As I Lay Dying Book summary

William Faulkner

Overview

About

William Faulkner famously wrote As I Lay Dying on the heels of The Sound and Fury, which is considered by many to be his masterpiece. That book also marked Faulkner’s use of experimental literary structures that proved him to be one of the finest writers of the modernist literary movement. As I Lay Dying is written with that same experimental structure, and it allows the author to create a complex portrait of the characters’ psychology. The modernist literary movement came about during the fast-paced technological developments that occurred in the early twentieth century. Authors like Faulkner abandoned convention as they sought to develop new methods of telling stories.

Faulkner stated that he had written the whole book in a time of 6 weeks as he worked in a coal power plant. He would write during his breaks at the plant and would sit beside the dynamo as he worked. The book is told through a stream of consciousness narrative and the story unfolds from the perspective of fifteen different characters.

In addition to the book’s categorization as a work of the modernist movement, As I Lay Dying is also prominently characterized as a part of the Southern Renaissance movement. This movement became prominent around the 1920s and 30s, as authors like Allen Tate, Tennessee Williams, and Robert Penn Warren, along with several others, wrote about the South.

BOOK COVER

Plot Summary

As I Lay Dying follows the Bundren family as they set out on what seems to be an epic journey across their county to bury their mother and wife, Addie Bundren, in Jefferson. The plot of the book is presented in a nonlinear manner with an overlapping narrative presented from the perspective of 15 different characters. It begins with Darl and Jewel Bundren returning to their home on a bluff. They find the wagon of their neighbor Vernon Tull parked at the foot of the bluff. They climb the feature and are greeted by the sound of the eldest Bundren brother, Cash, working on Addie’s coffin right in front of the house. Addie lays deathly still in her bed, with her daughter Dewey Dell fanning her. Cora Tull sits in the room with her daughters and notices Darl enter the room to stare at his mother.

Anse Bundren, Addie’s husband, tells Vernon Tull that his wife had wanted to be buried in Jefferson, and he intended to keep that promise. Darl and Jewel then head out for an errand for Vernon Tull although they are afraid that Addie will pass away before their return. Jewel takes care of his violent horse before they leave. Vardaman Bundren, the youngest Bundren sibling, comes to Anse with a caught fish that’s larger than him. He asks Anse about his mother’s health but Anse finds himself unable to reply kindly. Tull leaves with his wife and children while Cash continues to work on the coffin.

Peabody, the local overweight and the aged doctor, arrives at the Bundren house just as the weather begins to turn bad. He criticizes Anse upon seeing Addie’s condition and claims that it is too late. Addie dies in front of him, and she calls out Cash’s name several times but he continues to work on the coffin. Anse tells her that Jewel and Darl are away from the house as they are on an errand. Dewey Dell throws herself on her dead mother’s corpse even though she has mostly been preoccupied with thoughts of her unplanned pregnancy with the farmhand, Lafe. A fact that she believes Darl is aware of, given their exchanged looks before Darl had left for the errand.

Darl narrates these events even though he is a long distance away from Jewel and he even tells him that Addie is dead but Jewel refuses to react. Earlier he had expressed his hatred for his siblings and desired to be alone with his dying mother. Anse makes the children complete their chores after the death, but Vardaman reacts badly as he begins to associate his mother with the dead fish. He hits Peabody’s horses and sets them loose, and then winds up on Vernon Tull’s doorstep. The Tulls make their way to the Bundren house, and Vernon helps complete the coffin with Cash, but Anse fails to lend a helping hand. They nail her into the coffin just before dawn but Vardaman bores holes into the coffin and he later becomes upset when the family cooks the dead fish.

The farmers who appear for the funeral criticize Anse for taking his wife to Jefferson, and remark that the ongoing rain will cause the local bridge to be swept away. The local minister, Whitfield, arrives and informs them all that the bridge had indeed collapsed. The family continues with their preparations to head for Jackson although Anse seems to be more concerned about getting teeth, Dewey wishes to have a doctor deal with her pregnancy, and even Vardaman seems to be concerned about a toy train set. Jewel almost singlehandedly puts the coffin in the wagon but he chooses to ride along with the family on his horse rather than the wagon. Anse criticizes them all for having ulterior motives in making the journey, and they set off on their epic journey. They make their way to a distant bridge but are discouraged to learn that it too has been washed away. The farmer who helps them with shelter for the night is criticized by his wife for helping the Bundrens who are dragging around Addie’s corpse. They leave the following morning but leave behind the stench of the rotting corpse.

Tull sees the Bundren family pass close to his home as they head for a ford in the river, he follows on his mule and witnesses the family’s discussion about crossing the river without the bridge. Jewel admonishes Tull for not lending his mule, and the others merely state they are doing this for Addie’s sake. The river crossing goes horribly when a log hits the wagon leading to the mules being drowned and Cash is also severely injured. Jewel saves the wagon and the coffin. He also takes charge of the situation by diving into the river for Cash’s tools. Darl recalls how Jewel had gotten his horse by secretly working for a farmer at night, and Addie had thought that Jewel was unwell because he kept falling asleep everywhere. Addie had been brought to tears upon seeing the horse, and Darl had later caught her crying in the night over a sleeping Jewel, and he had known that Jewel was not Anse’s son.

Cora Tull recalls Addie making a prophecy that Jewel would save her from water and fire, and then Addie recounts her quiet existence before Anse. She describes her first children as an intrusion into her independence, and then the affair that she had with the local minister Whitfield. The affair had left her with a poor perception of religion and she had then had other children with Anse to suppress her guilt. Whitfield had attempted to confess their sin on the day he had learned of Addie’s death and had crossed the river on his horse for that very reason. However, he had arrived at the funeral and found that Addie had chosen not to confess and he chooses to follow her example.

Cash comes back to consciousness but he is so severely injured that he needs to be carried to the nearby farm on the wagon that Jewel moves with a borrowed team of mules. Jewel brings a horse doctor to look at Cash, and he is made to wear a cast for a broken leg. Anse trades away Jewel’s horse among other things for a new team of mules, and Jewel rides away with the horse on the night Anse reveals the transaction.

The next morning the mules arrive indicating that Jewel had given up his horse, and the family sets out for the road without Jewel. They stop in a nearby town, where they buy some cement for Cash’s cast and Dewey Dell visits an apothecary but receives no help from the Pharmacist who considers abortion to be sinful. Dewey Dell has ten dollars that Lafe had given her for the procedure, but the money fails to tempt the pharmacist. The marshal of the town asks them to move along as the smell of the wagon has begun to distress the market-goers. They stop a few miles outside the town, and Darl pours cement onto Cash’s cast, and Jewel soon rejoins them without uttering a word about the horse. They then reach the final stop before entering Jefferson, as they halt at a farm owned by a man named Gillespie. That night Darl tells Vardaman that he could hear his mother praying to God to be hidden from the sight of man. Later that night, Darl sets fire to the barn while everyone sleeps with the hope of burning Addie’s coffin.

Jewel behaves heroically as he saves all the animals and Addie’s coffin from the burning flames. Vardaman sees Darl lighting the barn on fire but Dewey Dell tells him not to share the account with anyone. Vardaman finds Darl crying next to Addie’s coffin, that night and he tries to comfort his brother. Cash’s leg deteriorates as his leg turns black, and Anse is forced to break the cast. The family departs the following morning, and Jewel has an altercation with a man on the road as a member of the group comments about the stench of Addie’s body. Anse borrows spades for the grave from a woman in Jefferson, and they bury Addie before leaving for the doctor’s house. Cash explains how Darl was then captured by the men from an institute in Jacksonville and defends the family’s action as defending Darl would have meant being sued by the farmer whose farm had been burned down. Darl has a laughing fit when he realizes that he is being taken away.

Dewey Dell finds a pharmacy store but the attendant fools her and takes advantage of her sexually without actually aiding her with the abortion. Vardaman tries to come to terms with the loss of his mother and brother. Cash receives treatment from Peabody who criticizes him for bearing the pain without complaint and Anse for being negligent towards his children. Anse proves his true motive for coming to Jefferson as he introduces the family to the new Mrs. Bundren, who is the same woman he had borrowed the spades from, and Cash expresses regret that Darl could not hear the Gramophone that Mrs. Bundren brought along with her upon marriage.

  • Author(s)

    William Faulkner
  • Publication date

    1930

  • Language

    English

  • Classification

    Gothic, Tragedy, Comedy

  • Pages

    288

Keywords

Modernist Literature, Stream of Conciousness Narrative

Publisher

Vintage Books

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