I read this one because of the controversy.
William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying has been on and off of my TBR shelf a couple of times. It’s one of those books I’m told I really should read, but never seemed to get around to actually reading.
Then a couple of weeks ago it was mentioned in an article about the use of trigger warnings in college English classes, or it might have been an article about the problems using classic literature can bring: racism, the use of rape as a dramatic element.
A couple of friends of mine came to its defense in the comments of a Facebook post so I decided to give it a go. Plus it cost $14.00 and I had a $15.00 Barnes and Noble gift card burning a hole in my pocket.
I don’t really know where to begin with As I Lay Dying. I think I’ll have to read it at least one more time, maybe twice, before I can honestly feel reading to start unpacking it. So be warned–this post will ramble.
I’ll start by saying that I loved it. It turned out to be funny, which I didn’t realize until about 70 pages in. Parts of it are extremely powerful. The final chapter that Addie narrates is one of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever read. Other parts of it, the chapters narrated by Darl who is eventually taken away to an insane asylum, are very difficult to say the least. Try this paragraph. See how far you get before you get lost:
In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, ,you never were. I dont know what I am. I dont know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not. He cannot empty himself for sleep because he is not what he is and he is what he is not. Beyond the unlamped wall I can hear the rain shaping the wagon that is ours, the load that is no longer theirs that felled and sawed it nor yet theirs that bought it and which is not ours either, lie on the our wagon though it does, since only the wind and the rain shape it only to Jewel and me, that are not asleep. And since sleep is is-not and rain and wind are was, it is not. Yet the wagon is, because when the wagon is was, Addie Bundren will not be. And Jewel is, so Addie Bundren must be. And then I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room. And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is.
How often have I lain beneath the rain on a strange roof thinking of home.
When I first read this I immediately wondered if Faulkner was deliberately trying to spoof Martin Heidegger, the German post-modern philosopher whom you have probably never been forced to read. I was forced to read him once, in graduate school, and have never gotten over the experience. It left a permanent scar, all this business of is and was and will be is and was is and is was. Heidegger or maybe Gertrude Stein, she does the same sort of thing her her prose. A madman, Darl, trying to reason his own existence into being. It’s very tough reading followed by a final line that is best described as a beautiful haiku, a piece worthy of Basho.
As I Lay Daying is about the Bundren family. (I mistyped that initially as “the Burden family.” That certainly reveals a lot about them. Or about how I read them. A Freudian typo?) When the novel opens the family matriarch Addie is on her death-bed. Her grown sons are building her coffin as she dies. They even show her the cut and planed boards for her approval before each one is used. After her death, her husband Anse insists and taking her from the family farm to Jefferson because she once made him promise to bury her there. Jefferson is a four days journey by wagon normally, but severe rains have washed out the bridges so the journey ends up taking nine days. They nearly lose their mother’s coffin twice, once in a flood and once in a fire.
But this is all really funny, honest. You have to read it. One of my friends who defends the novel says it should be viewed like National Lampoon’s Vacation which really does work. Faulkner–National Lampoon–they have much more in common than you might think.
The Bundren family, along with a host of characters they meet along the way to Jefferson, share the narration. Each chapter has a different narrator which makes the novel difficult to figure out, but also allows Faulkner to bring great depth to his characters. Darl’s mental process in the paragraph above for example. His confusion becomes our confusion when he is allowed to tell his own story.
I wish I could include all of Addie’s final chapter here. Just past the halfway mark, even though she has been dead for several days at this point, Addie tells the story of her life. She has had a very hard life with Anse and her children, not all of them Anse’s children though he does not know this. Her chapter ends with this wonderful paragraph:
One day I was talking to Cora. 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.
I’ll be honest, this struck close to home. If sin is just a matter of words, then so is salvation.
So, what about the controversy?
As far as racism goes, it’s not a major issue in the book. One could ask how the Bundren family manages to wonder through Mississippi for nine days and only encounter white people? That’s a legitimate question. There is some use of racist language, done to comment on how dark one character looks after he has been burned in a fire. That’s not enough to knock it off of most reading lists but it is enough to cause legitimate controversy.
While the Bundren family is not a happy place for the two women in it. they are fully drawn characters. It’s hard to see either as a powerful woman, but they each serve to expose the situation of women in their time and plance. Dewey Dell, the teenage daughter, is the one who’ll cause the most debate. She has gone on the journey because she wants to get an abortion. She carries what she thinks is just enough money to pay for it. Towards the very end of the novel, she goes into a pharmacy and tries to ask for the medicine she needs though she does not know the proper language for it. “Women’s troubles” is all she can come up with. One pharmacist refuses her. A second agrees to help her and takes her into a basement where he gives her phony pills and probably rapes her. This scene happens off stage leaving the reader to fill in what actually takes place. One source I found argues that this is not rape because she consented in order to get the abortion; though this just serves to bring up a host of other issues even if one agrees.
There is so much going on with Dewey Dell’s character enough for a three-hour graduate seminar to discuss. Her position in the Bundren family, how she became pregnant, the social-politics of abortion then and now, the question of agency, exactly what happens to her, how these very real topics should be dealt with in art, and can they be used in a comedy.
It’s going to take at least one more read before I can fully deal with all of the issues in As I Lay Dying. If you call that a cop-out on my part, I’ll have to agree with you. It is something of a cop-out on my part. But I really do want to read it again.
As I Lay Daying certainly has issues, but those are not reason to exclude it from high school and college reading lists. I think they are reasons to include it. One purpose of great art is to force us to confront ourselves. As I Lay Dying certainly does that.
And, did I mention, it’s really funny.
As I Lay Dying counts as book four in the 20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge.