In this novel, the author tells the story about the death of Addie Bundren, and the ensuing journey by her family to bury her corpse in her place of choice. It is a dark and sad tale told in a unique style called the stream of consciousness writing. This is a brilliant narrative technique that involves narrations by fifteen characters, including the dead woman, Addie, and a child who does not seem to grasp the magnitude of events that are unfolding. Faulkner also cleverly weaves vernacular speech into this unique narrative style for added powerful effect. The characters take turns in delivering powerful interior monologues that vary in terms of emotional intensity and coherence. The language changes recognizably with each character, but it is still intense, highly subjective, and sometimes confessional. We get to see their attitudes, how they regard others and how it affects their relationships with them.
From the fragmented passages, the reader is able to piece together the events of Addie Bundren's death and her final journey to her final resting place in Jefferson. Through the characters, the author tackles issues that aim to change the perceptions and stereotypes associated with poor Southerners. The manner in which the characters go about their lives highlights aspects of rural life, class conflicts, and the consequences of desire and selfishness. They grapple with issues such as identity, love, death, and the shortcomings of poor language skills. The author tries to unravel the complex mechanisms of the human mind in an illuminating, and sometimes unsettling manner for the readers.
The author has been able to strongly put across the major themes from the novel, mainly aided by his acerbic wit and macabre sense of humor. The theme of isolation stems right from the use of individual narrations and stream of consciousness (Holden). The characters come out as lonely figures, each lost in their own worlds. We see them lost within their on flow of interior monologues. The use of multiple narrators leaves every character essentially isolated from the others. The characters do not engage in meaningful conversations with each other. They do not connect emotionally even though they are close family members. Whatever feelings, fears or desires they might have, no one opens up to share with others.
The readers are able to peer into their inner thoughts and emotions, but they themselves don't really know what the other could be thinking. Only Darl has some intuition as regards the secrets of Addie and Dewey Dell, the rest can only guess about the true sentiments and convictions of others. Darl's isolation is the most captivating and tragic. He has a powerful intuition but is still unable to connect with the others due to his brilliance and sensitivity. His perception of his siblings is quite perplexing, as he can sometimes be empathetic and loyal, and other times aloof and detached. Jewel gets angry at Darl for seeing the truth about him while Dewey Dell hates Darl because he makes her feel vulnerable.
It is arguable that this is the author's master theme, as he tries to point out the need for man to seek social ties as a prerequisite for wholesomeness. For one to complete himself or herself, he/she must move from their position of solitude and reach out to others. One must be willing to take that risk to open up to others so that they can be accepted into the family unit. Faulkner is postulating that it is only within the communal wholesomeness of a human family set up can one's identity be truly recognized and nurtured.
Another powerful theme running through the novel is the theme of poverty. The setting itself is in the poor south, and the Bundrens are amongst the poorest there. The harsh poverty limits their abilities and makes their situation rather pathetic. They have to depend on their neighbors for many things, a situation they deeply resent but cannot avoid. The little pride that they try to portray is shredded by the harsh reality of their penury. Their poverty cannot allow them to take considerable time to properly grieve (Lombardi 78). There is no time for healing, as everyone has to get back to their daily work as life goes on. The Bundrens work blue collar jobs that pay very little and as a result the readers see them suffering a lot. In fact in a cruel twist of irony, death seems like it would be a welcome relief for the Bundrens. The meal they have as lunch on the first day is actually a fish that was caught by a child. Having to rely on fish caught by a kid goes on to expose the cruel, biting poverty afflicting the Bundrens.
The story line of William Faulkner's "As I lay dying" revolves around the death and final journey of Addie Bundren, as the family struggles to deliver her to her final resting place. As a result, the theme of death and mortality runs through the whole story as we see how different family members grapple with such a weighty issue. The horrible aspect of the physical nature of death is vividly portrayed by the stinking corpse, and buzzards following the entourage as they are attracted to the putrid smell. The smell of the rotting corpse hangs in every chapter, a constant reminder that death is both spiritual and visceral. The harshness of poverty makes death even more painful in this case. Addie doesn't seem to get real rest, and her dead hands are described as "still unresting, as if they could not believe their work was done". In death, her body is made to suffer the indignity of a tumultuous journey in which her coffin is nearly swept away by floods. The poverty and suffering in the story makes death seem like a relief (Padgett).
As for the characters with religious convictions, they believe that death provides the motivation to live one's life well, because it is the ultimate reward in the journey of life. One should strive to fulfill their obligations in this life before they finally depart. The characters are affected in different ways by death. Some are denial, like Jewel and Vardaman. Darl wants to get over it and move on but his attempts are frustrated. Cash tries to "honor" the dead in dramatic and heroic fashion, as does Jewel later in the story. Dewey Dell, whose reaction to her mother's death is the most passionate, later becomes more preoccupied with her abortion plans at the funeral.
The widower Anse seems to be the one most at ease with the situation, and even goes on to start courting a new wife before the dead one is buried. Faulkner also brings up the possibility of living in a dead state through Addie's narrative. When she "speaks" from the dead, we learn of her desire to live life, yet she is the one who dies. On the other hand, her husband Anse, who Addie considers as "dead" and "did not know he was dead" (Faulkner 204) continues to live, physically at least. To Addie, Anse represents suppression and emptiness, and the author further explores the results of such an existence in his characters, especially those who resort to platitudes to escape genuine introspection.
Most of the characters believe in religion and spirituality, and this stands out as another strong theme running throughout the novel (Gallagher). The author seems to be rather critical of the simple nature of religion. The church minister goes around proclaiming that he has wrestled with the devil and won, yet he had a passionate affair with Addie that resulted in him siring a child with her. In hiding this great transgression, he is portrayed as a self-serving hypocrite who preaches water while partaking of wine. Cora does not recognize anything that goes against her strong religious convictions, and her pious attitude becomes increasingly unnerving to the rest of the characters. Divine justice does not seem to come to the true spiritual devotees, while immoral men seem to enjoy good luck in their endeavors. Spiritualism comes to represent confessions without redemption, or worse still, a journey without a purpose. It is also very clear in the novel that women are genuine in their religious beliefs while the men are hypocritical in their faith.
This novel is, without a doubt, a literary masterpiece. The author, William Faulkner, uses a complex stylistic device to deliver a powerful story that leaves the reader with a mixture of emotions and a new dimension in their outlook of life. The tone of the story ebbs and flows between humorous and ridiculous, to sad and macabre. The characters are generally introverts, but the author lays bare their innermost feelings and convictions for the reader to dissect and contemplate. The use of individual narratives for all the characters not only enables the reader to see their true characters, it also strongly builds the main theme of loneliness and isolation that every character seems to grapple with. The theme of poverty is also vivid in the family as they struggle to give Addie a respectable final send off.
The situation is so hard that they have to rely on help from their neighbors, a fact that gnaws at their last vestiges of pride. William Faulkner seems to trivialize religion in this story, with the main talking point being the philanderous church minister, who preaches chastity and morality, and yet goes on to father an illegitimate child with a married woman. In using the stream of consciousness style of writing, the author enables the reader to piece together one story from different fragments representing the points of view of all characters (Sullivan). The author is implicitly trying to encourage socialization as a means to finding real happiness and personal security. On their own, the characters look lost and vulnerable, and it would be prudent for them to open up and embrace each other. Only within a warm and loving human family structure can individuals find real identity and safety. Together, they can successfully tackle the seemingly insurmountable odds they face in isolation.