VINE VOICEon 5 September 2004
Faulkner's great accomplishment in this novel is to use the most modern fiction techniques to create a timeless allegory that we would probably not accept in a different style. His other great achievement is to leave so much space in the story for us to participate in adding meaning. You have to pay attention to even notice what is going on, and then you can provide a variety of interpretations. This novel will never be the same for any two readers. It is a stunning accomplishment, as a result.
The story begins as Addie Bundren lays dying, fanned by her daughter, while her son makes her coffin. With her husband and five children, we make her acquaintance by learning about their actions and characters. Only once does she have a role as a narrator, and then, quite late in the story.
Her husband, Anse, has promised her that he will bury her with her family. Because of tremendous rains, the river has risen, knocking out bridges and making passage difficult. Despite this, the family perseveres in taking her unembalmed body to the intended burial site. Along the way, there are many mishaps and the family is burdened in many ways by keeping this promise. As the burial comes closer, new elements of the story are exposed and develop that totally recast what you have thought was going on.
The story is a difficult one to read. So read this book when you have time to pay close attention and study the text word by word. Let me explain the difficulties you will encounter. First, the voices in the book use a Southern patois that will be unfamiliar to most. This is the language of the rural poor in the 1930s, which few have heard. Second, the exposition is mostly through thoughts, often expressed in fragmentary form, rather than through action and a smooth narrative. Third, the narration is a partial mosaic of impressions of the characters, jumping back and forth in 2-4 page segments. Their perceptions are partial, and even more partially expressed. Objectivity is shunned by Faulkner. Fourth, Faulkner wants you to fill in the gaps, and the best way to do that is to expose the gaps slowly. Only after 3 or 4 narrations by characters will the gaps begin to emerge in a way you can grasp them. Then, you still have to interpret them.
Few readers will miss the references to Moses and his search for the promised land, and the Christian parable of the Pilgrim's Progress. What is unstated is the connection to reading this book. Many poor Southern people of that time were taught to read with The Pilgrim's Progress as a primer. That experience helped to shape a perception and a sensibility that would influence their actions, and thus, this tale. That connection creates a wonderful series of circles here that build on one another.
At bottom though, it is clear from this book that there are secrets of the heart that are never exposed in public. When we come close to dying (our own or someone else's), these secrets begin to rise closer to the surface where we (and sometimes others) can see them.
Faulkner has one quirk in the book that I urge you to look for. While he is often conveying the thoughts of uneducated people, he will drop in magnificent phrases that are worthy of Shakespeare. He wants you to know that he is a learned man, hiding behind his humble bards. That pride creates flaws in the book, but flaws that are a delight to the reader, nevertheless. In fact, he takes this one step further by employing many of Shakespeare's favorite techniques from foreshadowing through nature's fury through using fools.
After you have read this book, I encourage you to consider what secret desires, actions, fears, and thoughts you have which you keep buried even from yourself. Then consider the potential benefits of making these known, before you lay dying.
Also, whenever things seem confused, consider how others may be perceiving what is going on. Like Vardeman, they too may think their mother is a fish. Accept their view of reality, and communicate in terms of that perception if you want to make contact. Otherwise, you will be alone even in the middle of your family, as the Bundrens were in As I Lay Dying.
Enjoy this American masterpiece! I think you'll find it irresistible and moving.