As I Lay DyingAs I Lay Dying is a 1930 Southern Gothic novel by American author William Faulkner. Faulkner's fifth novel, it is consistently ranked among the best novels of 20th-century literature. The title derives from Book XI of Homer's Odyssey (William Marris's 1925 translation), wherein Agamemnon tells Odysseus: "As I lay dying, the woman with the dog's eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades."
The novel utilizes stream of consciousness writing technique, multiple narrators, and varying chapter lengths.
Plot summaryThe book is narrated by 15 different characters over 59 chapters. It is the story of the death of Addie Bundren and her poor, rural family's quest and motivations—noble or selfish—to honor her wish to be buried in her hometown of Jefferson, Mississippi.
In the novel's first chapters, Addie is alive, though in ill health. Addie and others expect her to die soon, and she sits at a window watching as her firstborn child, Cash, builds her coffin. Anse, Addie's husband, waits on the porch, while their daughter, Dewey Dell, fans her mother in the July heat. The night after Addie dies a heavy rainstorm sets in; rivers rise and wash out bridges that the family will need to cross to get to Jefferson.
The family's trek by wagon begins, with Addie's non-embalmed body in the coffin. Along the way, Anse and the five children encounter various difficulties. Stubborn Anse frequently rejects any offers of assistance, including meals or lodging, so at times the family goes hungry and sleeps in barns. At other times he refuses to accept loans from people, claiming he wishes to "be beholden to no man," thus manipulating the would-be-lender into giving him charity as a gift not to be repaid.
Jewel, Addie's middle child, tries to leave his dysfunctional family after Anse sells Jewel's most prized possession, his horse, yet cannot turn his back on them through the trials and tribulations of the journey to Jefferson. Cash breaks a leg and winds up riding atop the coffin. He stoically refuses to admit to any discomfort, but the family eventually puts a makeshift cast of concrete on his leg. Twice, the family almost loses Addie's coffin — first, while crossing a river on a washed-out bridge (two mules are lost), and second, when a fire of suspicious origin starts in the barn where the coffin is being stored for a night.
After nine days, the family finally arrives in Jefferson, where the stench from the coffin is quickly smelled by the townspeople. In town, family members have different items of business to take care of. Cash's broken leg needs attention. Dewey Dell, for the second time in the novel, goes to a pharmacy, in an effort to obtain an abortion that she does not know how to ask for. First, though, Anse wants to borrow some shovels to bury Addie, because that was the purpose of the trip and the family should be together for that. Before that happens, however, Darl, the second eldest and thoughtful, poetic observer of the family, is seized for the arson of the barn } and sent to the Mississippi State Insane Asylum in Jackson. With Addie only just buried, Anse forces Dewey Dell to give up her money given to her by Lafe (the man who got her pregnant) for an abortion, which he spends on getting "new teeth," and quickly marries the woman from whom he borrowed the spades.
As are many of Faulkner's works, the story is set in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, which Faulkner referred to as "my apocryphal county," a fictional rendition of the writer's home of Lafayette County in the same state.
Background and literary techniquesFaulkner said that he wrote the novel from midnight to 4:00 a.m. over the course of six weeks and that he did not change a word of it. Faulkner wrote it while working at a power plant.
Throughout the novel, Faulkner presents 15 different points of view, each chapter narrated by one character, including Addie, who expresses her thoughts after she has already died. In 59 chapters titled only by their narrators' names, the characters are developed gradually through each other's perceptions and opinions, with Darl's predominating.
As I Lay Dying helped to solidify Faulkner's reputation as a pioneer, like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, of stream of consciousness. He first used the technique in The Sound and the Fury, and it gives As I Lay Dying its distinctly intimate tone, through the monologues of the tragically flawed Bundrens and the passers-by whom they encounter. Faulkner works the narrative technique by manipulating conventional differences between stream of consciousness and interior monologue. For example, Faulkner has a character such as Darl speak in his interior monologue with far more intellectual diction (and knowledge of his physical environment) than he realistically possesses. This is directly playing with conventions of interior monologues because, as Dorrit Cohn states in Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction, the language in the interior monologue is "like the language a character speaks to others ... it accords with his time, his place, his social station, level of intelligence ..." The novel helped found the Southern Renaissance and directs a great deal of effort as it progresses to reflections on being and existence, the existential metaphysics of everyday life.
As I Lay Dying is consistently ranked among the best novels of 20th-century literature. The novel has been reprinted by the Modern Library, the Library of America, and numerous publishers, including Chatto and Windus in 1970, Random House in 1990, Tandem Library in 1991, Vintage Books in 1996, and the Folio Society in 2013. Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949 for his novels prior to that date, with this book being among them.
The novel has also directly influenced a number of other critically acclaimed books, including British author Graham Swift's 1996 Booker Prize-winning novel Last Orders and Suzan-Lori Parks's Getting Mother's Body, and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing.
In 1998, the Modern Library ranked As I Lay Dying 35th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.
The Grammy-nominated metalcore band As I Lay Dying derived its name from this novel.
The character Darl Bundren also appeared in Faulkner's 1935 short story "Uncle Willy".
In 2013, writer/director James Franco released a film adaptation of the novel. The novel was adapted for the screen by James Franco and Matt Rager. Franco viewed it as a challenge because the novel was described as a story impossible to be transformed into a film due to the multi-narrative voices within it. Franco also stars as Darl Bundren.
Theatre adaptationsAn adaptation of the novel by Edward Kemp was staged by the Young Vic company in May 1998.
An adaptation of the novel was presented by Theatre Smith-Gilmour from March 8–31, 2013, at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.