William Faulkner was born in Mississippi in 1897. He was a Modernist and like the rest of Modernists, his writing and its style were responses to the fast occurring changes and technical innovations that marked the twentieth century. He experimented with language and format. In As I Lay Dying, he used the stream of consciousness technique, multiple narrators and made the chapters of varying length.
Relevance of the Title
The prime happening in the novel is Addie’s death. Most of the events happen after she is dead. It is not clear what happens before her death except Cash makes her coffin just outside her window. Death is dealt with as a long process that goes until one is buried. Addie had insisted that she be buried along with her blood relatives. So they had to carry her body all the way to Jefferson.
The novel deals extensively with the idea that death is a reward for a life well lived. It frees one from the sufferings that life brings to people. Addie has not had a great life and death is deliverance. Death is not glorified by the author; the rotting body assails people who pass by and Darl wants to bring about a quick end to the prolonged business of burying his mother Jefferson.
This is a family that is at war with each other. There is intense competition among the siblings for the mother’s love. Addie herself made it clear that her favourite was Jewel, her son from an extra marital affair with Rev Whitfield. Though it appears that the family go to great lengths to carry her body to Jefferson, braving raging rivers and storms, they have personal needs for doing so.
Though dead for most time in the novel, Addie is the main character in it. Through most of her married life, she has not found happiness. She loves neither her husband nor the children she bore him. This disillusionment found expression in the brief affair that she had with Reverend Whitfield which resulted in the birth of her son, Jewel. He is the only offspring she loves. He is worthless of it, treating her harshly while alive. In death, Addie wishes to move far away from her family, desiring to be buried with her blood relatives in Jefferson. As her family readies to honor her wishes, we realize that they are going to Jefferson for their personal needs as much as for her burial.
Much of the talking in the novel comes from Darl. It is he who does the analyzing and his eloquent descriptions cast him in the role of the principal narrator. He has no faith in the family’s mission to bury his mother in her native Jefferson. Hence he abandon’s it during the disastrous river crossing and going to the extent of setting fire to the barn in which the coffin rests. People find Darl unsettling. His probing nature which helps him to see the truth which is not visible to others makes him unpopular. This may be why the family declares him insane and commits him to the mental asylum.
Jewel is the foil to Darl. Jewel speaks few words; what we know of him comes from the way the family see his actions. They have difficulty reading his actions just like we do. Darl very often describes him as “wooden”. Addie loves him best among her children but while she was alive, he did little to deserve it. He was callous and harsh. Nevertheless after her death, along with Cash, he does the most to see that the coffin reaches its final resting place. There is a strange dichotomy between the words he exchanges with his family and his actions that affect them; to them he uses harsh words, but he goes out of his way to help.
Addie lies in bed in her room outside which her first born son Cash is making her coffin. Addie and her family expect her to die soon. She has expressed the wish that she should be buried in her hometown of Jefferson, Mississippi where her blood relatives are buried. The night she dies sees a heavy rainstorm which causes rivers to rise alarmingly, washing out bridges, stranding the family. When they do set out it is by wagons using which they hope to ford the rivers. There are accidents however; the coffin is nearly lost, and a pair of mules drowned. The Bundren family run out of food as the journey takes longer than expected. Anse, Addie’s husband refuses to accept food and shelter from strangers. As the journey progresses, we understand that many of the family have their own needs to attend to in Jefferson. Anse wants to get a new pair of dentures once the burial is over and Dell, the daughter is searching for abortion medication with which she hopes to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Cash has a broken leg that has to be fixed. One night, a fire in the barn nearly destroys the coffin. Darl who was unhappy about his mother’s burial away from the family home is arrested for arson. Finding his answers incoherent, on the family’s advise, he is committed to the mental asylum. Once they reach Jefferson, they go about borrowing spades and shovels to bury Addie. Dell tries unsuccessfully to get abortion medicines. Anse has better luck. He finds a new set of dentures and a new wife! He marries the woman from whom he borrows the spades.
Addie’s coffin that turns out to be a burden to the family stands for the dysfunction that afflicts the family. There is no one who is quite balanced and normal in there. Cash is the one who comes nearest to being normal. A skilled carpenter, he makes the coffin with great care but things go wrong from there. The storm and its aftermath, the slipshod way in which the journey is planned are all a symbol for the way the family functions.
- [W]ords dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at. . . . [M]otherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the ones that had the children didn’t care whether there was a word for it or not.
Addie speaks very little in the novel though it centers on her. Several times in the novel, Faulkner ponders on the insufficiency of language to convey meaning. Addie, though a mother to five children, is not very maternal except perhaps with Jewel. She suggests that language is a trap that raises expectations by promising much but stopping short of delivering it.