It’s almost impossible to discuss As I Lay Dying without bringing up the book that immediately preceded it — The Sound and the Fury. Published one year prior, the latter book was Faulkner’s favorite novel and self-admittedly his greatest failure (listen to the words from the man himself here). The Sound and the Fury was Faulkner’s first attempt at employing stream-of-consciousness storytelling and the somewhat hard to follow narrative damned the book, leading to a critical and commercial failure (even if it is now revered and the author still felt it was his most worthwhile effort). In that light, As I Lay Dying can be seen as an immediate counterpunch to The Sound and the Fury. Rather than slaving away on the narrative, Faulkner wrote the text in a mere six weeks, and according to accounts, didn’t change a word of it. That change in approach made all the difference. You can feel that Faulkner took a “never again” approach to the text. Keep it simple, keep it punchy, make every word count. Where readers often felt lost in the heads of Benjy and Quentin in The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying delivered short and direct snapshots of the thoughts of the various members of the Bundren family and their assorted neighbors. Where a reader can feel mired in The Sound and the Fury, wandering through the swamp-like text, As I Lay Dying is almost meant to be read in a single sitting — a story you feel infinitely compelled to keep reading.
The strengths of the novel lay in the story itself — a mournful southern gothic tale centered around the last days of Addie Bundren and her family’s burden to return her to the ground of Jackson, Mississippi. The story opens with the sick Addie, on her deathbed, watching her son Cash building her coffin. Those somber moments – including the vultures that come to haunt Addie’s journey, the mules who die beneath the river, and the fire that comes later but leads to the family’s final undoing — give the book a black thread that draws you in. As dark as the events are, the thoughts of Addie and her family can be darker. The locals question Addie’s husband, Anse, and his motives for agreeing to his wife’s dying request to be buried in Jackson. That request, along with one very key event, in many ways serves as Addie’s revenge against her family. And reading what transpires after her death, one almost can’t fault her sticking it to her family one last time.
For the Bundrens are not an ideal family. There isn’t an honorable character in the lot. Quickly, as the journey to Jackson leads to mishap after mishap, we learn that each of the Bundrens is more out for themselves than thinking of poor dead mom. Even Anse, who at first seems a model of devotion, delivers the final insult in the book (without revealing too much). You’re left questioning, “Did he really want to go to Jackson just to bury her?” Then of course, there’s son Darl, who in a single moment tries to render the greatest kindness to his mother and also destroys his own future. Daughter Dewey Dell who is a little more focused on fixing a problem left to her by a local farm hand. And there is Jewel, the son most loved by Addie, but who seems different than the rest for very specific reasons. It is probably the closest Faulkner ever came to crafting a Shakespeare play. Characters fly in and out from all directions, as they would in a stage play, to reveal their inner faults and foibles before running off to the background.
What Faulkner ultimately is questioning in As I Lay Dying is the fragility our existence, that fine veil where one moment we can suddenly cease to be. As Darl, reasons when his younger brother Vardaman asks, “Then what is your ma, Darl?”
“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?”
“No,” I said.
“Then I am not,” Darl said. “Am I?”
Midway through the novel, Addie makes a surprise return appearance, where you’re never quite sure if her narrative is a flashback or the woman speaking from inside the coffin. In one of the book’s more memorable quotes, she sums up the fragility of human existence as seen through Faulkner’s eyes:
“I could just remember how my father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time.”