Before Addie Bundren died, she made her shiftless husband promise to bury her with her family in Jefferson. She obtained this promise to gain revenge against Anse because he has never given her the deep, permanent love for which she longed and which she had experienced only temporarily, in pregnancy and in a brief, passionate affair with a local minister.
She probably never understood that Anse would be invulnerable to her revenge while the rest of her family would suffer badly. On the day of her death, rains flood the river between them and Jefferson, transforming the easy trip into an odyssey.
The family is delayed several days seeking a crossing and, again, after crossing, to replace the drowned mules and to set the broken leg of Cash, the eldest son. These physical barriers passed, they must then drive their wagon through a simmering landscape with the reeking corpse in a coffin on which Cash lays in pain, trailed by a cloud of vultures.
This journey is both ridiculous and tragic. While Anse talks about suffering without seeming to suffer, each of the children suffers intensely. Darl, the most sensitive brother, sees the promise as revenge and its consequence the destruction of the family. He opposes the trip whenever he can. Jewel, product of Addie’s affair, seems an embodiment of her will, making every sacrifice to see the promise kept. Dewey Dell, the only daughter, wants to go to Jefferson to end her illegitimate pregnancy, but finds the price nearly unbearable. Vardaman, the youngest, is so involved in the family that its suffering is his suffering.
The story is told by means of the internal speeches of many characters in and out of the family. Though this technique makes the novel difficult reading, it also underlines one main theme, the inadequacy of language to express experience. One painful irony of this novel is that those who feel the deep communion that Addie desires and that cannot be expressed in words are the ones who can also suffer deeply, while those like Anse, who make language into a wall between themselves and experience, are almost immune to suffering. Everyone but Anse loses something precious; he returns with a new wife and several other new possessions.
Bleikasten, André. Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.” Translated by Roger Little. Rev. ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973. The only book-length study of Faulkner’s novel. Lucid and comprehensive; an excellent starting point for serious study. Discusses Faulkner’s manuscript and typescript and includes two facsimile pages.
Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography. 2 vols. New York: Random House, 1974. An enormously detailed work. Begins with discussion of Faulkner’s ancestors and traces the writer’s development from precocious poet to preeminent novelist.
Cox, Dianne L., ed. William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying”: A Critical Casebook. New York: Garland, 1985. Contains a dozen essays examining such topics as the novel’s chronology, language, and narrative design. Interesting individual chapters focus on the novel’s debt to the Cubist movement and to the works of T. S. Eliot. Extensive annotated checklist of criticism.
Vickery, Olga W. The Novels of William Faulkner. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959. A classic treatment of the Faulkner canon, still relevant despite years of subsequent scholarship. Asserts that the heart of As I Lay Dying is not the fulfillment of the burial promise but rather Addie herself and her effect on the Bundren family.
Volpe, Edmond L. A Reader’s Guide to William Faulkner. New York: Noonday Press, 1964. An excellent beginner’s source for discussion of Faulkner’s works. Analyzes structure, themes, and characters and includes a useful appendix that clarifies the often-confusing chronologies and scene shifts of Faulkner’s complex novels.
The following paper topics are designed to test your understanding of the novel as a whole and to analyze important themes and literary devices. Following each question is a sample outline to get you started.
Nature plays as vital a part in many stories and poems as the characters do. As I Lay Dying relies a great deal on Nature and her forces to move the story line along. What universal natural symbols does Faulkner rely on and how does he incorporate them into the action of the novel?
I. Thesis Statement: The forces of Nature and the natural world compete against man in Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying.
II. The Bundren homestead
A. House built on a very steep hill
B. Gravity and angles make house seem warped or mysterious
C. Anse’s view of the road in front of the Bundren house
III. The rainstorm
A. Keeps people away from the house
B. Makes travel from or to the Bundren house difficult
C. Accompanies or announces Addie’s death
D. Causes bridges to be washed out
IV. The flooding river
A. Impedes crossing and slows the family down
B. Drenches Addie’s corpse
C. Drowns mules
D. Causes Cash to break his leg and get kicked by the horse.
V. Hot weather
A. Adds to discomfort and short tempers
B. Causes decomposing body to decay and smell sooner
C. Helps attract cat and buzzards to the wagon
VI. Birth and death
A. Dewey Dell’s view of birth/pregnancy
B. Addie’s view of birth and children
C. Bundren children’s relationship to Addie Bundren
D. Addie Bundren’s view of death
E. Addie’s family’s view of death
VII. Conclusion: The Bundrens, an “unnatural” family, find every aspect of the natural world a challenge—whether it is birth, weather, geography, or death.
Addie Bundren maintains that words are not important; they go straight up and bear no relation to things that happen. Words are important for Faulkner, however. Examine the names and the descriptions of the characters. Paying careful attention to descriptive phrases, imagery, and adjectives, discuss whether or not Faulkner is successful in drawing his characters.
I. Thesis Statement: Faulkner selects his descriptive words and phrases carefully in order to help the reader create a better picture—both physically and psychologically—of the characters inAs I Lay Dying.
II. Dewey Dell
A. Double meanings in her name
B. Association with earth/land
C. Association with farm animals
D. Words used by MacGowan and Jody
E. Words used by Darl
A. Why Addie gave him this name
B. Words Darl uses to describe him
C. Words Cora uses to describe him
D. Words Tull and Peabody use to describe him
E. Association with animals
A. Meanings his name connotes
B. Words Anse uses to describe him
C. Words Cash uses to describe him
D. Words Cora uses to describe him
E. Words Tull and Peabody use to describe him
V. Anse Bundren
A. Meanings his names connote
B. Association with animals
C. Words Addie uses to describe him
D. Words Darl uses to describe him
E. Words Peabody and Tull use to describe him
A. Meanings her name connotes
B. Self-description and association with the dead/death
C. Words Anse uses to describe her
D. Words Cora uses to describe her
E. Words Darl uses to describe her
VII. Conclusion: A reader can achieve a more complete understanding of characters by examining how they appear to others in a story in addition to studying their own dialogue or narratives.
In As I Lay Dying William Faulkner appears unhappy with how people understand or misunderstand and use or misuse their religion. Through a careful study of their narratives, consider what problems Faulkner might find inherent in religion and how those characters who express religious feeling should actually behave.
I. Thesis Statement: Though a number of characters in the novel express belief in God, most of their religious feeling is misdirected or self-serving and falls short of being, what Cora Tull calls, “pure religious.”
II. Cora Tull
A. Hymn singing
B. Use of Bible quotes
C. Her relationship/place with God, as she sees it
D. Her view/opinion of others, in terms of her religion
E. Her views on death/Great Unknown
F. Her interpretation of our purpose in life
III. Anse Bundren
A. How he interprets his place in God’s eyes
B. How he understands God’s will
C. His use of the Lord’s name (when and how he uses it)
D. His view of our purpose in life
A. What his role in the community is/has been
B. How Cora Tull views his role
C. How he views his role
D. How Addie views him
E. His sin or hypocrisy
A. His view of God
B. His use of anti-religious language/terminology
VI. Dewey Dell
A. Her motivation for believing in God
B. Her view of what God does for people
C. How she uses her church-going clothes
VII. Conclusion: Faulkner feels that religion is meaningless if its ultimate purpose is personal gain or it is empty if its teachings become mere words without human understanding.
Darl Bundren is a complex character who can be viewed as mysterious or menacing, sympathetic or deranged. Through a careful examination of Darl’s narratives and those narratives which describe him, try to establish the “true” character of Darl.
I. Thesis Statement: Though others consider Darl to be...
(The entire section is 2505 words.)