Context | I first heard about “As I Lay Dying” from Holly from The Nut Free Nerd, whose passionate review convinced me to add it high up on my 2018 reading list. And I don’t regret doing so, as it’s different than anything I read before! I must confess that reading this book was more challenging than I expected, but also rewarding once I finished it.
In a nutshell | We are presented the Bundrens, a poor family who sets on a journey to bury their mother and wife in Jefferson, her distant hometown. The nine-day travel is not as smooth as they thought, sprinkled with dark humour, tragedy, and weird happenings that address a wide range of topics such as family relations, religion, duty, and of course, death.
Narrative style | While the storyline itself is quite simple, the narration tools used by the author complicate the reading experience. Faulkner dives deep into the minds of his characters by using only first-person narrators – 15 narrators with a total of 59 chapters (internal monologues), to be precise – in what was an experimental narration technique at that time: streams of consciousness.
“stream of consciousness is a narrative mode or method that attempts to depict the multitudinous thoughts and feelings which pass through the mind” (J. A. Cuddon, 1984)
The authentic streams | The definition might sound clear, but in practice things are not so clear … I personally encountered many issues related to understanding what is happening, as the language used by Faulkner was very authentic and it also reflected the characters’ social background and education level. Given that each narrator had a limited point of view compared to the big picture of the story, and that each character also had internal tumultuous thoughts that were reflected in his/her stream of consciousness, things got quite fuzzy at times. There were details that I totally missed, and I luckily found out about them during my post-reading research. Maybe if English was my native language then reading would have gone smoother …
Post-reading research | In order to solve the confusion that arose after reading the first few chapters, I did a little bit of research about the characters (without spoilers!), so I knew who is who, and I created a simple relationship map. This proved very useful along the way, as I often felt the need of checking the map to be sure I understand whose perspective I was reading.
Inspiration | Faulkner stated that he wrote “As I Lay Dying” from midnight to 4 AM over the course of 6 weeks and that he did not change a word of the initial manuscript, describing this experience as a “tour de force”. During the post-reading research I also found out that certain elements of the story were inspired by Faulkner’s background. For example, Faulkner’s mother was an intelligent and educated woman who married an unsuccessful and apathetic man, just like Addie married Anse. Another common element regards the unhappy marriage of the Bundrens, which reminded of Faulkner’s own troubled marriage. (Hamblin, 2005).
Wrap-up | As you might have already figured out, I have mixed feelings about this book. While I understand why it is ranked among the best novels of 20th-century literature, for me it was one of the most difficult books I’ve ever read. Thus I recommend reading it if you’re really passionate about literature and you are willing to invest time and energy in understanding it properly. For sure it’s not a book that you can read before going to sleep 🙂
Have you read “As I Lay Dying” or any other books by Faulkner? What’s your opinion on them?
‘Till next time … happy reading!