by Cooper Anderson
Back when I was in high school, I never actually cared about great pieces of literature. Like so many other hormone and anxiety-riddled teenagers, the only things I ever cared about were the things happening in my little micro-universe around me. What party was I gonna go to that weekend? Who made out with who at last weekend’s party? Which gas stations carded? That sort of stuff. So when I was given a copy of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying to read for senior English class, I did what most kids my age did: I memorized the Sparknotes for quizzes and found a half-assed analogy section of Wikipedia that I could tweak just enough to not get caught for plagiarism on essays. But why did I do that? Why couldn’t I just buckle down and read the book? Well, this past week I’ve since remedied my mistake and read As I Lay Dying and I wish that I had picked it up a long time ago.
For those of you who don’t know, William Faulkner was a Nobel Prize Laureate who grew up in Oxford, Mississippi—the first Mississippi native to win said prize. He’s famous for writing American literature but most notably Southern gothic literature. (Faulkner also won a couple of Pulitzers as well, but once you win a Nobel Prize everything else seems a tad less impressive.) One of his most famous works is the aforementioned As I Lay Dying and there’s a reason it’s noted as one of the best novels of the 20th century, that reason being it’s one of the best critiques of death and grief I’ve ever read.
Using the point of view of about fifteen different characters over fifty-nine chapters, As I Lay Dying starts off with Addie Bundren, a mother of five children (four of which were fathered by her husband, Anse Bundren), who is terminally ill and is in her final moments of life. Before she dies, however, she makes it known that she wants to be buried in her hometown of Jefferson, Mississippi. The main journey of the book is about Anse and the children taking Addie’s body to Jefferson for a proper burial. There are other events that happen in the book that I don’t want to spoil. It’s a fairly straightforward narrative (although it’s not always told linearly), but the plot is not where Faulkner really succeeds in this book. Where he does succeed is in just how differently each member of the family deals with the loss of their wife or mother.
As I Lay Dying was published in 1930 in a time where people were not supposed to grieve publicly after losing a loved one, as if crying at funerals were some kind of societal faux pas and a death in the family was supposed to be taken in noble silence. Nobody was supposed to make a fuss over the dead and once they were buried you went back into the fields and started working again. In As I Lay Dying, however, we see a multitude of different reactions to grief. We see the characters deal with this loss in the only ways they know how to deal. Some of them are very dramatic and heartbroken while others grieve in stern silence.
An entire chapter of the book is only two pages long and it’s a list by Cash Bundren (the eldest son of the Bundren family) talking about how he made the coffin for his mother. That’s it. That’s the whole chapter. There’s nothing about how he feels about his mother’s death or what the journey to Jefferson is going to be like. Just how he made the coffin so that water would have a hard time getting into it. Which may sound like he’s being cold or indifferent on the surface but through Faulkner’s use of language you can really tell that losing his mother is eating him up inside but he has no idea on how to let it all out. Something that I’m sure people back then would relate to or sympathize with.
However, it’s not just the expansive viewpoints on death that make As I Lay Dying a seminal piece of literature for its time, but the use of language stands out as well. Faulkner tends to have a flatter tone but this isn’t a bad thing. In fact, this further exemplifies how good this book actually is. By creating a flatter, less eccentric, tone the reader can then project their own inner feeling onto that character. To use the characters in the book as a kind of conduit from the reader’s inner self to the reader’s surface. You know that what you’re reading isn’t real, that it’s all made up, but it’s still hard not to experience the emotions running through the characters at the time. Here’s an example:
“Vardaman comes back and picks up the fish. It slides out of his hands smearing wet dirt on to him and flops down, dirtying itself again. Gapped mouth, goggle-eyed, hiding into the dust like it was ashamed of being dead. Like it was in a hurry to get back hit again. Vardaman cusses it. He cusses it like a grown man standing a straddle of it. Anse don’t look around. Vardaman picks it up again.”
In this passage alone we can see Vardaman (the youngest of the Bundren family) letting out all his anger over the death of his mother on a fish he’s just caught. That deep down, we as the reader know that he’s letting out all his grief. We even see that his father, Anse, can tell that this is what’s going on and he doesn’t try to stop Vardaman from cussing. Anse simply lets Vardaman express himself.
Death and grieving are universal experiences that all of us will deal with in one way or another during our short time on this mortal coil. Faulkner sees this universal truth and instead of trying to hide the pain and the reality of death with somber and quiet characters, he lets them be real people with real reactions. These are the things we can relate to on a personal level regardless of the time we actually occupy. People in the distant future may not recognize a horse-drawn carriage but they know that they’re going to deal with death the same way that the generation before them had to. It’s one of the reasons why I wish I read this book in high school.
When I was younger, I lost all four of my grandparents roughly around the same period of time. Between the ages of six and nine. At the time, death just became another factor of life for me. Death was simply another thing that occupied this world and nobody ever really taught me how to deal with that fact. (To be fair, I don’t think anyone tries to tell a kid how to deal with death before they need to.) The reason I wish I actually read this book in high school is that it would’ve taught me that grieving, even after years of the person’s passing, would have still been okay. That there is no normal way to miss or to grieve someone and that death affects different people in different ways. If you want to shout and cry, that’s totally acceptable. As is the simple act of building a coffin for the one you’ve lost. That’s okay too. You deal with loss in the way that helps you move past it.
The last thing that I want to say about this book is that As I Lay Dying can be a really useful tool for self-discovery. That this book can act as a sort of inoculation to grief. That as a reader we can learn which way we’d react to a heavy loss like the Bundrens did without actually going through the hardship of a death in the family. When we do inevitably deal with loss we might actually know beforehand how we would handle it and then, if we’re really lucky, how to accept it and get back into our field somewhat whole.
There’s a lot to unpack from this book and there’s even more if you decide to read it a second time. It’s one of those stories that you kind of discover over and over again. I suggest reading it with a friend simply for the same reasons that you wouldn’t want to grieve alone. Life and healing are best done with people around you to share the load and this book is no different.