As I Lay Dying is the first Faulkner novel set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, about the death of Addie Bundren and the efforts of her family to cart her body to Jefferson, Mississippi, for burial. As an early Faulkner work, it is one of the first in his experiments with stream of consciousness and is unusual in that its plot is conveyed solely through the thoughts of its many narrators.
At the beginning of the novel, Addie Bundren is dying. Her son Cash is building her coffin right outside her window while she watches. Her husband Anse and sons Darl and Jewell are discussing whether Darl and Jewell should go off to work a job that will earn $3 so close to the time of her death.
The plot is fairly simple—they go, she dies before they get back, there is a big storm that washes out the bridge, and the whole family takes her with great difficulty to Jefferson, trying to find a way to get across the river. The accomplishment of the novel is in revealing the complex relationships among the family members from the sometimes incoherent thoughts of themselves and some of the people they encounter on their journey.
This is a dark and pessimistic novel. Although its characters are uneducated, rough, and bluntly spoken, some of them, particularly Darl, have unexpected sophisticated and even poetic thoughts. On the other hand, there is Anse, shiftless and selfish, but stubborn as the dickens when he makes up his mind to do something.
Although Addie made Anse promise to bury her in Jefferson almost as punishment for the life she hated, it is not clear whether his new teeth or his promise is the reason for the trip. On the road, there are several occasions where his determination not to be “beholden” puts his family to major inconvenience or even danger, yet on another occasion he is outraged that his neighbor refuses the use of his mules for an attempt to cross the river that results in the death of Anse’s own mules.
We don’t hear much directly from Addie. As Cash builds the coffin she is a staring presence who doesn’t utter a sound. She has only one chapter to herself, in which she reveals her true disdain for her husband and children except for her son Jewell, the fruit of an illicit affair. Why she married Anse in the first place is not entirely clear, except that she hated her life as a schoolteacher.
The trials that the family must face to get to Jefferson are almost epic, but for what? Addie makes clear that her wish was malicious. Anse has ulterior motives. Yet Jewell is driven to Herculean efforts and loses the only thing he loves, Anse’s stubbornness nearly makes Cash lose his leg, and Darl ends up perpetrating an infamous act and being committed. The young boy Vardaman is traumatized on several occasions, and in town the only daughter, Dewey Dell, is cruelly duped.
Some of the themes of this novel are those of selfhood and existence, the contrast between spoken words and thoughts, the treatment of different social classes, and the irony of extraordinary but pointless acts. The ending makes the pointlessness clear by its almost comic mundanity.
Although this novel has echoes of characters who will appear in later novels—mentions of Snopes, Quick, the Tulls, and other characters—it has none of the bleak humor of the Snopes trilogy. It is widely regarded, though, as one of Faulkner’s most powerful novels and as a vivid example of the then new stylistic techniques of Modernism.