As I Lay Dying takes place in the northern part of Mississippi in 1928. The Bundrens must travel forty miles to bury Addie in Jefferson, the primary town in Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County. The Bundrens live in a time of economic hardship for cotton farmers, who have had to suffer through a depressed cotton market and disastrously heavy rains. They also lack modern farming equipment, instead employing farm animals and their own labor.
The modern world exists in Jefferson, however, and the Bundrens often comment on the distinctions between country people and town people. The social environment of the time features a code of ethics that obligates farm families to house and feed travelers, although the Bundrens refuse such assistance. Faulkner also depicts a natural environment that is at best indifferent and at worst actively hostile, bringing floods, heat, and intrusive buzzards.
B Point of View
As I Lay Dying consists of fifty-nine chapters narrated by fifteen different characters. Darl is the most frequent voice, narrating nineteen chapters; some characters, like Addie Bundren, Jewel Bundren, and various townspeople, narrate only one chapter. Many chapters appear to unfold as events take place, particularly those narrated by the Bundrens; others relate events that occurred in the past. At times, Faulkner extends beyond the realm of credible narration, such as when Darl narrates Addie’s death when he is not present and when the deceased Addie recollects her life.
Through these varying perspectives, the reader witnesses both the events that take place and the character’s individual perceptions of them. Indeed, at times the reader can only discern events by comparing information from various narrators. The reader learns about the assumptions and peculiarities of the different narrators, as well as their social and religious environment. As a result, Faulkner constructs not only a rendition of events but also a series of interconnected psychological studies.
C Stream of Consciousness
“Stream-of-consciousness” is a literary technique that reproduces the thought processes of certain characters. These thoughts appear as if they are immediate, unedited responses. Faulkner does not use this technique in all of his chapters, restricting it primarily to the Bundrens, especially Darl and Vardaman.
The stream-of-consciousness passages reveal character and allow for complicated philosophical questioning. They also imply a character’s confusion or distress. A key example occurs when Addie’s coffin falls into the river and Vardaman reacts hysterically: “I ran down into the water to help and I couldn’t stop hollering because Darl was strong and steady holding her under the water even if she did fight he would not let her go he was seeing me and he would hold her and it was all right now it was all right now it was all right.”
Although Faulkner employs paragraph breaks and, in one paragraph, italics, he does not use punctuation until Vardaman speaks to Darl at the end of the chapter. This moment and others in the novel involve the reader in the sometimes perplexing but always engaging world of the characters.
One of the most obvious features of the novel is its humor. One might expect a bleak tone from a story featuring death, a burial procession, abortion, and familial hardship, but Faulkner defies expectation by utilizing comedy, albeit dark comedy.
Faulkner employs a variety of means to achieve this effect. The family journey to bury Addie is absurd in itself, and the dogged determination of the Bundrens often evokes a humorous reaction. Faulkner also uses the characters’ perceptions and faults to generate humor, such as when Anse slithers out of his responsibility for Cash’s broken leg: “‘It’s a trial,’ he says. ‘But I don’t begrudge her [Addie] it.’” Cash’s own understatement can create humor, as well, whether it is his stoic refrain on his leg, “‘It dont bother me none,’” or his recollection of the distance he fell off of a roof: “‘Twenty-eight foot, four and half inches, about.’”
Perhaps the most glaring and outrageous comic moment is the ending. After all the family has endured and the losses they have suffered, the selfish, resilient Anse appears with a set of new teeth and a “duckshaped” woman as his new wife. Such episodes make the novel difficult to categorize and greatly enrich its texture and effects.
Critics often associate Faulkner with literary modernism, a movement that began before World War I and gained prominence during the 1920s. In fact, Faulkner was greatly influenced by two of the most celebrated modernists, T. S. Eliot and James Joyce. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land explored, in both form and content, the dehumanizing effects of industrialization. Joyce’s landmark novel Ulysses featured the use of “stream of consciousness,” which Faulkner employs in As I Lay Dying.
Modernist writers experimented with language and literary form and were concerned with the limits of expression. Most modernist authors depicted characters grappling with the loss of traditional beliefs after the destructiveness of World War I. These characters are alienated from their past and from other characters, and often suffer from an inability to communicate. Faulkner’s interest in these practices and themes is obvious, especially in his experiments with narrative perspective, his focus on language and its failures, and his themes of alienation and the destruction of community, including families.