Wednesday 17 August 2011

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

My mother is a fish.

------ Possible Spoilers! ------

On the surface, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying appears as a solemn reflection on death and yet, through the use of dramatic irony, the novel also takes on the form of a dark twisted comedy. The story involves a family from the deep American south who decide to make a dangerous journey across the county with the rotting corpse of their dead mother in a wooden coffin (to fulfill a dying request to be buried in her home town). However, each family member seems to have their own motives.

Faulkner delivers a fragmented narrative that is more-or-less linear in structure; unfolding much like a dreamy haze where the reader must work through the ambiguity to comprehend the story elements through the given context. Faulkner's aesthetic is highly influenced by impressionism -- skillfully engaging in subtlety, focusing on brief confounded glimpses of conscious or unconscious thought and using elusive perceptions to create rich layers of underlying subtext. The emotional and thematic weight of this novel rests heavily with what is left unsaid or buried beneath the surface. Hemmingway's theory of the "ice-berg" technique of story-telling seems to be persistently employed by Faulkner far more effectively.

Faulkner's use of sardonic humor and irony serves two distinct purposes: social commentary by establishing verisimilitude of the rural south and intimately exploring various character's perspectives of death as they deal with their grief over the mother, Addie Bundren. It is safe to suggest that the members of the Bundren family are not entirely psychologically stable and prone to questionable behavior. Even though they often portrayed as country bumpkins, they also happen to be hard working farmers with humility living an austere life. Placing a value on the importance of family, the Bundren's intentions may not always be rational although they remain genuinely sound from their own individually flawed perspective. However, their obtuse and fallacious logic is a source of great comedy, leading to many humorous situations. For instance, When the Bundrens and their friend Tully attempt to cross a deep flowing river, their treacherous escapade unfolds much like a slapstick comedy: the wagon tips over and they struggle to keep Addie's coffin from being swept away by the current, one of the sons named Cash breaks his leg, he loses all of his precious tools in the water as the other men attempt to retrieve them and the mules end up drowning in the process. Throughout the entire fiasco, the youngest son Vardaman is on the other side of the shore feeling inadequate to help his family and suffers an anxiety attack. To accuse Faulkner of cruelly mocking these characters is debatable but in their arduous struggle against adversity to bury their dead mother, empathy is generated.

Furthermore, portraying the Bundren's as humble and simple-minded folk, Faulkner sets up the juxtaposition between the rural and urban demographic of Southern life. The traditional southern values are constantly under attack by outside influences. The author is an ardent defender of the struggling impoverished farm laborers and is rather blatant in his position. Cora, one of Addie's closest friends, is swindled in a business transaction to sell her cakes in town and yet, remains unperturbed over the incident because she believes herself to be a dignified Christian woman, saying: "The Lord can see into the heart. If it is His will that some folks has different ideas of honesty from other folks, it is not my place to question His decree" (8). Despite having wasted a large amount of eggs in the process, which happen to be a precious commodity during this slow farming season because snakes and possums have been repeatedly attacking the hen houses, Cora refuses to take offense to the rich town ladies change of heart to buy the cakes. Regardless of wealth or social status, God knows who is truly honest in the ways of the Lord and he will be the one to pass judgement for those who stray from the path of righteousness. Her friend Kate feels different and is critical of the upper-classes: "But these rich town ladies can change their minds. Poor folks can't" (7). Social hierarchy benefits the rich and powerful; it is commonplace for those of power to oppress and exploit the lower-classes to maintain their status. Faulkner's social commentary becomes even more prominent once the Brundens enter the small towns on their journey to Jefferson and interact with the wealthier middle-class. Upon arrival, they feel utterly estranged as country folk in this urban environment. Immediately treated with vehement disapproval and condescension, the towns people are appalled by the Brunden's social decorum of carting around a decomposing corpse on the back of their wagon. At one point, the daughter of the family named Dewey Dell, enters the town pharmacy with ten dollars looking for a doctor to perform an abortion. In her naivete, she expects to receive genuine kindness but instead, one of the employees attempts to deviously take sexual advantage of her as payment for carrying out the abortion.  Thus, Faulkner is keen to emphasize the tensions between the innocently modest rural country laborers and the morally corrupt urban township.

The narrative is divided into 59 chapters; each focuses on a different character's perspective and not only from those of the Brunden family. Minor characters are also included such as Doctor Peabody (overlooking Addie's illness), Reverend Whitfield (had an affair with Addie and fathered Jewel) Cora, Armstid (a fellow farmer who provides shelter to the traveling family) and even MacGowan, the sexually deviant pharmacist. Faulkner's stream-of-consciousness style is far less disorienting as found in his other work The Sound and the Fury, allowing the development for a rich tapestry of psychological depth along with the establishment of a convincingly vivid depiction of Southern life with its diverse inhabitants. The effective use of Southern vernacular with heavy slang and broken English aids in creating a specific sense of place. Instead of relying on a heavy-handed meditation concerning mortality, Faulkner takes a different approach -- infusing the narrative with sardonic humor and irony to explore various interpretations of death. One of the famous lines in the novel and quite possibly one of the shortest chapters in 20th century fiction, is a perfect example of Faulkner's skill to compellingly probe the consciousness of his characters: "My mother is a fish" (79). Vardaman is the youngest Brunden child and cannot fully process his mother's death. Having caught and gutted a fish the same day that Addie dies, he ironically equates her with the dead fish. A droll sentiment but also profound in its metaphorical conceit; an accurate psychological representation of a child who does not fully comprehend the complex ramifications of death. Another humorous irony takes place later on when Vardaman innocently drills holes on the top of the wooden coffin so his dead mother will be able to receive light instead of being trapped in total darkness.

The other family members have their own perceptions of death and ways of dealing with the grieving process. Darl represses his feelings until he eventually has a mental break-down, Jewel is hot-tempered and prone to animal cruelty to vent his frustrations. Dewey Dell feels the burden of being the only female of the family now that Addie is gone, is distraught over her unwanted pregnancy and turns desperately to God for help. Cash is only concerned with the proper building of Addie's coffin for her permanent resting place. The father, Anse, feels obligated to carry out his wife's final request but also has other intentions to visit Jefferson. Ironically, he also believes that she is better off dead instead of having to suffer being alive as an impoverished farmer. Faulkner even devotes a chapter to the dying Addie who who gladly welcomes death: "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" (161). As much as Faulkner seems to be championing the rural south, it can be argued that perhaps death is generous deliverance from the hardships of such a life.

For those who find Faulkner intimidating or just downright insufferable at times (myself included), As I Lay Dying is an accessible introduction to the author's writing style and extensive oeuvre. The novel's ambiguity is challenging but leaves plenty of room for analysis and self-reflection concerning human mortality. This is the kind of novel that deserves to be read more than once to fully appreciate the subtle complexities and considering it is a great novel, I look forward to revisit it in the future.

This novel is part of my Classics Club Challenge.


  1. I read The Sound and the Fury in college and was eager to read Faulkner from that moment on. I picked up Absalom, Absalom! at some point but quickly realized what the climax of the story would be and didn't care enough about the character to finish it. Later the banned books group on picked As I Lay Dying and I devoured the novel. Just blown away. I agree, a far more approachable novel than any other although I haven't read Light in August which I hear is also an easier book to access.

  2. Hold up now, As I lay Dying was banned? I'd be curious to know the reasoning behind this action. Considering my struggle with The Sound and the Fury, I was ambivalent to read anything else by Faulkner. Lo and behold, this novel proved to be a wonderful surprise and while I'm not crazy about him as an author, his writing is slowly growing on me. I plan on reading the Sound and the Fury again later this year and something tells me that I will appreciate it a lot more. I'd be interested to read any thoughts you might have on this novel.

    I'll definitely have to check out Light in August as my next Faulkner read, thanks. :)

  3. What a great, in-depth review! From what I recall, when I reviewed this a couple of years ago, I opted for some kind of a four-word review, lol. I found this one much easier to swallow than The Sound and the Fury.
    Great blog! I think this is the first time I've visited.

  4. Thank you for the kind words Shelley! This is the kind of novel that demands much analysis but I barely scratched the surface. One could easily write a dissertation on it.

    I agree that this novel was faaaaar less convoluted than the Sound and the Fury and thus, a lot more accessible. Right now, I seem to have a love/hate relationship with Faulkner.

    Thanks for stopping by. :)

  5. As I Lay Dying will put you in better stead to read Faulkner's other (and sometimes even better) works than anything else, and it's well worth the read in its own right. Afterwards, I would recommend reading The Sound and the Fury, which blew me away.

    Marlene Detierro (Irvine Divorce Attorney)

  6. This is such a rich, indepth review. I'm glad I read it. I did not consider that Faulkner was creating a dark comedy but now that I think of it I can see how some of the incidents could be taken in that light. Since it was the first book I read by Faulkner I think I was trying to process everything.

    I appreciate your insight into some of the characters psyches. I didn't understand why the little boy said his mother was a fish.

    I don't think the girl was all that innocent, however.