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Introduction

Although it achieved little commercial success at the time of its publication, As I Lay Dying has become one of William Faulkner’s most popular novels. At first put off by its controversial subject matter and confusing style, commentators and readers have come to appreciate the novel’s vivid characters, elusive tone, and complex narrative techniques.

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William Faulkner

William Cuthbert Faulkner (changed from the original spelling, Falkner) was born on September 25, 1897, in New Albany, Mississippi. He was the first of four sons born to Maud and Murry, a prominent local businessman. The Faulkners moved to Oxford, Mississippi, when William was five; for the rest of his life, Oxford remained his primary home.

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Plot Summary

As I Lay Dying chronicles the dark, comic story of a Mississippi family’s long and arduous journey to bury Addie, the family matriarch. Respecting Addie’s request to be buried in her family’s burial ground in Jefferson, Anse Bundren and his five children disregard the advice of friends and neighbors and embark on a forty-mile, nine-day trek in the wake of a devastating storm.

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Characters

A Vernon Tull

Tull is the farmer who lives closest to the Bundrens. A thrifty, hardworking man, he is very successful as a farmer. He helps Cash build the coffin, tries to guide the family across the flooded river, and retrieves Cash’s tools from the water. He feels especially drawn to Vardaman, and his interest in the boy may result from his own lack of a son.

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Themes

A Alienation and Loneliness

Faulkner’s use of multiple narrators underscores one of his primary themes: every character is essentially isolated from the others. Moreover, the characters in the novel do not communicate effectively with one another. Although the reader is privy to the characters’ thoughts and emotional responses, none of the characters adequately expresses his or her dilemmas or desires to others. Outside of Darl, who knows Addie’s and Dewey Dell’s secrets through intuition, the characters can only guess at the motivations, beliefs, and feelings of others. When these guesses turn out to be wrong, misunderstandings ensue.

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Construction

A Setting

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.

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Historical Perspective

A Farm Life in the South

Despite efforts to improve technology and farming methods, a farmer’s life during the 1920s involved a constant struggle for survival. The farming life was restrictive and demanding on both men and women. In fact, farmers often lived on an income of little over one hundred dollars a year. Therefore, even families who owned their land relied almost exclusively on themselves to supply both farm labor and basic necessities. Some would hire additional help during harvesting season, yet this expense could prove burdensome as well.

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Questions

Examine and discuss the possible meanings of Faulkner’s title. How do you interpret it?

Research economic conditions for Southern farmers during the early decades of the twentieth century. How did these conditions impact class relations? Provide examples from Faulkner’s novel.

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Compare and Contrast

1920s: The Democratic party dominates Southern politics. Women are granted voting rights in 1920, but African Americans are disenfranchised and discouraged from participating in the democratic process. Today: Since the 1960s, the Republican party has gained power and influence in the South. African American citizens are more politically active, usually providing support for the Democratic party.

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