Addie and Anse Bundren live in the heart of Mississippi on a couple of acres of farmland with their five children. In the opening scene Addie is on her death bed, while the oldest son Cash is outside the bedroom window making her casket. And in the heat of this July afternoon, Anse is sitting on the back porch chewing tobacco in his toothless mouth and shooting the breeze with the neighbor. He never bothered to call Dr. Peabody when Addie got sick because he didn’t want to spend the money he was saving for a new set of dentures. This scene is only a hint of the horror that is yet to come.
Anse Bundren has to be the most selfish ignorant, and lazy character in the history of American fiction. Though Anse is a farmer, his children do all the work. His son Darl says, “I have never seen a sweat stain on his shirt….he tells people that if he ever sweats, he will die” (page 17).
The plot: Anse Bundren has promised his wife that when she dies he will take her back to her home town to be buried. But Jefferson, Mississippi is 40 miles away, and not an easy journey in the dilapidated wagon with old mules pulling the weight of the whole family and the casket containing a decomposing body. And before they even get started there are torrential rains. With the two local bridges washed out, the journey takes nine days during which the family encounters one crisis after another. Anse’s stubborn attitude, and irrational, moronic behavior leads to disastrous consequences. At any time he could have changed the course of events, but he insisted it was what Addie would have wanted, even though Cora, Addie’s closest friend, was skeptical about Addie’s desire to return to Jefferson. And Cora seemed pretty insightful, “she lived a lonely woman…. trying to make folks believe different, hiding the fact that they just suffered her, because she was not cold in the coffin before they were carting her forty miles away to bury her, flouting the will of God to do it. Refusing to let her lie in the same earth with those Bundrens.” (page 22).
“As I Lay Dying” is really a difficult novel to read. For one thing, every chapter (which sometimes is as short as one sentence) is told by a different member of the family, or a spectator involved in the plot. Between the five children and neighbors, it is challenging to ascertain just who is who. And many times sentences use pronouns “she”, “he”, “they” and it is impossible to understand exactly to whom the speaker is referring. Often a character is just babbling. Sometimes the same scene is told twice, by two different characters and while this technique does help with piecing together the story, it is very slow reading. It is also difficult to read because of the horror of the story. I have heard “As I Lay Dying” being classified as a black comedy…..though there is nothing funny about this book. The youngest son Vardaman is traumatized and confused. The seventeen year old daughter Dewey Dell is uneducated and misguided. And the oldest three boys are all just trying to find some way to escape the insanity and get out from under their father’s thumb. The Bundren’s are a loveless, dysfunctional family of lost souls. Yet Faulkner develops them so vividly, they are characters I will never forget.
Rated 5 Stars. I use a rating scale of 1 to 5. Books rated 1 I seldom finish. Books rated 2, I usually finish but would never recommend to anyone. 5 is the highest rating.