w w w . b r e n t o n p r i e s t l e y . c o m

I Lay Dying: A Journey (2002)
Brenton Priestley



From Homer’s The Odyssey and the Gospels of the New Testament to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Kerouac’s On the Road, journeys have provided the plot and thematic foundation for much great literature. William Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying, also centres around a journey. This ‘quixotic quest’ (Brooks 79) is undertaken by the Bundren family from their home in south-east Yoknapatawpha county to Jefferson, in order to bury their mother, Addie. Along the way they face countless obstacles. One of the reasons for the popularity of the journey as a literary motif is perhaps because it mirrors the act of storytelling itself, with a departure, journey and arrival. The journey can similarly act as a microcosm of a life. Most importantly, the journey as a plot device in a novel usually signifies the development of its characters. As I Lay Dying is no exception. In Howe’s words:

That As I Lay Dying is something more than a record of peregrine disaster we soon discover. As it circles over a journey in space, the novel also plunges into the secret life of the journeyers. Each of them conducts the action a little way while reciting the burden of his mind... The outer action, never to be neglected and always fearsomely and absurdly spectacular, is a journey in a wagon; the inner action is the attempt of the Bundrens to define themselves as members of a family at the moment the family is perishing. (162)

Faulkner’s manner of telling the story, as Howe intimates, is of key importance to its meaning. Each chapter presents the events of the journey seen from the viewpoint and filtered through the perceptions and personalities of individual characters. The second eldest son, Darl, initially appears to be the truest voice of the novel, with his frequent accounts of events, some of which border on omniscience. Anse, the terminally lazy father and Cash, the stoic eldest son are two other important characters. Although often dismissed or overlooked by critics, the youngest son, Vardaman, also becomes a key voice as the novel progresses. One of the key roles of the journey in As I Lay Dying is in instigating the development, or the figurative journeys, of each of these characters. These journeys will be discussed in greater detail further on.

Despite occasional flashbacks, and Faulkner’s decidedly baroque writing style, the plot of As I Lay Dying is resolutely linear. The initial chapters chronicle Addie’s death and the preparations for the funeral journey. The bulk of the chapters that follow present the journey and its obstacles. The last chapters outline the Bundrens’ arrival in Jefferson (and in true Faulkner style, the ostensible purpose of the journey, Addie’s burial, is not presented).

Addie says in her chapter ‘...when Darl was born I asked Anse to promise to take me back to Jefferson when I died’ (164-5). This wish, of course, provides the reason for the Bundren’s journey. However, for all but Darl and Jewel, there are other motives for travelling to Jefferson, Addie’s death merely provides an excuse (to varying degrees) for the journey. Immediately after Addie dies, the toothless Anse stands, smoothing out the sheets covering her body, and mutters to himself, ‘"God’s will be done... now I can get them teeth"’ (51). Dewey Dell wants an abortion. Vardaman dreams of bananas and a toy train. Cash admits that he’s saved enough to buy a gramophone.

What is significant about Addie’s monologue, more than half-way through the novel, is that she reveals that her wish to be buried in Jefferson is in fact revenge against Anse, a revenge ‘that he would never know I was taking’ (164). Perhaps she can foresee the hardships the family will have to endure on the journey, or maybe she just knows that their incompetence is bound to get them into trouble. This revelation gives an ironic twist to all that has come and is yet to come, all the misfortune has been for nothing. However, Faulkner throws in yet another layer of irony with Anse ultimately profiting from his journey (gaining a bride and a set of false teeth), denying Addie of her revenge. Despite this, Anse makes it clear early on that he doesn’t want to have to travel, ‘When [God] aims for something to be always a-moving, He makes it longways, like a road or a horse or a wagon, but when he aims for something to stay put, He makes it up-and-down ways, like a tree or a man’ (35).

Schroeder writes:

As the gruesome details of the Bundrens’ journey remind us, though, comedy has a dark side as well as a humorous one. After all, the comic hero must be faced with obstacles; the threat to social continuation must be a real one; and life needs its defining opposite, death, in order to triumph at the end. (41)

Addie’s decomposing body attracts hungry buzzards and the indignation of townsfolk as they pass. The first major obstacle they face, though, is the flooded Yoknapatawpha River. Their foolhardy and unsuccessful attempt to cross it results in the drowning of their mules, the breaking of Cash’s leg and, save for Jewel’s efforts, the near-loss of Addie’s coffin. Later on, Darl, in an insane attempt to put an end to the journey, sets the barn where the coffin is resting on fire. Again, it is up to Jewel to save Addie’s body from being destroyed.

What adds an extra layer of significance to these events is that Addie had predicted them: ‘[Jewel] is my cross and he will be my salvation. He will save me from the water and from the fire. Even though I have laid down my life, he will save me’ (160). This prescience subsequently gives the journey metaphysical overtones:

Fundamentally, As I Lay Dying is a legend; and the procession of ragged, depraved hillmen, carrying Addie Bundren’s body through water and through fire to the cemetery in Jefferson, while people flee from the smell and buzzards circle overhead – this progress is not unlike that of the medieval soul towards redemption. (Tredell 51)

Likewise, Backman writes:

...in another sense, [As I Lay Dying] is a fable about Addie’s quest for salvation. The crossing of the river was attended by signs of disaster [with the ‘bearded log’ that ‘stood... like Christ’ (41)] as if Cora Tull were right, after all, in her insistence that the carting if Addie’s corpse to Jefferson was a flouting of God’s will... If Addie’s prophecy is correct, the journey that may have begun as a flouting of God’s will has been transfigured into the journey to salvation. The proof lies in the testing of the chosen son. (62-3)

Along these lines, Kerr posits that As I Lay Dying is in fact ‘...an ironic inversion of the quest romance’ (6). She draws parallels between traditional quest romances and As I Lay Dying and illustrates how Faulkner inverts and perverts settings, characters and the structure of traditional quest romances for his novel. Vickery echoes this by denying that the Bundren’s journey is ‘... an inspiring gesture of humanity or a heroic act of traditional morality’ and is rather ‘...a travesty of the ritual of interment’(42).

Literary journeys place characters in unfamiliar environments, and the tensions of being away from home reveal the true nature of their personalities. Furthermore, the placing of a character in unfamiliar surroundings provides an objective view of them. Another role that the journey plays in As I Lay Dying is, then, in placing the family in counterpoint with others, outsiders from their normal circle of acquaintance. According to Schroeder, ‘Faulkner’s inclusion of a number of non-Bundren narrators... country folk and townspeople who witness the Bundren’s passing serve as a sort of Greek chorus – or, perhaps as a framing narrator – by expounding on their shared social assumptions’ (36-7).

As I Lay Dying is a novel of subjectivity. It is easy to become lured into the Bundren point of view, so Faulkner steps back occasionally to remind us of how bizarre their journey is with the chapters of these non-Bundren narrators. Rachel Samson describes their journey, ‘It’s a outrage... a outrage’ (111) as does Lula Armstid, using the exact same words (179). Faulkner, then, with the novel’s heteroglossic structure, is able to use the journey as a means of illustrating the sheer variety of the human experience as the Bundrens pass through a whole strata of human society, even though they are travelling within a very limited patch of the wider world.

Another role of the journey in As I Lay Dying is that it acts as both a catalyst and a parallel for the interior journeys of the major characters. This is not necessarily to say that the characters of As I Lay Dying ‘grow’ in the traditional sense – quite the opposite (and perhaps another example of Kerr’s ‘ironic quest’ theory). Chang argues that

...the necessary form in bildungsroman, a journey is supposed to promote the "moral growth" of characters who gain insights and can thereafter meet social requirements, being "mature" persons... Although the funeral journey to Jefferson indeed influences the Bundrens, the impacts on them don't necessarily guarantee the consequence of the "progressive" development of morality in them... far from getting more attuned to social norms than ever before, Darl is deemed mad and sent to an insane asylum at the end of the journey. What is the most ironic "growth" is Anse's facile turncoat. He learns not a flash of moral meaning from the journey, but only realizes his urgent need for a spouse.

Vickery affirms Chang’s assertions about Anse and Darl, but neatly summarises the way in which Cash outstrips the other two in his own interior journey:

Anse... is always the bystander, contemplating events and reducing the richness of experience to a few threadbare clich�s. In contrast, Darl, the most complex of the characters, owes his complexity and his madness to the fact that he encompasses all possible modes of response and awareness [of words, action and contemplation] without being able to effect their integration. Cash... ultimately achieves maturity and understanding by integrating these modes into one distinctively human response which fuses words and action, reason and intuition. (51)

Anse’s egotism and inaction forces Cash to become a surrogate father figure for the Bundrens. Cash also inherits the most trustworthy voice of the narrative from Darl before he descends into madness – the final chapter is given to Cash. Despite his obvious faults, such as his stoic stubbornness, Cash’s voice wins out as that of reason and moderation.

Rooks brings attention to the development of the oft-neglected Vardaman over the course of the novel in his essay ‘Vardaman’s Journey in As I Lay Dying.’ What is especially fascinating is Rook’s juxtaposition of the inner journeys of Vardaman and Darl. As the novel progresses, the brothers become increasingly associated. Their monologues occur progressively closer to one another, and Darl’s poetic voice becomes increasingly like Vardaman’s stream-of-consciousness. Vardaman’s final monologue centres almost entirely on Darl. Rooks concludes, ‘with no source of stability, and nothing but indifference from his family, Vardaman concludes his journey with the seeds of a Darl-like madness implanted in his mind’ (155).

Upon arrival in Jefferson, Darl notices that ‘[Vardaman] too has lost flesh; like ours, his face has an expression strained, dreamy and gaunt’ (216). If Vardaman is worse off at the end of the Bundren journey, so are the rest of the family: Darl is in the insane asylum, Cash is likely permanently crippled, Dewey Dell hasn’t had her abortion and Jewel has lost his prized horse. Even dead Addie, her body desecrated beyond belief, hasn’t gotten her revenge against Anse. Anse, on the other hand, profits quite nicely from the journey, with a set of false teeth and a new bride. Some critics have read the end of the Bundren’s journey (and therefore the conclusion of the novel) as being heroic and affirming the family’s deserved pride. However, Little’s judgement of the outcomes of the journey is perhaps truer to Faulkner’s vision, and an appropriate place to end this journey: ‘...the relationship of what is accomplished to the amount of effort and sacrifice involved must make the ending of As I Lay Dying one of the most jarring anticlimaxes in American literature.’


Sledge discusses the ways in which Faulkner’s novel parallels The Odyssey. He points out that Faulkner acknowledges his debt to The Odyssey by taking the novel’s title from a speech of Agamemnon to Odysseus in Book XI: ‘As I lay dying the woman with the dog's eyes would not close my eyes for me as I descended into Hades.’ (Quoted in Sledge)

Graham Swift’s Booker Prize Winning novel, Last Orders, employs a similar technique that of Faulkner in As I Lay Dying (an acknowledged influence) in describing a funeral journey of four friends, with various chapters assigned to the different characters.

Probably due to the infamous ‘My mother is a fish’ chapter.

A cogent, if randomly selected, example is provided by Dewey Dell’s experiences with two very different pharmacists, Moseley and MacGowan.

As Peabody peels concrete and skin off of Cash’s broken leg, he asks ‘Does that hurt?’ Cash replies: ‘Not to speak of’ (230)


Backman, Melvin. Faulkner: The Major Years. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1966.

Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner: First Encounters. New Haven: Yale UP, 1983.

Chang, Mira. ‘Word and the World in As I Lay Dying.’ <http://ccsun57.cc.ntu.edu.tw/~chyliao/ma/a/9.htm> June 2002.

Faulkner. As I Lay Dying. 1930. London: Chatto, 1975.

Howe, Irving. William Faulkner: A Critical Study. 1952. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1975.

Kerr, Elizabeth M. ‘As I Lay Dying as Ironic Quest.’ Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature 3 (1962): 5-19.

Little, Matthew. ‘As I Lay Dying and Dementia Praecox Humor.’ <http://www.compedit.com/asilaydying.htm> June 2002.

Rooks, George. ‘Vardaman’s Journey in As I Lay Dying’. William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying: A Critical Casebook. Ed. Dianne L. Cox. New York: Garland, 1985. 145-57.

Schroeder, Patricia. ‘The Comic World of As I Lay Dying’. Faulkner and Humor: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1984. Ed. Doreen Fowler and Ann J. Abadie. Jackson: Mississippi UP, 1986. 34-46

Sledge, John. ‘Faulkner's 'As I Lay Dying:' pushing up daisies the hard way.’
<http://www.al.com/specialreport/mobileregister/?sledge5.html> June 2002.

Tredell, Nicholas. William Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. New York: Columbia UP, 2000.

Vickery, Olga W. The Novels of William Faulkner: A Critical  Interpretation. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1964

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