As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner

Addie Bundren is dying and her southern family is gathering to transport her in a wagon to her birth place, so she can die there. There are 59 chapters and 15 narrators and all of them follow the stream of consciousness style. Every narrator has a character arc filled with shades and layers. This is undoubtedly one of the most dense literary prose that I have read so far. Faulkner is like the mother of all the characters – he creates and watches them live these few days covered in the book, he tries to be objective about them but like Addie, he has his favourites in his children and it shows. Darl Bundren is probably closest to his character and hence closest to him for he lets him ramble on and on for 19 of the 59 chapters intellectually contorting himself into an objective composite of all ratinalizations, which in a world of abase people, will only be treated with disdain and mockery.

There is a beautiful rendering of feministic thoughts in the voice of Addie Bundren. Since the chapters are not necessarily in chronological order, it is not clear if she is talking from death or her narrative happened before she died. Assuming it is from death that she speaks, it is indeed fitting that her voice which has long been subdued and undertoned, she finally gets to say what she feels after her death. There is a seemingly innocuous line in the chapter by Darl in the middle (Darl notices everything that says more than what it seems), when it starts raining pretty badly when Cash is building the coffin they plan to hold their mother in while driving over to Jefferson county. Pa looks up at the sky and then at Cash and says – “I don’t begrudge her the wetting” – as though the heavy rain was the mother’s fault just like everything is her responsibility. If that isn’t a master stroke at nailing all the seemingly innocent and shallow remarks that women at that time were forced to endure, I don’t know what is. I was able to understand that angst even though I am too young and belonging to a generation that hasnt experienced these layered and loaded remarks, because I have heard of very similar things that have been said to the older generation of women in my own family. It is astonishing how things that seem abhorrent and unthinkable to one generation is very prevalent and taken for granted in another.

I wish we were given prose like this in our English classes. I wish there was more depth added to our thought process at a younger age, to make us think and analyse existential pangs when we were younger. Even if we hadn’t understood it to the extent that it is meant to be, a mere surface level would have sufficed to create more questions in us that we could seek answers to by our actions. I found this one passage at the end of a chapter narrated by Darl as the most beautiful summary of what its all about. By giving him the most heard voice in all of the drama, and by making him the voice for all of his existential pangs, Faulkner expresses himself best in this one passage.

In a strange room, you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I dont know what I am. I dont know if I am not.Beyond the unlamped wall I can hear the rain shaping the wagon that is ours, the load that is no longer theirs that felled and sawed it nor yet theirs that bought it and which is not ours either, lie on our wagon though it does, since only the wind and the rain shape it only to me, that are not asleep. And since sleep is is-not and rain and wind are was, it is not. Yes the wagon is, because when the wagon is was, Addie Bundren will not be. And I am, so Addie Bundren must be. And then I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room. And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is.