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 husband 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...
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Addie Bundren, a farmer's wife from the backwoods hills of Mississippi, has just died, and in order to respect her last wish her family undertakes a long and perilous journey to carry her coffin to a distant graveyard at Jefferson. That is the story of As I Lay Dying. It appears simple. But such a summary of the tale leaves everything to be said about the novel. For what strikes us immediately is less the story itself than the way it is told, or rather the contrast between the tale and the telling, between the simplicity of the anecdote and the sophistication of the narrative method. To make something of the pathetic, macabre, or comic potential of his subject, Faulkner could simply have relied on the proven recipes of traditional narrative. He chose, however, a more adventurous and more difficult path, experimenting again—as he had already done in The Sound and the Fury and, more timidly, in his early novels—with new techniques. If, by its subject matter, As I Lay Dying belongs to the oral and literary tradition of folktales and tall stories, the novelist's approach to his art is definitely modern. As in The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner uses here James Joyce's "stream-of-consciousness" method: As I Lay Dying is presented as a series of interior monologues, and each one of these, as well as relating a moment in the action, shows us its refraction through an individual consciousness.
But instead of arranging the monologues in large, compact sections as he had done in his previous novel, Faulkner fragments them with seeming arbitrariness. As I Lay Dying surprises one straightaway by its utterly disjointed composition. In fact, only in the epistolary novel could one find precedents for such extreme segmentation, and the brevity of the sections calls to mind the scenes of a play rather than the chapters of a work of fiction. Hence an impression of discontinuity, which is increased on reading by the almost kaleidoscopic rotation of the viewpoints. In each section the perspective shifts, the lighting changes, so that each time the reader is caught off balance and forced to make constant readjustments if he wants to follow the narrative through all its twists and turns.
To these breaks in the storytelling are added the equally puzzling switches in tone and style. They also derive to a large extent from the mobility of the point of view, since whenever that changes, the story assumes the voice of a different narrator. Almost all the characters of the novel, it is true, speak the same rural idiom, and their monologues often have the familiar ring of a straightforward oral tale. But Faulkner is not content simply to exploit the stylistic resources of this vernacular for humorous effects, by playing on the naive vigor of its diction and on the drollery of its unorthodox grammar. Nor does he merely vary its use according to the personality and mood of the speaker. On the earthy base of this rustic colloquial prose, he continually traces the startling arabesques of his own rhetoric. The author's presence is particularly obvious in the lyrical outbursts and metaphysical reveries of Darl, whose style is virtually indistinguishable from the writer's own. It is also to be felt in Addie Bundren's terse, impassioned eloquence in section 40. Yet this richer, denser, more freely inventive style is not restricted to any one character: even in those whose linguistic capacities seem severely limited—in Vardaman, for example, or Dewey Dell—language sometimes takes flight, and from the most halting prose suddenly springs, by virtue of an unexpected metaphor, a poetic vision which transfigures it.
Small wonder, then, that As I Lay Dying embarrasses critics who are hard put to define its genre. In its style as well as in its structure and significance, this will-o'-the-wisp novel seems to elude all attempts at classification.
Is it to be considered as a naturalistic novel, as a commentary on the economic deprivation and cultural illiteracy of poor whites? Faulkner's Mississippi hill-country farmers have been compared to Caldwell's Georgia sharecroppers; the odyssey of the Bundrens has been likened to the exodus of the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath. Yet even though Faulkner gives realism its due, nothing was further from his intentions than offering his readers an objective portrait of a family of poor whites: "it does sort of amuse me when I hear 'em talking about the sociological picture that I present in something like As I Lay Dying, for instance." Is it more relevant, then, to define the book as a philosophical novel? There is no doubt that moral and metaphysical concerns occupy—as in most of Faulkner's novels—a central place, but such a label, apart from recalling the lengthy arguments of the novel of ideas, tends to overlook the fact that the language of As I Lay Dying is the language of fiction, and it tells us nothing of the specific nature of the work.
If one tries to classify it according to mood rather than content, the same difficulties arise, and only at the cost of oversimplification can one manage to fit it into a recognized category. While allowing provisos, some have emphasized its comic elements, others its tragic aspects, and still...
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A story of a journey, an account of adventures on the road—this may be the outward form of the novel, but the journey proves exceedingly curious and the adventures disconcert. Having died while a son sawed her coffin beneath her window, Addie Bundren is carted away in the family wagon through the back roads of Yoknapatawpha. The family thereby honors her reiterated wish that she be buried in the Jefferson cemetery. Unwilling adventurers, the Bundrens can do nothing well; their journey, like their spiritual life, is erratic and confused. Prompted by awe for the dead, and by a cluster of private motives, they plod through mishaps both comic and terrible—fire and flood, suffering and stupidity—until, at last, they reach the...
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