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The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

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    As I Lay Dying

    Title: As I Lay Dying (261 pages)

    Author: William Faulkner

    Published: 1930

    After promising myself that I would do so for almost four years (pretty much since reading ‘A Rose for Emily’), I finally got around to reading William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Faulkner is quoted as saying that when he began to write the novel, he set out to create a ‘tour de force.’ He wasn’t kidding. Just under two months later, he wound up with one of the twentieth century’s most classic pieces of American literature.

    As I Lay Dying is narrated in a unique fashion, especially for its time. Each chapter is simply titled by the name of the character speaking; the same character never speaks twice in a row, and the focus is shifted around an entire family, from one member to another, occasionally making exceptions for outsiders or, in one case, even the dead. This style affords the reader a very complete picture of each plot situation, and although first person narration is the best way to ‘get to know’ a character, it is only strengthened by hearing the firsthand impressions of others directly afterward. Of course, the most interesting parts of the novel come when a character says – or does – one thing and thinks another, or when two different characters think in radically different directions.

    The plot centers around the Bundren clan, as they make the journey to Jefferson to bury their dead mother. Her widower, Anse, is a bitter and self-righteous man, who will accept no charity along the way. The poor farmer’s life has taken its toll on him; he says, ‘Nowhere in this sinful world can an honest, hardworking man profit.’ But despite that, and despite his constant quoting (and misquoting) of the Bible, he seems relieved at his wife’s passing, not for the end of her suffering, but because ‘[N]ow [he] can get them teeth. That will be a comfort. It will.’ He has been without teeth for most of his adult life, and getting a false set is his first priority before his wife is in the ground.

    Anse is, of course, not the only flawed character. Most of the Bundrens have something to be ashamed of. Jewel is a distant middle child, independent and brooding, though he will do anything he believes his mother would have wanted. Dewel Dell, the only daughter, fastidiously conceals her own dark secret from the rest of the Bundrens. She says, ‘It’s like everything in the world for me is inside a tub full of guts, so you wonder how there can be any room in it for anything else very important.’ Cryptic, I know, but I don’t want to spoil anything. Anyhow, it is knowing so much about each family member and their own personal conflicts – with each other, with themselves – that makes the novel ripple with tension and strife. Even when there is no overt conflict, the reader feels one evolving in the minds of the characters. Breaking points are, of course, inevitable.

    As I Lay Dying is a bit slow starting off. There are a lot of character traits and back-stories that Faulkner sets up early only to bring them back later in critical moments. Nonetheless, it has not gained so much acclaim over the last seventy years, by not gaining considerable strength as it progresses. Faulkner has a lot to say about the American south, the nature of life and death, and the human spirit, in all its various states. Finally, the book is quite short, so you have nothing to lose by giving it a whirl. Let me know what you think.

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