As I Lay Dying | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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As I Lay Dying | Sections 1–7 | Summary

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As I Lay Dying is divided into 59 sections, each named for the character narrating that particular section. There are 15 narrators in all.

For the purposes of the study guide, the sections have been grouped together according to the novel's plot. Sections 1–7 cover Addie's dying; Sections 8–13 are of the immediate aftermath of her death; Sections 14–20 revolve around the family mourning; Sections 21–27 describe the beginning of the family's journey to bury Addie; Sections 28–32 cover the family's travels; Sections 33–38 involve the family's wagon flipping over in the river; Sections 39–41 center on Addie's character; Sections 42–46 are about events that happen in Mottson; Sections 47–51 lead up to and include the fire at Gillespie's barn; and 52–59 describe what happens in Jefferson.

Summary

The first sections of As I Lay Dying introduce the reader to all the main characters in the novel and some of the minor ones. They also introduce the reader to Faulkner's multinarrator technique: each section is narrated by a particular character, with a total of 15 different narrators throughout the novel. This group of sections is narrated in the alternating voices of Darl, Cora, Jewel, and Dewey Dell. All treat the action in which Addie Bundren lies in her bed, dying, as her oldest son, Cash, builds her coffin outside her window.

Section 1: Darl

Darl describes Jewel as he walks ahead through a path in the field. When they come closer to the house, they hear the sound of Cash's saw. Darl tells the reader Cash is a good carpenter, and their mother, "Addie Bundren could not want ... a better box to lie in." Elaborating on the coffin, he says, "it will give her confidence and comfort."

Section 2: Cora

Cora Tull, a neighbor and family friend, narrates Section 2 as she sits in the bedroom where Addie is dying. Cora is worrying about the wasted ingredients in the cakes she made for a woman from town who orders the cakes and then changes her mind about having a party. Dewey Dell also sits inside with Addie, fanning her mother and listening to Cora and her daughters, Kate and Eula, discuss how the cake sale has fallen through. Cora is Tull's wife, and she comes over to take care of Addie, believing Dewey Dell cannot really do it herself, being a tomboy. Cora flits back and forth between small talk aloud with the other women in the room and inner contemplation of Addie's withdrawn appearance and how "the eternal and the everlasting salvation and grace is not upon her."

Section 3: Darl

Darl describes vividly in Section 3 how Jewel treats his horse, "shutting off the horse's wind with one hand, with the other patting the horse's neck ... cursing the horse with obscene ferocity." Darl also describes Vernon Tull and their father Anse Bundren, who is missing some toenails because he worked so hard in homemade shoes when he was a child.

Section 4: Jewel

The narration switches to Jewel, who is angry about Cash's sawing the wood for the coffin, which is loud and constant. Jewel is also angry in Section 4 about Dewey Dell's ceaselessly fanning their mother's face and the Tull family's nonstop visits to the house. Jewel wishes he could just be alone with his mother as she dies.

Section 5: Darl

Darl narrates again in Section 5 as he, Anse, Tull, and Jewel try to make a decision about whether they should make a delivery for Tull or not, considering that Addie may die while they are gone.

Section 6: Cora

Section 6 returns to Cora reminiscing about how Darl stands at the door of Addie's room with a heart too heavy to say goodbye before he leaves to make a delivery, until Dewey Dell disrupts him, asking, "What you want, Darl?"

Section 7: Dewey Dell

The narrative rewinds in Section 7 to Dewey Dell's point of view and what she is contemplating before she asks Darl what he wants. Dewey Dell is pregnant, and she is remembering the moment it happens when she and Lafe are working in the field together, picking a crop. She also thinks about how she and Darl can communicate without words, and how she hates him for knowing things beyond the ken of others.

Analysis

In this first grouping, the family dynamic is established. Anse, who never sweats because he tells everyone he got sick once from the heat, gets not just his children but also his neighbors to do everything for him. However, Anse is described as having worked very hard as a child, and coupled with his dismal physical appearance—his missing teeth make his mouth look like an "old dog"—this evokes the reader's pity and complicates his character. It also explains why he may expect his children to work so hard.

Money is clearly tight for everyone, as Cora's narrative clarifies. Her mind whirls over counting eggs, flour, sugar, and wood, as she tries to cheer up after losing the profit from the cake sale. Darl behaves with deference to his father in the matter of a three-dollar errand. The family clearly needs the money, but both the weather and the impending death make the timing seem poor. Anse blames his bad luck and forces the children to make the decision.

Anse behaves as though Addie's death is a foregone fact: "She's counted on it," pa says. "She'll want to start right away. I know her. I promised her I'd keep the team here and ready, and she's counting on it." Darl, too, says that the coffin will bring her "confidence and comfort." Each character seems certain of Addie's wishes, even though each interprets them differently. Although Addie's narration does not play any active part in these sections, her presence is central to the action.

One of William Faulkner's techniques is to demonstrate events or interpret characters in multiple narratives. The reader must then tease out the facts from various perspectives, influenced by a narrator's personality. For example, Cora's narration in Section 6 in which she says Tull told her Darl was begging and crying to stay with his mother, is nothing like Darl's version of the same event in Section 5.

Connections between characters and animals run throughout As I Lay Dying, but none as strongly as Jewel and his horse. Darl's and Jewel's narrations run back to back to establish the connection and confirm Darl's viewpoint. Darl describes how Jewel must wrangle and fight his horse, who tries to kick him even after he conquers the animal and rides it deftly. It becomes a metaphor for Jewel's interior anguish and the violent love he feels for his mother, shown openly in Jewel's own voice as he wishes he could just be with her alone, "rolling rocks down the hill at their faces."

Given the friction and varying personalities of all the characters, it is not a hopeful setup for Addie to have a calm, peaceful burial at the end of her life, at all.

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