As I Lay Dying (novel)

As I Lay Dying (novel)
As I Lay Dying  
First edition cover
Author(s) William Faulkner
Genre(s) Modernist novel, Southern Gothic, black comedy
Publication date 1930

As I Lay Dying is a novel by the American author William Faulkner. He claimed to have written the novel in six weeks and that he did not change a word of it. Faulkner wrote it while working at a power plant, published in 1930, and described it as a "tour-de-force." It is Faulkner's fifth novel and consistently ranked among the best novels of 20th century literature.[1][2][3][4] The title derives from Book XI of Homer's The Odyssey, wherein Agamemnon speaks to Odysseus: "As I lay dying, the woman with the dog's eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades."

The novel is known for its stream of consciousness writing technique, multiple narrators, and varying chapter lengths; in fact, the shortest chapter in the book consists of just five words, "My mother is a fish."


Plot summary

The book is narrated by 15 different characters over 59 chapters. It is the story of the death of Addie Bundren and her family's quest and motivations—noble or selfish—to honor her wish to be buried in the town of Jefferson.

As is the case in much of Faulkner's work, 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 that same state.

Addie Bundren, the wife of Anse Bundren and the matriarch of a poor southern family, is very ill, and is expected to die soon. Her oldest son, Cash, puts all of his carpentry skills into preparing her coffin, which he builds right in front of Addie’s bedroom window. Although Addie’s health is failing rapidly, two of her other sons, Darl and Jewel, leave town to make a delivery for the Bundrens’ neighbor, Vernon Tull, whose wife and two daughters have been tending to Addie. Shortly after Darl and Jewel leave, Addie dies. The youngest Bundren child, Vardaman, associates his mother’s death with that of a fish he caught and cleaned earlier that day. With some help, Cash completes the coffin just before dawn. Vardaman is troubled by the fact that his mother is nailed shut inside a box, and while the others sleep, he bores holes in the lid, two of which go through his mother’s face. Addie and Anse’s daughter, Dewey Dell, whose recent sexual liaisons with a local farmhand named Lafe have left her pregnant, is so overwhelmed by anxiety over her condition that she barely mourns her mother’s death. A funeral service is held on the following day, where the women sing songs inside the Bundren house while the men stand outside on the porch talking to each other.

Darl, who narrates much of this first section, returns with Jewel a few days later, and the presence of buzzards over their house lets them know their mother is dead. On seeing this sign, Darl sardonically reassures Jewel, who is widely perceived as ungrateful and uncaring, that he can be sure his beloved horse is not dead. Addie has made Anse promise that she will be buried in the town of Jefferson, and though this request is a far more complicated proposition than burying her at home, Anse’s sense of obligation, combined with his desire to buy a set of false teeth, compels him to fulfill Addie’s dying wish. Cash, who has broken his leg on a job site, helps the family lift the unbalanced coffin, but it is Jewel who ends up manhandling it, almost single-handedly, into the wagon. Jewel refuses, however, to actually come in the wagon, and follows the rest of the family riding on his horse, which he bought when he was young by secretly working nights on a neighbor’s land.

On the first night of their journey, the Bundrens stay at the home of a generous local family, who regards the Bundrens’ mission with skepticism. Due to severe flooding, the main bridges leading over the local river have been flooded or washed away, and the Bundrens are forced to turn around and attempt a river-crossing over a makeshift ford. When a stray log upsets the wagon, the coffin is knocked out, Cash’s broken leg is reinjured, and the team of mules drowns. Vernon Tull sees the wreck, and helps Jewel rescue the coffin and the wagon from the river. Together, the family members and Tull search the riverbed for Cash’s tools.

Cora, Tull’s wife, remembers Addie’s unchristian inclination to respect her son Jewel more than God. Addie herself, speaking either from her coffin or in a leap back in time to her deathbed, recalls events from her life: her loveless marriage to Anse; her affair with the local minister, Whitfield, which led to Jewel’s conception; and the birth of her various children. Whitfield recalls traveling to the Bundrens’ house to confess the affair to Anse, and his eventual decision not to say anything after all.

A horse doctor sets Cash’s broken leg, while Cash faints from the pain without ever complaining. Anse is able to purchase a new team of mules by mortgaging his farm equipment, using money that he was saving for his false teeth and money that Cash was saving for a new gramophone, and trading in Jewel’s horse. The family continues on its way. In the town of Mottson, residents react with horror to the stench coming from the Bundren wagon. While the family is in town, Dewey Dell tries to buy a drug that will abort her unwanted pregnancy, but the pharmacist refuses to sell it to her, and advises marriage instead. With cement the family has purchased in town, Darl creates a makeshift cast for Cash’s broken leg, which fits poorly and only increases Cash’s pain. The Bundrens then spend the night at a local farm owned by a man named Gillespie. Darl, who has been skeptical of their mission for some time, burns down the Gillespie barn with the intention of incinerating the coffin and Addie’s rotting corpse. Jewel rescues the animals in the barn, then risks his life to drag out Addie’s coffin. Darl lies on his mother’s coffin and cries.

The next day, the Bundrens arrive in Jefferson and bury Addie. Rather than face a lawsuit for Darl’s criminal barn burning, the Bundrens claim that Darl is insane, and give him to a pair of men who commit him to a Jackson mental institution. Dewey Dell tries again to buy an abortion drug at the local pharmacy, where a boy working behind the counter claims to be a doctor and tricks her into exchanging sexual services for what she soon realizes is not an actual abortion drug. The following morning, the children are greeted by their father, who sports a new set of false teeth and, with a mixture of shame and pride, introduces them to his new bride, a local woman he meets while borrowing shovels with which to bury Addie.


  • Addie Bundren – Addie is the wife of Anse and the mother of Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman. She had an extramarital affair with her preacher Reverend Whitfield which led to the conception and birth of her third child, Jewel.
  • Anse Bundren – Anse is Addie's widower, the father of all the children but Jewel. After suffering a severe enough sunstroke at the age of 22 to have a doctor called, it is likely he developed anhidrosis (the physical inability to sweat). It is unlikely that the various accounts of his sweatless shirts and brow are metaphorical--in the Mississippi heat, anyone begins sweating even if they're just sitting outside. This disease, along with Anse's hunchback, splayed, nailless toes, and toothless mouth, are all corporeal markers of his economic status and life of labor (before we encounter him in the novel, before the sunstroke, Anse had cleared his own farm and fixed up a house on his own so that he could start building a family, and all of these characteristics are consistent with common maladies suffered by rural farmers in harsh conditions).
  • Cash Bundren – Cash is a skilled and helpful carpenter and the eldest son of the family, in his late twenties, who builds Addie's coffin.
  • Darl Bundren – The second eldest of Addie's children, Darl is about two years younger than Cash. Darl is the most articulate character and objective narrator in the book, and therefore narrates 19 of the 59 chapters.
  • Jewel Bundren – Jewel is the third of the Bundren children, and is most likely around nineteen years of age. A half-brother to the other children and the favorite of Addie, he is the illegitimate son of Addie and Reverend Whitfield.
  • Dewey Dell Bundren – Dewey Dell is the only daughter of Anse and Addie Bundren, and is seventeen years old, the second youngest of the Bundren children.
  • Vardaman Bundren – Vardaman is the youngest Bundren child, somewhere between seven and ten years old.
  • Vernon Tull – Vernon is a good friend of the Bundrens, who appears in the book as a good farmer, less religious than his wife.
  • Cora Tull – Cora is the wife of Vernon Tull, a neighbor of Addie's who is with her at her death. She is very religious and this shows in her language.
  • Peabody – Peabody is the Bundren's doctor; he narrates two chapters of the book. Anse sends for him shortly before Addie's death, but this is far too late for Peabody to do anything, and he is able to do nothing more than watch Addie die. Towards the end of the book, when he is working on Cash's leg, Peabody gives an excellent assessment of Anse and the entire Bundren family from the perspective of the community at large.
  • Lafe – Lafe is a farmer who impregnates Dewey Dell and gives her $10 to get an abortion.
  • Whitfield – Whitfield is the local reverend with whom Addie had an affair, which results in the birth of Jewel.
  • Samson – Samson is a local farmer who lets the Bundren family stay with him the first night on their journey to Jefferson. Samson's wife, Rachel, is disgusted with the way the family is treating Addie by dragging her coffin through the countryside.

Literary techniques

Throughout the novel, Faulkner presents fifteen different points of view, each chapter narrated by one character, including Addie, who after dying, expresses her thoughts from the coffin. In 59 chapters titled only by their narrators' names, the characters are developed gradually through each other's perceptions and opinions, Darl's predominating.

Like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, Faulkner stands among the pioneers 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 they encounter. The story 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.

The one chapter narrated by Addie Bundren helped bring issues of feminism and motherhood in literature to the fore, as her voice is clearly expressed only after her death. Except for Jewel and Cash, Addie either dislikes or acts dismissively toward all her children. Jewel and Cash are profoundly affected by her regard for them.

Addie's chapter helps to understand Addie as more than a traditional portrayal of a woman as "villainous, incompetent, unfulfilled, or dead," and portrays her as revengeful and deliberate. The chapter discusses her hatred of the students she teaches and her disloyalty and lack of love for her husband Anse. Therefore Addie's requests as she dies including her desire to be buried in Jefferson (which was quite far away) represents her deceit and her ability to control her family on her death bed and in death. This portrays Addie as a feminist figure and more than a traditional literary woman. [5]


As I Lay Dying is consistently ranked among the best novels of 20th century literature.[2][6][7] The novel has been reprinted by the Modern Library,[8] the Library of America, and numerous other publishers, including Chatto and Windus in 1970,[9] Random House in 1990,[10] Tandem Library in 1991,[11] and Vintage Books in 1996.[12] Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949 for his novels prior to that date, among them this book.

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[13] and Suzan-Lori Parks's Getting Mother's Body: A Novel, which is a reimagining of Faulkner's novel from an African American point of view.[14][15]

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.[16]


  1. ^ The Modern Library lists it among the top 100 recent novels, accessed Jan. 2, 2009, as does best 100 novels of all times lists it, accessed Jan. 2, 2009.
  2. ^ a b The New Lifetime Reading Plan: The Classical Guide to World Literature by Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major, Collins, 1999.
  3. ^ The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages by Harold Bloom, Riverhead Trade, 1995.
  4. ^ Peter Ackroyd. Foreword to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Peter Boxall (Editor). Universe Publishing, 2006. ISBN 0-7893-1370-7.
  5. ^ Stereotypical, but revengeful and defiant: Addie Bundren in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying by Amado Chan
  6. ^ The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages by Harold Bloom, Riverhead Trade, 1995.
  7. ^ 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die by Peter Ackroyd (Foreword), Peter Boxall (Editor) Universe Publishers, 2006.
  8. ^ Modern Library's list of the top 100 recent novels, accessed Jan. 2, 2009.
  9. ^ ISBN 0-7011-0665-4
  10. ^ ISBN 0-679-73225-X
  11. ^ ISBN 0-8085-1493-8
  12. ^ ISBN 0-09-947931-1
  13. ^ "A Swift rewrite, or a tribute?" by Chris Blackhurst, The Independent (London), March 9, 1997.
  14. ^ "Review of Getting Mother’s Body by Suzan-Lori Parks" by Dan Schneider, Cosmoetica, 2005-04-30, accessed Jan. 2, 2009.
  15. ^ Women Pulitzer Playwrights: Biographical Profiles and Analyses of the Plays by Carolyn Casey Craig, McFarland, 2004, page 270.
  16. ^ 3:13 AM. "Interview With Tim Lambesis From As I Lay Dying - in Interviews". Metal Retrieved 2010-2-10. 

External links

Preceded by
The Sound and the Fury
Novels set in Yoknapatawpha County Succeeded by

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