American novelist, William Faulkner, successfully tells the story of a Southern family’s journey after losing a loved one through a collection of what may be considered “half-truths.” Faulkner lets the story unfold from the point of view of various narrators, each chapter jumps from one person to the next, which only allows the reader to know what the current narrator sees as the truth. The novel can be best described as a stream of consciousness, where the narrators’ flow of thoughts is all the readers are able to know.
The story begins with Darl Bundren as the first narrator. He is the first to mention the state of his mother, Addie Bundren, who is on her deathbed. From her window, Addie can see and hear her oldest son, Cash, making a coffin for her. While Addie is close to dying Darl takes her other son Jewel with him on a job run. Addie dies before their return and Vardaman, the youngest Bundren, blames the doctor, Mr.
Peabody for his mother’s death.
Addie’s death is what sparks the journey because she requested that she be buried in Jefferson, which her husband, Anse, is determined to make happen. After Addie’s funeral, the journey to Jefferson begins and they are met with troubles early on as the bridge they were supposed to cross got washed away. So, as any logical person would do, they try to cross the river anyway. A log hit the wagon and the coffin fell out, along with Cash’s tools, Cash’s already broken leg was reinjured, and all their mules drowned.
The story then jumps to Addie’s memories. She didn’t love Anse and had an affair with a minister, which led to her giving birth to Jewel. After that, the story shifts back to the present where Jewel found an equine doctor to set Cash’s leg. Anse buys a new team of mules with the money he was going to spend on new teeth, and Anse uses the money Cash was saving up along with Jewel’s horse.
However, things get worse when they reach the next town, Mottson. The Bundren family gets complaints that Addie’s rotting body smells awful and things don’t go Dewey Dell’s way. The only Bundren daughter, Dewey Dell, goes to the town’s pharmacy to get medicine that will kill her unborn child, but the pharmacist says he’s a man of God and Dewey Dell should just marry the man who got her pregnant instead. In other words, she left empty-handed. In addition to the bad luck, Darl uses cement to set Cash’s leg. As a result, Cash’s leg swells and turns black.
Later that day, the Bundren’s are staying at the Gillespie farm and Darl attempts to get rid of the families’ biggest problem by lighting the Gillespie’s barn on fire in hopes of burning the coffin with Addie inside. His plans were ruined as Jewel ran into the barn to save the animals trapped inside (bless his heart) and Jewel risked his life to drag out Addie’s coffin.
The chaos doesn’t stop there because the Gillespie’s threatened to sue the Bundren family, so the Bundrens decided to declare Darl mentally unstable. Leading to Darl’s life being ruined. Once they reached Jefferson and buried Addie, Darl was taken to the Jackson mental institute where actually starts to lose it. The rest move on from that event, and Dewey Dell tries her luck at the Jefferson pharmacy. Unfortunately, a worker pretends to be a doctor and ends up taking advantage of Dewey Dell by saying he’ll give her the medicine/procedure to abort her baby but doesn’t help her and just uses her body for his selfish desires.
The story ends the next day after Anse took Dewey Dell’s money to buy himself new teeth. Anse meets back up with his children sporting new teeth and a new girl saying, “Meet Mrs. Bundren…”
When William Faulkner was writing “As I Lay Dying,” Sigmund Freud’s theories were gaining popularity. This led to connections being established between the book and Freud’s theories, such as how the family reacts to Addie’s death. Though there is a lack of mourning among the family members, they demonstrate the defense mechanism that Freud theorized as, “The process that the ego (subconscious mind) uses to distort reality to protect itself are called defense mechanisms.” (Friedman 39).
In addition, there are other theories that can be found in Faulkner’s writing. One theory being the psychiatric theory of “the shadow.” The shadow is seen in Dewey Dell’s character through her sexual desire. Dewey Dell talks about a nightmare she had “…all of them under me again and going on like a piece of cool silk dragging across my naked legs.” The dream emphasizes her personal anxiety about the events that have happened to her. It’s unclear as to who “them” are, though a bit of a stretch, it can be inferred that “them” are men in her life like Lafe, the father of her unborn child, or Mr. Peabody, who she relies on medically to take care of the baby. There is also the scene where the Bundren family reach the washed away bridge and Mr. Tull arrives to help them. Each family member gives him a certain look, and it said that Dewey Dell looked at him as if he touched her. This further indicates that she can’t help but feel a sense of sexuality around her.
There is also The Levinas “Other” theory. The relationship is seen through Jewel and his horse. Jewel takes responsibility for his horse by declaring to Anse that his horse will only have food that he provides it and won’t leech off of the feed Anse provides for the family’s farm animals. Jewel depends on the horse just as much as the horse depends on him for survival. The relationship between Jewel and the horse is similar to his mother’s relationship with him, which is summarized by Darl who says, “Jewel’s mother is a horse.” The horse is symbolic of Jewel wanting to be independent of the Bundren family, which is why he depends so much on the horse that bough with his own money and desperately takes care of. However, Jewel is forced to get rid of his horse in order to buy the team of mules to continue on the journey to Jefferson. Jewel giving up his horse is symbolic of Jewel recognizing that his mother is actually gone.
In “As I Lay Dying,” Faulkner uses a variety of literary elements to tell the Bundren family’s story. Literary devices that can be seen include allusion, symbolism, a flashback, and theme. Even as the narrators switch from one person to the next, the morbid tone stays consistent throughout. There is the constant talk of death throughout. Addie’s death talks of abortion and the death of other animals just sets an overall morbid tone.
The title itself is an allusion to the “Odyssey.” In Book XI of Homer’s the “Odyssey,” the ghost of Agamemnon speaks to Odysseus in the underworld saying how he dies, “As I lay dying, the woman with the dog’s eyes would not close my eyes…” There are other connections such as both the “Odyssey” and “As I Lay Dying” are about a journey. Both even have a morbid tone as tragic events happen throughout both journeys.
A horse isn’t the only animal to which Addie was compared. Vardaman stated that “My mother is a fish.” Though this line made me laugh, it has a morbid meaning. Before Addie died Vardaman caught a fish that he killed and cleaned. The fish was one of the first interactions Vardaman had with death in the novel. However, it wasn’t until Addie died that he understood what it meant to be dead. Heartbroken and confused, Vardaman ran outside to the spot where the fish was killed and realized that the fish and his mother were in a different state of existence and he concluded that his mother is a fish. That was his way of connecting the two, which was seen once more during the river crossing scene. The river crossing scene is more ironic than anything. When the log hits the wagon, Addie’s coffin falls out and is floating in the river, like a fish.
William Faulkner also uses flashbacks to reveal important information. Long after Addie’s death, she narrates a chapter. It’s not said if she’s narrating from the coffin or if it’s just a flashback, but either way, the readers discover that Jewel isn’t Anse’s child. Addie says, “I gave Anse children…That was my duty to him…” She didn’t love Anse she was just fulfilling a duty to procreate. Addie saw her life as just a role she took part in, that it was her duty as the wife to birth Anse’s children. The only time she didn’t feel that way was when she had an affair with the minister, Mr. Whitfield. During this affair, she didn’t have the duty to bear children for Whitfield, but she did anyway. That’s how Jewel was born, and that’s also the reason why he’s Addie’s favorite. Jewel wasn’t born out of obligation, but out of free will.
Overall, “As I Lay Dying” had an overarching theme of existence. Going back to Vardaman and the fish, he refers to the fish as “pieces of not-fish” instead of saying it’s dead. That was his way of saying the fish is no longer a fish, which means it doesn’t exist anymore and he also associates that with how he views Addie. Addie is now a not-person, which is similar to how Darl thinks about how Addie was his mother not is his mother. Also, in the end, Anse introduces a new girl as Mrs. Bundren. The title that used to apply to Addie doesn’t anymore because she no longer exists.
Finally, the only question that remains is “Did you dig it?” Personally, I liked the story that was told. I didn’t, however, like how it was told. The switching narrators and stream of consciousness is a unique and interesting way to tell the story, but it wasn’t for me. It wasn’t that it was confusing, I just didn’t like it because of how many specific thoughts are repeated on one page or how simple things are said multiple times in different ways. “Then I pass the stall. I have almost passed it.” “…and he knew. He said he knew without words…and I knew he knew because if he had said he knew…” Come on! We get it, he knows! That’s from one paragraph, just say he knew and move on with your point. Parts like that made me feel like I was having a stroke because of how it repeated.