As I Lay Dying
by William Faulkner
I have it in my head that I need, or at least want, to try to read more classics. This novel actually grabbed my attention last year when I was listening to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild; she mentioned a number of books that kept her company on her trek up the Pacific Crest Trail, and As I Lay Dying was one of them, so I added it to my to-read list.
What a strange and provocative story.
As I Lay Dying takes place in a fictional county in early twentieth century Mississippi. The central cast of characters is a poor farm family: the father, a hapless, ne’er-do-well who will get out of working any way he can and is apt to cheat his own children; a motley crew of five children which includes four boys ranging from adult to the youngest who is around ten, and a teenage girl who is pregnant as a result of a clandestine liaison with a local farm hand. At the heart of the story is Addie Bundren, the wife and mother of this ragtag bunch. The story opens as Addie is on her deathbed, dying of an unspecified illness – but you get the idea later that she likely just lost the will to live. As she lays dying over a period of several days, her eldest son, Cash, builds her coffin right outside her bedroom window as she watches. That’s the first hint of macabre, and the story only grows more macabre and gruesome.
When she finally dies, her husband Anse is determined to fulfill her wish proclaimed years before that she be buried with her own people in Jefferson, about forty miles away. It’s a foolhardy journey made via wagon pulled by mules that takes several days. Along the way, they attempt to cross a river whose bridge has been destroyed by a recent storm, only to have the wagon capsize, dumping the coffin carrying Addie’s body (which is already a few days gone due to delays in getting started on their journey), the mules drown, and Cash re-break his previously broken and only recently healed leg. They manage to rescue the wagon, the coffin, and Cash (but not the mules). Over the next several days as they make their way to Jefferson, Anse acquires a new team of decrepid mules to pull the wagon by mortgaging his farm equipment and selling his son Jewel’s beloved horse (only Jewel isn’t really his son, but rather the product of an affair Addie had with the local minister – but that’s a secret held only by the now dead Addie and said minister, who comforted the family in the wake of her death), they attempt to set Cash’s broken leg with cement (cement!), which is disastrous, Dewey Dell, the daughter who is secretly pregnant attempts and fails to obtain an abortion with the ten dollars given to her for that purpose by the dude who knocked her up, Darl, another of the sons, sets fire to a barn belonging to a local farmer in an attempt to incinerate his mother’s remains which are there for the night – oh, and then he loses his marbles and the family has him committed to a mental institution. And as the days pass, Addie’s corpse decomposes within the homemade coffin, giving off a stench that outrages passersby and townspeople, and attracts buzzards.
The whole thing seems like the folly of a clueless Anse Bundren, but the one chapter told from Addie’s perspective alludes to getting revenge on him (for the loveless life she’s had with him, presumably) without his knowing that she’s getting revenge. This undertaking would seem like the perfect act of revenge from the grave, so to speak.
Well, I’ve already given away too much, so I’ll stop there. If you haven’t read it, you’ll have to pick it up to see how the story ends.
In any case, I guess what made this book so special in its time (it was originally published in 1930) was the stream of conscious narrative style Faulkner used, as told from numerous points of view. This was apparently a pretty revolutionary way to write back then. And it does allow the reader into each character’s head, telling the story from varying perspectives.
I’m still going, “Hmm . . .”