William Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi where he became a high school dropout and was forced to work with grandfather at a bank. In 1925 Faulkner moved to New Orleans and worked as a journalist, where he met the American Sherwood Andersen, a famous short-story writer.
Anderson convinced Faulkner that writing about the people and places he could identify with would improve his career as a writer. After a trip to Europe, Faulkner began to write about the fictitious Yoknapatawpha County, which was representative of Lafayette County, Mississippi.
Often in this series of novels, one could read of characters who were based on Faulkner’s ancestors, African Americans, Native Americans, hermits, and poor whites. At some point in this period of writing, around 1930, William Faulkner wrote the novel As I Lay Dying. In this book, and others of this series, it was commonplace to find sentences that stretched on for a page in order to create mood, multiple narrators, or short stories complicated with a stream-of-consciousness blather that was hard to understand.
Therefore, readers had difficulty following these novels, and Faulkner’s popularity soon dwindled, that is until Malcolm Cowley wrote The Portable Faulkner, which contained excerpts from the Yoknapatawpha series, and made Faulkner’s genius evident to his readers. Shortly thereafter, many of Faulkner’s works were reissued and he became a literary giant and was even awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949.
Until death, Faulkner continued to create works of literature, including both short stories and novels. The Bundren family has recently suffered the loss of their most beloved mother, Addie. When Addie was young and fresh out of labor with her second of five children, she made her husband promise that when she died he would bury her in Jefferson, the town where Addie’s family lived.
Generally, Jefferson was a one or two-day trip, but when a rain spell floods the river and destroys both bridges and washes out the direct road to Jefferson, Anse, Addie’s husband has to ford the river and take a much longer route to get to Jefferson. While crossing the river, a large log flowing downstream starts a chain reaction that results in a badly battered wagon, the death of a team of mules, a broken leg for the oldest of the five children, and a one-day delay in the journey.
Many other troubles follow this family and the short trip to bury their mother becomes a nine-day journey with a dead body that is beginning to rot in the back of the wagon. Each of the characters struggles internally throughout the novel, and when all is done, one ends up with a leg that may never work again, another is arrested, while the only Bundren daughter learns that there is no drug that will reverse a pregnancy. Obsession, drives people to go above and beyond, to lie, and to struggle so that they can satisfy their inmost desire.
In As I Lay Dying, the main idea, or theme, is that of obsession. On the surface, this novel appears to be about the Bundren family’s desire to give their mother what she wanted, even in death. However, after careful analysis, it becomes evident that most of the novel’s characters actually possess an ulterior motive that drives them to be so persistent in carrying out their dead mother’s wishes. A good man and husband, Anse has everyone convinced that he is determined to fulfill his wife’s wish to be buried in Jefferson.
Especially when he acts so stubbornly about accepting help from someone other than his own family. However, he is only stubborn, because it is in his nature, not his wife’s burial wishes. As the troop draws closer and closer to Jefferson, Anse talks more and more about what he truly obsesses over.
For the longest time, Anse has been able to eat all the food that his family and friends enjoy so much because he no longer has all of his teeth. His one true desire is to go to the nearest town, it just so happens that it is Jefferson, and buy himself a set of false teeth so he can “eat the victuals He aimed for man to eat…” Cash, the oldest of the children, is greedy to make money and has used his life’s opportunities to become a carpenter, and a quite accomplished one at that.
He is always busy with one job or another, the only trouble is that he hasn’t any way to travel from his home to a job site except to walk or catch a ride with someone. Mr. Tull, a friend of the Bundrens, has hired Cash to do some work on his barn, but Mr. Tull lives quite a distance away. Cash knows that when he goes with his family to bury his mother they will have to pass by Mr. Tull’s house on the way up and back.
Cash convinces his father to drop him off at the Tull’s house when they are coming home. Unfortunately, Cash breaks his leg on the trip and because he doesn’t receive medical treatment soon enough, it is declared to be almost useless for the rest of his life. The only Bundren female, Dewey Dell, also has an obsession that she wishes to fulfill on this journey. Around two months before her mother died, Dewey Dell was impregnated by her boyfriend Lafe.
Before she leaves, Lafe gives Dewey Dell ten dollars and tells her that there is a drug that can terminate a pregnancy and that she can get it at any pharmacy in town. However, Dewey Dell learns that it isn’t that simple, and the first pharmacist she visits runs her out for trying to commit such an immoral act. In Jefferson, she stops at a different pharmacy, but instead of finding a doctor, she finds a young boy, who poses as a doctor in order to take advantage of her. At the start of the journey Darl, the second eldest has no driving obsession, but slowly, at first, things change.
Darl slips into insanity, perhaps because he is riding in a wagon with a rotting corpse, but soon his inmost desire is to rid himself of the coffin. While the family slept in a kind man’s barn, Darl went so far as to set fire to the entire building in attempts to destroy the coffin and the corpse inside. Luckily, one of Darl’s brothers gets his mother’s coffin out of the barn before it catches fire. Ironically, when the assembly finally gets their mother buried and Darl is freed from his obsession, two men quickly imprison him again, by his own father’s command, for burning down that barn.
Vardaman, the youngest child is pushed by his desire to see the toy train that his sister had told him about. Moreover, he wanted to make sure that no “town boys” got it before Santa Clause could deliver it to his house, although it was still in the midst of summer. Vardaman, much like his brother Darl, has begun to slip a little into insanity, and often rambles on about a fish that he caught the day his mother dies, a fish who represents Addie.
Vardaman has trouble cleaning the fish and appears to be doing more harm than good, but eventually, the fish is cooked and the affair is over. Powered by an obsessive curiosity, Vardaman cannot wait to get to Jefferson. And Jewel, who falls behind Darl in age, was driven by his desire to return home. Jewel keeps to himself, and is distinctly different from his brothers; he wants only to return home so that he can be apart from his family. After all, Jewel technically is not one of the Bundren children, but the result of an affair that Addie had with the local minister Mr. Whitfield.
For the first half of the journey, Jewel will not even ride in the wagon with his family, instead, he takes his horse, which he bought and feeds with his own money so that he will have no ties to the rest of the Bundren family. However, after the river accident, Anse sells Jewel’s horse in order to have enough money to buy a team of mules so that they can finish their journey.
William Faulkner employs multiple narrators in order to tell this story to his readers and thus creates a novel with several viewpoints. In doing this he allows his readers to gain access into the minds of almost every character in the novel. As it switches between various camera angles, a television program is portrayed in the same way. By allowing the audience to see the plot from several perspectives, Faulkner’s readers, like television viewers, have knowledge of events that all characters in the story do not know about.
Therefore, the reader has insight into the thoughts and events that mold each individual character and their motivation. Dewey Dell is goaded by her desire to terminate her pregnancy. However, had the author not allowed the reader to view the journey from Dewey Dell’s perspective then the reader would not know what Dewey Dell had asked the pharmacist, or that she went to a different pharmacy to have an abortion, but was, instead, violated by a hormone-crazed young man. In fact, the reader may not have even known that Dewey Dell was pregnant had it not been from the standpoint of this novel.
Vardaman’s situation would also be a mystery to the audience had it not been for the way this work of fiction was written. Certainly, the author could have told the audience from and perspective that Vardaman was obsessed over a toy train, but in order to realize the intensity of his motivation the reader needs to see things from Vardaman’s own direction. Therefore, the way Faulkner tells the story influences the theme and how well the reader can identify Faulkner’s main idea. As any writer does, Faulkner wishes to captivate his audience and hold their attention.
He hopes the reader anxiously awaits the discovery of what will next present itself to the individuals who are making this expedition. In order to do so, a writer has to create an element of suspense, which will cause the reader to be motivated to continue reading. In a sense, he has to stir up in his audience an obsession for his work and for the characters involved. Oftentimes, Faulkner switches the narrator, and thus the point of view, to a different character whenever a significant event is about to take place in the novel.
Faulkner, by occasionally switching topics in the midst of a sub-plot, causes the reader to anxiously anticipate the events that lie ahead for the travelers. In doing so Faulkner is attempting to cause his readers to obsess over the novel, and thus, gives his audience a method of relating the theme of the manuscript to their own feelings, which Faulkner creates.
William Faulkner’s use of multiple perceptions can be interpreted as a symbol that represents the multiple obsessions of the Bundren family. Each chapter is part of a whole; they all come together to create one novel. Likewise, the Bundren family is a whole, but is made up of separate and unique members. As each chapter has its own perspective, each member of the family has his own obsession; therefore, the various standpoints of the book represent the various obsessions of the individual family members.
Thus by writing the novel with several viewpoints Faulkner creates a symbol that contributes to the strengthening of the work’s theme. Truly, As I Lay Dying is a revolutionary novel; Faulkner attempted to create a plot with a new and innovative perspective. Until this novel, the world had never seen such a unique method of presenting the story. Faulkner paved the way for a new generation of writing; he took a chance on the unlikely.
Though at first, his book had little popularity due to its complexity, after Malcolm Cowley wrote The Portable Faulkner, Faulkner’s novels were suddenly much easier to comprehend. Therefore, As I Lay Dying soon gained much more popularity. However, this novel is not considered great because it was popular, nor is it held in high esteem because it is part of a series. This is a great novel because it is different. In this book William Faulkner took a chance and won, he swam against the flow, and he survived. Many times when authors go out on a limb, they are condemned, and their career is damaged.
However, Faulkner is one of the few writers who succeeded when he took a chance, and instead of falling for it, he was praised and lifted up. The plot and the portrayal of the characters made this a good novel, but its style and point of view made it a great one. When Faulkner began this novel he had no idea that it would become such a great success; he was just going about his daily life, and at the same time creating a story so he could publish it for a little extra money.
Therefore, this novel should be included in a list of works with high literary merit because it is unique. It is an odd story told from a vast array of views. The reader is allowed to view the story from several different angles that provide an understanding far above that of any other novel.
Also, the author’s style of writing and his effective use of black humor contribute to the work’s literary merit. Furthermore, this book contains vivid details of life in Mississippi and of the common tragedies that were often tolerated by people like the Bundrens. Thus, this novel is an astounding work of literature because it is an accurate portrayal of the time period, it contains an astonishing usage of literary tools, and it is written in a distinctive multiple-perspective point of view.