As I Lay Dying

41cyZTFwQ2L._SL160_book by William Faulkner

annotation by Tina Rubin

In this brilliant 1930 novel, Faulkner tells the story of a rural Mississippi family on a mission to haul their mother’s body in its coffin to her native Jefferson, where she had requested burial. But Addie Bundren tells us, after her death, that this is her way of taking revenge on them. In a series of missteps told through multiple narrators in both present and past tenses, Faulkner reveals not only Addie’s revenge, but each character’s inner workings and the faceted ways they view each other.

Faulkner’s willingness to explore various techniques for this novel opened doors for me to the possible ways of structuring a story. His multiple narrators, for example, each given their own chapters, give the reader unusual insight into the characters pursuing this absurd journey. Through the voice and perception of each one, the use of repetition and irony, and a paucity of information that makes the reader work hard for understanding, Faulkner effects a stunning novel that blazed new trails for both writers and readers.

Placing the “Addie” chapter at almost exactly two-thirds through the novel was a brilliant strategy. Addie is the missing piece of the puzzle; her words clarify the other characters’ actions. Once we know Addie’s real feelings, we can see how she’s taking revenge on her family by having them make this journey. Yet Faulkner then gives us an ironic ending: the revenge is only effected upon Darl, a sympathetic character who is taken away to an insane asylum. Darl seems the most together of the whole clan and the most like his mother, intelligent and philosophical. Anse Bundren, the father, whose behavior has been amoral (taking his children’s money and his son’s hard-earned horse), gets exactly what he wants in the end—false teeth and a new wife—even before Addie’s grave is a day old. Which is sort of how things are in life, the creeps often win. We don’t want our endings to be too tidy.

Jewel, Addie’s illegitimate son who dearly loved her, was treated with irony too, but in a different way than Darl: via character rather than plot. Jewel’s eyes were frequently described as wooden, his body wooden-backed, and he said little—but his actions exhibited the most passion of all the siblings. (And his name was a perfect choice: hard, rigid, but filled with splendor.) I’m rethinking my treatment of my characters with irony in mind—but then that’s what makes literature literature.

Repetition, which Faulkner uses masterfully, is a technique I’ve been taking careful note of in my readings. When done well, it makes the point and acts as an emotional tag to remind the reader of an earlier passage or moment in time. It was most often used by other characters in regard to Jewel. The neighbor Vernon Tull also repeats his razor-edge perception of Anse: “It’s like a man that’s let everything slide all his life to get set on something that will make the most trouble for everybody he knows.” (89)

Faulkner’s use of language is inspirational too. Many passages struck me, such as in the very beginning when Darl describes Jewel’s encounter with his horse (“enclosed by a glittering maze of hooves as by an illusion of wings”). His descriptions of the flooded river, which kills the mules and nearly kills Cash, and of the fire Darl sets to the barn containing the coffin, were riveting and well paced.

It seems absurd to criticize Faulkner, but as others have noted, I thought many passages were obscure and would not have survived a writing workshop. Take this passage spoken by the youngest brother, Vardaman, for example: “Pa said flour and sugar and coffee costs so much. Because I am a country boy because boys in town. Bicycles.” (66) (What??) That said, however, I thoroughly applaud Faulkner for taking the risks that enabled us to learn from him.

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