As I Lay Dying
As I Lay DyingIntroduction
For Further Study
Although it achieved little commercial success at the time of its publication, As I Lay Dying has become one of William Faulkner's most popular novels. At first put off by its controversial subject matter and confusing style, commentators and readers have come to appreciate the novel's vivid characters, elusive tone, and complex narrative techniques.
As I Lay Dying chronicles the death of Addie Bundren and the subsequent journey to bury her corpse in her family's cemetery several miles away. This disastrous and darkly comic tale is enriched by Faulkner's innovative narrative technique, which features narration by fifteen characters, including a confused child and the dead woman, Addie. In addition, Faulkner mixes vernacular speech with "stream-of-consciousness" passages to enhance this unique narrative style.
Through his characters, Faulkner addresses subjects that challenge stereotypical perceptions of poor Southerners. For instance, characters contemplate issues of love, death, identity, and the limitations of language. Their actions and adventures draw attention to rural life, class conflicts, and the repercussions of desire and selfishness. Significantly, Faulkner explores the potent, complex workings of the human mind. Difficult to categorize, As I Lay Dying has provided a rewarding, illuminating, and, at times, unsettling experience for generations of readers.
William Cuthbert Faulkner (changed from the original spelling, Falkner) was born on September 25, 1897, in New Albany, Mississippi. He was the first of four sons born to Maud and Murry, a prominent local businessman. The Faulkners moved to Oxford, Mississippi, when William was five; for the rest of his life, Oxford remained his primary home.
Though an avid reader, Faulkner did not like school. In 1914 he quit high school and worked in his grandfather's bank. During this time, he was devastated as a result of a broken marital engagement with Estelle Oldham, who married another man under familial pressure. In 1918 he was refused admission into the armed forces because of his size. Determined to fight in World War I, he falsified his credentials to enter the Royal Air Force in Canada, but the war ended before he completed his military training. He attended the University of Mississippi for two years as a special student, from 1919 to 1921.
After his tenure at the University of Mississippi, he worked briefly in a New York bookstore. He returned to Oxford and became postmaster at the university until 1924, when he was fired for writing and socializing while on duty. In 1924, he published his first book, a collection of poems entitled The Marble Faun.
In 1925, he lived for a few months in New Orleans. During that short time he socialized with Sherwood Anderson. It was Anderson's wife, Elizabeth Prall, who encouraged Faulkner to abandon poetry for fiction. He subsequently left New Orleans and traveled to Paris, toured Europe, and began to write his first novel.
His first three novels, Soldiers' Pay (1926), Mosquitoes (1927), and Sartoris (1929) (a shortened version of Flags in the Dust, published in 1973) garnered little attention. In 1929, Faulkner married Estelle Oldham, who had recently divorced her husband. She already had two children, and the couple had two daughters, one of whom died in infancy. Early on, Estelle attempted suicide; this event signaled the beginning of an unhappy union for the couple.
In 1929 Faulkner published his most ambitious work to date, The Sound and the Fury. It garnered much critical praise but was not commercially successful. While working the night shift as a power plant stoker, he wrote and revised As I Lay Dying in under three months. Published in 1930, the novel was praised by critics but attracted little commercial attention.
For the rest of his life, Faulkner made his living as a writer of fiction and Hollywood screenplays. His most accomplished works during the 1930s and 1940s include Light in August, Absalom, Absalom!, The Hamlet, and Go Down, Moses. In 1946 Malcolm Cowley's editing and publication of The Portable Faulkner helped to cement Faulkner's literary reputation and commercial viability.
Faulkner received the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature and the 1954 Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Fable. During the last ten years of his life, he traveled, lectured, and became an outspoken critic of segregation. From 1957 until his death, he was writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia, near his daughter Jill and her children. In 1962, after years of drinking and a succession of physical problems, he died of a heart attack on July 6 in Oxford.
As I Lay Dying chronicles the dark, comic story of a Mississippi family's long and arduous journey to bury Addie, the family matriarch. Respecting Addie's request to be buried in her family's burial ground in Jefferson, Anse Bundren and his five children disregard the advice of friends and neighbors and embark on a forty-mile, nine-day trek in the wake of a devastating storm.
The story of the journey is presented by a variety of narrators: family members, friends, acquaintances, and objective onlookers. Each narrator provides a different perspective on individuals and events.
When the novel begins, Addie is on her deathbed. Outside her bedroom window, Cash slowly and meticulously builds her coffin. On the front porch, Jewel and Darl confer with their father about taking a last-minute job to make a bit of money. Anse reminds his sons of his promise to their mother but agrees to let them go, even though he knows that Addie may die before they return.
When Peabody, the local doctor, is finally summoned to the Bundren home, he predicts that it will be too late to do anything for Addie. Sure enough, she dies shortly after Peabody's arrival at the Bundren farm. After sending Dewey Dell away to prepare supper, Anse stands over his dead wife, listens to the sound of Cash's saw as he works on the coffin, and says: "God's will be done. Now I can get them teeth."
The Journey Begins
Cash finishes the coffin later that night in the pouring rain. Addie is kept in the coffin for three days before Darl and Jewel return home with the wagon. On the first day, the family wakes to find that Vardaman has bored the top of the coffin full of holes—two of which bored straight through Addie's face.
By the time the family finally gets the coffin on the wagon, the bridge to town has been washed away by heavy rains, adding several days to their journey. Jewel, refusing to travel with the family, follows some distance behind on his beloved horse.
Just before sundown they complete the first eight miles of their journey. They spend the night in a neighbor's barn and start off again early the next morning, trying to find a bridge that hasn't been completely destroyed by a recent storm. They finally find one near Vernon Tull's farm.
After consideration, it is decided that Anse, Dewey Dell, Vardaman, and Vernon Tull will walk across the remains of the bridge and that Cash and Darl will lead the wagon across the river at the ford. Jewel crosses ahead of them on his horse. Halfway across the bridge, the wagon is hit by a floating log and is dragged off by the current. The wagon and Addie's coffin are recovered, but the mules drown and Cash breaks his leg.
The narrative action pauses as Addie narrates a section in the novel. She describes her youth, her miserable life as a schoolteacher, and her decision to marry Anse. Unfortunately, her marriage is an unhappy one.
After giving birth to Cash, she suffered from depression; after giving birth to her second son, Darl, she makes Anse promise to bury her in Jefferson when she dies. Her revenge, she says, would be that Anse would never know that she was taking revenge. Addie also reveals her secret affair with Reverend Whitfield—a union that produced Addie's favorite child, Jewel.
From Bad to Worse
After the disastrous river crossing, the Bundrens spend the night at Armstid's farm. In the morning, Anse rides off on Jewel's horse to purchase a team of mules. During his absence, the heat intensifies the already putrid stench of Addie's corpse. Outraged, Lula Armstid thinks Anse "should be lawed for treating [Addie] so."
When Anse finally returns, he announces that he has traded Jewel's horse for a team of mules. The family's journey resumes the next morning with Cash lying on a pallet placed atop Addie's coffin.
Like Anse, Dewey Dell has personal reasons for wanting to go to town. She is pregnant and her boyfriend, Lafe, has told her that she would be able to "get something at the drugstore" to induce an abortion. When the procession passes through the town of Mottson, Dewey Dell speaks to the druggist but is told that she will not get what she wants in his store.
Meanwhile, Darl buys cement for Cash's leg at a hardware store. Anse, waiting outside in the wagon, is told by the town marshal that he will have to leave town. After eight days in the stifling heat, Addie's body is endangering the public health.
The family leaves town, stopping briefly to apply fresh cement on Cash's broken leg. Jewel, who disappeared after Anse traded his horse, reappears and rejoins the family.
They spend the last night of their journey on a farm belonging to Mr. Gillespie. During the night, Darl sets fire to the barn and Jewel's back is burned rescuing the coffin from the flames.
When Gillespie discovers that it was Darl who set the fire, he threatens to sue unless Darl is committed to the mental institution in Jackson. Cash thinks that Darl "done right in a way," trying to get Addie "outen our hands," but decides that it does not excuse setting fire to a man's barn and endangering his property.
Journey's End—and a New Beginning
As they arrive in Jefferson the next day, Anse finally concedes that they will have to find a doctor for Cash's infected leg. But first, they bury Addie. Anse borrows a couple of spades on the way to the cemetery and—nine days after Addie's death—finally lays his wife to rest in her family plot. As they leave the cemetery, Darl is jumped by Dewey Dell and Jewel and handed over to the men waiting to take him to the mental institution in Jackson.
When Cash finally gets to the doctor, Peabody cannot believe that Anse treated his son's broken leg with raw cement. Shocked at the damage they have done to him, the doctor wonders why Anse simply didn't bring Cash to the nearest sawmill and stick his leg in the saw.
Meanwhile, Dewey Dell finds another drugstore. After requesting something that will terminate her pregnancy, she is given a box of useless capsules by the drugstore clerk. The deceitful clerk proceeds to seduce her. The next morning, Anse disappears only to reappear with a new set of teeth and a new Mrs. Bundren—a local woman who loaned him the tools to bury Addie.
A local farmer, Armstid provides shelter for the Bundren family after their disastrous river crossing. He makes cryptic comments on the treatment of Cash's injury, Anse's trade for a mule team, and the rotting smell coming from the casket.
The family matriarch, Addie is Anse's wife and the mother of the Bundren children. She dies early in the book from a lingering illness, and the action of the novel revolves around transporting her body to her family's burial ground. As a young woman, Addie was a schoolteacher in Jefferson. To escape this life, she married Anse, a local farmer. She was happy when she gave birth to her eldest son Cash; but with her next child, Darl, she began to resent her situation.
Years into her marriage, she had a passionate affair with the Reverend Whitfield. During the affair, she became pregnant with Jewel, her favorite child. She had two more children—Dewey Dell and Vardaman—more out of obligation than anything else. Considering Darl, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman products of an unhappy time, she does not feel affection for them; instead, she favors Cash and Jewel.
Anse is the patriarch of the Bundren family. A selfish and lazy man, he claims sweat will kill him, and therefore refuses to work. Instead, he connives to get others to work for him. Physically, he is hunchbacked, and his hands are gnarled.
Though his wife is dying, he allows Darl and Jewel to leave her deathbed to work. He considers himself to be a right-thinking, hardworking man who is victimized by God. In what first seems to be a selfless move, he pushes for the journey to bury Addie at her family cemetery. Later his true motive is revealed: to buy a set of false teeth in Jefferson.
When the family's mules die in the flooded river, he steals Cash's money and barters away Jewel's beloved horse to obtain new mules. During the trip, he scrimps on money wherever possible, even borrowing shovels to bury his wife. While in Jefferson, he takes Dewey Dell's money, buys false teeth, and secretly woos a local woman. He ends the novel with his new teeth, introducing his new wife to his surprised children.
The oldest son of Anse and Addie, Cash is a carpenter of extraordinary precision and skill. As his mother is dying, he carefully builds her coffin, holding up each board for her inspection. He even decides to bevel the edges of the coffin, despite the extra work it requires.
When the Bundrens try to cross the flooded river, Cash is knocked out of the wagon and suffers a severely broken leg. After the bone is reset, he rides for three days on top of the coffin before the family buys cement to cover the leg. Unfortunately, they apply the cement directly to his skin, which causes a horrible infection. Despite intense pain, Cash remains stoical. When the doctor removes the concrete from his leg, Cash loses over sixty inches of skin along with it.
While in Jefferson, Cash is torn by the decision to commit Darl to an insane asylum. On one hand, he feels empathy for his brother; on the other hand, he recognizes that a man cannot simply burn down another man's hard-earned property. He eventually agrees with the decision to commit him.
The second of the Bundren children, Darl is a veteran of World War I. He narrates more sections of the book than any other character. He is profoundly jealous of Addie's obvious preference for Jewel, and throughout the book, he scrutinizes and often goads his brother. He even connives to separate Jewel from Addie when she is dying by volunteering both himself and Jewel to haul lumber. While on this trip, a wagon wheel breaks. As Jewel tries to fix the wheel, Darl narrates his mother's death for the reader and informs Jewel of her death. This form of "second sight," or telepathy, also manifests itself in his knowledge of Dewey Dell's pregnancy.
Darl participates in the journey to Jefferson, but he is never committed to it. Embarrassed by his family and the experience of dragging his mother's corpse all over the county, he burns down Gille-spie's barn with Addie's coffin inside. For this act, he is committed to the insane asylum in Jackson. He ends the novel on a train, laughing and talking about himself in the third person.
- Initially As I Lay Dying was adapted for the stage by Jean-Louis Barrault. The 1935 production was performed in Paris and featured extensive pantomime, surrealistic settings and costumes, and only Addie's monologues.
- Peter Gill adapted the novel for a 1985 production at London's National Theatre. Gill also directed the play, employing sparse staging and effects.
- Frank Galati adapted and directed the work for Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 1995. Galati previously had adapted John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.
- The Threshold Theatre Company of Kingston, Ontario performed the work in Toronto in August, 1995. Mark Cassidy adapted and directed the play. The company performed the play outside, and the audience walked with the actors on their funeral journey.
- Edward Kemp adapted the play in 1998 for London's Young Vic theatre company. The play was directed by Tim Supple.
Dewey Dell Bundren
Seventeen years old, Dewey Dell is the only daughter of the Bundren family. Like Darl and Vardaman, she feels rejected by her mother, Addie. Because Darl knows about her pregnancy, she resents and fears him. She desperately wants to go to Jefferson so she can obtain "medicine" that will illegally abort the pregnancy. Her first fumbling attempt to acquire the medicine fails when the druggist Mosely refuses to give it to her.
While she is in Jefferson, Anse steals her money. To make matters worse, a sleazy drugstore clerk, Skeet Macgowan, gives her worthless pills filled with talcum powder. He then seduces her. After Addie's burial, Dewey Dell is strongly in favor of committing Darl to the mental institution.
Jewel, in his late teens, is Addie's third son and her favorite child. The product of her affair with Reverend Whitfield, Jewel does not know his true paternity. After a lifetime of being his mother's favorite, he loves his mother fiercely and feels a strong devotion to her.
Described as tall and wooden in appearance, Jewel is a reticent young man. When he does talk, he usually curses, exhibiting a persistent rage. His favorite possession is his horse, which he bought by working nights for several months. The horse is as fierce as Jewel, and they engage in battles that exhibit both Jewel's violence and intense love. He loses the horse on the third day of the journey when Anse trades it for a new team of mules. Giving up his horse is one indication that Jewel is the family member most committed to fulfilling Addie's wish to be buried in Jefferson.
In addition to this sacrifice, he helps retrieve his mother's coffin when it gets thrown from the wagon during the river crossing. He also saves the coffin single-handedly from Gillespie's burning barn, suffering many burns as a result. Like Dewey Dell, he is in favor of committing Darl to the mental institution.
Mrs. Bundren is Anse's second wife. A "duck-shaped" woman with "hardlooking pop eyes," she marries Anse after he woos her in Jefferson.
Vardaman is the youngest Bundren child. He cannot fully comprehend the reality of his mother's death. At first, he blames Dr. Peabody for taking her away and releases Peabody's horse team for revenge. Then, he believes that Addie is not dead but has mutated into a fish. He bores holes in her coffin to give her air, mutilating her face. Later in the novel, his belief that Addie has become a fish causes his excited fear when Addie's coffin falls into the river. He runs along the bank, yelling for Darl to catch her so she will not escape, a thought he cannot bear.
Vardaman grows closer to Darl during the trip. At the end of novel, he sees his brother set fire to Gillespie's barn, which disappoints him. He struggles to understand Darl's insanity and feels the loss when his brother is taken away to the mental institution in Jackson.
Gillespie is a farmer who allows the Bundrens to stay on his farm during their journey. Darl burns down his barn to destroy Addie's coffin and end the humiliating journey.
Macgowan is a drugstore clerk in Jefferson. He cons Dewey Dell, giving her fake abortion pills. He seduces her in the cellar of the store.
Moseley is a drugstore owner in Mottson. A religious man, he refuses to sell abortion drugs to Dewey Dell and condemns her for trying to purchase them.
Dr. Peabody tends to Addie on her deathbed. His help is limited, however, because Anse sends for him too late. He comments on the family's behavior from an objective perspective. He views the family as proud, but slovenly and ignorant. In Jefferson, Peabody tries to fix the damage done to Cash's leg.
Samson is a farmer who offers shelter for the Bundren family before they try to cross the river. He unfavorably comments on their refusal to accept his hospitality.
Rachel Samson is Samson's wife. She expresses outrage at the handling of Addie's body and relates it to the treatment of all women.
Cora is Vernon Tull's wife. She narrates many of the early chapters in the book, offering her perspective on the Bundrens. Throughout the chapters she narrates, her judgments are almost always self-serving and wrong, often comically so.
Tull is the farmer who lives closest to the Bundrens. A thrifty, hardworking man, he is very successful as a farmer. He helps Cash build the coffin, tries to guide the family across the flooded river, and retrieves Cash's tools from the water. He feels especially drawn to Vardaman, and his interest in the boy may result from his own lack of a son.
A local preacher, Reverend Whitfield had an affair with Addie in their youth; in fact, he is Jewel's father. He has never admitted the affair to anyone. He visits Addie on the night she dies, supposedly to reveal the affair to the Bundren family. When Addie dies, he believes that he has been absolved of his sin by God and remains silent.
Alienation and Loneliness
Faulkner's use of multiple narrators underscores one of his primary themes: every character is essentially isolated from the others. Moreover, the characters in the novel do not communicate effectively with one another. Although the reader is privy to the characters' thoughts and emotional responses, none of the characters adequately express their dilemmas or desires to others. Outside of Darl, who knows Addie's and Dewey Dell's secrets through intuition, the characters can only guess at the motivations, beliefs, and feelings of others. When these guesses turn out to be wrong, misunderstandings ensue.
As a result of their communication problems, members of the Bundren family live alienated from each other—whether willfully (like Addie or Jewel), unknowingly (like Anse, Cash, Dewey Dell, or Vardaman), or painfully (like Darl). This alienation extends to neighbors, who misinterpret or simply cannot fathom the family's actions.
The more sensitive characters, especially Addie and Darl, recognize their alienation from others. In particular, Addie is a striking example of someone who both longs to transcend this isolation and stubbornly works to maintain an impenetrable individuality. As a schoolteacher, she would whip her students in order to overcome the barriers between her and others: "I would think with each blow of the switch: Now you are aware of me! Now I am something in your secret and selfish life, who have marked your blood with my own for ever and ever." One can see her selfishness here, however, as she violently imposes herself onto others without opening herself to them. Similarly, she holds back from her children, except for Cash and her favorite, Jewel. Her contradictions highlight the fundamental compulsion to maintain one's private self while yearning to connect with others.
In a novel that features a disastrous journey to bury a decomposing corpse, one would expect death to be a central concern. Indeed, the outraged reactions of other characters to the journey of the Bundren family reveal both social expectations about the treatment of the dead and underlying anxieties over the basic truths of human mortality. Moreover, Vardaman's chapters revolve primarily around defining the nature of death, and his confusion proves both moving and unsettling.
The theme of death also takes other forms in the novel. Through Addie's narrative, Faulkner investigates the possibility of living in a deadened state. On the one hand, Faulkner has her "speak" from the dead. On the other hand, however, is Addie's thwarted desire to live life; the antithesis of her desire is Anse, who, to Addie, is dead and "did not know he was dead." To her, Anse symbolizes restriction, blindness, and emptiness. Faulkner explores the implications of such an existence by exploring its potential in all of his characters, particularly those who use platitudes to avoid genuine feeling and self-examination.
Questions about the nature and strength of self-identity recur throughout the novel. Some characters, like Anse, Cash, Jewel, and the Tulls, possess a defined senses of self. Yet it is through the characters of Darl and Vardaman that Faulkner explores the fragile nature of identity. Vardaman almost compulsively defines his relationships with others, repeating "Darl is my brother" and, more famously, "My mother is a fish." Through these repetitions, Faulkner articulates the development of identity as Vardaman relates to others.
For Vardaman, the process is incomplete but progressing. For Darl, the process will never reach completion. The absence of his mother's love leads Darl to isolation not only from others but also from himself. He expresses the differences between himself and Jewel when he says, "I don't know what I am. I don't know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not." In such passages, Darl's insights prove both compelling and disturbing since it calls into question the very essence of human consciousness.
Language and Meaning
One of Faulkner's central themes in the novel is the limitation of language. From the inability of the characters to communicate with one another, to Addie's singular distrust of words, to the unlikely vocabulary the characters employ in their narration, Faulkner explores the inadequacy of language to express thought and emotion. Many characters communicate only through platitudes. As a result, they create misunderstanding rather than understanding between people. These instances of ineffective communication are not as comprehensive as Addie's rejection of language, however. For Ad-die, words cannot express human experience because they are so distant from human experience. Only action matters for her (and for the inarticulate Jewel).
Faulkner also reveals the limitations of language by contrasting the thoughts of his characters with their actual words. In their narratives, the characters often employ vocabulary far beyond their educational level or speech customs. These passages underscore Faulkner's attempts to verbalize his characters' groping for meaning and adequate expression, In this way, Faulkner comments on the tenuousness of language itself.
Love and Passion
Love and passion are major themes of the novel. The relationships and destinies of the characters rely heavily on love and intense emotions. In particular, Addie is defined by passion. Her affair with Whitfield results from genuine feeling, and the rejection of her husband and three of her children is equally intense. Her commitment to Cash and Jewel is fierce and loving. This love helps them to nurture a strong self-identity, which Darl, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman often lack.
Topics For Further Study
- Examine and discuss the possible meanings of Faulkner's title. How do you interpret it?
- Research economic conditions for Southern farmers during the early decades of the twentieth century. How did these conditions impact class relations? Provide examples from Faulkner's novel.
- Compare and contrast the lives of Southern farmers and unskilled laborers in the early twentieth century with the lives of farmers and laborers today. Offer statistical information from reference sources to illustrate how the situation has changed.
- Explore the lives of women in Southern society at the time of Faulkner's novel. How have women's activities, opportunities, and expectations changed?
- Research Sigmund Freud's theories on the Oedipal complex and relate what you've learned to Addie Bundren's relationships with her children, using examples from the novel.
- Compare the journey of the Bundren family to famous journeys in myth, religion, or famous epics. What are the defining characteristics of these journeys?
- Construct a contemporary version of the Bun-drens' journey, factoring in modern social conditions. How are Faulkner's version and your version similar? In what ways do they differ, and what does that say about how society has changed?
Sanity and Insanity
By chronicling both the Bundrens' journey and Darl's descent into madness, Faulkner explores the themes of sanity and insanity. The fact that the Bundrens would undertake such an arduous journey strikes both the reader and other characters as deranged folly. For most of the Bundrens, however, the trip is perfectly sensible considering their ultimate goals: Anse's new teeth, Dewey Dell's abortion, and Jewel's loyalty to his beloved mother. They may be selfish and blind to social convention, but their desires are understandable, even if they seem misplaced in the current context. Since all of the narrators hold views that others may consider senseless, evaluations of people's sanity prove arbitrary in the novel.
Darl's case is different, however. He exhibits signs of telepathy, burns Gillespie's barn, is eventually committed to an insane asylum, and ends his final narration in a rant. Yet Darl is reacting to circumstances beyond his control. He cannot help feeling the lack of his mother's love, nor can he contain his hypersensitivity to the world. The other characters may remain "sane" simply because they work to maintain their isolation from the world. Because Darl cannot, or will not, be blind, he may be overwhelmed by knowledge. Perhaps, as André Bleikasten suggests in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, "From the depths of his own madness, Darl discovers—and makes us discover—the madness of the universe."
As I Lay Dying takes place in the northern part of Mississippi in 1928. The Bundrens must travel forty miles to bury Addie in Jefferson, the primary town in Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County. The Bundrens live in a time of economic hardship for cotton farmers, who have had to suffer through a depressed cotton market and disastrously heavy rains. They also lack modern farming equipment, instead employing farm animals and their own labor.
The modern world exists in Jefferson, however, and the Bundrens often comment on the distinctions between country people and town people. The social environment of the time features a code of ethics that obligates farm families to house and feed travelers, although the Bundrens refuse such assistance. Faulkner also depicts a natural environment that is at best indifferent and at worst actively hostile, bringing floods, heat, and intrusive buzzards.
Point of View
As I Lay Dying consists of fifty-nine chapters narrated by fifteen different characters. Darl is the most frequent voice, narrating nineteen chapters; some characters, like Addie Bundren, Jewel Bundren, and various townspeople, narrate only one chapter. Many chapters appear to unfold as events take place, particularly those narrated by the Bundrens; others relate events that occurred in the past. At times, Faulkner extends beyond the realm of credible narration, such as when Darl narrates Addie's death when he is not present and when the deceased Addie recollects her life.
Through these varying perspectives, the reader witnesses both the events that take place and the character's individual perceptions of them. Indeed, at times the reader can only discern events by comparing information from various narrators. The reader learns about the assumptions and peculiarities of the different narrators, as well as their social and religious environment. As a result, Faulkner constructs not only a rendition of events but also a series of interconnected psychological studies.
Stream of Consciousness
"Stream of consciousness" is a literary technique that reproduces the thought processes of certain characters. These thoughts appear as if they are immediate, unedited responses. Faulkner does not use this technique in all of his chapters, restricting it primarily to the Bundrens, especially Darl and Vardaman.
The stream-of-consciousness passages reveal character and allow for complicated philosophical questioning. They also imply a character's confusion or distress. A key example occurs when Ad-die's coffin falls into the river and Vardaman reacts hysterically: "I ran down into the water to help and I couldn't stop hollering because Darl was strong and steady holding her under the water even if she did fight he would not let her go he was seeing me and he would hold her and it was all right now it was all right now it was all right."
Although Faulkner employs paragraph breaks and, in one paragraph, italics, he does not use punctuation until Vardaman speaks to Darl at the end of the chapter. This moment and others in the novel involve the reader in the sometimes perplexing but always engaging world of the characters.
One of the most obvious features of the novel is its humor. One might expect a bleak tone from a story featuring death, a burial procession, abortion, and familial hardship, but Faulkner defies expectation by utilizing comedy, albeit dark comedy.
Faulkner employs a variety of means to achieve this effect. The family journey to bury Addie is absurd in itself, and the dogged determination of the Bundrens often evokes a humorous reaction. Faulkner also uses the characters' perceptions and faults to generate humor, such as when Anse slith-ers out of his responsibility for Cash's broken leg: "'It's a trial,' he says. 'But I don't begrudge her [Addie] it.'" Cash's own understatement can create humor, as well, whether it is his stoic refrain on his leg, "It don't bother me none," or his recollection of the distance he fell off of a roof: "'Twenty-eight foot, four and half inches, about.'"
Perhaps the most glaring and outrageous comic moment is the ending. After all the family has endured and the losses they have suffered, the selfish, resilient Anse appears with a set of new teeth and a "duckshaped" woman as his new wife. Such episodes make the novel difficult to categorize and greatly enrich its texture and effects.
Critics often associate Faulkner with literary modernism, a movement that began before World War I and gained prominence during the 1920s. In fact, Faulkner was greatly influenced by two of the most celebrated modernists, T. S. Eliot and James Joyce. Eliot's poem The Waste Land explored, in both form and content, the dehumanizing effects of industrialization. Joyce's landmark novel Ulysses featured the use of "stream of consciousness," which Faulkner employs in As I Lay Dying.
Modernist writers experimented with language and literary form and were concerned with the limits of expression. Most modernist authors depicted characters grappling with the loss of traditional beliefs after the destructiveness of World War I. These characters are alienated from their past and from others characters, and often suffer from an inability to communicate. Faulkner's interest in these practices and themes is obvious, especially in his experiments with narrative perspective, his focus on language and its failures, and his themes of alienation and the destruction of community, including families.
Farm Life in the South
Despite efforts to improve technology and farming methods, a farmer's life during the 1920s involved a constant struggle for survival. The farming life was restrictive and demanding on both men and women. In fact, farmers often lived on an income of little over one hundred dollars a year. Therefore, even families who owned their land relied almost exclusively on themselves to supply both farm labor and basic necessities. Some would hire additional help during harvesting season, yet this expense could prove burdensome as well.
One can see, then, that Darl and Jewel earning three dollars to haul wood was a good job, and the purchases of luxuries like false teeth and bananas were a big deal. In essence, a farm family's land, labor, livestock, and equipment were its only assets. To lose any of them could prove disastrous, a fact which underscores the impact of Darl's decision to burn Gillespie's barn.
According to many scholars of Southern culture, two belief systems provided many Southerners with pride and a sense of purpose: religious conviction and racism. Religion in this community was a potent emotional and psychological force, and a person's relationship with God provided one with a set of values, activities, and friends. Many critics contend that poor whites used religious beliefs as a means of coping with economic deprivation, social inferiority, and political weakness.
White supremacist beliefs also served these ends for some white citizens, providing poor white laborers with a sense of personal worth and group solidarity against a perceived menace. The economic conditions, religious beliefs, and racial views of white farmers became important factors in Southern politics in the early twentieth century.
Economics and Politics in the Rural South
On October 24, 1929, the day before Faulkner began writing As I Lay Dying, the American stock market crashed. This financial disaster ended a period of post-World War I economic expansion and marked the beginning of the Great Depression of the 1930s.
In the rural South, however, economic hardship had been a way of life for years, especially for poor farmers. Three factors, in particular, affected Mississippi cotton farmers. One, farmers operated under a lien system, whereby they pledged future crops to merchants in return for necessary supplies. Thus, they were in continuous debt. Second, a longstanding depression in the cotton market forced farmers to go further into debt until they could barely manage to sustain their farms or their families. Third, heavy rains and floods in the late 1920s nearly ruined production. These elements combined with outdated farming methods to make already difficult conditions even worse.
Such tensions were a staple element of Southern life in the early decades of the century. The exploitation of the working class generated populist movements that impacted Mississippi politics in the early 1900s. Sometimes termed "the revolt of the rednecks," these reforms ushered in a new breed of politician.
One of the most prominent of these men, James K. Vardaman, serves as a representative example (especially since Faulkner's family supported him and Faulkner named the youngest Bundren son after him). As Mississippi governor from 1904 to 1908 and a United States Senator from 1912 to 1918, Vardaman was a flamboyant orator and advocate of white laborers. Coming from a poor background, he called for greater regulation of corporations and supported such progressive causes as a graduated income tax, child labor laws, and women's suffrage.
One of his most potent appeals, however, was his strident racism. His views and manner earned him both the nickname "The White Chief" and a reputation as a demagogue who used racial hatred to further his own ambitions. By 1918, Vardaman had lost his once-formidable influence because he opposed American involvement in World War I. "Vardamanism," as his brand of politics was termed, had faded by the late 1920s, but populist loyalties still existed among farmers, as did the white supremacist ideals that provided poor whites with a false sense of superiority and power.
After its publication in 1930, As I Lay Dying garnered several positive critical reviews in America and Britain. The American reviews were generally more favorable than the British, but this early critical commentary touched on issues that were to become pronounced in later, more substantial critiques of the book.
In those early reviews, critics recognized Faulkner's talent but remained suspicious of As I Lay Dying. Many commentators questioned the novel's controversial subject matter—such as abor-tion—and its emphasis on the grotesque and violent. Some critics derided As I Lay Dying as tasteless and immoral. Faulkner's style and narrative method, of course, received much critical attention. In general, his use of the vernacular was praised, but his more complicated and elusive passages were deemed confusing. Social-minded critics condemned Faulkner for his lack of overt social commentary.
Most of the early reviewers questioned both Faulkner's tone toward his characters and the genre of the work, issues that recur in later critical commentary. French critics provided Faulkner with his most enthusiastic early notices, although the novel was not translated and published in France until 1934.
After 1940, more substantive critiques of the novel began to appear. A major reason for the renewed interest in As I Lay Dying was the publication of The Portable Faulkner in 1946. The editor of the volume, Malcolm Cowley, was a seasoned literary editor who contended that Faulkner had successfully developed a distinctive Southern mythology based on his fiction set in and around Yoknapatawpha County. In his influential introduction to the book, Cowley advocated reading all of Faulkner's works as a collective project or, in his words, "part of the same living pattern." Cowley's opinions influenced Faulkner criticism in the following decades.
Critics began to take a more universalistic approach to Faulkner's fiction, viewing his Southern world as representative of the modern world and as a means of exploring timeless human dilemmas. Many commentators began to read As I Lay Dying as affirmative and even moral.
Irving Howe, in his 1952 work William Faulkner: A Critical Study, clearly articulates this stance: "Of all Faulkner's novels, As I Lay Dying is the warmest, the kindliest and most affectionate…. In no other work is he so receptive to people, so ready to take and love them, to hear them out and record their turns of idiom, their melodies of speech."
Compare & Contrast
- 1920s: The Democratic party dominates Southern politics. Women are granted voting rights in 1920, but African Americans are disenfranchised and discouraged from participating in the democratic process.
Today: Since the 1960s, the Republican party has gained power and influence in the South. African American citizens are more politically active, usually providing support for the Democratic party.
- 1920s: Cotton is the dominant crop in Mississippi. Outdated farming methods, a lack of technology, the lien system, and a depressed cotton market keep most small farmers in debt.
Today: Cotton is still a major crop in the South, but it is no longer the dominant source of agricultural income. Production is dependent on technology and corporate ownership. Industrial employment now exceeds agricultural employment in the state.
- 1920s: African Americans are the majority population in Mississippi, followed by whites, Native Americans (primarily Choctaw), and Chinese immigrants who lived in the Delta region.
Today: Because of migrations out of state after 1940, African Americans comprise about a third of the population with whites in the majority. Native American and Asian-American residents still remain in minority status.
- 1920s: Laws prohibiting abortion exist in most states since the late 1800s. Drugs that supposedly induced abortion had been on the market since the mid-nineteenth century. Abortion is considered a medical, moral, and religious issue.
Today: With its 1973 decision in the Roe v. Wade case, the Supreme Court legalized abortion during the first six months of pregnancy. Age restrictions apply in many areas. Abortion is considered a medical, moral, and religious issue.
Other prominent critics, such as Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, focused on the family's heroism in the face of many obstacles. Brooks's William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (1963) was, in fact, the most influential critical work on Faulkner for many years. It still holds a prominent place in Faulkner studies today.
These favorable views of the Bundrens did not go unchallenged, however. In her chapter "The Dimensions of Consciousness: As I Lay Dying," from The Novels of William Faulkner: A Critical Interpretation (1959), Olga Vickery contends that the Bundren family's journey is not heroic. She focuses attention on the character of Addie and her relationship with her children. For Vickery, Cash becomes the most ethically reliable character since he matures during the journey.
Vickery's views proved highly influential. Other critics followed her lead and continued to debate the tone of the novel. Many rejected the notions that Faulkner is sympathetic to his characters, the Bundrens heroic, and the novel essentially moral. These commentators focused attention on Faulkner's comedic elements and satiric stance. Even the critics who explored Faulkner's journey motif and its connections to myth, Christian symbolism, or existential philosophy disputed the tone of Faulkner's treatment of these issues.
Questions surrounding Faulkner's technique, style, form, and use of genre continued to garner comment. Many commentators discussed his relationship to modernist writing and experimental painting, particularly cubism. In a 1967 essay, "Narrative Management in As I Lay Dying," R. W. Franklin criticized Faulkner's stylistic technique for its inconsistencies in tense and strategy. Franklin's reading has since been effectively challenged by more careful treatments, such as Catherine Patten's "The Narrative Design of As I Lay Dying." Various critics have viewed the novel as epic, tragic, comedic, farcical, or absurd.
André Bleikasten investigates these issues in the first book-length study of the novel, Faulkner's As I Lay Dying (1973). Like some critics before him and many after, Bleikasten contends that As I Lay Dying defies genre distinctions because it fuses multiple approaches to its subject. In summary, Bleikasten asserts, "As I Lay Dying offers us at once a comedy and the reverse of comedy, a tragedy and the derision of tragedy, an epic and the parody of an epic."
Recent critics have expanded on earlier treatments by integrating new theories in psychology, linguistics, gender relations, and cultural studies. Some scholars, for instance, examine the novel in light of Freud's psychological concepts, such as the Oedipal theory. Scholarship in gender construction has placed important emphasis on the female characters in the book. A few critics investigate Faulkner's linguistic constructs, such as Stephen
M. Ross in Fiction's Inexhaustible Voice: Speech and Writing in Faulkner (1989). In addition, sociological critiques have recently been revived in more complex forms.
Critics have detailed the effects of economics, politics, religion, and technology in the novel. Warwick Wadlington's 1992 book As I Lay Dying: Stories out of Stories is the most comprehensive of these studies. Almost all of the recent treatments view the work favorably, appreciating, if not always celebrating, Faulkner's ability to make the misadventures of the haggard, unfortunate Bundrens such a potent subject for critical scrutiny.
Jeffrey M. Lilburn
Jeffrey M. Lilburn is a graduate student at McGill University and the author of a study guide on Margaret Atwood's The Edible Woman as well as numerous educational essays. In the following essay, he explores the comic and tragic aspects of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.
As I Lay Dying, Faulkner's first published novel after The Sound and the Fury, is comprised of fifty-nine sections or monologues told from the perspective of fifteen different speakers. Every member of the Bundren family narrates at least one section, in addition to various members of the community and onlookers who witness the journey from a more objective position. Because there is no central, omniscient narrator to make easy transitions from section to section, the variety of narrative voices provide the reader with multiple, sometimes conflicting perspectives. The result is a novel that can, at times, leave the reader a bit confused.
The novel is outrageously funny, yet contains certain scenes that evoke feelings of disgust, sadness, and sympathy. This unsettling combination of humorous and tragic elements has been the focus of much of the criticism of the novel, with some critics arguing that Faulkner's tale is a tragedy, others perceiving it as a comedy. However, this debate just shows how the novel has defied and resisted any attempt to impose reductive explanations or categorizations.
The basic plot of the novel is, without question, tragic. A dying mother, lying on her deathbed, watches as her eldest son builds her coffin just outside her bedroom window. After she dies, her hus-band and five children load her corpse onto a mule-driven wagon. They travel in the summer heat for nine days, hoping to bury her in her family's burial ground. Along the way, the mules drown, one son breaks a leg, one goes mad, the daughter is taken advantage of by a lecherous drugstore clerk, and the widowed husband—having stolen his children's money and traded his son's horse—buys himself a new set of teeth, remarries, and obtains a record player. Despite these tragic elements, the story exhibits traces of humor as well as pathos.
One critic to downplay the humorous elements of the novel is Robert Merrill. He asserts that to read As I Lay Dying as tragic is "to experience the novel as Faulkner conceived and wrote it." The comic moments in the book are, Merrill concedes, "genuinely amusing," but they almost always "merge with events of a truly compelling terrible-ness." In short, he describes As I Lay Dying as "Faulknerian tragedy in its most radical and original form."
On the other hand, Patricia R. Schroeder emphasizes the novel's humorous elements, contending that Faulkner's grotesque and black humor contribute to a comic framework that celebrates "the indefatigable in man." Schroeder views the novel as comedy that is the "inverse of tragedy: it celebrates community survival, applauds the status quo and affirms life in the face of death."
Schroeder also discusses the novel in relation to the "frustrated funeral," a type of Southwestern story that used humor to reduce death to comic and manageable proportions. The end of the novel is a modern example of the comic vision: "a vision capable of presenting the necessary darkness of human travail and then celebrating man's ability to overcome it." When the Bundrens begin their journey home, they do so with a new team of mules, a new set of teeth for Anse, a new wife and mother, and Dewey Dell's yet unborn child—evidence, Schroeder suggests, that "even when confronted with the death of an individual, life will prevail."
Although Merrill underscores the novel's tragic aspects, he does acknowledge that As I Lay Dying contains many memorable comic moments. He also observes that many of these humorous moments result from the removed position of the "non-Bundren narrators who think the Bundren odyssey a bizarre joke or a tawdry sacrilege."
Indeed, many of the novel's funniest moments are found within the sections told by Samson, Moseley and Peabody. When Moseley describes the arrival of the family in Mottson, for example, his "version" of the journey reveals what the Bundrens themselves refuse to admit: "It had been dead eight days," he says. "It must have been like a piece of rotten cheese coming into an ant-hill."
Peabody's opinions of Anse are equally amusing. Examining Cash's broken and badly infected leg, he says: "I be damned if the man that'd let Anse Bundren treat him with raw cement ain't got more spare legs than I have." "God Almighty," he continues, "why didn't Anse carry you to the nearest sawmill and stick your leg in the saw? That would have cured it. Then you all could have stuck his head into the saw and cured a whole family."
However, considered from the perspective of the individuals undergoing the long and trying journey, putting up with intense heat and discomfort as well as with the scorn of passersby as they travel, the humorous scenes are suddenly less amusing. Moreover, while the scenes cited above intend to undermine the suffering of the family, other passages suggest that humor and laughter are not appropriate responses given the less than festive events that befall the Bundren family.
Just prior to the beginning of Whitfield's funeral service, for example, Tull, Armstid, Quick, Uncle Billy, and Peabody discuss the bridge that was washed away by the heavy rains. When Peabody makes a joke, the men "laugh, suddenly loud, then suddenly quiet again. [They then] look a little aside one another," realizing their slip. Suddenly, it seems as if the men realize the inappropriateness of their behavior.
Darl provides another example of a scene of inappropriate laughter. Moments after Addie is buried, Darl is ambushed by his sister and Jewel and handed over to two officials waiting to take him to a mental institution in Jackson. Initially surprised and hurt that Cash did not warn him about the ambush, Darl begins to laugh uncontrollably. To Cash, there is nothing funny about the scene: "I be durn if I could see anything to laugh at." Darl, on the other hand, sees plenty of humor in the situation. Of the Bundren children, only Darl sees the sheer absurdity of their journey; only he attempts to rescue his mother from the outrageous and disrespectful spectacles along the way. For this, he is considered mad by the rest of the family.
Darl has a privileged position among the novel's narrators: he has more sections than any other narrator and at times appears to possess an inexplicable gift of knowing things that he should not know. For instance, he knows that his mother has died even though he and Jewel are miles away in the wagon; in addition, he also seems to know, or at least suspect, that Anse is not Jewel's father.
Moreover, Darl's narrative role is special because he is the frequent subject of other people's narratives. Other characters notice that there is something different about Darl. As André Bleikasten has noted, there is little evidence in the early sections to suggest insanity and in the later sections his actions appear "rather more reasonable than those of the rest of the family." Even Cora and Ver-non Tull agree that Darl simply needs a wife "to straighten him out"—evidence that not all who know him and watch him and talk about him agree that he is mad.
Consequently, Darl's capture and subsequent incarceration raise questions of the reliability of the novel's narrative. To Bleikasten, Darl's laughter at the novel's end makes it "hard to tell on which side lies sanity and on which side madness." To Cash, who for a moment thinks his brother did the right thing by trying to burn their mother's coffin, there "ain't none of us pure crazy and ain't none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way." He questions the right of one man to call another man crazy and concludes: "It's like it ain't so much what a fellow does, but it's the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it."
Darl is sent away to Jackson because a majority of people think him queer and because his family does not want to risk being sued by Gillespie. His feelings are never considered. Darl's disturbing laughter thus adds to the novel's unsettling ambiguity because it conflates further the comic and the tragic and makes us question the appropriateness of our own laughter.
By the end of the novel, however, laughter seems to be the only response. After nine days spent defying all kinds of adversities in order to bring Addie's corpse to its final resting place, the funeral procession climaxes in a scene that is described in less than two lines. All we hear of the actual burial is: "we got it filled and covered…." The same sentence then describes how Darl is betrayed by his family and sent away to Jackson. The few remaining sections focus not the family's loss or on their sadness on burying the family matriarch, but on the individual motives that were the real driving force behind the journey.
The final section in particular—when Anse introduces the new Mrs. Bundren to his children—utilizes humor to underscore the outrageous nature of the situation. Underlying this humor is the pain and unsettling knowledge of what occurred in the sections leading up to this absurd ending: the brutal betrayal of Darl, news of Cash's serious injury, Dewey Dell's physical abuse, and Addie's final, humiliating journey. The introduction of the new Mrs. Bundren provides one of the biggest laughs in the novel—yet somehow such an ending hardly seems like a celebration of life's victory over death. Instead, this scene, like almost all of the novel's funny moments, produces an awkward laughter that is tinged with anguish and remorse.
Source: Jeffrey M. Lilburn, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000.
In the following essay, Bleikasten discusses the complexities he has identified within As I Lay Dying.
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What Do I Read Next?
- The Sound and the Fury (1929) is Faulkner's first extended attempt at the stream-of-consciousness narrative techniques that he successfully employs in As I Lay Dying. Both novels also concern familial relationships and include penetrating psychological portraits. Many critics note similarities between Quentin Compson and Darl as well as the idiot Benjy Compson and young Vardaman.
- Faulkner's The Hamlet (1940) is the first in a trilogy of novels that chronicle the rise of the "poor white" Snopes family.
- Tobacco Road (1932), a novel by Erskine Caldwell, depicts a poor family that overcomes extreme hardship in order to survive. Caldwell's characters are noted for their ignorance and often primitive reactions to situations.
- George Washington Harris's Sut Lovingood stories, published in periodicals from 1843 until 1869 and collected in Sut Lovingood's Yarns (1966), are comedies in the tall tale tradition, featuring an incorrigible narrator and outlandish escapades. Faulkner professed to be a fan of these stories.
- The Nigger of the "Narcissus" (1897), a novel by Joseph Conrad, depicts a ship journey that is fraught with peril. The story revolves around James Wait, a dying, black sailor who becomes the center of the crew's attention. Many critics have noted the similarities of this novel to As I Lay Dying.
- C. Vann Woodward's influential historical study, Origins of the New South: 1877–1913 (1951), offers a detailed account of Southern life and politics.
- The Mind of the South (1941), a book written by W. J. Cash, is a controversial study of Southern race relations, class systems, religion, and philosophies. The book has elicited both praise and condemnation.
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Source: André Bleikasten, Introduction to Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, Indiana University Press, 1973, pp. 3-9.
In the following essay, Howe praises Faulkner for his ability to "blend extreme and incongruous ef-fects—the sublime and the trivial, anguish and absurdity, a wretched journey through the sun and a pathetic journey toward kinship" in As I Lay Dying.
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Source: Irving Howe, "As I Lay Dying," in William Faulker: A Critical Study, Random House, 1951, pp. 127-42.
André Bleikasten, Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, translated by Roger Little, Indiana University Press, 1973, pp. 7, 73.
Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country, Yale University Press, 1963.
Malcolm Cowley, "Introduction to The Portable Faulkner," in Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert Penn Warren, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966, p. 36.
Irving Howe, "As I Lay Dying," in William Faulkner: A Critical Study, The University of Chicago Press, 1951, 1975, p. 189.
Olga Vickery, The Novels of William Faulkner: A Critical Interpretation, Louisiana State University Press, 1959.
Warwick Wadlington, As I Lay Dying: Stories out of Stories, Twayne Publishers, 1992.
Floyd C. Watkins, "As I Lay Dying: The Dignity of Earth," in In Time and Place: Some Origins of American Fiction, The University of Georgia Press, p. 180.
Carvel Collins, "The Pairing of The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying," Princeton University Library Chronicle, Vol. 18, 1957, pp. 114-23.
Carvel's influential early study details myth patterns in the book, particularly Greek myth.
Dianne L. Cox, editor, William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying: A Critical Casebook, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1985.
This important collection includes many valuable essays examining such topics as Faulkner's narrative design, language, characterization, and major themes.
Philip Hanson, "Rewriting Poor White Myth in As I Lay Dying," Arkansas Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 4, 1993, pp. 308-24.
Employing the economic, cultural, and political environment of the Bundrens, Hanson explores Faulkner's treatment of beast imagery in relation to poor white Southerners.
Elizabeth Hayes, "Tension Between Darl and Jewel," Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 24, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 49-61.
Hayes analyzes the centrality of Darl and Jewel's relationship to the novel. In contrast to many critics, she denies that Darl hates Jewel, contending that he sees Jewel as a means to verifying his own identity.
Robert Hemenway, "Enigmas of Being in As I Lay Dying," Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 19, Summer, 1970, pp. 133-46.
Hemenway analyzes Darl's most important philosophical monologues and conversations.
Lynn Gartrell Levins, Faulkner's Heroic Design: The Yoknapatawpha Novels, University of Georgia Press, 1976.
In her study of the novel, Levins finds similarities in the Bundrens' trip and epic and Christian journeys.
Robert Merrill, "Faulknerian Tragedy: The Example of As I Lay Dying," Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 3, Summer, 1994, pp. 403-18.
Merrill contends that Faulkner blends comedy and tragedy in the novel, but that tragedy ultimately prevails.
Michael Millgate, The Achievement of William Faulkner, Random House, 1966.
Millgate provides a general introduction to Faulkner's novel.
Stephen M. Ross, Fiction's Inexhaustible Voice: Speech and Writing in Faulkner, University of Georgia Press, 1989.
Ross examines Faulkner's narrative techniques.
Patricia R. Schroeder, "The Comic World of As I Lay Dying," in Faulkner and Humor, edited by Doreen Fowler and Ann J. Abadie, University Press of Mississippi, 1986, pp. 34-46.
Schroeder surveys the variety of humor in the novel as well as Faulkner's overall comic vision.
John K. Simon, "What Are You Laughing At, Darl?: Madness and Humor in As I Lay Dying," College English, Vol. 25, November, 1963, pp. 104-11.
In his respected study of Darl, Simon closely analyzes the character's madness and final speech.
Hyatt Waggoner, William Faulkner: From Jefferson to the World, University of Kentucky Press, 1959.
Waggoner offers a Christian interpretation of the text, examining many of its elements from this perspective.