”He had a word, too. Love he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack.”
In the space of just six months in 1929-30, William Faulkner was married to his high school sweetheart, saw his breakthrough novel “The Sound and The Fury” published, and wrote its follow-up in just six weeks during his breaks while working the night shift at the University of Mississippi’s Power House. (He says he did not change a word of it either). Two significant events shaped “As I Lay Dying.” His marriage to Estelle Oldham, just two months after her divorce, likely made him an outsider. That point of view shapes the family life portrayed in the work. The second was the stock market crash of 1929. Not that it would openly affect the family here or many families in the rural South. However, as America plunged into poverty and starvation – families like those in “As I Lay Dying” and how they lived would be better understood.
Derived and inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, “As I Lay Dying” follows Addie Bundren’s death and her family’s journey to bury her in her hometown of Jefferson, MS. Addie is the portrait of a strong mother. As she is getting ready to die, she remembers her father saying “the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead for a long time.” She is waiting to – as Shakespeare would say “shuffle off this mortal coil” – and watching her most industrious child the firstborn Cash builds her a coffin. There in the July heat, Addie passes. Storms follow, swelling the rivers and leaving the bridges barely ready for normal travel – much less with a coffin in tow.
The journey is about the family, namely her husband Anse, and their five children: Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman. Faulkner hands the storytelling to them. We hear from 15 different characters over 59 chapters. (Hence, questions about a reliable narrator like last week’s “Absalom! Absalom!” will have to wait). This is Faulkner’s stream of consciousness comprising a variety of different perspectives. The language here is everything. Different generations use different words. Different households communicate in coded output. Faulkner takes what looks to the outside as a simple life, and points out the maze of complications. (For example, Addie’s friend Cora Tull describes several unwise decisions to make money without assignation of fault, instead only implying. “So I saved all the eggs and baked yesterday. The cakes turned out real well. We depend a lot on our chickens. They are good layers. What few we have left after the possums and such. Snakes too, in the summer. I had to …….