The reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time.
Addie Bundren shares this bit of wisdom from her father in an effort to explain her life and the choices she’s made. At this point in the story, Addie has actually been dead several days. Before Faulkner has Addie speak from beyond the grave, Addie has only been featured in several early scenes, where she is lying sick in bed, waiting to die. Before her death, Addie was closely watching her eldest son while he built her coffin. She ultimately dies before it is completed, but a promise she extracted from her Anse, her husband, drives the narrative.
Anse promised to fulfill Addie’s wish that she be buried not on their property or in their town, but in Jefferson, Mississippi, a forty-mile journey that will take several days to complete by horse-drawn carriage. Neighbors and family friends try to convince Anse to bury Addie immediately, but for Anse, a promise made is a promise kept, even if that is not the only reason why he wants to make the journey to Jefferson.
The Bundren family comprises Anse and Addie and their five children: Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell and Vardman. Cash is a carpenter. Darl and Jewel help with the farm. Dewey Dell is the only daughter and is in her late teens. Vardman is the youngest child. The family eak out a modest living on their cotton farm in rural Mississippi.
Addie raised her five children and took care of the household on her own. At the beginning of the story, she is already depicted in bed, thin as a rail but with eyes like flames. A neighbor tells us that one day she got into bed and has been unable to get out. Her hard life has taken its toll, and now she is unable to do anything but supervise the creation of her own coffin and wait to die.
Cash builds his mother’s coffin outside her bedroom window, a scene that is both ghoulish and darkly funny. Cash is extremely literal-minded, to the point where today we might consider him autistic. He exhibits little emotion and refuses to grieve for his mother until he finishes building her coffin.
Darl is the most intelligent member of the family by far. His description of the landscape and the people in his life are rich and detailed. Other characters describe Darl as queer (strange), in how he looks at them. Darl is very perceptive, to the point where he seemingly knows things he shouldn’t know. Faulkner invests a lot of the narrative to Darl’s viewpoint, and his character is the one whose motives are ultimately the most difficult to discern.
Jewel curiously is often described in terms of wood, even though his character is the most physical and violent person in the story. He fiercely loves his mother but hates his father. He is unable to express his emotions, but is the most capable member of the family. He twice rescues his mother’s corpse from destruction during the family’s journey to Jefferson.
Dewey Dell is depicted as beautiful but simple minded. Faulkner describes Dewey as very sensual, typically using the term “naked”. Dewey seems unable to relate to people, but is shown to have an innate ability to relate to animals, in particular the cows on the farm.
Vardman is depicted as a very simple minded child. He is unable to grasp reality. He doesn’t understand that his mother is sick, and cannot comprehend that she has died. Faulkner depicts him similar to Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer. He can catch a fish almost as large as himself, and his unkempt hair sticks up like a rooster tail.
As the husband and patriarch, Anse is depicted as a bundle of conflicting behaviors. He complains repeatedly how he is a “luckless man”, but he has a large supporting family that support him and take care of the farm. He is described as lazy, but he acts and sounds like a man worn down by a hard life of farming. He turns down offers of kindness because he doesn’t want to be beholden to others, but he accepts help throughout the journey to Jefferson.
Faulkner weaves many complex themes into what on the surface appears to be a narrative of simple country folk making seemingly incomprehensible decisions. By providing fifteen characters with the opportunity to speak directly to the reader, he provides us with different perspectives of the Bundren family, and their actions. To outsiders, the family’s decision to bury Addie in Jefferson is ridiculous. With the trip being undertaken in the middle of a hot summer, her decaying body smells horrible. On top of that, the aftermath of a huge rainstorm has washed out several bridges, requiring the family to take a longer route than normal. However, to the Bundren’s, the trip is not up for discussion.
Multiple characters describe Anse as humpbacked, muttering and helpless. In a testament to the character of the farming community, Faulkner shows how friends and neighbors repeatedly help Anse in spite of his obvious flaws.
Faulkner utilizes his characters as examples of the inherent stubbornness in human beings. While Anse does rely heavily on others to help him get his wife to her final resting place, he (on behalf of his family) inexplicably refuses to eat dinner with his neighbors or sleep indoors.
Faulkner also depicts the slippery nature of memory. Several characters relate the same events, but describe them slightly differently; they include some of the same details but omit others, recounting what others spoke slightly differently.
In As I Lay Dying and in real life, people often have ulterior motives for doing what they do. Each member of the Bundren family is committed to the journey to Jefferson out of love and respect for their mother, but they have their own personal reasons as well. Cash wants to look for some new carpentry tools. Anse wants to buy a new set of false teeth. Vardman wants to see the Christmas train in the toy store. Dewey Dell needs medicine to terminate her pregnancy.
As with Benjy in The Sound and The Fury, Faulkner incorporates a character with mental illness to provide a strikingly different perspective on the characters and events in the story. In As I Lay Dying, Darl’s monologues show his rich perception of the world around him. He depicts the landscape around him utilizing all of his senses. When others describe Darl, he is depicted with mannerisms one would usually associate with someone who is mentally ill. He repeats what he says. The way Darl looks at others makes them uncomfortable. He helps encase Cash’s leg in concrete and sets the barn containing his mother’s coffin on fire. His actions would easily lead someone to believe Darl is crazy, but his monologues depict him as lucid.
Faulkner also provides Darl with an extra perception of members of his family, in that he knows things nobody else knows. He knows that Anse is not Jewel’s father, and that Dewey Dell is pregnant. He repeatedly forces his brother and sister to confront those uncomfortable truths, actions that ultimately result in his being committed to an asylum near the end of the story.
Given how much of the story in As I Lay Dying is told by Darl, it is clear that Faulkner is using him as a narrative device. Mentally ill people like Darl, with his enhanced perception, serve as a magnifying glass for us to view the other characters in the novel much more clearly than the other “normal” characters do. Faulkner also wants us to understand that our perceptions of a mentally ill person like Daryl do not match that person’s inner life. We typically avoid the mentally ill because their behavior is different and unsettling, and in doing so we fail to understand the inner life within them.
Many of us today will find it difficult to relate to a group of poor, minimally educated farmers in the deep south. Most of the characters in this story aren’t very likeable, or relatable. (Peabody comes close as the country doctor.) I’d guess that a significant portion of Faulkner’s audience in 1932, when this novel was published, would have been able to relate to these characters. But I don’t believe Faulkner was concerned with us liking or relating to these characters.
Faulkner intends for the salt of the Earth Bundrens and those in their social circle wants us to better understand the plight of the human condition through characters based on those he encountered in everyday life. He wants us to empathize with their trials and tribulations, understand that everyone makes bad decisions, everyone deals with their lot in life as best as they can.