like it might fall apart any minute. Anse is a terrible father. Peabody, the physician who finally tends to Cash’s damaged leg, thinks they would have all done better going to a sawmill to saw off the leg and while they were at it sawing of the head of Anse Bundren. Jewel’s back is also severely burnt in a barn fire set by Darl in Jewel’s attempt to save Addie’s coffin and corpse, which would have been better off for everyone if burned in the fire.

By the time this hungry, sick family reaches Addie’s burial ground in Jefferson, Darl is accompanied by two men with guns to a mental hospital by train due to his increasingly apparent insanity, when in fact his ironic laughter may have been an appropriate response to the absurdity of the family’s situation. When they reach Jefferson, Anse realizes they have forgotten shovels and spades to dig the grave. While Anse borrows some, he also finds himself a new bride to take home from his wife’s burial, to quickly replace her servitude. He is a coarse, self-centered, stupid man whom his children nobly tolerate. Anse’s greed and selfishness greatly contrasts the tolerance and caring of his children and his neighbors, the Tulls, who cannot understand Anse’s stubborn insistence on taking Addie’s corpse on this absurd journey rather than burying her nearby where the children can visit her grave.

This book was an easy, enjoyable read compared to the book I first intended to review, the Collected Stories of William Faulkner. All the stories were short and written in such a heavy Mississippi dialect that they seemed as nearly impossible to plod through as an unfamiliar foreign language. Many of the characters appeared in multiple stories, but backstory was omitted from each story enough to greatly confuse the reader. I finally gave up, thinking that Faulkner’s renowned alcoholism must have at least partially accounted for his page-long run-on sentences and his lack of altering the dialect to merely an understandable rhythm rather than the incomprehensible web of literal non-words he uses to express most of his “inarticulate” characters’ feelings. Since I am concentrating on trying to learn how to write short stories, I was greatly disappointed in this mélange of stories and found the novel a much more captivating read. I am guessing that Faulkner’s Nobel prize for literature in l949 was earned more from his novels than his impenetrable, extremely uneven in quality, short stories. I intend to read more of his novels in the future, as his willingness to experiment with voice, point of view and narrative structure are inspiring to creative writers, in spite of what I perceive as many failures in his short stories.