William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying

As in Faulkner’s other works, madness dominates As I Lay Dying. Addie Bundren’s dying wish is the be buried with her people in Jackson, Mississippi, rather than near her home, a request that would bring hardship to the family. And Anse, the husband, agrees to this journey and jeopardizes the family’s safety and livelihood, perhaps with the ulterior motive of getting a set of false teeth. When Cash broke his leg trying to drive the wagon with coffin across the river, they put cement on his leg to make a cast and the doctor has to crack the cement and peel his skin to remove it. Darl, the second son, in trying to destroy the coffin, burns down a barn, almost killing all of its owner’s cattle. Dewey Dell, the daughter, tries to get an abortion by getting some concoction in a drug store but only end up being taken advantaged of. Madness, madness and madness.

The family’s tragic-comedy shows its dysfunction. Dr. Peabody said to Cash, “God Almighty, 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…” Perhaps it is sarcasm but in light of the absurdity throughout the novel, this is wisdom indeed. In this sense, Faulkner is as much of an existentialist of absurdity as Camus.

In this novel Faulkner proves again to be a stylist, using multiple first-person POV and stream of consciousness. The nearness to the characters and the jumble thoughts reflect this dysfunctional family’s madness. And the stream of consciousness (italic text) versus the monologue (normal text) highlights the conflict between the characters’ internal and external worlds, the inability to express thoughts and emotions. The tension is almost suffocating and echoes the summer heat in the Mississippi. To read As I Lay Dying is to feel the tension and the madness that is the Bundren family.

To highlight that madness, at the end of the novel Darl, the sanest in the family, is committed to the sanitarium, and Anse, for all his eager in fulfilling Addie’s dying wish, gets a set of false teeth and finds his next wife. In the last sentence, when he says, “Meets Mrs. Bundren,” we can only laugh and appreciate Faulkner’s sense of humor and sarcasm.

Life is flimsy indeed, not only because Addie died and Cash broke his leg and Darl has to go to the sanitarium and Dewey Dell may have to become a mother, but also because Mrs. Bundren has transformed from the deceased Addie to this new woman. Vardaman’s fish has resurrected.

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