Book Review: As I Lay Dying

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I’ve been flirting with reading Faulkner for years now, and I finally picked up the book I knew would be a ground shaker for me.

I think what makes As I Lay Dying so special, at least to me, is that Faulkner takes a seemingly uninteresting plot and makes it the only thing in the world that matters. Almost nothing happens in the events of the novel, and yet all of the characters are in a different place mentally when the story ends. The progression here is not in the plot but in the psychological changes, realizations, and breakdowns of the characters.

As I Lay Dying is told through the perspective of many characters including the five children of the Bundren family: Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman. Addie, the mother, also narrates one section of the novel and Anse, the father, narrates a bit as well. Other minor characters have narration points in the novel, but I especially focused on the chapters told by the Bundren family. I found it so interesting that Faulkner made this elaborate narration work; although we jumped around rapidly and without warning, although I wanted to stay in some point of views for longer than he gave us, Faulkner’s narration worked wonderfully. Because we do not spend a long time in any one person’s mind, we have less of a narrator’s bias; therefore, we appreciate and despise all of the characters almost to the same degree (although I really hate Anse). Each character is so dramatically different from the next- Anse is lazy and self-righteous, Cash is quiet and loyal, Darl is contemplative and worrisome, Jewel is mysterious and angry, Dewey Dell is confused and lonely, Vardaman is young and depressed. None of the characters entirely know one another; the inner monologues are where all thoughts take place. While we know Dewey Dell struggles with an unplanned pregnancy, for example, the rest of the characters marvel at her sporadic behavior (although Darl knows). While Vardaman struggles to accept the finality of death, his siblings simply laugh at his phrase ‘my mother is a fish.’

The story follows the family of the Burdens; Addie, the mother, dies relatively early in the novel, and the rest of the story comprises the family’s journey to bury Addie in her hometown. Along the way issues happen: the dead body begins to stink, the coffin slides into the water, Cash hurts his foot in a severe way, Jewel loses his horse, Dewey Dell attempts to get medicine to rid her of the pregnancy only to be raped by a boy feigning to be a doctor; but the real story, as I said before, is within the characters’ minds: ‘IamIandyouareyou and I know it and you don’t know it and you could do so much for me if you just would,’ Dewey Dell thinks, speaking in her mind to the doctor that comes to the house; ‘Now and then a fellow gets to thinking. About all the sorrow and afflictions in this world; how it’s liable to strike anywhere, like lightning,’ Jewel thinks, alone; ‘It is as though time, no longer running straight before us in a diminishing line, now runs parallel between us like a looping string,’ Darl thinks, ever the philosophical sibling who attempts to understand time and the limits time places on us. I loved Darl’s chapters because I think he understands the most about his family, about death, and about the world- or at least he WANTS to understand. He thinks and wants to spend more time thinking. And it’s due to his thinking that he burns the barn, the place he and his family are sleeping, in order to burn his mother’s body. Darl comes to this conclusion after ruminating about death; he realizes that Addie is no longer here and that carting around a cadaver is no way to honor her. The other characters, however, have not ruminated in the same such way- especially Jewel who feels devoted to his mother and her dead body and decides to rush into the burning barn in order to save her. Upon finding out that Darl burnt the barn (thanks to Dewey Dell), Anse sends Darl to a mental asylum, discounting his intense and intellectual thoughts as insane rather than giving his son any credit. Darl’s philosophical musings resounded well when I was reading, but I also picked up on Darl’s cunning smugness throughout the story- he seems to always be taunting his siblings with their secrets (Dewey Dell’s pregnancy, Jewel’s parentage). Perhaps Darl isn’t the best moral character, but he made for interesting reading.

Surprisingly, my other favorite point of view was that of Vardaman’s, the youngest son of Addie and Anse. At first he’s amazingly difficult to follow, but as Vardaman comes closer to death, he becomes super interesting. Faulkner writes from a six year old’s perspective in an unbelievable way; he spells out children’s logic excellently, and Vardaman’s declaration that his mother is a fish speaks directly to a child’s logic. Vardaman held a live fish, cut it, and then the fish became something else; his mother, alive in bed, altered in such a way that she became something else as well. Vardaman’s only experience with death is from the cutting of the fish; therefore, when his mother dies as well, he decides that she must be a fish. It makes perfect sense to a child who does not yet understand the concept of mortality but who is thrown into the depths of it anyway without any guidance. Anse does nothing to help Vardaman’s depression, and the siblings simply play along with his phrase ‘my mother is a fish.’ Vardaman is alone with the concept of death and makes as most sense out of it as he can, which I found to be incredibly interesting, sad, and moving.

Addie Bundren is another character who I loved reading about and was thrilled to get a narrated chapter from. Addie’s section comes in an unexpected position of the novel; it is after she’s been dead for quite some time. But this chapter reveals much about her, Anse, their children, and her ideas about living. We find out from Addie’s chapter that she married Anse simply because there was nothing else to do, that she grew to hate him, and that she felt no real connection to Cash or Darl, the children she had only to give to Anse. Addie speaks of the resentment she felt for her children, a raw and honest sentiment: ‘my aloneness had been violated.’ Addie recognizes that as a woman, she is simply a baby-making vessel, good only to supply children and to give her life to making sure they are happy and healthy. Her hatred for Anse and her resentment for her children lead her into another man’s arms, the man that is in reality Jewel’s biological father. We knew from earlier in the novel that Addie favored Jewel, and now we understand why; he represents a time when Addie did what she wanted, when she had a secret that was totally hers rather than something she had to share and give. Jewel represents her independence, something she can’t find anywhere else in her life. Addie is an honest woman in this section, explaining her opinion on the promises people make and the falsities everyone speaks: ‘words are no good; words don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say.’ Further, she speaks of Anse and his promises: ‘he had a word too: LOVE he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that that word was like the others: just the shape to fill a lack.’ And Addie says lastly: ‘sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words.’ I love Addie’s thoughts here. She doesn’t trust the word of man, and she knows that experience is far better than rumor; she does not limit herself to a word and to a person’s connotation of the word; rather, she experiences for herself, feels for herself, and dies knowing she did what she wanted.

After Darl leaves the novel, Cash takes on a somewhat philosophical role. This is an interesting reversal as Cash seemed to be the logical sibling who only thought about the pragmatic issues of the coffin and transporting it miles away. Cash also remains to be the only sibling who has not lost his mind in some way or who has not rage-quit the quest. And, when we think about it, Cash should have been the one full of rage: no one listened to his logical warnings for the transportation of Addie’s dead body, their ignorance cost him a painfully broken leg, and basically gets nothing in return, not even a thank you. But it is Cash who has a significant epiphany at the end of the novel: ‘Sometimes I ain’t sho who’s got ere a right to say when a man is crazy and when he ain’t. Sometimes I think it ain’t none of us pure crazy and ain’t none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way. It’s like it ain’t so much what a fellow does, but it’s the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it.’ Cash has come into his own psychological awakening, and now sees the world as more than black and white.

Nothing pisses me off more than Anse coming back to the family wagon with a new wife and a new set of teeth. His children have gone through multiple changes and awakenings, and he remains to be the selfish father. Addie was right; Anse speaks but does not mean anything he says. But, Cash serves to remind us that we can never truly judge a man or a woman; look what has just happened hidden in the minds’ of 15 characters this novel, after all. I’m super impressed with Faulkner, and I’ll forever remember: ‘my mother is a fish.’

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