As I Lay Dying is a novel that focuses on the death and burial of Addie Bundren, and how her husband Anse Bundren and their five children, deal with the death, and with each other. Addie lays sick and asks for a coffin to be made, and for a promise to bury her in a cemetery 30 mile away. Her husband Anse is lazy and selfish and doesn’t help but her son Cash spends days working on the coffin. Just outside Addie’s window he pounds and saws for all to hear, including Addie.
Addie dies and they load the coffin onto a wagon and prepare for a trip that will take days to accomplish.
Jewel, the most loved of the children has many issues and violence is one of them, but he is also the one that seems to be able to express feelings of loss and his own pain at Addie’s passing.
The two key characters in the story seem to be Jewel and Darl. Unlike Jewel, Darl was the least loved child and was the emotional opposite of Jewel. Darl thinks he is very smart, but he is not, and he even has a hard time just communicating. The others say he has his own “specialness” (not a good thing) which means his logic is as awkward as his language. At one point he asks, after his mother has died, “how a mother that was, can not be a mother that is, and therefore, Addie Bundren is not really his mother.” Vardaman jumps on this logic telling Darl his mother was a horse, but Darl replies that Varaman’s mother is a fish.
The dialog that follows between them is just more of a string of consciousness found throughout the novel. “Then where is your ma, Darl?” Vardaman said. “I haven’t got ere one,” Darl said. “Because if I had one, it is was. And if it is was, it can’t be is. Can it?”
The story is deep with double meanings and symbolism. One example is that Jewel, the favorite, was left alone to carry the weight of the coffin. As the wagon crosses a river on the trip to the cemetery the coffin slips off and floats down the river. It is caught up with and hauled back to the wagon. Vardaman after a time starts to believe his mother is a fish and bores two holes into Cash’s perfect coffin to double check, in the process he bores into her face, much like a hook catches a fish. Jewel and Vardaman seem to be the only ones who have any grief over their mother’s death.
The novel takes a unique view of how this family views death. It is a little hard to follow the dialog, but the language comes off the page with the general character and attitude of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, a place based on his own Mississippi habitat. The story is not a dark comedy, as some may say, it is a transition into another world that is marked by the tone of the language, that is much like music. The rawness of the culture and the people pull you in, and Faulkner largely through the language makes you feel the story.
A unique and interesting family so well presented in detail that you marvel at their existence as a family unit. It isn’t the plot, it is characters that have made Addie’s death into a fascinating story.
An Interesting Writing Approach
The use of language of course but also throughout the novel, Faulkner presents 15 different points of view, each chapter narrated by one character, including Addie, who expresses her thoughts after she has already died. In 59 chapters titled only by their narrators' names, the characters are developed gradually through each other's perceptions and opinions, with Darl's predominating.
William Faulkner Quotes As I Lay Dying
“It takes two people to make you, and one people to die. That's how the world is going to end.”
“...the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time.”
“People to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too.”
“Memory believes before knowing remembers.”
“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.”