90 pages 3 hours read

William Faulkner

As I Lay Dying

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1930

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Summary and Study Guide


As I Lay Dying is a Southern Gothic novel by William Cuthbert Faulkner, which he published in 1930. The story follows a poor, rural family’s journey across Mississippi to bury their dead matriarch and is marked by dark humor and stream-of-consciousness style narration.

Faulkner (1897-1962) was a writer from Oxford, Mississippi. His novels and works of short fiction, including The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying (1930), earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949. Faulkner’s novels present a detailed evocation of daily life in his native Mississippi while engaging with the classical and modernist tradition in Western literature. His fiction, including As I Lay Dying, takes place in the invented Yoknapatawpha County, which Faulkner based on his native Lafayette County. Critics ascribe Faulkner’s works to the Southern Gothic genre because they engage with the darker, more macabre elements of the White Southern experience following the loss of the Civil War. These include poverty, religious extremism, and technological and social backwardness. Robert McCrum, in his Guardian article of October 6, 2014, The 100 best novels: No 55—As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (1930), writes: “apart from Mark Twain (No 23 in this series), no other American writer before Faulkner had ever immersed his readers so completely in the vernacular language and culture of a society that was, and perhaps still is, so deeply foreign to mainstream American experience.” McCrum proposes that despite their American setting, Faulkner’s novels would have been exotic to the vast majority of his readers, who would have encountered unfamiliar scenes.

The title of As I Lay Dying has classical Greek roots: In Book 11 of Homer's Odyssey, where Agamemnon tells the hero Odysseus, “as I lay dying, the woman with the dog's eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades.” Agamemnon’s experience here parallels Faulkner’s heroine, Addie, and her long journey across Mississippi before she can rest in peace.

Faulkner’s novel also engages with the modernist stream-of-consciousness narrative style pioneered by writers such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Stream-of-consciousness texts are organized according to individual characters’ patterns of thought. As with James Joyce in Ulysses (1922), Faulkner incorporates regional dialect and repetitious thought patterns and speech tics in his narrative, creating a symphonic impact. Faulkner began writing in this style in 1929 with The Sound and the Fury and developed it for As I Lay Dying. According to his introduction to the 1932 Modern Library edition of As I Lay Dying, Faulkner boasted that he wrote the book between the hours of midnight and four in the morning for six weeks while he was working at a power plant. He also claimed that he did not edit the work. Regardless of the veracity of this statement, it is clear that Faulkner wanted to frame his novel as a work of the unconscious as opposed to one of studied mastery.

Plot Summary

As I Lay Dying tells the story of the Bundren family, who seek to fulfill the dying wish of matriarch Addie by burying her with her family of origin in Jefferson, Mississippi.

In the first part of the novel, Addie is still on her deathbed. Her eldest son, Cash, is making her coffin, while her daughter Dewey Dell is at her bedside fanning her. Addie’s husband, Anse, sends his two other sons, Darl and Jewel, on a money-making errand in the family wagon. As a result, the sons miss the moment of Addie’s actual passing.

When Addie dies, the Bundrens set off to Jefferson to bury her. However, some of the characters also have personal motives for making the journey to town: Anse wants to visit a dentist and get himself a new set of teeth, while Dewey Dell, who is secretly pregnant, wants to procure an abortion. They set off with the coffin in a mule-drawn wagon, while Jewel, Addie’s favorite son, rides his showy horse alongside them. On the way, the Bundrens stay the night with different groups of farming families who judge their mission to be crazy and sadistic.

Their journey nearly ends in disaster when they lose their mules while trying to cross the rising waters of a river. Cash further injures his already weak leg in the ordeal, and Anse decides to sell Jewel’s beloved horse to fund a new set of mules. While Jewel initially rides away, he finds that he cannot abandon his family, and he returns to accompany them on the ramshackle wagon, which has to be pushed up-hill.

A chapter from Addie’s perspective reveals that marriage and motherhood made her long for the peace of death, and an extramarital affair with Reverend Whitfield resulted in Jewel’s conception.

The subject of Jewel’s paternity comes up when Darl directly asks him who his father is. In a fit of rage, Darl sets fire to the barn of the Gillespies, the family the Bundrens are staying with. In order to not compromise the mission to Jefferson, Anse determines that Darl should be arrested and sent to goal (a correctional institution) in Jackson.

On entering Jefferson, Dewey Dell visits Macgowan, a doctor’s assistant who flirts with her and tells her that a turpentine-like-potion, some capsules, and sexual intercourse with him will reverse her pregnancy. Dewey Dell takes this dubious prescription but does not believe it will work. Anse, meanwhile, takes the ten dollars that Dewey Dell received from Lafe, the man who impregnated her, and fixes himself up with a new set of teeth. He also obtains a new wife, the new Mrs. Bundren, who accompanies them home on their wagon.