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One of William Faulkner's finest novels, As I Lay Dying was originally published in 1930, and remains a captivating and stylistically innovative work. The story revolves around a grim yet darkly humorous pilgrimage, as Addie Bundren's family sets out to fulfill her last wish: to be buried in her native Jefferson, Mississippi, far from the miserable backwater surroundings of her married life. Told through multiple voices, it vividly brings to life Faulkner's imaginary South, one of the great invented landscapes in...
One of William Faulkner's finest novels, As I Lay Dying was originally published in 1930, and remains a captivating and stylistically innovative work. The story revolves around a grim yet darkly humorous pilgrimage, as Addie Bundren's family sets out to fulfill her last wish: to be buried in her native Jefferson, Mississippi, far from the miserable backwater surroundings of her married life. Told through multiple voices, it vividly brings to life Faulkner's imaginary South, one of the great invented landscapes in all of literature, and is replete with the poignant, impoverished, violent, and hypnotically fascinating characters that were his trademark.
As I Lay Dying is the harrowing, darkly comic tale of the Bundren family's trek across Mississippi to bury Addie, their wife and mother, in the town of her choice. The story is told by each family member -- including Addie herself.
Faulkner's use of multiple viewpoints to reveal the inner psychological make-up of the characters is one of the novel's chief charms.
Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single file. Although I am fifteen feet ahead of him, anyone watching us from the cottonhouse can see Jewel's frayed and broken straw hat a full head above my own.
The path runs straight as a plumb-line, worn smooth by feet and baked brick-hard by July, between the green rows of laidby cotton, to the cottonhouse in the center of the field, where it turns and circles the cottonhouse at four soft right angles and goes on across the field again, worn so by feet in fading precision.
The cottonhouse is of rough logs, from between which the chinking has long fallen. Square, with a broken roof set at a single pitch, it leans in empty and shimmering dilapidation in the sunlight, a single broad window in two opposite walls giving onto the approaches of the path. When we reach it I rum and follow the path which circles the house. jewel, fifteen feet behind me, looking straight ahead, steps in a single stride through the window. Still staring straight ahead, his pale eyes like wood set into his wooden face, he crosses the floor in four strides with the rigid gravity of a cigar store Indian dressed in patched overalls and endued with life from the hips down, and steps in a single stride through the opposite window and into the path again just as I come around the comer. In single file and five feet apart and jewel now in front, we go on up the path toward the foot of the bluff.
Tull's wagon stands beside the spring, hitched to the rail, the reins wrapped about the seat stanchion. In the wagon bed are two chairs. Jewel stops at the spring and takes the gourd from the willow branch and drinks. I pass him and mount the path, beginning to bear Cash's saw.
When I reach the top he has quit sawing. Standing in a litter of chips, he is fitting two of the boards together. Between the shadow spaces they are yellow as gold, like soft gold, bearing on their flanks in smooth undulations the marks of the adze blade: a good carpenter, Cash is. He holds the two planks on the trestle, fitted along the edges in a quarter of the finished box. He kneels and squints along the edge of them, then he lowers them and takes up the adze. A good carpenter.
Addie Bundren could not want a better one, a better box to lie in. it will give her confidence and comfort. I go on to the house, followed by the
Chuck. Chuck. Chuck.
of the adze
From the Hardcover edition.
1. Which are the most intelligent and sympathetic voices in the novel? With whom do you most and least identify? Is Faulkner controlling your closeness to some characters and not others? How is this done, given the seemingly equal mode of presentation for all voices?
2. Even the reader of such an unusual book may be surprised to come upon Addie Bundren's narrative on page 169, if only because Addie has been dead since page 48. Why is Addie's narrative placed where it is, and what is the effect of hearing Addie's voice at this point in the book? Is this one of the ways in which Faulkner shows Addie's continued "life" in the minds and hearts of her family? How do the issues raised by Addie here relate to the book as a whole?
3. Faulkner allows certain characters--especially Darl and Vardaman--to express themselves in language and imagery that would be impossible, given their lack of education and experience in the world. Why does he break with the realistic representation of character in this way?
4. What makes Darl different from the other characters? Why is he able to describe Addie's death [p. 48] when he is not present? How is he able to intuit the fact of Dewey Dell's pregnancy? What does this uncanny visionary power mean, particularly in the context of what happens to Darl at the end of the novel? Darl has fought in World War I; why do you think Faulkner has chosen to include this information about him? What are the sources and meaning of his madness?
5. Anse Bundren is surely one of the most feckless characters in literature, yet he alone thrives in the midst of disaster. How does he manage to command the obedience and cooperation of his children? Whyare other people so generous with him? He gets his new teeth at the end of the novel and he also gets a new wife. What is the secret of Anse's charm? How did he manage to make Addie marry him, when she is clearly more intelligent than he is?
6. Some critics have spoken of Cash as the novel's most gentle character, while others have felt that he is too rigid, too narrow-minded, to be
sympathetic. What does Cash's list of the thirteen reasons for beveling the edges of the coffin tell us about him? What does it tell us about his feeling for his mother? Does Cash's carefully reasoned response to Darl's imprisonment seem fair to you, or is it a betrayal of his brother?
7. Jewel is the result of Addie's affair with the evangelical preacher Whitfield (an aspect of the plot that bears comparison with Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter). When we read Whitfield's section, we realize that Addie has again allied herself with a man who is not her equal. How would you characterize the preacher? What is the meaning of this passionate alliance, now repudiated by Whitfield? Does Jewel know who his father is?
8. What is your response to the section spoken by Vardaman, which states simply, "My mother is a fish"? What sort of psychological state or process does this declaration indicate? What are some of the ways in which Vardaman insists on keeping his mother alive, even as he struggles to understand that she is dead? In what other ways does the novel show characters wrestling with ideas of identity and embodiment?
9. This is a novel full of acts of love, not the least of which is the prolonged search in the river for Cash's tools. Consider some of the other
ways that love is expressed among the members of the family. What compels loyalty in this family? What are the ways in which that loyalty is betrayed? Which characters are most self-interested?
10. The saga of the Bundren family is participated in, and reflected upon, by many other characters. What does the involvement of Doctor Peabody, of Armstid, and of Cora and Vernon Tull say about the importance of community in country life? Are the characters in the town meant to provide a contrast with country people?
11. Does Faulkner deliberately make humor and the grotesque interdependent in this novel? What is the effect of such horrific details as Vardaman's accidental drilling of holes in his dead mother's face? Of Darl and Vardaman listening to the decaying body of Addie "speaking"? Of Vardaman's anxiety about the growing number of buzzards trying to get at the coffin? Of Cash's bloody broken leg, set in concrete and suppurating in the heat? Of Jewel's burnt flesh? Of the "cure" that Dewey Dell is tricked into?
12. In one of the novel's central passages, Addie meditates upon the distance between words and actions: "I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle from one to the other; and that sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words" [pp. 173-74]. What light does this passage shed upon the meaning of the novel? Aren't words necessary in order to give form to the story of the Bundrens? Or is Faulkner saying that words--his own chosen medium--are inadequate?
13. What does the novel reveal about the ways in which human beings deal with death, grieving, and letting go of our loved ones?
Comparing The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, andAbsalom, Absalom!
1. In all three of these novels the family is central to structure, plot, and meaning. It is the source of grief and identity as well as the locus of all individual psychic struggles. Do you see all of Faulkner's characters eternally trapped within their familial roles? How do the families differ in each of these novels, and how are they similar? How do the particularly important symbolic roles of the mother and the father differ from book to book?
2. Faulkner tries to make himself disappear in these works. Instead of using the traditional third-person narrator that most readers associate with the author, he directs a chorus of voices that intertwine, complement, and contradict one another. As readers, we must rely on what we learn from the characters themselves as to time, place, plot, and matters of cause and effect. Why do you think Faulkner prefers to make his characters speak "directly" to his readers? How does this technique affect your ability to believe in the worlds that exist in these novels? How would more direct intervention by an authorial voice change your experience?
3. In which of these works do you think Faulkner's style, his use of language, and his formal innovations are most finely tuned, most powerfully worked out? In which do you feel that his stylistic quirks are most annoying, most distracting?
4. All of these novels question our assumptions about time as regular, linear, sequential, predictable. What are some of the ways in which time is disrupted in these works?
5. The Compson family of The Sound and the Fury (1929) plays a central role in Absalom, Absalom! (1936) as well. Does Faulkner want readers of Absalom, Absalom! to assume that Quentin's involvement in the Sutpen story is one of the reasons for his suicide, which takes place three months later in The Sound and the Fury? Do you see a seamless characterization of Quentin and Mr. Compson in the two books?
6. Faulkner is interested in the causes and effects of extreme psychological pressures, as we see in Quentin and Benjy Compson, Henry and Thomas Sutpen, Rosa Coldfield, Vardaman and Darl Bundren, and many other characters in these novels. What are some of the forms that psychopathology takes in Faulkner's world?
7. Faulkner has often been accused of an extremely misogynistic representation of women. Consider Caddy Compson, Dilsey, Dewey Dell and Addie Bundren, Judith Sutpen, Rosa Coldfield, the wife of Charles St. Valery Bon, and other female characters in these three novels. How would you describe Faulkner's notion of the feminine, as compared with the masculine? Do you agree with the critic Irving Howe that "Faulkner's inability to achieve moral depth in his portraiture of young women clearly indicates a major failing as a novelist"?
8. Is the work of Faulkner necessarily different in its impact depending upon whether one is from the North or the South, whether one is black or white?
Posted November 26, 2009
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Posted October 6, 2009
No text was provided for this review.