The action of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is simple: Addie Bundren dies; and in answer to her wishes, the body is taken for burial to Jefferson, some forty miles away. But the weather intervenes, and floodwaters require that the cortege take detours. Some nine days pass before the coffin, which before long clearly announces its passing to neighboring places, is finally laid to rest. These days involve battling flood water and a fire set by one of the children, the threat of buzzards, the hazards of a broken leg, and other incidental losses and disasters.
In the end, after Addie is buried, her bereaved husband appears with the second Mrs. Bundren. She brings with her a gramophone as dowry, and the Bundren family is once again reunited, with the exception of Darl, who has been sent to the state hospital. Faulkner exposed the Bundren family to two of the greatest disasters known to man: Flood and Fire. But As I Lay Dying is not merely a story of disasters or of a mission nobly achieved in spite of serious difficulties. Nor is it simply a comedy of horrors. Whatever it has of biblical or legendary suggestiveness is a matter of inference.
Primarily the novel is a psychological study of several perspectives upon truth, and the truth in this case is not dying, but the circumstances of being born and of the living. This interpretation of the novel makes Addie imperatively its center. It is her consciousness and her memory of the Bundren past that makes the narrative passages of her family what they are: reflections in both style and point of view of the place of each Bundren in the whole. Addie has only one monologue to herself, but it is the key to the novel. It is ironically placed in the external action after her son, Jewel, has rescued her coffin from floodwaters.
The monologue occurs “as I lay dying,” but it is revealed to us that she lay dead, her will still powerfully dictating the acts and temperaments of her children. As the passage begins, Addie remembers her life as a schoolgirl before her marriage to Anse. To get away from the hateful school she took Anse; and she shortly discovered, with the birth of their first child, that “living was terrible and that this was no answer to it. That was when I learned that that words are no good; that words don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say. Faulkner AILD pg. 171).
These words she remembers are Anse’s, and Anse remains a man of words, who shunts aside with words and folk pieties all responsibilities to act. But Cash, the first-born, who arrived before the dissolution of Addie’s love and trust, proves a reliable, practical, and a sensible person; in a sense the folk-hero of the novel. Cash’s birth was the dividing line in Addie’s relationship with her husband. She now knew “that we had had to use one another by words like spiders dangling by their mouths from a beam. AILD pg. 172).
But she is further embittered in the second birth: “Then I found that I had Darl… It was as though Anse had tricked me, hidden within a word like within a paper screen and struck me in the back through it”. (AILD pg. 172) Her bitterness over the trick is translated into hostility for Darl, who becomes the most vocal, the most strangely upset, and eventually destructive member of the family. His acts and his words are both desperate stratagems to assert himself as a member of the human race and of the family.
The rhetoric of Darl’s words and the violence of his acts are a direct result of the circumstances of his birth. At this point Addie fully realizes “how words go straight up in a thin line 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. “(AILD pg. 173) She severs all meaningful relationship with her husband, “And then he died. He did not know he was dead. “(AILD pg. 174) and she has an affair with the preacher, Whitfield, also a man of words.
Jewel is the result, a bastard son. The birth of Jewel is a consequence of her testing the word sin against the act of it. The act is vitiated because Whitfield does not deeply participate in it, but Jewel becomes to her the only real son, the only one not associated with Anse. To Jewel Addie entrusts her salvation, which is to mean the successful progress of her coffin to the family grave in Jefferson. Before she died, she had said to Cora Tull, an imperceptive and smugly righteous neighbor, that Jewel “is my cross and he will be my salvation.
He will save me from the water and from the fire. Even though I have laid down my life, he will save me”. (AILD pg. 168)Jewel does just this. He is a man of few words, and he believes in pure act. As I Lay Dying’s great dramatic conflict has nothing to do with Anse’s fulfilling his mission or is only incidentally concerned with it. It is essentially a novel of the tensions between Darl and Jewel, the one an unwanted and the other an illegitimate son. About the other children, Addie says, “I gave Anse Dewey Dell to negative Jewel.
Then I gave him Vardaman to replace the child I had robbed him of. And now he has three children that are his and not mine. And then I could get ready to die. “Addie’s monologue is brilliantly explanatory. The peculiarities of the style and the strange shifts of actions are dissolved in the light of Addie’s control over her children’s status and their response to it. It is fitting also that Vardaman and Dewey Dell should become close in the end to Darl’s position: They are all three children of Anse and only indifferently of Addie.
Vardaman’s style of monologue even approaches Darl’s, in spite of a disparity in their ages. Darl’s curious power to see beyond space and time barriers is also explained; his speculation upon being is directly related to his sense of isolation from his mother. Darl says, “I don’t know what I am. I don’t know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not. ” Jewel is in terms of Addie’s being; when Addie dies and is finally buried, Jewel’s is will become was.
But Darl’s existence depends on his breaking through that being; and when he fails, he fails altogether of being and goes off to the house of schizophrenics in Jackson, where the disparity of being and not being will not matter. The affairs of the Bundren’s are seen in the alternating bright glare and fitful light of their divergent conciousnesses. So far as they are concerned, their eccentricities are sufficiently explained. But it all comes together with Addie’s chapter. Her monologue is the needle that ties up many loose ends. Faulkner essentially uses her to put everything together. Addie is Faulkner’s glue.