Summary of the Novel
Addie Bundren, the wife and mother to a poor white farm family, is on her deathbed. Friends and family members gather around to comfort her and to prepare for her funeral. Addie, a proud and bitter woman, has no interest in the religious comfort her neighbor, Cora Tull, offers. She is tired of living, loves only her son, Jewel, and despises her husband, neighbors, and all others around her. She desires only to be buried among her own family members in the town of Jefferson. She has made her useless and ineffectual husband promise to do as she wishes and, upon her death, the family sets out for Jefferson with her corpse in a casket.
On the way to Jefferson, each member of the family narrates part of the story and relates what happens during the journey or what has happened in the past. Each of the narrators has his or her own reason for making the trip. Anse wants to get a set of false teeth. Dewey Dell, the daughter, needs an abortion. Cash plans to buy a record-player. The baby, Vardaman, is promised a toy and exotic fruit (bananas) when they get to town. The only characters who have no material stake in getting to Jefferson are Addie’s sons, Darl and Jewel. Darl is as determined to prevent the grotesque affair as Jewel is to carry out his mother’s wish. Darl uses every obstacle or setback to try to prevent Addie’s casket from getting to Jefferson.
Many incidents occur which seemingly frustrate Addie’s progress toward being buried in the soil of her home town. Her youngest son, drilling holes in her casket so she can breathe, instead, drills through to her face. The casket is overturned while the family is crossing a river and nearly gets washed away. Cash, one of Addie’s sons, injures his leg and needs a doctor. However, the family refuses to postpone its journey. These setbacks make the trip longer than expected, and the body begins to decompose. Followed by cats and buzzards, and accompanied by a terrible odor, the burial procession is chased out of towns. Darl fights with his brother Jewel, who is intent on burying Addie in her family plot. When he sets fire to one of the barns holding the corpse, Jewel must “rescue” Addie.
When they reach Jefferson, Anse goes into a house to borrow spades to dig Addie’s grave. His family waits in the wagon and wonders why it takes him so long. They see a woman peering out at them from behind the curtains of a window. Cash’s leg becomes gangerous because of the makeshift cement cast which Anse made for him. Dewey Dell, nervous because Darl knows her secret, turns him in for burning the barn. He is arrested and taken away to the asylum for being insane. Dewey Dell is fooled by a druggist’s clerk pretending to be a doctor. He gives her some talcum powder in capsules for medicine, then convinces her that she needs to have sex again in order to undo her “problem.” Anse, who has sold Jewel’s prized horse, stolen money Cash was planning to use for a gramophone, and wheedled Dewey Dell’s ten-dollar abortion money from her, uses the funds to get a shave, haircut, and new teeth. After Addie is buried, he returns to the Jefferson house, goes inside, and brings out the new Mrs. Bundren, a flashily dressed woman, shaped like a duck, with hard-looking pop eyes who joins the family in their wagon.
Estimated Reading Time
The average reader should be able to complete the entire novel in approximately eight to ten hours.
It is recommended that the novel be divided into five sections of approximately 50 pages each. These blocks divide the story into what happens up to Addie’s death, preparing to journey to Jefferson, the coffin overturning in the river, the makeshift repair of Cash’s leg with cement, and the fire through meeting the new Mrs. Bundren. In this study guide, study questions and suggested essay topics follow the summary and discussion of each of the study blocks.
UNIT ONE: Addie’s Death Reading Time: 2 hrs.
UNIT TWO: Preparing to
Journey Reading Time: 1.50 - 2 hrs.
UNIT THREE: Through the
River Reading Time: 1.50 - 2 hrs.
UNIT FOUR: Cash’s Leg Reading Time: 1.50 - 2 hrs.
UNIT FIVE: Fire to Finish Reading Time: 1.50 - 2 hrs.
Although many events are crowded into the novel, the whole story takes place within the period of about eight or nine days. The following timeline can help in locating when major events occur during the story:
DAY ONE: Addie Bundren is on her deathbed. Her family, female neighbors, and her doctor are around her. Her eldest son, Cash, is building her casket out in the yard. Her two sons, Jewel and Darl, must leave her to go complete a job. She dies before they return. Upset by Addie’s death, Vardaman, the youngest child, runs away to the neighbors’ house. They bring him home and help carry the completed casket into the house.
DAY TWO: Addie is put in her casket and neighbors gather for the funeral. The preacher gives the sermon and leads the visiting neighbors and friends in the singing. Vardaman bores auger holes in the casket lid to provide air for Addie.
DAY THREE: Jewel and Darl finally return home. They load her casket onto the wagon to carry her back to her family burial ground in Jefferson. The casket breaks free of their grip and slips down the slope of their hill, upsetting the contents. The family spends the night in the barn at Samson’s farm.
DAY FOUR: As the Bundrens leave his farm, Samson notices a buzzard in the barn where the casket was stored. Attempting to cross a washed out bridge, the wagon overturns. The mules are lost, Cash is injured, and the casket, which Darl has tried not to save, is drenched with water. The Bundrens spend the night at Armstid’s farm. Uncle Billy tries to fix Cash’s leg.
DAY FIVE: The family is still at the Armstid farm. Anse goes off on Jewel’s horse to see about replacing the mules which were lost. More buzzards surround the casket. Anse uses Jewel’s horse and money he has taken from Cash’s pockets to negotiate a deal for new mules. Jewel, angry with Anse, rides off. The family spends another night near the Armstid farm.
DAY SIX: The Bundren’s have left the Armstid farm. Cash’s leg is getting worse. More buzzards follow the wagon to Mottson. In town, Dewey Dell tries to purchase abortion medicine from a druggist who angrily turns her down. The family buys cement with which they plan to set Cash’s leg. The town marshal forces them to leave Mottson because of the stench from Addie’s corpse. Someone in town says the person has been dead eight days. Jewel returns to join the family. They spend the night at the Gillespie farm. Darl sets fire to the barn in an attempt to burn Addie’s casket.
DAY SEVEN: The family continues on their journey and finally reaches Jefferson. Dewey Dell dresses up in her Sunday best before they enter town. On the road into Jefferson, three negroes and a white man comment on the awful smell from the wagon. Jewel nearly gets into a fight with the white man. Anse pulls the wagon in front of a house from which the sounds of a gramophone can be heard. He goes inside to see if he can borrow some spades to dig Addie’s grave. Officials from Jackson wrestle Darl to the ground to take him away to the asylum for burning the Gillespie barn. Dewey Dell visits the Jefferson druggist to find her medicine and the druggist’s clerk convinces her that he can help her if she returns that night. When Dewey Dell comes back later, he persuades her that having sex with him will reverse her pregnancy. She has sex with the druggist, but she realizes that she has been duped. Addie is buried.
DAY EIGHT: Darl is put on the train for Jackson. Anse takes the ten dollars Dewey Dell was going to use for her medicine to get a shave and a haircut. He returns the spades to the woman from whom he borrowed them. The family goes to Peabody’s and Anse goes out at night to attend to “some business.”
DAY NINE: Anse goes out early in the morning. He comes back to ask his children if any of them have any more money. He tells them he must go out again and that they should all meet at the corner at a specified time. Waiting in the wagon, at the corner, they see Anse wearing his newly-purchased teeth. They are shocked when he introduces them to the new Mrs. Bundren, the woman from whom he had borrowed the spades that helped bury Addie.
The Life and Work of William Faulkner
William Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi on September 25, 1897. Most of his life was spent in Oxford, Mississippi, where his family moved when Faulkner was five years old. After dropping out of high school, he held a number of jobs, from bank clerk, painter, book salesman, and postmaster, all of which he performed poorly. He was chided by his father to find a job or to go to school. In 1919, preferring reading to working, he enrolled at the University of Mississippi to study literature. He remained at school for only a year. However, he continued to write. Encouraged by a friend, he eventually devoted all of his energies to writing and produced over nineteen novels, numerous short stories, poetry, and Hollywood screenplays during his lifetime. Faulkner’s stories, dealing with the impact of Southern history on the present, race issues, and hope for humanity earned him the 1949 Nobel Prize for literature.
Many important writers of Faulkner’s generation joined to fight World War I in Europe, even before the United States officially joined the war effort. Faulkner enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He claimed to have been wounded while on a mission. However, in later years he would admit only to having enlisted in 1918.
In the mid-1920s, he lived in New York City and New Orleans before traveling to Europe. After World War I, many of the great writers of the 1920s and 1930s visited or moved to Europe for artistic inspiration. It was in Paris, in 1926, that Faulkner learned that a New York publisher had accepted his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay, for publication. His career as a full-time writer began.
Nearly all of Faulkner’s novels and short stories are set in Yoknapatawpha County, a fictional Mississippi county created by the writer. The impact of the Civil War on the South was a major influence on Faulkner’s writing. His mother introduced him to literature, and he had grown up hearing Civil War stories from his grandfather, veterans and widows, and from his family servant, Mammy Callie (Caroline Barr). Callie had been born into slavery in 1845. She told him about life in the slave quarters, the Ku Klux Klan raids on Negro communities after the war, and folktales which slaves had passed from one to another orally. He was also influenced by Romantic poetry and dark, eerie Gothic tales.
Sartoris, published in 1929, began the saga of Yoknapatawpha county which introduced the Sartoris and Snopes clans. These families would appear again and again—in major or minor roles—in Faulkner’s novels and short stories. Between 1929 and 1935, Faulkner had written his best works: The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, and Absalom! Absalom!
In As I Lay Dying, his characters, members of a poor white farm family of the 1920s, are inhabitants of his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. Faulkner’s interest in history is apparent in this story, which is told by fifteen different narrators. Faulkner’s characters speak in stream-of-consciousness, a literary style made famous by the Irish writer James Joyce. Characters say exactly what is on their minds, as they think it, without sorting through thoughts and organizing them into logical groups. Faulkner demonstrates how there are many ways of looking at and interpreting history. It is necessary to consider all views, to synthesize them, and to arrive at a more complete picture.
In addition to using stream-of-consciousness, Faulkner often wrote long, complicated sentences. Some of his novels contain sentences that run for pages without a paragraph break. As I Lay Dying, however, is different in its relatively brief narrative sections, some of which are no more than one or two sentences long.
Faulkner is considered a writer who feels religion deeply. Although his novels deal with dark themes and a number of despicable characters, he does emphasize hope. For example, in As I Lay Dying, although Addie Bundren can be viewed as a devilish character, she is the one who insists that actions or deeds are more important than mere words. She is a direct contrast to the self-righteous, churchgoing Cora Tull who often mouths religious ideas without having an understanding of what she is talking about, or Anse, whose real motive for burying Addie in Jefferson is hidden behind claims that he gave his sacred word that he would bury her there.
Another recurring theme in Faulkner’s writing is the need for human community. If people are unable or unwilling to understand and empathize with others, there is no hope for society. In As I Lay Dying, Faulkner’s characters, such as Darl and Addie, understand the significance of real communication with others. Dewey Dell’s predicament underscores this idea: if there were only someone with whom she could speak, her burden would be lighter. Unable to open up to anyone, she is forced to “communicate” with the dumb animals in the barn.
Though his literary reputation established him as a celebrated and sought-after writer William Faulkner's personal life was unsteady. He had problems with his marriage and finances, as well as with his drinking. Despite the fact that he had been elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1939, his reading public was abandoning him. In an attempt to create security, he accepted a job as a Hollywood screenwriter. He worked for six months at a time in Hollywood, just enough time to earn enough to enable him to support himself and his family for the other six months back home in Oxford. He disliked the Hollywood lifestyle and preferred the life of the gentleman-farmer which he led back in Mississippi.
By 1945, Faulkner’s reputation as a writer was in decline. His books were out of print and publishers and critics slighted his works. Only two of his seventeen novels were listed in the New York Public Library Catalogue. Faulkner was also disappointed with his screenwriting career. In an attempt to save his marriage he left Hollywood and returned to the real home he longed for, Mississippi.
When Faulkner was 46-years-old, he received a letter from Malcolm Cowley, a critic who had read his works extensively and who believed in Faulkner’s talent. Cowley praised Faulkner’s work and asked whether the writer would be interested in meeting with him in order to discuss his life and work for an article he wished to publish. Although he was an intensely private man who preferred to keep his private life out of the public’s view, Faulkner opened up to Cowley and established a correspondence and a friendship with him. Cowley eventually edited and published a collection of Faulkner’s works, The Portable Faulkner, reviving interest in the author. After receiving the Nobel Prize in 1950, he was again in demand for lectures, interviews, and speeches. In 1955, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, A Fable. Faulkner seemed embarrassed or uncomfortable at being the recipient of awards and honors. He declined making personal appearances to accept many of these honors and attended the Nobel Awards ceremony only at the urging of his daughter, Jill.
During the 1950s, Faulkner spoke out against racism in response to the tensions surrounding the growing Civil Rights movement. He had upset some fellow Mississippians by saying that African Americans ought to be able to attend the University of Mississippi. Though he firmly believed in racial equality, he believed that Northerners should not force integration on Southerners. As a Southerner, he insisted that Northerners could not understand the South’s deeply rooted emotions concerning race relations nor could they understand the history which bound the two races together in a way which only fellow Southerners, both black and white, could appreciate. His middle-of-the-road stance was realistic. However, he was threatened and criticized by some members of both races.
Before his death, William Faulkner was working as a writer in residence at The University of Virginia and had just completed his last novel, The Reivers, which was scheduled for publication in June 1962. While other writers of his generation sought inspiration abroad and wrote about cosmopolitan characters engaged in universal conflicts and questions, Faulkner is remarkable for having expressed the same kinds of universal themes through characters and plots based in Southern history and a small, fictional Mississippi county. His reputation as one of America’s greatest writers was secure. At the age of 65, six weeks after receiving the Gold Medal for Fiction, William Faulkner died on July 6, 1962, in Oxford, Mississippi.