Before Addie Bundren died, she made her shiftless husband promise to bury her with her family in Jefferson. She obtained this promise to gain revenge against Anse because he has never given her the deep, permanent love for which she longed and which she had experienced only temporarily, in pregnancy and in a brief, passionate affair with a local minister.
She probably never understood that Anse would be invulnerable to her revenge while the rest of her family would suffer badly. On the day of her death, rains flood the river between them and Jefferson, transforming the easy trip into an odyssey.
The family is delayed several days seeking a crossing and, again, after crossing, to replace the drowned mules and to set the broken leg of Cash, the eldest son. These physical barriers passed, they must then drive their wagon through a simmering landscape with the reeking corpse in a coffin on which Cash lays in pain, trailed by a cloud of vultures.
This journey is both ridiculous and tragic. While Anse talks about suffering without seeming to suffer, each of the children suffers intensely. Darl, the most sensitive brother, sees the promise as revenge and its consequence the destruction of the family. He opposes the trip whenever he can. Jewel, product of Addie’s affair, seems an embodiment of her will, making every sacrifice to see the promise kept. Dewey Dell, the only daughter, wants to go to Jefferson to end her illegitimate pregnancy, but finds the price nearly unbearable. Vardaman, the youngest, is so involved in the family that its suffering is his suffering.
The story is told by means of the internal speeches of many characters in and out of the family. Though this technique makes the novel difficult reading, it also underlines one main theme, the inadequacy of language to express experience. One painful irony of this novel is that those who feel the deep communion that Addie desires and that cannot be expressed in words are the ones who can also suffer deeply, while those like Anse, who make language into a wall between themselves and experience, are almost immune to suffering. Everyone but Anse loses something precious; he returns with a new wife and several other new possessions.
Bleikasten, André. Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying.” Translated by Roger Little. Rev. ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973. The only book-length study of Faulkner’s novel. Lucid and comprehensive; an excellent starting point for serious study. Discusses Faulkner’s manuscript and typescript and includes two facsimile pages.
Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography. 2 vols. New York: Random House, 1974. An enormously detailed work. Begins with discussion of Faulkner’s ancestors and traces the writer’s development from precocious poet to preeminent novelist.
Cox, Dianne L., ed. William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying”: A Critical Casebook. New York: Garland, 1985. Contains a dozen essays examining such topics as the novel’s chronology, language, and narrative design. Interesting individual chapters focus on the novel’s debt to the Cubist movement and to the works of T. S. Eliot. Extensive annotated checklist of criticism.
Vickery, Olga W. The Novels of William Faulkner. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959. A classic treatment of the Faulkner canon, still relevant despite years of subsequent scholarship. Asserts that the heart of As I Lay Dying is not the fulfillment of the burial promise but rather Addie herself and her effect on the Bundren family.
Volpe, Edmond L. A Reader’s Guide to William Faulkner. New York: Noonday Press, 1964. An excellent beginner’s source for discussion of Faulkner’s works. Analyzes structure, themes, and characters and includes a useful appendix that clarifies the often-confusing chronologies and scene shifts of Faulkner’s complex novels.