Guest Book Review: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

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March 03, 2016
By Eddie V

I read somewhere that William Faulkner is one of Cormac McCarthy’s favorite authors, and because I loved Blood Meridian so much, I decided to read one of Faulkner’s novels.

I could immediately see how McCarthy was influenced by Faulkner because Faulkner too writes in an “I don’t give a damn about rules” style; in fact, he probably cared even less. In As I Lay Dying, Faulkner tell his story from the perspective of 15 different narrators using a stream of consciousness technique that even after rereading certain passages can leave the reader totally confused. Beyond the sometimes confusion, however, As I Lay Dying tells a bittersweet story about the dysfunctional Bundren family working together through a difficult situation regardless of their opinions of each other or their selfish motivations. For me, this novel is a parable about the importance of family but also the ugliness that we may allow ourselves to regard them with.

The book takes place on the Bundren’s rural farm in Mississippi in the 1920s, where the matriarch, Addie, is laying down dying while her oldest son, Cash, builds a coffin for her. All around her its business as usual on the farm because the family can’t afford to lose a day’s work and every penny counts. We learn that her husband, Anse, has promised to deliver her body across the county so she may be laid to rest in her hometown of Jefferson. Her sons, Jewel and Darl, have traveled off the farm to make a couple dollars in the midst of a raging sibling rivalry. Daughter Dewey Dell is troubled by a scandalous secret and the youngest, Vardaman, is having trouble figuring out where he fits in in the family. As all this is happening, we are privy to each family member’s thoughts and begin to understand how each one is dealing with the eventual death of their wife and mother. The spectrum of emotions runs from guilt, pride, spite, indifference, betrayal and a sense of duty. Anse and Dewey Dell both feel bad about her death, both see it as a selfish opportunity. Darl and Jewel both want mom to be handled respectfully but have differing opinions on the matter. We even get the perspective of Addie after she dies and her true feelings about her family. What’s great about this family’s dynamic is that it makes you think and analyze yourself and your family and how you would act if placed in such a situation.

Personally, I was recently actually placed in a similar situation. My mother was diagnosed with cancer and luckily she was treated and survived the ordeal and things are back to normal. Still, even though it was happening to her, everyone in my family had their own reactions to the news. Now, I can’t speak for everyone else (especially because my family isn’t one to have these deep personal discussions), I don’t think any of us reacted in such a nasty and selfish way the Bundren’s did. If I were to compare myself to any of the book’s characters, I think I relate most to the oldest Bundren boy, Cash. The entire time, he worked tirelessly and selflessly to build the best coffin he could out of honor and respect to his mother. Even when the rain came down and no one offered to help him, he focused on the task at hand. On the journey to the town, he was badly injured yet he made no complaints because he knew what had to be done. Similarly, I felt that I offered to take my mom to most of her appointments in an effort to not inconvenience anyone else’s work and life schedules.

Is there some kind of selfishness to want to feel like I did something noble? Probably. But it’s nowhere as selfish as Anse’s behavior. You see, as noble as he may want to feel, he’s probably the most detestable character in the novel. He makes bad decisions all the time, refuses advice and help from friends and neighbors, puts his family in danger, handles Addie’s body poorly, and treats his family like employees all because he made a promise to someone who will never know if it was kept; or at least that’s what he’d have you believe. The truth is that not only could he have prevented Addie’s death, he really just needs an excuse to go to town to do some shopping.

I think the most important lesson we can hope to learn from this parable is to value the importance of the people we have in our lives, celebrate the time you have with them and try to prepare ourselves to handle any misfortune you may face together. Much like McCarthy, Faulkner teaches us how to deal with some of the less enjoyable parts of the human experience. While the story may feel forgettable, the feelings you get about family from this book will last your lifetime.

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