I hadn’t read anything of Faulkner’s since maybe my thirties, maybe even before that, so I figured now, at this stage of my life, was a good a time as any to read about the death of Addie Bundren, long suffering wife of Anse Bundren, a country farmer, poor and lazy. Once, when he was a very young man, he worked somewhere and got to sweating, and became ill, probably from heat exhaustion. He then decided that it was fatal for him to sweat, and he never did again in his life.
And yes, there are SparkNotes and Cliff Notes for this book. I hate to find that out, because it can take all the enjoyment out of reading the durn thing. There you are, having fun, all involved in the story, and at the back of your mind is the idea that maybe you shouldn’t be enjoying it so much and should be thinking about the deeper meanings underneath it all. Pfffffft.
Faulkner said that he wrote the novel from midnight to 4:00 AM (in 1930) over the course of six weeks and that he did not change a word of it. Could be. I have no reason to doubt him. The title is from Homer’s The Odyssey, where Agamemnon says to Odysseus: “As I lay dying, the woman with the dog’s eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades.”
Set in Mississippi, we have Addie, lying in the bed dying, while her grown son Cash, the carpenter, is building her coffin right outside her window. He brings boards over to show her as he goes along. Her no ‘count husband is sitting, chawing with the neighbors and telling them that he has promised Addie to take her back to her hometown in Jefferson to be buried with her family. The other two grown sons, Darl, who is on the abyss of madness, and Jewel, the secret son of Addie and the local minister, go to fetch a load of lumber and earn a quick $3 which the family desperately needs. The 17-year old daughter, Dewey Dell (gotta love that name, doncha?) is pregnant, unknown to the family, and the boyfriend has given her $10 for an abortion, which she in her ignorance thinks comes in a bottle of medicine to be obtained at the drugstore. Finally, we have the youngest, Vardaman, who seems to be a pre-teen.
The family calls in the doctor, Peabody, overweight and caustic, who may or may not have hurried Miss Addie on to her Final Reward, feeling that her ill treatment at the hands of Anse have overburdened her long enough.
When she dies, after a massive storm that floods the entire area, the family embarks on the trip to Jefferson, 40 miles away, but must cross the river to get there. Unfortunately, the bridge nearby has washed out by the flood, so they figure to add a day’s journey by traveling further along to the next bridge, only to find that it, too, is washed out. That means they have to return to the first bridge and try to ford the river.
By the time they take shelter at the farm of a kindly acquaintance, it is now four days since Addie died, and she is beginning to ….. well ….. smell. In fact, for the rest of the book, buzzards begin to follow the group, and serve as a comic sign and an omen as well.
OK, so they get back to the first bridge, try to ford it, a log comes racing down the fast moving river, and knocks over the wagon, spilling the coffin and all the tools of Cash, mashing him, and his leg is broken. The family recover the tools, and the coffin, and bandage up Cash, who in his self-effacing way insists that he feels fine. However, the mules have been lost in the crossing, and Jewel rides his horse up to a nearby farm to get their team to haul the wagon to their shed to shelter again and do something about Cash’s broken leg.
After Anse barters away Jewel’s horse in exchange for a span of mules to continue their journey, they set off, and at each small town Dewey Dell tries in vain to buy abortion pills at the little drugstores. At that town, they buy some cement and make a cast for Cash’s leg. I needn’t tell you how wonderful an idea THAT was. They shelter one last night near the town of Jefferson, where the barn catches fire, and it is all Jewel can do to pull out his mother’s coffin in time to save it from burning up. By this time, there are about 9 buzzards following them.
After the funeral, men come for Darl, because it is clear that he set fire to the barn. At that point, he flips over the edge, and goes insane, laughing maniacally, without stopping. He is hauled away to a mental institution in lieu of judicial punishment.
What a series of catastrophes! It is hilarious, almost laugh-out-loud funny, while at the same time it is sad and horrifying, because it all came about due to Anse’s refusal to listen to advice or accept any help, claiming he promised Addie and she would want it this way.
The story is told from the points of view of the various characters, and even Addie speaks to us from her coffin after she died .
As I Lay Dying is consistently ranked among the best novels of 20th-century literature. Wiki says so; it must be true. And in 2013, a film version was made.
I loved it. If you haven’t yet read it, I highly recommend it. It makes a nice change from all those zombie and post apocalyptic books.