As I Lay Dying starts with the family’s matriarch, Addie Bundren dying and looking out the window as her son Cash builds her coffin. The Bundren family live on a rural farm in Mississippi in the 1920s. After Addie dies, the family sets out on a journey to Jefferson, the place Addie wanted to be buried. The trip is a difficult one because it is both long and the Bundrens are poverty-stricken. Anse is the husband determined to take his wife’s body to Jefferson, but when in reality plans on getting himself a new set of teeth. Dewey Dell is the daughter who has an agenda of her own. She wants to go to Jefferson because she is pregnant and intends to have an abortion. Cash is the carpenter of the family who built his mother’s coffin and plans on going to Jefferson to buy a record player. Jewel is the illegitimate son born out of wedlock when Addie and the town’s preacher had a fling. Vardaman is the youngest of the sons. Traumatized after his mother’s death, he decides she is just like the fish he had previously caught and killed and constantly repeats “My mother is a fish.” Darl is considered the feebleminded of the family. Darl is also very intuitive and suspects that the rest of the family has ulterior motives to go to Jefferson.
When the family arrives in Jefferson after surviving a series of incidents which include Cash’s leg becoming gangrenous, Dewey Dell trying to have an abortion but ending up having sex with a guy pretending to be a doctor, and Darl being declared insane and placed in an asylum. Anse goes into a house to borrow some shovels to bury Addie’s body and starts to flirt with the lady of the house. The novel ends with Cash losing a leg, Dewey Dell not getting an abortion, Anse taking the money the family had saved to buy himself a new set of teeth, and making the lady of the house the new Mrs. Bundren.
The structure of the novel consists of narrations from each member of the family. While they are on the journey to Jefferson, they relate to what happened in the past as each narrator has a reason for making the trip. Faulkner again uses a stream-of-consciousness style in his narrative that I really struggled to understand at times.
“Bananas are gone, eaten. Gone. When it runs on the track shines again. I said God made me. I did not said to God to made me in the country. If he can make the train, why can’t He make them all in the town because flour and sugar and coffee.”
“In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you…I don’t know what I am. I don’t know if I am or am not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know whether he is or not.”
To say that reading Faulkner is intense is an understatement. Although I managed to read and enjoy, some years ago, the massive stream of consciousness that is The Sound and The Fury, reading As I Lay Dying was a much harder experience for me. Let me just say that I considered quitting the book in several different parts. The quote by Joe in the book You by Caroline Kepnes came to my mind many times while I read this novel.
“…Faulkner you’ll never finish, never start; Faulkner that will harden and calcify…”
This novel is on my list of books in The Classics Club Challenge.