Love, Life, and Salvation in As I Lay Dying

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Perhaps someday I’ll get around to re-reading William Faulkner, which numerous guides suggest one do in order to get the full flavor of his writing. In the meantime, I’ll step back and gawk, wondering why I’m persisting in this recent quest to get to the heart of Yoknapatawpha County, Faulkner’s mythical Mississippi landscape.

I mean, it’s not like the writing is overpoweringly beautiful. In fact, its overwrought at times, reflecting the desperate desires of characters to get beneath the plain surface of the land to the deeper stories below, even if there is no such story to be had.

It’s also not the case that there are lovable characters, drawing you in with their capacious spirit. They all seem a bit stunted, deformed by a brooding Sin that has overtaken their lives and the land.

But after The Sound and the Fury I went back to the Faulkner well once more and dipped into As I Lay Dying, again relying on Spark Notes as my key to getting through a first reading. This 1930 novel doesn’t present nearly as many comprehension challenges as the earlier Sound and Fury, but it also features the fractured narration from multiple viewpoints that made that work so groundbreaking. It also has a journey framework that helps move the story along.

Anse Bundren is carting the body of his dead wife, Addie, to the county seat of Jefferson in the midst of a dreadful flood accompanied by his children and other occasional companions. His pig-headedness in pursing this journey, (“I tried to do as she would wish it”), falls short of a noble persistence because it is accompanied by a lack of regard for the welfare of his companions, a selfish desire for a new set of teeth, and a comic twist at the end in which he quickly relinquishes any weight that might be given to the sacrifice made. (“Meet Mrs Bundren,” he says as what’s left of his devastated family looks on.)

There is so much to explore here. It is a meditation on existence and dying. It is a stylistic masterpiece with Faulkner taking every advantage of the form he is inventing as he writes. It does not let any idol stand, constantly knocking its characters down to size and inviting you to endanger your own soul by mocking their frailties knowing full well many of them are lodged within you. There’s also the deep logic of sentences that seem absurd out of context, like young Vardaman’s declaration that “My mother is a fish.” (It makes sense. You have to be there.)

But the most powerful chapter is dead Addie’s, her section appearing out of nowhere in the narrative just as the traveling party has made a disastrous crossing of the river with her body. Here she delivers up every pretension that the troubled characters cling to: Love (“just a shape to fill a lack”), Life (“my father said the reason for living is getting ready to stay dead”), and Salvation (“she prayed for me because she believed I was blind to sin, wanting me to kneel and pray too, because people to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too.”).

There’s a darkness to Faulkner’s work, no doubt, but there is also a convicted willingness to enter deep into the reality of the world, seeking out its complexities and sussing out its besetting sins so that they are not just “a matter of words,” but an entryway into the heart of things. Its beguiling enough for me. Absalom! Absalom! is next.

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