As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

Through the cracks is a review series focusing on the ones that got away. These are the timeless classics that everyone has read – everyone, that is, except the reviewer, who is finally getting around to reading a book which somehow slipped through the cracks and trying to see if it’s really all it’s cracked up to be.

I’m from New Albany, Mississippi. Birthplace of William Faulkner. I lived much of my childhood about two miles or so from his childhood home. I went to New Albany High School, where Faulkner pride was contagious and inescapable. I went on to attend Ole Miss in Oxford, Mississippi – where Faulkner lived as an adult. One of my classes met once at Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s home, because, well hello, how do you attend Ole Miss and not visit William Faulkner’s home at some point? So, as you can see, a lot of Faulkner for me. A whole lot. I’m even a (very) distant cousin to the man. So can someone please explain to me how I never read a Faulkner novel, either in high school where, as I said, Faulkner was revered and beloved, or at Ole Miss, where he was possibly more revered and beloved? And I was an English major, for crying out loud… I guess it’s just that even though all my high school teachers taught a Faulkner novel most years, I somehow fell in the year that skipped him – all four years. Then in college, I never could work out my schedule to include the Southern lit class I so desperately wanted to take. When I finally did manage to get into a writing course that taught a Faulkner novel, I had to drop it because of unforeseen difficulties in commuting to the branch. I mean, I’d read a couple of short stories in some survey courses. I think I’d had “A Rose for Emily” at least three times. But no novel. It just slipped through the cracks. Well, no more. I recently picked up As I Lay Dying, and jumped in. It’s just not right to have grown up where I did, have gone to school where I did, even be who I am – a distant relative, a Mississippian – without ever reading a Faulkner novel.

Now, I just admitted I was an English major. But don’t look for clever analysis or deep explanation of the psychological aspects of the characters, or so on; I just want to tell you what I thought. And that preface is not usually a cop-out for me. But in this case, I’d say it’s half a cop-out… True, I’d rather simply tell you about my reading experience than give you a lengthy theoretical treatise. But I don’t think I could give you a decent analysis, even if I wanted to. And this is my first point – that I was confused more than once during this novel. And I think that’s wonderful. Yes, it’s humbling for someone who is a pretty good reader to encounter a work that towers over her, but gosh it was wonderful. The “stream of consciousness” thing I’d learned about became so very real: Each chapter of As I Lay Dying is given from the point of view of a character, and much of each chapter consists of internal dialogue or silent thoughts of the character. The action of the plot is minimal. While I found myself rereading chapters to make sure I didn’t miss something big, I was enthralled by it. It occurred to me that this is how people really are. Without much conversation or a reliable narrator to help us along, readers are forced to make sense of the characters’ desultory, troubled thoughts without a compass. But the whole time, I was thinking how brilliant it is to tell a story like this – we’re actually getting the characters’ genuine firsthand thoughts, straight from their own minds. It’s a dose of brutal honesty that we just don’t get with a sensible narrator or filtered conversation.
And those characters were so very real. Those poor, rural, 1920s Mississippians were selfish and crazy and self-righteous and misunderstood and typical and grieved and neighborly and fake and, well, just like the best of us brilliant, awful, lovely, hateful humans. Besides glimpses of the family’s neighbors (whom I wish I had time talk about individually), we see each child of Addie and Anse Bundren – Darl, Dewey Dell, Vardaman, Cash, and Jewel – dealing with the death of Addie in his or her own mind, and in his or her own way. Darl seems genuinely grieved at his mother’s passing but also sometimes seems the most rational character. Dewey Dell is sad, but is too wrapped in a secret problem of her own to grieve. Vardaman is too young to understand like the grown children and is confused with the thought of death. Cash is hurt but is almost comically self-deprecating in his putting his family first. And Jewel – I admit, I never could figure out Jewel. Jewel shows clearly that he stands apart from his siblings, both through his own actions and in Addie’s clear preference for him as her favorite for her own secret reason. His outward appearance was often haughty and stubborn, and sometimes selfish. But what was actually going through his mind? Admittedly, I can’t pin him down.
And there’s Anse, Addie’s husband. It’s clear what the community thinks of Anse – the neighbors find him always willing to accept a handout, and he seems averse to working hard for himself or his family. But the neighbors help him. They judge him too, but they help him. He receives hospitality from neighbors and is able to borrow what he needs to get by. Even with Addie’s death, though he appears grieved, he’s looking on the bright side – maybe he can get his false teeth now… Anse does the best he can to honor Addie’s wishes of being buried with her own family, making a long trip, fraught with troubles, with the casket and his children in a wagon to get Addie there. But even this apparent determination in fulfilling his wife’s wishes seems to suit himself best in the end.
There is one chapter told by Addie herself. Readers can’t be certain whether Addie is somehow speaking from the grave, or thinking to herself prior to her death; but we can be certain of one thing: she’s a bitter, unhappy soul. As a teacher, she would enjoy punishing students. She cursed her father for creating her. She was dissatisfied being a mother. She settled with men who seemed unequal to her. And I asked myself why. Why could she not find some scrap of happiness, somewhere? What happened to her, or what was happening in her mind to make her so? But when Addie does finally die, she perhaps can fulfill her destiny. She says, “I could just remember how my father used to say that the reason for living was to get to stay dead a long time.”

I was depressed and ecstatic all at the same time by the end of the novel. And that’s fantastic. And now that I’d finished my first Faulkner novel, I decided to pay a visit to the Union County Heritage Museum in New Albany, where Faulkner’s childhood home is located. I’d been there for different events, but never paid particular attention to the Faulkner exhibit or the Faulkner Literary Garden, where visitors can find native Mississippi plants and flowers growing alongside signs with quotes from Faulkner’s books where those plants are mentioned. My visit unfortunately took place on a rainy, winter day. So the garden looked a little less impressive than it would have on a spring day. But I still made the whole loop, noting each sign and looking for each plant and tree and flower. I looked through the Museum’s Faulkner file, a collection of newspaper articles and local stories and photos. I carefully walked the Faulkner exhibit, where I saw his family history, several books on display, and a beautiful miniature reconstruction of his childhood home. I also just drove around town and noted some Faulkner influences, like the mural on the railroad tracks that my graduating class contributed to – “F is for Faulkner,” – and the new painting on the water tower that depicts New Albany High School’s mascot Bully alongside Mr. Faulkner.

Faulkner adorns the newly-painted water tower in New Albany, MS.

Faulkner adorns the newly-painted water tower in New Albany, MS, alongside Bully, New Albany Schools’ mascot.

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Faulkner adorns the newly-painted water tower in New Albany, MS, alongside Bully, New Albany Schools’ mascot.

This drive made me think about my hometown more deeply. I pass by so many people, so many places, so many sights every day, without a second glance. But what I found when I looked at Faulkner’s influence, and what I found after finally reading one of his novels, is that life is happening, good or bad, and the details are what matter. The details of our thoughts, the minutia of a day at the office, the goings-on of an afternoon at home – these make up our lives. And Faulkner paid such close attention to these types of details to give us the realistic, muddled, unorganized thoughts of his characters and somehow formed those tangles into an intricate and moving, yet simple, story. I’m paying a bit more attention to my day to day life, looking at those details. And I can hardly wait to delve further into Faulkner’s novels. I feel like a full-fledged Mississippian now; I’ve trod the same red soil as Faulkner all my life, and I’ve finally taken time to appreciate his art. And I’m so glad I did.

In the alphabet mural, "F is for Faulkner."

In the alphabet mural, “F is for Faulkner.”

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