Considered by many critics to be the greatest American fiction writer, William Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949, after a prolific career that included the production of nineteen novels and two volumes of poetry. Although his formal education had been limited, Faulkner read prodigiously, including the Greek and Roman classics, the Bible, and the works of William Shakespeare, the English Romantics, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, and T. S. Eliot. After relatively undistinguished early attempts in poetry and prose, Sherwood Anderson advised Faulkner to concentrate on his “own postage stamp of native soil.” This led to the saga of Yoknapatawpha County, a partly true regional history, based on Oxford, Mississippi, that merged imperceptibly into a coherent myth. Faulkner begins the saga with Sartoris (1929) and continues it in The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying.
In the Yoknapatawpha novels, Faulkner places himself in the forefront of the avant-garde with his intricate plot organization, his bold experiments in the dislocation of narrative time, and his use of the stream-of-consciousness technique. His stylistic view of time is affected by his sense that past events continue into the present. As he once said, “There is no such thing as was; if was existed, there would be no grief or sorrow.” These stylistic characteristics are undergirded by the development of a complex social structure that enables Faulkner to explore the inherited guilt of the southern past, the incapacity of the white aristocracy to cope with modern life, the relations between classes, and the relations between blacks and whites.
Starkly realistic, poignantly symbolic, grotesquely comic, and immensely complicated as an experiment in points of view, As I Lay Dying ranks with Faulkner’s greatest novels. The relative simplicity of its style, characterized by staccato-like sentences and repetitive dialogue, enhances the tragicomic effect.
The novel’s theme, in the very widest terms, is humanity’s absurdly comic insistence on distinguishing between being and not-being. Peabody describes death as “merely a function of the mind—and that of the ones who suffer the bereavement.” The theme is stated most clearly in the single chapter narrated from Addie’s viewpoint: “I could just remember how my father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time.” Addie has long since considered Anse dead, because she realizes that he, like most humans, cannot distinguish between the “thin line” of words that float upward into nothingness and the terrible reality of “doing [that] goes along the earth, clinging to it.”
Nineteen of the fifty-nine chapters are narrated from Darl’s viewpoint, making him the primary persona of the novel. His reference to his family’s conglomerate madness sets the tone: “In sunset we fall into furious attitudes, dead gestures of dolls.” The novel proceeds in a jerky, doll-like movement, as the narration passes through the viewpoints of fifteen different characters. Although Darl might be called the primary narrator, he is not the only interesting one. Vardaman, with ten chapters, displays a mentality reminiscent of Benjie’s in The Sound and the Fury, showing the crazy events connected with the burial through the eyes of a confused and simple-minded child. The third chapter from his viewpoint consists of a single sentence: “My mother is a fish.” Only three chapters present Anse’s viewpoint, but that is enough to show that he is a bizarre combination of Darl’s imagination, Vardaman’s insanity, Cash’s stubborn practicality, and Dewey Dell’s earthiness.
Faulkner achieves his greatest artistic success with the least intrinsically interesting character, Cash. The first of the five chapters from Cash’s viewpoint is an artistic coup. Until this point, the reader has repeatedly heard the steady buzzing of Cash’s saw as he prepares his mother’s coffin. Even through the rain and through the night, Cash will not cease his labor. In chapter 18, Cash speaks at last, saying “I made it on the bevel.” Faulkner presents the carpenter’s methodical mind in a straightforward list of his job-related preoccupations, beginning with “1. There is more surface for the nails to grip” and ending with “13. It makes a neater job.” Cash’s second chapter is a nine-line warning to his impatient father and brothers that the coffin is not “on a balance” in the wagon. After the tragedy in the river results from their ignoring his warning, Cash offers his laconic commentary in a chapter of only three lines. He remarks again that the coffin “wasn’t on a balance” and does not even mention that his own leg has been broken. Cash’s single-minded craftsmanship and superhuman patience become a reflection of the author’s own technique.