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As I Lay Dying

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English Literature

For nine days, the Bundren family travels across Mississippi with the unpreserved corpse of their wife and mother in their wagon, intent on burying her in her hometown of Jefferson. With irony and dark humor, William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying (1930) documents the family's harrowing, obstacle-filled journey to fulfill Addie Bundren's dying wish.

The novel is commonly regarded as one of the best works of the 21st century and the following summary and themes will show why this novel remains an excellent example of Modernist and Southern Gothic literary genres.

As A Lay Dying by William Faulkner

As I Lay Dying, published in 1930, is a Southern Gothic, Modernist novel by William Faulkner. It is consistently referred to as one of the greatest books of the 20th century and is one of Faulkner's best-known works.

Faulkner was born in rural Mississippi and lived there for most of his life. Like many of his novels, As I Lay Dying was heavily influenced by this upbringing and the author's contact with Mississippi and the culture of the southern United States. Depression-era Mississippi and the struggles faced by those living there, including poverty, racism, and classism feature prominently in As I Lay Dying.

The novel is set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, as are many of Faulkner's novels. It tells the story of the dysfunctional Bundren family which travels for nine days with the rotting corpse of their wife and mother to fulfill her dying wish to be buried in her hometown. Along the way, the Bundrens encounter all kinds of difficulties, including floods, fires, and injuries, all while trying to navigate their complicated family dynamic.

The novel is comprised of fifty-nine chapters narrated by fifteen distinct characters. The inner-monologue, first-person narration of As I Lay Dying helped to establish Faulkner as a pioneer of modernist, stream-of-consciousness writing.

The title, As I Lay Dying, comes from a line from Homer's Odyssey which says: "As I lay dying, the woman with the dog's eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades." This title suggests several parallels between As I Lay Dying and Odyssey, most obviously the classic story of a quest, a theme that As I Lay Dying mocks by telling the story of the Bundren family's ultimately selfish and pointless mission to bury Addie.

As I Lay Dying: Summary

As the novel begins, Addie Bundren lies ill in bed. Out the window, she watches as her son, Cash, building her coffin. She dies that evening, and, the same night, a torrential rainstorm washes away the bridge that crosses the river. Addie's dying wish is to be buried in Jefferson, Mississippi, her hometown. So her family places her un-embalmed body in the homemade coffin and sets off, despite the flooded river.

Addie's husband Anse and five children travel by wagon until they reach the washed-out bridge. There, they are forced to turn around and try to cross the river at a different location. However, the river is too flooded, and the family loses their team of mules, Cash breaks his leg, and Addie's coffin is nearly washed away.

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The Bundren family tries to cross the flooded river and almost don't succeed. StudySmarterThe first obstacle in the Bundren family's way is a flooded river. Pixabay.com

Cash insists that his leg doesn't bother him, even when his father decided to create a makeshift cast from concrete that adheres itself to his leg, and he spends most of the remaining journey riding on top of his mother's coffin.

When the family reaches the town of Mottson after many days on the road, the smell of Addie's decaying body causes alarm and disgust among the townspeople. While in town, Dewey Dell, the second youngest and only Bundren daughter, visits a pharmacy searching for medicine that will terminate her unwanted pregnancy. The pharmacist is unhelpful, however, and the Bundrens set off again.

The Bundren family nearly loses Addie's body a second time when Darl Bundren, the second Bundren child, sets fire to a barn in an attempt to burn his mother's decaying corpse. The coffin is saved by Jewel, the third eldest of the Bundren children.

Fire is the second misfortune to befall Addie Bundren's corpse. StudySmarterThe Bundren family also must rescue Addie's coffin from a fire. Pixabay.com

After nine days of traveling with Addie's unpreserved dead body, the family finally arrives in Jefferson. Upon arriving, Dewey Dells seeks an abortion for the second time, but the man working at the pharmacy tricks her into having sex with him in exchange for useless talcum powder. Darl Bundren is arrested for burning the barn, but his family claims he is insane, so he is sent to the Mississippi State Insane Asylum instead of jail.

The remaining family members borrow shovels to dig Addie's grave. Anse takes the ten dollars given to Dewey Dell for her abortion by the father of her unwanted baby and uses it to buy himself new teeth. He then decides to marry the woman he met while borrowing the shovels and presents her to his children as the new Mrs. Bundren.

As I Lay Dying: Genre and Style

Genre

As I Lay Dying is a Southern Gothic, Modernist novel. William Faulkner was one of the most important modernist writers in the United States, a literary movement that began in the early 19th century and was committed to breaking long-established literary conventions.

Faulkner was also a pioneer of the Southern Gothic genre, a literary genre of novels set in the Southern United States that incorporate gothic elements of the macabre and supernatural.

The stream-of-consciousness narration style makes As I Lay Dying a modernist novel, as does the multitude of narrators and shifting points of view.

There are also many gothic elements in As I Lay Dying. The Southern Gothic genre includes a focus on grotesque or unsettling imagery, the horrors and hardships implicit in Southern society, including poverty, classism, racism, and slavery, and elements of madness, mystery, and the supernatural. Some examples in As I Lay Dying include Addie's decaying body, Cash's broken leg, the poverty of the Bundren family and their dysfunctional relationships, and Vardaman repeatedly, unnervingly, referring to his mother as a fish.

Style

Faulkner's stream-of-consciousness narration is the unifying style of the novel. Within each characters' chapters, the style is altered to reflect that character's particular inner voice. This sometimes includes grammatical errors and inconsistencies. For example, here Dewy Dell's anxiety over her pregnancy and the loss of her mother muddles her thoughts so much that the text becomes confused and sentences start to run together:

I heard that my mother is dead. I wish I had time to let her die. I wish I had time to wish I had. It is because in the wild and outraged earth too soon too soon too soon. It’s not that I wouldn’t and will not it’s that it is too soon too soon too soon." -Chapter 30

The novel also often does not proceed in a linear, logical fashion but rather follows the thought patterns of each character. The majority of the chapters are very short, so the narrator's perspective shifts every couple of pages. This can be confusing and make the story difficult to follow, but the writing style also helps to put the reader inside the head of each member of the Bundren family.

This example, taken from a chapter narrated by Darl, shows the second Bundren brother's tendency to include poetic style, contemplation, and thoughtfulness:

The lantern sits on a stump. Rusted, grease-fouled, its cracked chimney smeared on one side with a soaring smudge of soot, it sheds a feeble and sultry glare upon the trestles and the boards and the adjacent earth." -Chapter 17

Contrast Darl's narration with this excerpt from the following chapter narrated by the oldest brother, Cash:

I made it on the bevel.

1. There is more surface for the nails to grip.

2. There is twice the gripping-surface to each seam.

3. The water will have to seep into it on a slant. Water moves easiest up and down or straight across." -Chapter 18

Here, Cash describes building his mother's coffin in a matter-of-fact, step-by-step fashion, that speaks to his practicality and focus on physical labor.

William Faulkner reportedly wrote As I Lay Dying over a period of six weeks without making any corrections. Faulkner was working at a power plant at the time and wrote during the night.

As I Lay Dying: Characters

There are many different characters in As I Lay Dying, as there are fifteen separate first-person narrators.

The Bundren Family

  • Addie Bundren is the mother and wife of the Bundren family. She dies at the beginning of the novel, yet her corpse is a constant presence in the story, and she narrates one chapter in the middle of the novel. Her life was marked by bitterness and resentment directed mostly towards her husband and children, with the exception of Jewel, her favorite child.
  • Anse Bundren is Addie's husband and father to Cash, Darl, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman. He is a hunchbacked farmer who is stubborn and selfish, leaving the childrearing and household tasks to his wife.
  • Cash Bundren is the eldest Bundren child. He is patient and loyal to his family, refusing to complain or compromise their mission despite his ever-worsening injury.
  • Darl Bundren is the second eldest Bundren child. He narrates more chapters than any other character and is thoughtful and contemplative. He is more perceptive than the other Bundren family members, and better understands their complex dynamics.
  • Jewel is the third and favorite of Addie's children, the result of an affair between his mother and Minister Whitfield. Despite Addie's devotion, Jewel is often selfish and takes advantage of her favoritism.
  • Dewey Dell Bundren is the second youngest and the only daughter among the Bundren children. She has become pregnant following a sexual encounter with a man named Lafe, who gives her ten dollars for an abortion. She is so preoccupied with worry by her situation that she cannot properly mourn the death of her mother.
  • Vardaman Bundren is the youngest Bundren child, somewhere around eight or ten years old. In his innocence, he has trouble understanding what happened to his mother. He continually compares her to a fish he recently caught and saw transformed into something else, something "not-fish." In his eyes, his mother has undergone a similar transformation.

Other Narrators

  • Vernon Tull is a farmer and friend of the Bundren family.
  • Cora Tull is Vernon Tull's wife.
  • Peabody is a doctor who attends to the dying Addie and later to Cash's broken leg.
  • Samson is a farmer who lets the Bundren family spend the night with him as they travel to Jefferson.
  • Whitfield is a minister. He and Addie have an affair that results in the birth of Jewel.
  • Armstid is another local farmer who hosts the Bundrens on their journey to Jefferson.
  • Moseley is the first pharmacist that Dewey Dell asks for an abortion. He firmly refuses and suggests she get married instead.
  • MacGowan is the second pharmacist that Dewey Dell asks for an abortion. He tricks her into sex by promising her a treatment that turns out to be useless.

As I Lay Dying: Themes and Quotes

Family

'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." -Cash (chapter 59)

After Addie's death, the Bundrens are united by duty and obligation, not by love or affection. Once his duty to his dead wife is fulfilled, Anse doesn't hesitate to take a new wife immediately. In the above quote, he introduces the new Mrs. Bundren to his shocked children just moments after they finish burying Addie.

As I Lay Dying is the story of a family coming together to achieve a common goal. However, the Bundren family is anything but loving and supportive of one another. Their relationships are marked by miscommunication, conflicting self-interest, and resentment.

The one chapter that Addie Bundren narrates tells almost exclusively of the anger and bitterness she holds towards her husband and children for trapping her in a life she despises. In fact, her dying wish is to be buried far away from her family, back in her hometown.

Language

That was when I learned that words are no good; that words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at. When he 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. I knew that fear was invented by someone that had never had the fear; pride, who never had the pride." -Addie (chapter 40)

An important theme in As I Lay Dying is the inadequacy of language. Here, Addie Bundren suggests that words are invented by those who have never experienced the concept they convey because words become unnecessary once you have experienced the thing. This theme is also apparent in the communication between family members, or the lack thereof. Although the novel is made up of lengthy inner monologues, the actual spoken words between characters are relatively few and are often misunderstood or misconstrued.

Religion

'Who are you, to say what is sin and what is not sin? It is the Lord's part to judge; ours to praise His mercy and His holy name in the hearing of our fellow mortals' because He alone can see into the heart, and just because a woman's life is right in the sight of man, she cant know if there is no sin in her heart without she opens her heart to the Lord and receives His grace." -Cora (chapter 39)

Religion is prominent in As I Lay Dying. The characters themselves are religious, but there are also many Biblical references and parallels in the novel. However, these references often appear ironically. The minister, for example, has an affair with Addie and fathers the bastard son, Jewel. Another example is the quote above, where Cora judges Addie for her sins while at the same time saying that God is the only one who can judge her. Throughout the novel, characters repeatedly contradict their religious beliefs to justify their selfish behavior in a way that mocks the institution of religion.

The nature of existence

'Jewel's mother is a horse,' Darl said. 'Then mine can be a fish, cant it, Darl' I said. Jewel is my brother. 'Then mine will have to be a horse, too,' I said. 'Why?' Darl said. 'If pa is your pa, why does your ma have to be a horse just because Jewel's is?' 'Why does it?' I said. 'Why does it, Darl?' Darl is my brother. 'Then what is your ma, Darl?' I said. 'I haven't got ere one,' Darl said. 'Because if I had one, it is was. And if it is was, it cant be is. Can it?'" - Vardaman (chapter 24)

Throughout As I Lay Dying, the characters repeatedly contemplate the nature of existence, questioning that is motivated by Addie's death and the time spent with her decaying body. Vardaman, the youngest Bundren, compares his mother to a fish he had recently caught and watched be transformed into something else, something other than a fish. He understands his mother's death in much the same way. Here, Darl also questions his mother's transformation of dying, noting that he can no longer use the word 'is' to describe her, only 'was.'

Mortality

"I can remember how when I was young I believed death to be a phenomenon of the body; now I know it to be merely a function of the mind—and that of the minds of the ones who suffer the bereavement. The nihilists say it is the end; the fundamentalists, the beginning; when in reality it is no more than a single tenant or family moving out of a tenement or a town." -Peabody (chapter 11)

Addie Bundren's coffin is a constant reminder of mortality. StudySmarter

Cash builds Addie a wooden coffin by hand. Pixabay.

Similar to existential questions, issues of mortality are central to As I Lay Dying. This theme is underscored by the constant presence of Addie's decaying body, drawing attention to the physical disintegration of the body after death. Spending nine days in the wagon with the coffin forces each of the members of the Bundren family to confront mortality in their own way.

As I Lay Dying - Key Takeaways

  • As I Lay Dying was written by William Faulkner and published in 1930.
  • As I Lay Dying is a Modernist, Southern Gothic novel.
  • As I Lay Dying tells the story of the dysfunctional Bundren family trying to bury their wife and mother.
  • As I Lay Dying is considered one of the best novels of the 20th century.
  • As I Lay Dying is narrated by fifteen separate characters.
  • Some important themes include family, mortality, religion, and the nature of existence.

As I Lay Dying

The title As I Lay Dying is taken from a line of Homer's Odyssey, which says: "As I lay dying, the woman with the dog's eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades."

William Faulkner was inspired by his upbringing in Mississippi; therefore, most of his work is set in the South. He was inspired to portray southern characters and themes specific to the southern United States.

At the end of As I Lay Dying, the Bundren family finally meets their objective and buries Addie in Jefferson. Then, Anse decides to marry the woman he borrows the shovels from, and he presents her to the children as Mrs. Bundren.

American author William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying.

As I Lay Dying tells the story of the dysfunctional Bundren family as they travel across Mississippi to bury their wife and mother in her hometown.

Final As I Lay Dying Quiz

Question

Who wrote As I Lay Dying?

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Answer

William Faulkner

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Question

What genre is As I Lay Dying?

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Answer

Modernist, Southern Gothic

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Question

When was As I Lay Dying published?

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Answer

1930

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Question

How many narrators does As I Lay Dying have?

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Answer

Fifteen

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Question

Who builds Addie Bundren’s coffin?


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Answer

Cash Bundren

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Question

Who is Jewel’s father?

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Answer

Minister Whitfield

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Question

Which is NOT an important theme in As I Lay Dying?

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Answer

Love

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Question

How many days does it take the Bundren family to reach Jefferson?


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Answer

Nine

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What is the name of the youngest Bundren child?


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Answer

Vardaman

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Question

Why does Dewey Dell have trouble mourning the death of her mother?


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Answer

She is preoccupied with her unwanted pregnancy.

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