William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is an exploration of family, society, and mortality. The Bundren family, led by their bumbling but ultimately calculating father, travels by horse and buggy from their small farm into the city of Jefferson, Alabama to bury their dead mother. The trip takes days, due to weather and various calamities, and what the reader learns about each character, and the characters about one another, ends up being the redeeming trait for a would-be-simple trip gone wildly awry.
The first item which stands out for me in this novel is the fact that each small “chapter” (never more than a few pages, really) is told from the point of view of a different character – either a family member or one of the few outsiders they encounter along the way. Faulkner does a masterful job of characterizing in such a way as to demonstrate to the reader, without necessarily having to title the portions by character name, who is speaking when. The youngest boy’s youth and/or mental retardation, for instance, stand out plainly from the father’s slow but more reasonable, confident language. The middle boy’s anger and instability is expressed in the prose of his portions, as is Dewey Dell’s fear and concern for her special circumstance.
I also very much preferred this more coherent prose to some of Faulkner’s signature, disjointed, out-of-sequence pieces. Faulkner still manages to be creative without sacrificing the story which, I find, sometimes happens when so much energy is given to manipulating time and space through prose and form.
Certain events, major events, happen with such minimal and brief description that it is almost as if they hardly matter at all; this is, of course, not the case, as certain events are turning points in the characters’ lives. I imagine the novel playing out as scenes of a movie and, while some scenes (like the attempts at crossing the river) are very well designed, others – like the fire – are completely lacking in significance and impact. I was also confused by the story in relation to the title, as the “dying” happened rather early in the story, whereas the journey to the grave site is what took up most of the time. “Journey to A Final Rest” or something similar may have made more sense, though this is not exactly a major concern so much as it is an observation (pointed out to those who might imagine, after reading a title like As I Lay Dying, that the reader would be narrated to by a dying person, and learning about that person’s path toward acceptance and release (denial, anger, etc.). The dying character, Mrs. Bundren, is hardly a character while in the living, and one comes to understand that the dying may be a metaphor for the end to one family’s way of life.
The Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 5.0
All-in-all, I found this to be one of Faulkner’s more accessible novels. For literature lovers who are interested in reading Faulkner but who have been dissuaded by reviews/descriptions of his more ambitious works or who have perhaps started those novels and given up, this might be a substantive, meaningful compromise. While I did find some fault with the novel, particularly in the lack of “meaty” scenes and character interaction, I was still generally happy with characterization itself, as well as the story and it’s ironic, darkly humorous ending. The last few lines of the novel, when Mr. Bundren’s ultimate purpose and decision are revealed to his family and the reader, I was almost reminded of a Vonnegut-esque wit and total exasperation for humankind. This, of course, was right up my alley, and it made a “good” read, for me, pretty great in the end.
Published by Random House, 1957
Source: Owned Copy