As I Lay Dying Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


As I Lay Dying: Essay Q&A

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1. Faulkner utilizes a stylistic technique in As I Lay Dying that juxtaposes serious events with comical situations. Describe this technique and the results.
Many times in As I Lay Dying it is difficult to differentiate between what is comic and what is tragic. For instance, early on Cash builds his mother's coffin in view and within hearing of the entire Bundren family and their neighbors, the Tulls. And while it seems as if the death of this oldest son's mother should be filled with suffering, Cash's total focus on doing a good job keeps him from realizing the horrific effect the sounds his tools make is having upon the others. So, instead of crying, readers feel like laughing.

In addition, the characters themselves are exaggerated human beings who act in an outlandishly shoddy manner. They are selfish, lazy and crazy and the consequent tension surrounding the family, who preach brotherly love while stabbing everyone in the back, results in nervous humor-like that evoked when someone slips on a banana peel. For instance, Cash builds the coffin directly under the dying Addie's window as though he were anxious for her to die so everyone can see just what a great carpenter he is.

Also, in an effort to make sense of the horror associated with his mother's death, the young boy Vardaman transmutes Addie into the fish he caught that morning. The fish is dead, he reckons, and his mother is dead and thus his mother must be a fish. The overwhelming grief he experiences results in feelings of suffocation and then he thinks that Addie must not be able to breathe in her coffin. This horrific scene should seemingly invoke within the reader feelings of sadness but when the boy drills air holes in the coffin for his mother to breathe and in the process drills holes into her head, some readers find themselves laughing out loud.

2. Addie Bundren's attitude toward each of her children reveals much about them as characters. Describe her feelings for each and what those feelings suggest.
Addie Bundren married Anse just because there was nothing else to do. Even before her unloving father died and left her without any family, she had always considered herself to be completely alone in the world. Always feeling a form of nihilistic loneliness and angst, she hoped that through the violence of giving birth some of her isolation would be "violated," or alleviated. Cash's birth turned out to be peaceful, but Addie still feels just as alone, and this reinforces the belief she inherited from her father, that living was just preparation for dying.

Perhaps because of his easy birth, Cash is not encumbered by deep emotion. He loves his mother and builds her a sturdy coffin because he knows it will give her comfort. However, after Cash's birth, Anse becomes dead to Addie. He is all words, no action. Addie, however, needs action to feel alive and feels tricked by Anse's words when she becomes pregnant again. Thus, she never loves her second child Darl and abandons him emotionally. Darl realizes this and eventually disintegrates into madness.

Ten years elapse before Addie has another child, this time Jewel. However, Jewel is the child of the minister Whitfield with whom once more she sought and found the violence that would make her feel alive. And, the wordless Jewel is characterized by violence.

Addie explains the purpose of Dewey Dell was to negate the birth of Jewel, and Dewey Dell indeed seems like a self-centered negative force, very like Anse.

As for Vardaman, Addie explains that he was born to replace the child she would have given Anse in place of Jewel. Consequently, Vardaman utilizes the idea of replacing one thing with another, like his mother with a fish, and the toy train with bananas.

3. Consider why Addie makes her family promise to take her body to Jefferson to be buried.
Simply put, Addie made her family promise to take her body to Jefferson to be buried because she knew that instead of just saying a few words over her body, they would have to take action in carrying out her final request. She forces them to acknowledge her as a person who spent time on earth.

It would be easy to say Addie wanted to be buried next to her father, but there was no love lost between the two. As she explains it, her nihilistic father never loved her and for this reason she felt alone her whole life. When teaching school didn't relieve her loneliness, she married Anse. Her sense of aloneness set in her the desire to be noticed by other people-somehow they must sense her presence. Violence, she believed, was the way to accomplish this. Words, after all, were just air to Addie. Actions was what counted.

Addie desired violence to make her feel alive. She beat the schoolchildren and then her own children. Jewel, the child she loved best was born of violence and thus became violent. He is characterized by constant physical motion, or action, and violence and is a man of very few words. Indeed, section 4 is the only one of the novel's 59 monologues given to Jewel. Thus, Addie's dying request that her family takes her to Jefferson, forty miles away, is a demand for their attention, their awareness, their presence-their action.

4. The Bundrens honor Addie's dying request to be buried in Jefferson but all of them have their own reasons for traveling to town. Describe each reason and consider whether or not the individual Bundrens accomplish their goal.
Despite all odds, Addie Bundren's final request to be buried forty miles away in Jefferson is carried out by her family. She wanted their attention and she got it by spending nine days rotting in a casket in the Mississippi summer sun, in and out of a fast-moving river, a burning barn, circling vultures, and so on. On the surface it might seem that the family loved their mother and wanted to carry out her last request, but all, with the exception of Jewel and Darl, have ulterior motives for going to Jefferson.

Shortly after she died, Anse cries out that her death was God's will and an indication that now he can get new teeth. He mortgages his home and farm equipment, steals his son's horse and his daughters ill-gained money and accepts the help of Peabody, Samson, Armstid, Tull, and Gillespie-but gets those teeth. The novel closes with him smiling with new, store-bought teeth. Cash wants to go to Jefferson to buy a gramophone. He allows himself to suffer incredible pain, even perhaps at the cost of a leg, but in the end, he inadvertently winds up with a gramophone when the new Mrs. Bundren arrives carrying one. Vardaman wants to go to Jefferson to get a toy train. He spends the journey thinking of the train but gives up his dream easily with the offer of bananas. Dewey Dell wants to go to Jefferson to get an abortion. Although she makes every attempt to get what she wants she is duped by a selfish sales clerk and does not accomplish what she set out to do. Jewel wants desperately to get his mother to Jefferson. He saves her coffin both from the river and from a fire. But, his efforts seem selfish and without any real insight. Darl is the only Bundren who seems to think that toting Addie around for that length of time is a bad idea and in this regard attempts to honor her, and put an end to his family's selfish motivations, by cremating her in the barn.

5. Describe how Faulkner utilizes the stream-of-consciousness technique popularized by Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.
Faulkner uses a writing technique called stream-of-consciousness that was popular during the early twentieth century. Until this time, authors simply informed their readers of what a character was thinking: "Joe sat in the corner and felt sad." However, authors utilizing the stream-of-consciousness technique wrote as if they were inside a character's mind. And, because the mind does not think in linear sentences, but flows from one thing to another, stream-of-consciousness attempts to emulate the flowing form of human thought. For instance, Faulkner demonstrates this method by having Vardaman's sections, which utilize simple words, seem like a disorganized series of events. Cash can only think of one thing at a time and we see his thoughts as a list. Opposite to Cash is Dewey Dell whose thought processes are scattered. She cannot remain focused on anything and so her thoughts jump around. Jewel, who is nearly wordless throughout has only one monologue, in which he thinks violent thoughts. The narrators from outside the family like Tull and Peabody function to provide information about the Bundrens. They are far more direct and reliable and Faulkner does not use the stream-of-consciousness technique in their monologues.

Darl, the primary and certainly most complicated and introspective character in the novel, portrays Faulkner's use of the stream-of-conscious as his mind whirls through time and space and even into other characters' minds. As a result, his monologues are dense and difficult to comprehend.

Faulkner is regarded as a literary genius in part for his use of the stream-of-consciousness technique.


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