Anse Bundren promised his wife he would take her back to her hometown of Jefferson before she died. Addie’s family burial ground was in Jefferson, and Anse promised to bury her there. So when Addie fell sick, and the doctor said she was near death, Anse began to pack up the family and prepare for the day-long ride to Jefferson. Then, the day before they were ready to leave, Addie died. Still, Anse had made a promise. So he loaded his wife and her newly-made coffin into the wagon, bundled up his grieving children, and departed for Jefferson.
As I Lay Dying is not a book to read once. Faulkner writes the book from the first-person perspective of the characters, every chapter switching from one character to the next. The reader views the world from inside Anse’s glum but duty-bound head before switching over to Vardaman’s childish and grief-stricken perspective. However, despite being written by a single man, each character is alive and distinct, as if the reader is only peeking into the mind of a real-life person who has and will live longer than the tale of the book. Unfortunately, that fact makes it difficult to initially understand what is happening. Faulkner does not make it easy on the reader; he writes his story and forces the reader to catch up. To be honest, I only understood the first forty pages after I had finished the book and returned to them. Yet that process of struggle made the actual comprehension that much more rewarding to me.
“My mother is a fish.” – Vardaman Bundren
Faulkner’s variety of perspectives allows him to fully explore how grief affects different people. Young Vardaman begins to slip into madness, using the only comparison of death he knows: the fish he recently gutted in the backyard. Yet, while he was gutting the fish, it was no longer a fish but a thing. Similarly, when his mother died, she continued to be his mother yet not. Therefore, in Vardaman’s grief-addled mind, he makes the logical conclusion that his mother is a fish. Such a statement is absolute nonsense, but reading Vardaman’s thought process imbues the nonsense with a moving aspect of tragedy and sorrow. Other characters do not have quite such defining moments, but they all must come to terms with their grief, and no two characters do it in the same way.
A great aspect of Faulkner’s exploration of grief is his subtlety. As Andrew mentions in his review, Faulkner explores characters’ grief over Addie’s death without often coming outright and mentioning it. Every character is affected, but it is an emotion that lurks in the background. Among that grief lurks hopelessness. This is not a Christian novel. There is no “we’ll see her in heaven one day.” Anse honors his promise to his wife, but he does so out of a sense of duty, not of love or hope of the resurrection. Addie is dead, she is gone, and everyone else must move on. Life keeps trudging on, and even as the characters process their grief, they have a variety of personal tasks they must complete. In a sense, though the book explores grief and tragedy, the answer the book supplies is simply “get over it.” Death happens. The characters bury the dead, then move on with their lives; sometimes not even in that order.
The title itself could express this sort of nihilistic approach to the world, depending on how one reads it. Who is the “I” in the title? Is it Addie? It is true that she does not die until several chapters into the book, but her death is the initiating event of the plot. The title could refer to Faulkner, for this was the last book he wrote before death. Yet, the more I think about it, I wonder if the “I” does not refer to all the characters. Every character is alive and, in that sense, on their way to their deathbed. Any of the characters could be said to “lay dying,” for life is simply a long, slow journey towards death. People live, wandering around from moment to moment, then are simply extinguished, just like the ending of the book. As I Lay Dying drives toward a conclusion, then simply ends. There is no explanation, no satisfaction, just like with the sudden death of a loved one.
Andrew wrote previously about the hopelessness of this novel, and I agree with him. Faulkner does not wrap everything up with a bow nor imbue his characters with a final glimmer of hope. Rather, the character with the most hope ends up the poorest off. Why, then, should you read this? What possible benefit could a Christian gain from ingesting such depressing stuff? The answer is simple: hope. Faulkner depicts the reality of grief and the nothingness that comes along with it. As Christians, we hold the greatest answer: life is not hopeless, death is not the end, there is hope. Faulkner gives a chance to encounter that depression and nihilism, while also giving a chance to contemplate and appreciate (and share!) the hope that comes with Christ. The book serves as a literary lent, if you will, giving us a chance to engage with darkness so that we might better appreciate the light.
Published on 28 January, 2017. Last updated on