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As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner



Addie, a schoolteacher, marries Anse Bundren, a tall man with a humped back who has a farm in the hills of Yoknapatawpha County. They have a child, Cash, who makes Addie feel less alone and whom she loves.

Her contentment with one child is shattered when she finds herself pregnant with her second child, Darl. She feels that Anse has tricked her with words of love, which she is sure he cannot feel. In revenge, she secures a promise she knows will be nearly impossible to keep. She makes Anse promise to bury her next to her relatives 40 miles away in Jefferson, the county seat, when she dies.

One summer, Addie has a brief, passionate affair with Whitfield, a preacher. They have a son, Jewel, whom Anse raises as his own. To make amends to Anse for her unfaithfulness, she has two other children, Dewey Dell and Vardaman.

When Vardaman is eight or nine, Addie lies dying on her corn-shuck mattress. Outside her window, Cash, now a 29-year-old carpenter, carefully fashions her coffin as a gesture of love. While the Tulls- neighbors- are visiting, Darl convinces jewel to take a trip with him to pick up a load of lumber. Darl knows that Jewel is Addie's favorite child. The trip for lumber is a contrivance- Darl's way of keeping Jewel from his mother's bedside when she dies.

Their absence with the family's wagon presents a problem. In the July heat, dead bodies decompose rapidly. A wheel breaks, and before Darl and jewel can replace it, bring the wagon home, and load Addie's body onto it for the trip to Jefferson, three days have passed.

By this time, heavy rains have flooded the Yoknapatawpha River and washed out all the bridges that cross it. The Bundrens travel past the Tulls' house to the Samsons', then back to the Tulls' again to ford the river at what had been a shallow place before the flood.

The river is vicious. The Bundrens' mules drown. The wagon tips over, dumping Cash and breaking his leg. Jewel, on horseback, manages to keep the wagon and its load from drifting downstream.

They stop at the Amstids' on the other side of the river. Anse trades Jewel's horse and Cash's eight dollars- he had been saving for a wind-up phonograph- for a new mule team.

To reach Jefferson, the Bundrens have to drive out of the county to Mottson. Addie's rotting body outrages the townspeople. The Bundrens buy a dime's worth of cement to make a cast for Cash's leg. Dewey Dell, who is pregnant, tries and fails to buy some abortion pills in the local drugstore.

They spend the night at the Gillespies' farm. Darl sets fire to the barn where Addie's body is stored in an effort to spare his mother more degradation. However, Jewel saves her coffin with a heroic act. Dewey Dell, who hates Darl because he knows she is pregnant, realizes that Darl set the fire and tells the Gillespies.

The Bundrens reach Jefferson nine days after Addie's death. They dig her grave with borrowed shovels and then get on with their own lives. They commit Darl to the state insane asylum rather than pay the Gillespies for a new barn. A dishonest drugstore clerk takes advantage of Dewey Dell, who fails to get the abortion pills she wanted. Anse takes money from Dewey Dell, buys a set of false teeth, and marries a "duck-shaped" woman.

[As I Lay Dying Contents]


Faulkner provides you with two basic perspectives on the characters, allowing you to view them through their own interior monologues and through the eyes of others. You must sort through the different views to arrive at your own understanding of the Bundrens and their neighbors.

What follows is an exploration of the 15 characters whose interior monologues make up the novel. The seven Bundrens are presented first. The numbers after the characters' names refer to the sections they narrate. Faulkner didn't number the sections. They are numbered here to help you match your copy of the novel with the section-by-section discussion in this guide. (See the Note on Numbering the Monologues at the beginning of The Story section.)


  • ANSE BUNDREN [9, 26, 28]
    Anse is a hill farmer who inherited his parents' farm just south of the Yoknapatawpha River, which crosses the southern end of Yoknapatawpha County. A lazy man, he has convinced himself that if he ever sweats, he will die. He is so ineffectual when confronted with obstacles that his sons have to make many of his decisions for him.

    Yet he seems to mean well. When Addie dies, his grief appears genuine, although he can express it only clumsily. In at least one place- while staying at Samson's- his resolve to honor Addie's wish to be buried in Jefferson wavers. But in general he sticks to the promise he made to her 28 years earlier, at Darl's birth, and insists on taking her body to Jefferson, which he has not visited for 12 years.

    Selfishness is one of his major motivations, and he is adept at deceiving himself: Some readers see Anse as a comic figure- a sad clown. Others view him as a villain, able to act only from selfish motives. But to people such as Addie, he's a "dead" person, substituting empty words for experience.

    You should try to see whether Anse grows or otherwise changes during the course of the action. Study his words at the end of the book to determine whether he has gained insights into himself or anyone else since he first appeared in section 3.

    Though Anse's wife, Addie, is given only one monologue, her presence, even in death, dominates the novel. Born and raised in Jefferson, her father taught her that the purpose of living is to prepare for death. Her parents were dead and she was teaching school when she met Anse. She married him- "I took Anse," she said- in hopes of making the sort of intense, violent contact with another person that would give her life meaning.

    Anse couldn't provide that experience. He could only talk about it- not the same thing at all, Addie points out. Cash, her firstborn, does penetrate the circle of solitude around her, and she loves him. Her attitude toward her children, whether love, hostility, or indifference, helps them define themselves and their response to her death.

    About ten years after Darl's birth, she has a passionate affair with a preacher named Whitfield, who fathers her favorite son, Jewel. She makes amends to Anse by having two more children.

    Despite her negative qualities, Addie may be visualized as a life force. She craves passionate encounters, violations of her "aloneness." Some readers have identified her with the myth of Demeter, the major goddess of fertility, and her daughter, Persephone, goddess of spring and thus also of fertility.

    Other readers stress the barrenness of her life- her father's destructive teachings, her loneliness, her vengefulness, her rejection of Darl and her indifference toward Dewey Dell and Vardaman. These readers feel that Faulkner may be turning the Demeter-Persephone myth on its head, making Addie in death as well as in life a sort of goddess of infertility.

  • CASH BUNDREN [18, 22, 38, 53, 59]
    Cash, at 29 or 30 Addie's oldest son, is a carpenter. His name is short for Cassius. His mother loved him, and he returns that love, painstakingly crafting her coffin outside her window in the opening scenes. A recognizable country type, his unexpected responses- to pain, for example, and to a question about the height of his fall from a church roof- are a source of humor. At the end of the book, his insights into the family relationships and Darl's sanity reveal him to be the wisest of the Bundrens, and perhaps the one most changed by the journey.

    His lameness suggests to some readers a parallel with Hephaestus (also known as Vulcan or Mulciber), the Greek god of fire. Hephaestus was a kindly, peace-loving god, patron of handicrafts. Though lame, he made weapons and furnishings for the other gods.

  • DARL BUNDREN [1, 3, 5, 10, 12, 17, 21, 23, 25, 27, 32, 34, 37, 42, 46, 48, 50, 52, 57]
    Darl, about 28 years old, narrates a third of the book and is easily the most perceptive of the Bundren children. A sort of mad poet, he is a type that always intrigued Faulkner and with whom he often identified. The neighbors consider him odd. He is clairvoyant, that is, able to understand unspoken thoughts and to describe scenes he doesn't witness.

    Addie's rejection of him is the central fact of his life. His rivalry with Jewel, Addie's favorite son, is evident on the first page and continues to the end of the book. His sensitivity stems, at least in part, some readers think, from the wounds inflicted by his mother's rejection of him.

    Why he sets fire to the barn is, like his sanity, a matter of debate. Many readers believe that he wanted to end the journey by burning Addie's decomposing corpse perhaps as an act of love, "to hide her away from the sight of man." Others see his setting of the fire as a mark of insanity, justifying his being committed to an asylum at Jackson at the end of the book. You will have an opportunity to offer your own explanation as you learn more about Darl.

    Jewel, Addie's son by Whitfield, is 18 years old. Like Pearl, the product of Hester Prynne's adulterous affair in Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter, Jewel's name is a symbol of the value his mother places on him. The favoritism that Addie showed him is responsible for the antagonism between him and Darl.

    A blend of inarticulateness and action, Jewel personifies Addie's preference for experience over words. He is always in motion. He expresses himself best through actions. When he verbalizes his love for Addie- in his single monologue- he does so with a violent fantasy about hurling down stones on outsiders. Elsewhere, he expresses his love for her through deeds, not words.

    His relationship with his horse is equally intense. Like the Greek god Dionysus, with whom some readers associate him, Jewel is both virile and cruel. (See the Note in Chapter 1 of The Story section for further discussion of Jewel as Dionysus.)

  • DEWEY DELL BUNDREN [7, 14, 30, 58]

    Dewey Dell, Addie's fourth child, is 17. Unable to complete a thought, she seems at times like a mindless animal. By her name and actions, Faulkner identifies her with the earth and with fertility- a "wet seed wild in the hot blind earth." Perhaps because of her mother's indifference to her, she seems unmoved by Addie's death. She is pregnant and eager to go to Jefferson because she hopes to buy abortion pills there.

    Dewey Dell has a vindictive side. She hates Darl for knowing that she is pregnant and seeks revenge by betraying him. With Vardaman, however, she shows maternal feelings.

    Some readers associate Dewey Dell with Persephone, the goddess of spring and queen of the underworld in Greek myth. They point out, however, that once again Faulkner may be turning the Demeter-Persephone myth on its head. By seeking an abortion, this goddess of fertility is denying her own powers.

  • VARDAMAN BUNDREN [13, 15, 19, 24, 35, 44, 47]
    Eight or nine years old, Vardaman is the son Addie gave Anse to "replace the child I robbed him of." She is looking at him when she dies. He is so traumatized by her death, he at first blames Doc Peabody for it, then confuses Addie in his mind with a huge fish he caught the afternoon she died.


  • WHITFIELD [41]
    Addie's lover and Jewel's father, Whitfield is the preacher who heads for the Bundrens' farm when he hears that Addie is dying. Perhaps fearing Addie will confess their brief affair on her deathbed, he intends to admit the transgression himself.

    Addie dies before Whitfield arrives, and he decides that God will accept his intention to confess in place of the actual confession. His monologue, full of empty religiosity of the sort Addie detested, suggests that Addie may have misjudged him some nineteen years earlier.

    He presides over her funeral. The impression he gives Tull- that his voice is not part of his body- calls attention to the disparity between his words and actions.

  • VERNON TULL [8, 16, 20, 31, 33, 36]
    Vernon Tull- or just Tull- is a neighbor who lives four miles from the Bundrens. You can trust his observations because, unlike his wife Cora, he never judges what he sees, he merely reports.

    Try as he might, he can't not help Anse. "I done holp him so much already I cant quit now," he says.

  • CORA TULL [2, 6, 39]
    Cora, like Addie a former teacher, is a well-meaning woman who lectures Addie on the need to repent her sins. Despite her empty piety, some see Cora as a sympathetic character, one that Faulkner makes you care about. She doesn't have much use for the Bundrens but believes, as her religion teaches, that it is her duty to help her fellow mortals.

  • DOC PEABODY [11, 51]
    Seventy years old and weighing more than 200 pounds, Lucius Quintus Peabody (Faulkner gives the full name in his novel Sartoris) is, like Tull, a reliable narrator. Early in the novel, he makes a house call to the Bundrens' to see Addie. He introduces one of the novel's themes- that death is felt not by those who die but by their survivors. Toward the end of the novel, in Jefferson, he treats Cash's broken leg.

  • SAMSON [29]
    Samson owns a farm eight miles from the Bundrens'. When Anse and his family are unable to cross the river by bridge, they stay at Samson's overnight. His firmness tempered by understanding, Samson suggests that they bury Addie in nearby New Hope. But Anse, prodded by Dewey Dell, ignores the advice. Samson's wife, Rachel- an emotional and, to Samson, unpredictable woman- is outraged by Addie's treatment.

  • ARMSTID [43]
    Armstid, a farmer on the north side of the Yoknapatawpha River, lends Jewel his mules so that the Bundrens can move their wagon away from the river. The Bundrens stay at Armstid's farm one night, and down the road from it a second night. One of the most generous people the Bundrens meet, Armstid offers them more aid- food, lodging, and the extended use of his team- than they are willing to accept.

  • MOSELEY [45]
    Moseley runs the drugstore in Mottson. A righteous man, he refuses to sell Dewey Dell anything to abort her child. He reports the townspeople's view of the rest of the Bundren clan, who were waiting outside a hardware store while Darl bought cement for Cash's cast.

    MacGowan, a druggist's assistant in Jefferson, takes advantage of Dewey Dell's naivete and seduces her.

[As I Lay Dying Contents]



As I Lay Dying takes place in or just outside Yoknapatawpha County, the "apocryphal kingdom" in northern Mississippi where 15 of Faulkner's 19 novels are set. Faulkner never disguised the fact that he modeled Yoknapatawpha after his own Lafayette County, where he lived for most of his life. Jefferson, Yoknapatawpha's county seat, is much like Oxford, Faulkner's hometown.

Yoknapatawpha is sparsely populated. Faulkner once put its population at 15,611, and its land area at 2400 square miles. The Bundrens' closest neighbors in the pine hills, the Tulls, live four miles away. One of the themes of As I Lay Dying is isolation-the isolation even of people who are united in a common effort. The distance between the farms in Yoknapatawpha's hill country advances that theme. The Tulls, Samsons, Armstids, and Bundrens are all part of the same community, yet each family operates within its own orbit, and within that orbit each individual lives locked in the "cell" of his own consciousness.

The Bundrens' journey to Jefferson takes them from the world of farmers and woodsmen to the world of storekeepers, mechanics, doctors and lawyers. The worlds are as different as day and night. Indeed, Faulkner suggests that the Yoknapatawpha River is a dividing line as significant to the Bundrens as the mythological River Styx was to the ancient Greeks. The River Styx, in Greek mythology, separated the world of the living from the world of the dead. Conflict between town and country folk is a motif that crops up throughout the novel.

Finding obstacles to put in the Bundrens' path wasn't difficult. "I simply imagined a group of people and subjected them to the simple universal natural catastrophes, which are flood and fire," Faulkner said in 1956. Rain and flood dominate the first two thirds of the book, adding to the Bundrens' stress and enabling Faulkner to study their response to crisis.


Here is a list of the major themes that readers have found in As I Lay Dying. You will have a chance to explore them further in the section-by-section discussion of the novel. Some of these themes are contradictory. It is up to you to sort out those you think are valid from those you think invalid.

    Addie, in death, motivates the living. She causes her family to bear the struggle of the Journey to Jefferson. Her different attitudes toward her children dictate their different responses to her death and prompt one- Jewel- to perform feats of heroism. The rivalry between Jewel and Darl continues long after Addie's death. Even her decaying corpse motivates the living- to flee.

    The purpose of the journey, from Addie's point of view, is revenge. But Anse isn't allowed to understand that. Nor is he perceptive enough to understand that the journey is senseless. He could have buried Addie at New Hope and bought false teeth another day. This interpretation was popular in the 1950s, especially among French Existentialists, members of a philosophical movement that holds the universe to be absurd.

    Some readers interpret Addie's longing for intense personal contact- her "duty to the alive, to the terrible blood"- as support for this theme. Such involvement with others gives meaning to existence. The help the Bundrens are given by their neighbors and the help they give each other demonstrate the importance of involvement.

    We live in our own cells even while acting in unison with others to achieve a common goal- a goal as simple as moving a body about 40 miles to a cemetery. The 59 interior monologues that make up the novel are clear demonstrations of the cells in which individuals live. "Man is free and he is responsible, terribly responsible," Faulkner told an interviewer in 1959. "His tragedy is the impossibility- or at least the tremendous difficulty- of communication. But man keeps on trying endlessly to express himself and make contact with other human beings."

    This is a theme of great importance to Addie, for whom words are "just a shape to fill a lack." "Words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless," she says, while "doing goes along the earth, clinging to it...." In various ways, Anse, Cora, and Whitfield exemplify the emptiness of words when compared with action. On the other hand, the most inarticulate character in the novel, Jewel, is all motion. He expresses himself through action, not words.

    Each of the novel's 15 narrators has a perspective on reality that may or may not be accurate. Is Darl sane or insane? Is Vardaman's mother a fish? Is Addie's sin, as Cora says, the sin of pride, and the log that struck the wagon "the hand of God"? Does Anse have some feeling, a lot of feeling, or no feeling toward Addie? Since Faulkner provides no narrator to help you sift through the various characters' perceptions, you are left to draw your own conclusions.

Readers have also identified several secondary themes in As I Lay Dying. Among them are the following.

    These two groups are at odds throughout the novel, from the "rich town" lady's rejection of Cora's cakes to Dewey Dell's seduction by the slick druggist's assistant in Jefferson.

    Darl, the unwanted son, is obsessed with Jewel, the favorite son, from the first sentence of the novel almost to the end.

    Some characters have this power, some don't. After reading As I Lay Dying, you might want to rank the characters according to their ability to act. Most readers would place Jewel at the head of the list, Anse at the bottom.

    Some of the characters have this ability, some can only talk about it. Perhaps more than anyone, Addie and Jewel have this power- one which Jewel, by saving his mother twice, merges with his power to act. As the Bible would have it, he does "not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth" (1 John 3:18).

    It is a source of tension between men and women, an antidote to loneliness, and a method of achieving immortality. Addie lives on through her children and through children who, like Dewey Dell's, are yet unborn.


Faulkner is a difficult writer. His style- the way he expresses things- is often closer to poetry than to prose. Like a poet, he tries to capture the emotion of an experience as well as the experience itself.

Faulkner deliberately withholds meaning to keep his options open, to keep his story in motion. In the opening section, for instance, he describes an odd competition between Darl and Jewel but never tells you whether it really is a competition or what it's all about. You have to read many more sections before you can make sense of that first one. In Addie's section [40], her thoughts jump from experience (her history) to ideas (her theory of the distance between words and deeds) and to unanchored impressions ("the terrible blood, the red bitter blood boiling through the land") whose meaning you must almost guess at.

The beauty of As I Lay Dying is that its structure permits Faulkner to create numerous voices. Dewey Dell's breathy rush of unfinished thoughts is one distinct voice. Vernon Tull's folk dialect is another, and MacGowan's wise-guy patter is still another. The repetitive structure of Whitfield's monologue [41] mimics Psalms in the Old Testament. In large part, this demonstration of Faulkner's virtuosity in handling a number of voices comfortably is what people are talking about when they call As I Lay Dying a tour de force, an expression of an author's technical mastery.

Keep an eye out for Faulkner's startling use of imagery. It would be useful for you to jot down the first ten images that make an impression on you and ask yourself why they are memorable. Much of Faulkner's imagery is visual (pertaining to sight). But his imagery can also be olfactory (pertaining to smell), tactile (touch), auditory (hearing), gustatory (taste), and even abstract in its appeal to the intellect.

The lyric description of drinking water from a cedar bucket [section 3] provides examples of these forms of imagery. "Warmish-cool, with a faint taste like the hot July wind in cedar trees smells" mixes gustatory, tactile, and olfactory imagery in one sentence. A paragraph later, Faulkner mixes auditory and tactile imagery: "I could lie with my shirt-tail up, hearing them asleep, feeling myself without touching myself, feeling the cool silence blowing...."

It's Faulkner's abstract imagery that may give you the most trouble. "I cannot love my mother because I have no mother," Darl says in section 21. "Jewel's mother is a horse."

Faulkner makes imaginative uses of figures of speech in which one thing is described in terms of another (metaphor) or in which one thing is likened to another (simile). In section 21, Jewel shapes a horse in his imagination "in a rigid stoop like a hawk, hook-winged" (simile). Darl describes the floating log that topples the wagon "upright... like Christ" (simile), and later Cora calls the log "the hand of God" (metaphor). Extending the Christ image, Darl speaks metaphorically of "the bearded head of the rearing log." Earlier Faulkner uses metaphor to suggest that Jewel's horse is Pegasus- "enclosed by a glittering maze of hooves as by an illusion of wings." What he is doing here, as elsewhere, is implying analogies between his characters and those from ancient myth.

In a consideration of style, it's important to remember that all the action is described through interior monologues thought processes presented as speech. Interior monologues play three key roles. They (1) move the action forward, (2) reveal the characters' private thoughts, and (3) comment on what the other characters do. They also permit some of Faulkner's characters to use, in their unspoken thoughts, some highly sophisticated language. "The lantern," Darl observes in section 17, "...sheds a feeble and sultry glare upon the trestles and the boards and the adjacent earth." In section 13, the young boy Vardaman sees "the dark... resolving him out of his integrity, into an unrelated scattering of components." When they speak aloud, however, these characters are country folk through-and-through. "You mind that ere fish," Vardaman tells Tull.

The folk dialect of Tull, Anse, and Cash seems to take some of the horror out of the journey. Tull describes Vardaman's boring holes through the lid of Addie's coffin: "When they taken the lid off they found that two of them had bored on into her face. If it's a judgment, it ain't right...."

As one reader says, Faulkner "crosses farce with anguish" in As I Lay Dying. And a lot of the farce, or slapstick humor, is in the language- Faulkner's style.


As I Lay Dying is made up of a succession of first-person narratives, with the action seen and interpreted by fifteen characters. The narrators are subjective- they convey their own feelings and thoughts as well as report the action. None of them is detached from the action for long.

Seven of the narrators are Bundrens, totally caught up in the events and unable to make complete sense of them. Darl never ceases to try, however, and Cash gains some perspective at the end.

The other eight narrators are outsiders. Faulkner uses them to show you how observers- some of them neutral (Tull, Peabody, Samson, Armstid, Moseley), some of them not so neutral (Cora, Whitfield, MacGowan)- view the Bundrens.

Since all the narrators are wrapped up in the action, you ought to question their reliability. Anse says he is "beholden to no man," but we learn he is. Cora is convinced that Jewel and Anse forced Darl to leave his dying mother's bedside. She is wrong. What you've got to do is test the narrators' perceptions against each other, then draw your own conclusions.

One of the major themes of the novel is that because facts are subjective, truth is elusive. It's not easy to make sense of the action with so many competing points of view. You must sift the evidence and make up your own mind about what happened and why.

Faulkner surely has an opinion of each character. But even when his characters are most vile- when Anse, for example, takes Dewey Dell's money, or MacGowan seduces her- Faulkner refuses to criticize them. He portrays his characters, warts and all, with affection.

The use of multiple narrators is an effective substitute for an omniscient (all-knowing) narrator. Omniscient narrators allow novelists to present several perspectives on events. The fifteen narrators in As I Lay Dying permit Faulkner- and you- to work with fifteen perspectives.


As I Lay Dying is divided into 59 soliloquies, or interior monologues- the characters' thoughts expressed as if they were spoken. They are delivered by 15 different people.

The basic plot and the controlling image of the novel is that of a journey- in this case, the journey from the Bundrens' home to the cemetery plot in Jefferson. As some readers have pointed out, the story echoes many of the well-known journeys in history and myth. The story of Odysseus wandering for years before he reaches home is suggested by the novel's title, a quote from Homer's Odyssey. Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece is another epic voyage called to some reader's minds. Also, in 1290, England's Edward I made a famous funeral journey from Nottinghamshire to London with his dead queen, Eleanor of Castile.

Faulkner's story of a poor family's funeral journey wasn't intended to compete with those grand tales. Yet they form the backdrop against which Faulkner plays out his story.

For the most part, the story is told chronologically. It begins just before Addie's death and proceeds, after a three-day delay, with the tortuous journey to Jefferson. Later, flashbacks fill in some of the pieces that are missing from the puzzle of the Bundrens' lives.

The novel's form is an expression of its content. The characters work together and live together- if not in the same house, at least in the same community. Yet their isolation from one another is almost total, and it is exemplified by the 59 monologues. For the most part, the fifteen soliloquists are unable to make meaningful contact with one another. They cannot penetrate each other's "aloneness."



ECC [As I Lay Dying Contents] []

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