“As I Lay Dying” is a 1930 novel by William Faulkner. The novel was one of the first of its kind to utilize the narration of multiple point-of-view characters. Each of the 59 chapters is told through the eyes of a character and named after them. Faulkner claimed to have written the book over the course of six weeks, working from midnight to 4 a.m while employed at a power plant. He also claimed that he did not edit a word of it and that it was a “tour de force”. It is his fifth novel.
The novel is ranked among the best novels of the 20th century in many circles and it significantly aided in Faulkner’s winning of the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature in 1949.
The book is about the Bundren family, a poor farming family in Mississippi who, after their mother dies, travel to a town called Jefferson to honor her wish to be buried there. On the long journey, much is revealed about the family through their own internal narration. Eventually, they run into trouble attempting to cross a swollen river and the oldest son, Cash is hurt. The second oldest son, Darl, suffers a psychotic break and attempts to set their mother’s coffin ablaze. At the end of the book, Darl is institutionalized, Cash is told he may never walk again from his injuries and the mother is buried in her hometown of Jefferson. However, the father, Anse decides to pick up a new wife in town.
The novel is told through the eyes of 15 different point of view characters over the course of 59 chapters. Every chapter is a short passage narrated by a different character and tells their side of the story. The first character to speak is a man named Darl Bundren. Darl describes walking up to his families home with his brother, Jewel. They two see their older brother, Cash outside the house constructing a coffin for their mother, Addie out of wood.
The next character, Cora, is the wife of the Bundren’s wealthy neighbor, Vernon Tull. She and her daughters are inside the Bundren’s house, watching over Addie as she sleeps. Cora speaks with her daughters about an order of cakes that she was hired to make that was canceled after she had already baked them. She is accepting of this although her daughter, Kate is not and finds it unjust.
Darl walks through the room to the back of the house. There he meets his father, Anse, and Vernon. They ask after Jewel and Darl tell them that he is tending to the horses in the barn.
Outside, through Jewel’s perspective, we are told that he thinks it is improper for Cash to be building their mother’s coffin right outside of her window. He is hurt that the other members of the family would let him do this. He wishes that he could be alone with his mother in her last days. This is revealed out loud by him in the next scene when he rails at his brother, father, and Vernon for seeming to want to hurry Addie along in her death. Vernon has hired Darl and Jewel to make a delivery for him but their father is reluctant to let them go. He worries that they will not have the horses back in time for Addie’s death and thus he will have no transportation for her body. Anse finally agrees to let the boys go as long as they promise to be back before the next day at sundown.
After this is settled, the boys go to bid their mother farewell. Cora watches and is touched by Darl’s kind words to his mother. The boys sister, Dewey Dell looks on as well. The narrative then shifts to Dewey Dell. Dewey Dell is thinking about a harvester named Lafe whom she slept with, secretly. Dewey Dell thinks that she knows that Darl has found out about this. Darl tells his sister that he feels that their mother will die before he returns but that he needs Jewel’s help loading the wagon so he is taking him anyway.
Vernon continues to try to convince Anse that Darl and Jewel need to make the trip. Vardaman, the youngest child of the Bundren house comes back with a large fish that he intends to show to his mother. Anse instructs him to clean the fish before bringing it in the house. Cora and Vernon head home for the evening. Anse tells us that he is convinced that the new road that the government put next to his house has brought nothing but bad luck and he blames it for his wife’s sickness. Darl and Jewel depart and Darl thinks about how he confronted his sister after finding out that she slept with Lafe.
The next character to appear is Addie’s doctor, a man called Peabody. He attends to Addie and finds her unable to move but not in particular distress. Dewey Dell tells Peabody that he mother wishes him to leave. That night, Addie dies.Somehow, Darl and Jewel feels this even though they are miles away. Anse tells Cash that he needs to finish up the coffin as soon as possible and then tells Dewey Dell to make dinner. After his children leave the room, Anse stands over his wife’s body and strokes her face once before leaving.
Somehow, Darl and Jewel feels this even though they are miles away. Anse tells Cash that he needs to finish up the coffin as soon as possible and then tells Dewey Dell to make dinner. After his children leave the room, Anse stands over his wife’s body and strokes her face once before leaving.
Darl tells Jewel that he feels their mother is dead.Upset, Vardaman runs out of the house and begins to cry. He feels that Peabody is responsible for his mother’s death and wishes to punish him. He finds a stick and begins beating on Peabody’s horses until they run away. After which he sulks in the barn, alone.
Upset, Vardaman runs out of the house and begins to cry. He feels that Peabody is responsible for his mother’s death and wishes to punish him. He finds a stick and begins beating on Peabody’s horses until they run away. After which he sulks in the barn, alone. Dewey Dell thinks about her night with Lafe more and reveals that a pregnancy has resulted from it. She considers asking Peabody to abort the child but thinks that he would not agree to do so.Dewey Dell makes dinner for her family and then, not feeling hungry, decides to go out to the barn to find Vardaman. When she does stumble across him in the barn, she has been saying Lafe’s name softly to herself. She accuses Vardaman of spying on her and shakes him violently by the shoulders before sending him away.
Dewey Dell makes dinner for her family and then, not feeling hungry, decides to go out to the barn to find Vardaman. When she does stumble across him in the barn, she has been saying Lafe’s name softly to herself. She accuses Vardaman of spying on her and shakes him violently by the shoulders before sending him away.Outside, Vardaman stares at the coffin his mother will soon be buried in. He feels uneasy that she will be nailed inside of it.
Outside, Vardaman stares at the coffin his mother will soon be buried in. He feels uneasy that she will be nailed inside of it. Upset, Vardaman runs to Vernon and Cora’s house to inform them of his mother’s death. Vernon and Cora bring him back to his house and Vernon begins to help Cash finish the coffin. At dawn, they finish and place Addie in the coffin before nailing it shut. Later that morning, they return to find that coffin bored full of holes and Vardaman lying asleep next to it.
Vernon and Cora return to their home. Cash sets to work fixing the holes in the coffin. The family has laid Addie in the coffin backward to accommodate the flared bottom of the dress she was buried in, wedding dress. The town’s minister, Whitfield, arrives to perform the funeral rights. Anse notes that Addie wished to be buried in Jefferson and that he wants to get her there. The funeral is held and afterward, Vernon and Cora leave to go home. On the way, they come across Vardaman fishing in a barren bog. They tell him that there are no fish in the box but he insists that his sister has seen one. Jewel is angry at Darl for causing him to miss their mother’s last moments. Darl wonders how Jewel can still be angry about their mother as she does not exist anymore.
Jewel and Darl return home after some delays and they and Cash and Anse lift the coffin onto the wagon. The family prepares to take the body to Jefferson. Jewel is still angry about missing Addie’s death while Vardaman is still upset about it. Cash brings his toolbox on the trip so that on the way back they can drop him off at Vernon’s place for work. Anse tells his son that this is disrespectful. He becomes even angrier when Dewey Dell brings a cake of Cora’s to deliver in town.
The family drive all day and eventually reach the farm of a man named Samson. They find that the bridges are all flooded and that they cannot leave town. Samson offers to shelter them for the night.
The next morning, the family attempts to find another way to cross the river. Eventually, they stumble across Vernon, who helps them cross a dangerous sunken bridge. Darl observes Jewel’s sullen behavior and thinks about a time years earlier when Jewel began sleeping at odd hours. He and Cash noticed that Jewel was sneaking away from the house at night and assumed that he was spending time with a married woman. One night, Cash followed Jewel but when he discovered the boys secret he refused to share it with Darl. A few months later, Jewel bought a new horse. Darl discovered that his brother had been spending his nights clearing land on another farm so that he could get money for the horse. Anse was angered by the new mouth to feed but Jewel assured him that he wouldn’t have to take care of the horse. Darl remembers how his mother defended Jewel and covered up his wrongdoings.
Darl, Cash, and Jewel did not cross when the rest of their family did and end up stuck on the wrong side of the river with the wagon and the coffin. After some arguing about how best to cross, they eventually decide to cross as they normally would with the wagon. Unfortunately, a large log comes at them too fast and upsets their progress. Anse’s mule drowns and the brothers struggle to maintain the wagon without it. Watching from the shore Vardaman panics that his mother’s coffin will wash away. He yells at his brothers to maintain hold of it. Eventually, Cash manages to get ashore although he is unconscious. The brothers, Anse, and Tull make an effort to gather everything that was washed out of the wagon.
During this chaos, the narrative shifts to Cora who is thinking about Addie. She remembers a conversation she had with Addie about religion. She worried that Addie was putting more faith in her thankless son, Jewel than in God. She remembers that Addie spoke about Jewel being her “cross” and her “salvation” in a way more fit for someone talking about God.
The next monolog we’re shown is Addie’s. The book never makes it clear whether she is meant to be speaking from beyond the grave or if we have been taken back in time to before she died.
Addie recalls working as a schoolmistress before her marriage. She took pleasure in whipping the children when they acted up. She then remembers her tense courtship with Anse and their marriage. She relates that after she gave birth to her first children (Cash and Darl) she felt as though her solitude had been taken away. Her marriage suffered during this time and she participated in an extramarital affair with the town’s minister, Whitfield. Rather than making her feel better, however, the relationship only made her disillusioned that someone who claimed to be so virtuous could engage in something so sinful.
Eventually, she became pregnant with Winfield’s bastard child and gave birth to Jewel. After this, she gave birth to Dewey Dell and Vardaman from Anse and thought of their lives as final payment in her emotional debt to him for being unfaithful. She then remembers some of Cora’s words about salvation and sinning and thinks of them as empty and meaningless. Just at this moment, Whitfield himself suddenly decides to go to the Bundren house and confess his decades-old affair with Addie to Anse. He assumes that the woman will want to confess it herself on her deathbed and means to beat her to the punch. However, upon reaching the Bundren household he finds that Addie is already dead and that the house is empty. Whitfield decides that this must be a sign from God and leaves the house without looking back.
Back at the river, Darl lays Cash on top of their mother’s coffin so that the family can keep moving in the damaged wagon. The Bundrens arrive at the house of a man named Armstid. Armstid offers to let them stay for the night and they insist on sleeping in his shed. Jewel skips dinner so that he may tend the horses.
Armstid offers Anse the use of his team of mules, but Anse declines. Jewel rides away to find the doctor, Peabody, but is only able to find a veterinarian. The veterinarian is able to set Cash’s broken leg, regardless. Cash faints from the pain.
The next morning, Anse takes a horse to town to see about purchasing a team of horses from himself. Vardaman insists on guarding his mother’s coffin and fights off a gang of buzzards that are circling near it.
That evening, Anse returns to announce that he has purchased a team of horses. He confesses that he had to use some money from the fund he was saving to purchase false teeth for himself, as well as money from Cash’s savings and trading Jewel’s horse. Initially, Jewel is shocked, but his shock quickly turns to anger and he rides away on his horse to keep it from being traded. Without the horse to trade, the deal is in danger of falling through. However, the next morning the farmhand that Anse made the deal with arrives with the horse. He tells the family that he found it unattended on his property. With their horses leading the way, and without Jewel, the family set out again to Jefferson. Vardaman watches as more buzzards circle overhead as they drive.
In the town of Mottson, the family stop to rest and shop. A shop owner named Moseley takes over the narrative. Moseley sees a young woman in his shop and asks her if she needs assistance. The young woman, Dewey Dell, hints that she is trying to obtain an abortion and Moseley is flustered. Angered, he refuses to provide her with treatment as he is a religious man. Dewey Dell insists, saying that Lafe told her the drugstore would give her an abortion for ten dollars. Moseley continues to refuse the request and suggests that she ought to marry Lafe. After Dewey Dell leaves, Moseley’s assistant tells him more about the Bundren family. Apparently the father was seen having an argument earlier that day with the local marshal about the stench of his wife’s week-old corpse and one of the sons was buying some cement to set his brother’s broken leg.
The family leaves Mottson and soon Darl stops the wagon in front of a house to request that Dewey Dell runs up and ask for a bucket of water to create a cast for Cash.
Dewey Dell obliges. Cash is slowly bleeding to death from his injuries. Darl and Dewey Dell create a cast for his leg from the cement. As they are doing this, Jewel returns and wordlessly gets back into the wagon. That evening, the family decide to stay at another farm for the night. Darl sets the coffin up against an apple tree. Cash’s leg begins to swell because of the heat. Vardaman and Darl go out to check on the coffin in the night. They decide to move it into the barn for safety.
Later, Vardaman spies Darl setting fire to the barn. Vardaman tells Dewey Dell what he saw and she advises him not to tell anyone. Because of the hot, dry night, the fire quickly becomes a blaze. Everyone gathers to watch the fire and Jewel attempts to free the horses and mules from the barn. When he is successful he goes back in for the coffin. Vardaman looks at the burned remains of the barn as the coffin is successfully dragged back to the apple tree. Cash’s leg has since turned black from the amateur cast. Anse makes an attempt to break it open. Jewel has also been wounded by the fire.
The next morning, beaten and bruised, the family still decides to continue to Jefferson. They make it to the town that day and Darl suggest that they see a doctor about Cash’s leg before burying Addie. However, Cash insists that he can wait. Anse stops at a nearby house and asks to borrow a shovel. The family finally bury Addie soon after.
Cash’s narrative reveals that the night before he and his father had agreed to commit Darl to a mental institution. It turns out they know he caused the fire and the family that had given them the barn to use is threatening to sue if they do not have Darl committed. With no choice, they agree. That morning man from a nearby institution show up to take Darl away. He fights against them but his family helps to subdue him. Darl finally breaks and sits on the ground, laughing.
As the book ends, we’re taken through a few different narratives to note what becomes of the characters. Peabody tells us that he treated Cash’s leg, but that the man may never walk again. At the Jefferson drugstore, a clerk named MacGowen sees a young woman enter and finds her attractive. He pretends to be a doctor as she asks for an abortion. The young woman is Dewey Dell and MacGowen tells her that she will need to come back later and see him in the cellar of the building. She does so while Vardaman waits on the curb outside.
After she emerges from the store, she leads Vardaman back to their hotel while making mumbling to herself that “it” will not work. Darl is taken into an institution and rants madly to himself. He begins to switch back and forth between the first and third person as he continues to have a psychotic break.
Anse finds out that Dewey Dell still has ten dollars and asks to borrow it. Though she forbids him, he takes it anyway and leaves the hotel. The next morning as the family prepares to return home, Anse comes back with a set of new false teeth. Cash remembers the night before and how his father spent more time than he considered necessary in the house borrowing the shovels.
When Anse comes back he is accompanied by a stern-looking woman. Anse introduces the woman to his children as the new “Mrs. Bundren”.
Addie Bundren – though she is dead for most of the book, Addie’s character has a great deal of impact on the narrative. It is her wish to be buried in her hometown that sets off the plot of the novel. Addie’s unique voice is brought to life through her own brief section of narration and though Cora’s memories of her throughout the book.
She appears to be intelligent if a slightly cold woman who was haunted by a sense of disillusionment and dissatisfaction with her life. She finds herself unable to love her difficult, coarse husband or her children and comes to find her marriage and motherhood to be empty and meaningless to her. She initially expresses her wish to be buried far away from her husband and children as far back as the birth of her second child. Addie’s small satisfaction in life seems to be taken from her brief affair with Whitfield and the subsequent child that arose from it, Jewel, whom she seems to love deeply.
However, though she looks after him, Jewel treats Addie poorly when she alive and seems to only show remorse for this after her death when he wishes to be near her and saves her coffin from the burning barn. Addie correctly predicted in life that Jewel would be her salvation and “save her from the water from the fire”. As such, Addie effectively invested all of her strength into a love that only truly comes to fruition after she is dead.
After her death, Addie’s body and burial continue to divide and hinder her family just as much as she did when she was alive. Many of the notable incidents from after her death reflect the idea that Addie is still, in some way, alive. Such as Vardaman drilling holes in the coffin so that his mother can breathe and a scene of the fire where Darl tells Vardaman that he can hear their mother speaking in her coffin. Even the smell of Addie’s corpse rotting becomes the talk of many strangers along the route to Jefferson.
The idea that Addie may still have a life after her death and still be watching her family’s progress in trying to bury her is among the most powerful notions presented in the novel.
Darl Bundren – Darl Bundren is the closest thing the novel has to the main narrator. As the main narrator in 19 of the 59 sections of the novel, he is perhaps the most introspective of all the characters. Darl has a certain knack for poetic descriptions and deep analysis that offers the novel a guiding force. However, it is this exact intellectual nature that prevents him from achieving the most daring heroism that his brothers, Cash, and Jewel do.
Darl seems to object to the family’s journey on principal and registers this dissatisfaction subtly twice. Once by attempting to abandon his mother’s coffin when the wagon is damaged in the river and the second time by setting fire to the barn.
Another downside of Darl’s introspective personality is the estrangement he faces from his community. Cora notes in the beginning of the novel that most people in the town find Darl strange and odd. He is also able to perceive private secrets about the people around him, as he does when he uncovers Dewey Dell’s affair with Lafe and later when he suspects that Anse is not Jewel’s real father.
At times during the novel, Darl is shown as being downright clairvoyant as when he “feels” that Addie is dead although he and Jewel are far away at the time.Because of this uncanny ability, other characters are shown to avoid Darl for fear that he will discover their secrets.
Because of this uncanny ability, other characters are shown to avoid Darl for fear that he will discover their secrets. Perhaps it is this fear more so than his setting the barn on fire that leads his family to commit him to an institution in the end of the book. After all, it is Dewey Dell, who knows that Darl has discovered her secret pregnancy, who is the first to restrain him when the guards from the asylum arrive.
Jewel Bundren – Jewel has comparatively few narrative sections throughout the book and because of this he is mostly defined by his actions as viewed by other characters rather than his words. This creates a great deal of leeway for readers and critics of the book to debate his actions.
Darl often describes his brother as “wooden” during his narrative sections and it is from this description that we are shown not only that Jewel is seen as impenetrable to the other characters as well, but that he shares some of those impenetrable qualities with his mother’s wooden coffin. It is also debatable whether or not Jewel returned his mother’s love and affection when she was alive. His behavior toward her in the short time at the beginning of the novel when she was alive comes across as callous. Even as his mother lies dying, Jewel refuses to say goodbye to her. However, Jewel’s actions after her death do seem to show that he cared for her. He makes more sacrifices than anyone in trying to get her to Jefferson and eventually gives up his beloved horse.
Jewel’s cold attitude toward the rest of his family contrast sharply with the often heroic nature of his deeds, such as when he continues to search for Cash’s tools on the river bed after the wagon is overthrown and during one passage when he nearly comes to blows with a stranger who he feels is insulting the family. Overall, Jewel is a singular, solid man of action and few words and these traits put him at odds with the more philosophical Darl.
Vardaman Bundren – the youngest of the Bundren children, Vardaman is perhaps the most obviously upset about his mother’s passing and shows it most openly. He struggles with the idea that his mother will be buried in the ground and childishly attempts to relieve her lack of air by drilling holes in the coffin.
It is unclear if Vardaman love for his mother is the result of kind treatment from her that differed from her treatment of his older siblings or if it is simply the tenderness of a child. Vardaman consistently shows the most relate-ability and innocence of all of the characters and is proven to be an imaginative and thoughtful child.
Dewey Dell Bundren – the Bundren’s only daughter, Dewey Dell is seventeen and a recent affair with a local boy has left her pregnant. She is desperate to escape the pregnancy however, and spends her narrative sections mostly contemplating how to obtain an abortion. Dewey Dell’s reticent nature makes her emotions unclear, even during her part of the narration and we are never told what she truly wants out of her current situation.
The only thing that is clear is that she is desperate to keep it a secret from her family and the town.
Anse Bundren – the father of the Bundren clan. Anse is a tough, callous farmer who nevertheless shows some touching sensitivity when he bids goodbye to his wife by stroking her face after she dies.
However, throughout most of the novel, Anse’s motivations are largely selfish. Though he agrees to bury his wife in her hometown, he spends most of the novel preoccupied with seeking out a new set of false teeth. His poor fathering skills seem to be most of the reason for the various predicaments of his children and they all seem to either disrespect or outright hate him.
William Faulkner Biography
William Cuthbert Faulkner was one of the greatest American novelists, known for his astounding portrayal of 20 novels of the conflict between the old south and the new south.
Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi in September of 1897 and was raised in nearby Oxford as the oldest of four sons of an old deep south family. He dropped out of high school, which he hated, to work in the bank that his grandfather owned in 1915. In World War I he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force but never saw action. Back in Oxford, he attended the University of Mississippi as a veteran but soon quit school to write, supporting himself with odd jobs.
Faulkner’s first book, “The Marble Faun” (1924) was a collection of rather derivative poems that was privately printed. The next year, he moved to New Orleans, worked as a journalist and found a publisher for his first ever novel “Soldiers’ Pay” (1926). After a brief tour of Europe, he went home and began the series of florid, brooding novels set in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. He peopled the town with his own ancestors, Indians, African Americans, shadowy backwoods hermits and loutish poor whites.
The year 1929 was crucial to Faulkner, the first of this series “Sartoris” (1929) was followed by ‘The Sound and the Fury’, setting him up as a fully realized master of fiction.
He married his childhood sweetheart, Estelle Oldham the same year and chose to make his home in the small town of Oxford. Although many of his books were getting favorable reviews, only one sold well- ‘Sanctuary’ (1931). The books success led to lucrative work as a Hollywood script writer.
In 1946, the critic Malcolm Cowley, worried that Faulkner was not well known or appreciated, put together “The Portable Faulkner”, arranging extracts from Faulkner’s novels. After this, Faulkner’s works, having been long out of print, began to be reissued. No longer was he regarded as a regional strangeness but as a literary dynamo who finest writing held meaning far beyond the agonies and conflicts of his own troubled South.His accomplishment was internationally recognized in 1949 when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature. He continued to write novels and also short stories until his death on July 6, 1962 in Oxford. He died of a heart attack and was buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery in Oxford along with his family.
His accomplishment was internationally recognized in 1949 when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature. He continued to write novels and also short stories until his death on July 6, 1962, in Oxford. He died of a heart attack and was buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery in Oxford, along with his family.