As I Lay Dying Summary

William Faulkner

As I Lay Dying

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As I Lay Dying Summary

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Published in 1930, William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying opens with Addie Bundren who alive but in very poor health. Addie, a wife and mother in a poor farming family, is on her deathbed; she and others expect her to die soon. Friends and family members gather around to comfort her and to prepare for her funeral. Meanwhile, Addie sits at a window watching as her firstborn child, Cash, builds her coffin. Anse, Addie’s husband, waits on the porch, while their daughter, Dewey Dell, fans her mother in the July heat.

As the story continues, we see that Addie was a proud and bitter woman. She had no interest in the kind gestures of others, including the religious comfort offered during her last moments by her neighbor, Cora Tull. Addie was tired of living, loved only her son, Jewel, and despised her husband, neighbors, and all others around her. Her only desire was to be buried among her own family members in the town of Jefferson. She felt her husband was entirely useless and unable to accomplish just about anything, but she got him to promise to honor her dying wish.

The night after Addie dies, a heavy rainstorm sets in. The rivers rise and wash out bridges that the family needs to cross to get to Jefferson. Still, the family sets out for Jefferson with Addie’s corpse in a casket. As the family’s wagon journey begins, Addie’s non-embalmed body is in the coffin.

On the way to Jefferson, each member of the family narrates part of the story and shares what happens during the journey or what has happened in the past. Each of the narrators has a specific reason for making the trip. Anse wants to get a set of false teeth. Dewey Dell, the daughter, needs an abortion. Cash plans to buy a record player. The baby, Vardaman, has been promised a toy and bananas when they arrive. It seems Darl is determined to sabotage the situation, as Jewel is attempting to carry out his mother’s wish.

Along the way, Anse and the five children encounter various difficulties. Anse stubbornly refuses to accept any charity, including meals or lodging, from people, so at times, the family goes hungry and sleeps in barns. Jewel, Addie’s middle child, tries to leave his dysfunctional family, but he feels he cannot turn his back on them.

Many incidents occur which delay Addie’s body getting to Jefferson to be buried in the soil of her hometown. Her youngest son drill holes in her casket so her body can breathe, but he drills through to her face. Cash injures his leg and needs a doctor. He refuses to admit to any discomfort, but the family eventually puts a makeshift cast of concrete on his leg, which makes his leg worse. Twice, the family almost loses Addie’s coffin, the first time while crossing a river on a washed-out bridge (where two mules are lost). Darl fights with his brother Jewel, who is intent on burying Addie in her family plot. Darl then sets fire to one of the barns holding the corpse—the second time they almost lose the coffin. To save the day and honor his mother’s wish, Jewel rescues Addie’s body.

Darl uses every obstacle or setback to try to prevent Addie’s casket from getting to Jefferson. Those setbacks make the trip longer than expected, and Addie’s body begins to decompose. After nine days, the family finally arrives in Jefferson, where the stench from the coffin is noticed by the townspeople. In town, family members have different items of business to take care of. Cash’s broken leg needs attention. Dewey Dell, for the second time in the novel, goes to a pharmacy trying to obtain an abortion.

Anse wants to bury Addie because that is the purpose of the trip; he feels the family should be together for that. He realizes he will need shovels to bury her, and borrows shovels from a woman nearby. Before Addie’s burial, however, Darl is seized for the arson of the barn and is sent to the Mississippi State Insane Asylum in Jackson. 

With Addie only just buried, Anse forces Dewey Dell to give up her money, which he spends on getting “new teeth,” and then he marries the woman from whom he had borrowed the shovels. Anse returns to the Jefferson house and brings out the new Mrs. Bundren, who looks very flashy. She joins the family in their wagon.