My copies of As I Lay Dying (clockwise from top left - Vintage trade, British hardcover, Vintage mass, Modern Library gold, First Edition facsimile, Norton, Modern Library hardcover, Penguin British paperback, Vintage mass, Modern Library hardcover (combined with The Sound and the Fury))

As I Lay Dying

  • Author:  William Faulkner  (1897  –  1962)
  • Rank:  #19
  • Published:  1930
  • Publisher:  Jonathan Cape & Harrison Smith
  • Pages:  267
  • First Line:  “Jewel and I came up from the field, following the path in single file.”
  • Last Line:  ” ‘Meet Mrs Bundren,’ he says.”
  • ML Edition:  #187  (published with The Sound and the Fury; also as a paperback #6); #378; Gold Hardcover
  • Acclaim:  Modern Library Top 100 English Language Novels of the 20th Century #35
  • Film:  none
  • First Read:  Spring, 1994

The spines of all my copies of As I Lay Dying (not in above picture - Library of America, Novels 1930 - 1935, International Collectors Library, Random House hardcover, Modern Library paperback (with The Sound and the Fury))

The Novel:  In my junior year as an undergraduate, I took a course called Studies in Fiction.  It was a standard Lit course (there were also Studies in Drama and Studies in Poetry).  It began with Crime and Punishment and went through Beloved (the professor had, for years, started with Tristram Shandy, but got tired of classes revolting when forced to begin with Sterne and the course went chronologically).  It was a great class.  As a kind of out of place student at a small liberal arts college, I became the de facto Faulkner and Joyce scholar in the class, because I was the only one who had read anything of Faulkner beyond “Barn Burning” and “A Rose for Emily” and the only one who had already read both Dubliners and Portrait.  We read As I Lay Dying in that class (which I had already read on my own the year before).  We had to write a final paper for that class, and since I didn’t have to do an undergraduate dissertation, that paper was the closest I ever came to writing one (and I often described my paper as my dissertation).  I wrote it on “Existentialism as a Form of Black Humor in As I Lay Dying and The Stranger“.  In retrospect, I should have included The Trial as well.

Are you questioning my theory?  Which part?  The existentialism?  Well, what is that, exactly?  I could give you an answer straight from my years as a Philosophy minor, extending from the paper I wrote as a Sophomore where I disproved the existence of God, relying mostly on writers who believed in him.  But I’ll use a higher authority, Walter Kaufmann, the seminal translator of Nietzsche and editor of Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre.  “Existentialism is not a school of thought nor reducible to any set of tenets,” he writes in his introduction.  “The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic and remote from life – that is the heart of existentialism.”  That fits Camus to a tee, of course, and Kafka as well.  But it also fits much of Faulkner’s writing, and As I Lay Dying most of all.  And all three of them approach death from a common concept – the breakdown of a system of beliefs, and simply a sense of absurdity as the moment approaches and passes – the shooting of the Arab, the mindless death of Joseph K, the entirety of As I Lay Dying.

So what about the humor?  Well, you have to have the right frame of mind to find it in the Camus.  And certainly you have to be bent a very specific way (and a very long way) to find it in The Trial.  But Kafka himself, when reading his work to friends, would laugh out loud, as would his friends.  It was designed to be funny, in the same way that existentialism can be funny – in the darkest way possible.

So what about Faulkner?  Certainly not known for being a humorous writer.  Well, certainly there are parts of the book that are very obviously funny.  Ask anyone if they know one line from As I Lay Dying and even if they haven’t read it, the answer is going to be the same: “My mother is a fish.”  But the humor doesn’t begin and end with that one-word chapter.  Look at the preceding two pages.  It’s a very cold way of describing exactly how Cash made the coffin, but it is funny as well, this strange distracted way of looking at death.  Or look at this early scene:  “Lying there with her head propped up so she could watch Cash building the coffin, having to watch him so he would not skimp on it, like as not, with those men not worrying about anything except if there was time to earn another three dollars before the rain come and the river got too high to get across it.  Like as not, if they hadn’t decided to make that last load, they would have loaded her into the wagon on a quilt and crossed the river first and then stopped and give her time to die what Christian death they would let her.”

But that’s just the humor, and, from a certain point of view, the philosophy.  But what about the novel itself?  It’s a brilliant work, a short novel that looks at death from all the points of view available.  All of the family gets their own say in this book, with each chapter narrated by someone different.  It’s the story of Addie Bundren, the matriarch whose “own wish to lie among her people,” brings her family on a journey with her body, barely even cold, dragged through 40 miles, through flood and fire, to a final resting ground.  “She lived, a lonely woman, lonely with her pride, 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.”  That’s Cora, one of the neighbors, watching from a distance.

But it’s not just the neighbors.  We hear the voice of her own son, explaining the construction of that coffin.  And her son Vardaman, unable to understand what is going on: “The life in him runs under the skin under my hand, running through the splotches, smelling up into my nose where the sickness if beginning to cry, vomiting the crying, and then I can breathe, vomiting it.”  That’s before he starts to trying to deconstruct her, understand her, finally deciding that she is a fish.  We even get to hear from Addie herself: “I believed that the reason was the duty to the alive, to the terrible blood, the red bitter flood boiling through the land.”

But this isn’t just an isolated novel in the Faulkner oeuvre.  It’s a living, breathing part of his work.  The narrative shifts, following on The Sound and the Fury, would expand in the Snopes trilogy.  The humor would surface again, always biting, often dark.  And we see him connecting his world: ” ‘It’s Bundren, from down beyond New Hope,’ Quick says.  ‘There’s one of them Snopes horses Jewel’s riding.’  ‘I didn’t know there was ere a one of them horses left,’ MacCallum says.  ‘I thought you folks down there finally contrived to give them all away.’ ”  Here we have a scene from “Spotted Horses”, a year before it would be published, and nine years before it would become part of The Hamlet.

As I Lay Dying is a good place to start reading Faulkner.  Of the masterworks (The Sound and the Fury, Absalom Absalom, Light in August), it is by far the easiest to read (even with its multiple narrators, because it does you the favor of letting you know who the narrator is).  It lacks the darkness of Sanctuary or the investment necessary to read the Snopes trilogy.  It is a short, brilliant book, and if you weren’t lucky enough to have a class like mine, you should find it on your own.