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As I Lay Dying | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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As I Lay Dying | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In Section 1 of As I Lay Dying, how does William Faulkner use sound effects to set the scene?

William Faulkner uses sound effects to let the reader know this is a house about to go into mourning. Darl describes the sound of Cash building a coffin for Addie as she watches from her bedroom window. As soon as Darl and Jewel get close enough to the house, Darl hears the sound of Cash's saw and immediately thinks of his mother dying. Then, as he watches, Cash picks up a tool called an adze (a shaping tool that looks something like a hatchet but with a differently shaped blade) to work on the shape of the boards he set. For this sound Faulkner uses onomatopoeia, the word that makes the sound itself, rather than just mentioning there is a sound. The sound of the adze is "Chuck. Chuck. Chuck." Faulkner even spaces out the three words to give the reader a sense of how slow the sound is. Darl says the sound follows him, so there is no escaping the fact that Addie is dying, no matter where any of the characters are on the property, because Cash just keeps working. The slowness of the sound is haunting and foreshadows the inevitability of Addie's death.

In Section 2 of As I Lay Dying, why does Cora connect Cash's work on the coffin with the look on Addie's face?

Cora describes the way Addie looks in her bed, particularly her face. Addie's skin is shrunk to her skull, and the white of her bones is almost visible. She definitely looks like she is dying, though Cora hopes Addie will just get up and start doing the things she always did, like baking cakes. Cora says if she couldn't hear anything, all she would have to do to know how Cash sounds, building the coffin, is to look at Addie's face. The look of a dying woman and the sound of a son building a coffin for his mother, to Cora, are one and the same. They are both changed people because of Addie's impending death: Addie's changes are more obvious, as she is "wasting away" in her bed, but Cash is also changing, using his skills to build the saddest thing anyone can build: a coffin.

In As I Lay Dying, how does Jewel's relationship with his horse reflect his relationship with his mother?

In the first part of As I Lay Dying, Darl reveals that Addie whipped and petted Jewel more than the other children, and, in turn, Jewel treats his horse the same way. Jewel suffocates his horse to control him, and when he finally gets him under control, he punches the horse and swears at him. Jewel loves and pets his horse, but treats him terribly at times. Also in this part of the novel, Jewel is angry that his mother is dying, and he takes out his anger on his horse. Jewel treats his mother badly as well, being curt with her and not returning her attention. He loves his mother, but he doesn't respect her, and the same goes for his horse. Jewel is as possessive of his horse as he is of his mother; he is angry about Cash building her coffin, Dewey Dell fanning her, and Vernon and Cora Tull constantly stopping by to visit. He wishes he could just be alone with Addie as she dies, just as his horse makes him independent and separate from the rest of the family. Jewel lets go of his horse to save the wagon when it turns over in the river, and he sacrifices his horse so that the family can make it to Jefferson to bury Addie. When these two moments arise, forcing Jewel to decide between his mother's coffin and dying wish or his horse, he chooses his mother, but, contradictorily, Jewel's letting go of his horse in these moments also reflects how he is slowly letting go of Addie after her death.

In Section 4 of As I Lay Dying, how does Jewel's experience of his mother's illness show his feelings about his mother and about the rest of the family?

The more people come to the house to help, the more upset Jewel becomes, because the only person he really loves in the family is Addie. Jewel wishes he could have Addie all to himself and, like Addie, just wants some quiet, without the rest of the family. These expressions of feelings show Jewel knows he is different from the rest of the children and from Anse, and he feels no solid connection with any of them. It is not clear whether he knows Anse is not actually his father, but he definitely senses the only person with whom he has anything in common in the family is his mother. He goes so far as to wish he and Addie could be alone at the top of a hill and throw rocks at everyone else down below, showing his lack of love for anyone else and his sense of blood connection with no one but Addie.

In Section 5 of As I Lay Dying, why do Anse, Darl, and Jewel hesitate to make a delivery for Tull, and how does this reflect their feelings about Addie?

Anse is torn between doing the right thing and needing the money he will make from the delivery. Also, Tull reassures everyone that Addie will wait until Jewel and Darl return. Tull's need also tugs on Anse's sense of doing right by a neighbor. Anse does tell his two sons about Addie's wishes and the repercussions of making the wrong decision; he is trying to be a good husband, neighbor, and father. Jewel may seem callous, but he believes Addie isn't that ill, and if he goes to make the delivery, in his mind it means she is okay. If he could accept that she is actually dying, he would likely never leave her side, but he can't accept it. He thinks everyone around her is pushing her to die by expecting her to. Darl mentions Jewel is like a little boy with a tough exterior, and that is exactly what Jewel does to deflect pain: he gets angry and acts tough. Anse says Jewel has never had any "affection nor gentleness" for Addie, but the opposite is true. Inside, Jewel is suffering and terrified he is going to lose his mother. To be left with the rest of the family, with whom he has no real connection, is a terrible fate. Meanwhile, Darl, who is the first to hesitate to leave with Addie dying, reminds Anse three times that the delivery is worth three dollars, while Anse is deciding whether they should go. This is one of the first hints that Darl is not as sweet and sensitive as other family members and Cora Tull may think. It is also possible, given events that happen later in the novel, that Darl is more concerned with hurting Jewel in this moment than wanting to be present at Addie's death.

In Section 6 of As I Lay Dying, in what ways are Cora Tull's theories about the members of the Bundren family valid or invalid?

Cora Tull judges every member of the Bundren family harshly except for Darl. Cora says her husband, Tull, told her that Addie likes Jewel least, yet Cora thinks she knows better; she can see through Addie's behavior and how Addie is partial to Jewel. She also says Jewel is eager to make the delivery money, but Darl's account of when they are all deciding if they should go contradicts what Cora says Tull told her. In Darl's account, he reminds Anse three times that three dollars is at stake, and Jewel never mentions money. This is a major cue, implying that Cora cannot be trusted to interpret other characters' motivations. About Cash, Cora says that Addie watches him make the coffin "so he would not skimp on it," and the reason she believes this is related to the men wanting to make three dollars when they know Addie is dying. In fact, Cora finds the idea so abhorrent that she seems to be spewing venomous anger about every family member, showing that she is irrational and illogical in this moment. Perhaps the only element the reader can be certain of is that Cora is upset. Perhaps this is her way of grieving for Addie or dealing with death. Whatever the case, Cora is wrong about Cash. He is a perfectionist, and he takes a long time to build the coffin—even beveling it. After Addie dies, Cash still worries about the balance in the coffin. Cora even accuses the family of not letting Addie be buried in the Bundren family plot. When Tull corrects her, saying, "It was her own wish to lie among her own people," Cora again seems illogical when she responds, "Then why didn't she go alive?" Most of Cora's interpretations of the family members are proven wrong as the novel progresses. However, the way Cora describes Darl standing in the doorway and looking "at his dying mother, his heart too full for words" is likely accurate and is confirmed in another section.

In Section 7 of As I Lay Dying, why does Dewey Dell want to fool Tull into believing Addie isn't dying?

Dewey Dell has been standing over her mother, fanning Addie continuously and trying to keep people from getting close to her. Like Jewel, she doesn't want anyone in on the family business, and she wants her mother all to herself. She calls Tull an "old turkey-buzzard" and thinks he's just waiting around to watch Addie die. It does seem as though everyone is gathering around to see her die, which is normal in a country society, but Dewey Dell has a secret and needs her privacy. Also, so long as her mother remains alive and the situation is at a standstill, Dewey Dell does not have to take action about her pregnancy. After Addie dies, Dewey Dell will have to act, so she wants to keep that moment at bay for as long as possible.

In Section 8 of As I Lay Dying, why does Tull say indirectly that Anse never really does any work?

Tull says the shirt Anse is wearing looks like it's one Jewel handed down to him because it's so worn out, but he can tell it's not Jewel's because there is no sweat on it. As Darl mentioned earlier in the novel, Anse refuses to work hard enough to sweat because he once got sick in the heat—or at least this is the excuse Anse uses when he gets people to do things for him. The other way Tull expresses this idea is to say, "like most folks around here," he has helped Anse so much that now he can't stop helping him. Anse is pretty much helpless at this point, and Tull is not the only person he has drawn into his workforce. The reason Tull likely speaks indirectly about Anse instead of straightforwardly is because of Tull's cultural and religious beliefs. Like many of the characters who help Anse, Tull is from the country, which involves following an implicit code of ethics and basic Christian practices (such as helping out a neighbor in need). Throughout As I Lay Dying, Tull has conflicted feelings toward Anse; Anse is his friend, but Anse frustrates him. Tull may speak his mind to Anse, even criticize him, but he usually sticks up for Anse when his wife, Cora, gossips about or criticizes Anse. Regardless of the tensions and subtleties between Anse and Tull, they are practically like family, and Tull regularly helps Anse, even if he sees him for who he really is.

In Section 9 of As I Lay Dying, how does Anse's theory about having a road go by his house create dramatic irony?

Anse theorizes he would not have such bad luck—having to pay for Cash's tools after he decides to become a carpenter, having to send his boys out to work to get money he needs, having to pay taxes, and having his wife decide she is tired and wants to rest—if there were not a road going by his house. Anse also claims he isn't afraid of hard work. In reality, Anse avoids hard work, and the only reason he survives is because there is a road going by his house, and it allows his neighbors access to his farm with their wagons and equipment. Anse "borrows" everyone's time to get work done on his farm, and everyone (especially Tull) is so used to helping him, no one will say no anymore. If something needs to be done, Anse will just stand and look at it until someone offers to help, and then he will refuse, which makes the person feel guilty and insist. Anse will finally accept the help, but insist he would do it himself. In addition, the house is on a bluff, accessible by a path up the hill, not even right next to the road. It's amazing anyone goes up there to help the Bundrens. The dramatic irony in Anse's remarks comes from the reader knowing this about Anse, from what his neighbors and children say, but Anse insisting the exact opposite is true. Also, Anse's viewpoint is skewed. Jewel could not earn money working for Anse; the road did not cause him to leave and work on another farm. It is Jewel's nature to be independent. The same is true of Cash, who is a gifted carpenter. His talent and desire to use it have nothing to do with a road being built. The road also has nothing to do with why Addie is exhausted; all of this will become more obvious as the novel progresses.

In Section 10 of As I Lay Dying, what does Darl mean by "It takes ... one people to die. That's how the world is going to end"?

Darl is in the wagon with Jewel, heading to make the delivery. He also knows Addie is going to die while they are gone. Darl realizes Jewel doesn't really believe Addie is going to die, and he tries to emphasize the point that she is, in fact, about to die. By saying the world will end with the death of one, he means all of the people around Addie are going to show their true colors as soon as she dies. As an example, he says he knows Dewey Dell is hoping Addie will die so she can go to town to get an abortion. For Darl, Addie's impending death is the end of his illusions that his family is anything but cold-hearted and selfish, meaning his world is about to end. When he sees the thunderheads on the horizon, he knows Peabody will get to Addie too late, and he will not be home in time to be with her before she dies. For Darl, this is the end of the world, and it foreshadows the total loss of his family later in the novel.

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