Published in 1930, As I Lay Dying is a masterpiece of Southern Gothic fiction by the American Nobel Prize-winning writer William Faulkner. It is his most famous work, along with The Sound and the Fury, and leading critics consider it as one of the best novels of the twentieth century. The plot centres around the picaresque road trip made by the Bundren family to bury their mother, as per her wishes, in Jefferson, Mississippi. Fifty-nine chapters make up the structure of the book, representing the point of view of fifteen different characters. Through this formal innovation, Faulkner shows himself capable of exploiting a revolutionary literary style. Every character gives the story a different shape, thus laying a new brick to the structure of the book.

This novel contributed to laying the foundations of Modernism, an artistic movement born in the first decades of the 20th century. Modernist writers wanted to innovate the ongoing literary techniques. Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Juan Rulfo, Robert Musil, and Malcolm Lowry are members of this cultural movement. But why is As I Lay Dying so innovative?

From Hades to Jefferson

Faulkner takes the title As I Lay Dying from Homer’s Odyssey, Book XI. It is a sentence that Agamemnon tells Odysseus about his descent into Hades, referring to his own death. In Faulkner’s novel, the death is that of Annie Bundren. Annie is the wife of Anse Bundren and the mother of Cash, Jewell, Darl, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman, whom all act as narrators more than once from their own point of view in the different chapters of the book. The Bundren family as a unit is the unique, real, polymorphous character of the novel.

The plot tells the journey of the Bundren family from the countryside to Jefferson. If considered metaphorically, the title of the novel suggests that the Bundren family is going from Hades to Jefferson, representing a passage from sorrow to something new. In fact, the journey is organised by Mr. Bundren in order to bury the body of his wife because of a promise he has to keep. But at the end of the book, Anse Bundren finds a new wife.

During the journey, the reader understands the relationship between the characters. Faulkner, dealing with a recurrent theme in American novels, represents the secrets of a family, digging into the hidden grief inside each character’s soul. For example, the reader discovers that Dewy Dell, the only daughter of the family, is pregnant, and she wants to get an abortion.

A revolutionary literary style

In the history of American literature, Faulkner’s style is frequently counterpointed with that of Hemingway. In fact, Hemingway is famous for his dry and naturalistic way of writing. On the other hand, Faulkner is interested in reconstructing language, creating a specific tone of voice for each figure. His writing is at the same time symbolical and realistic, tending to distort reality. In a 1960 conference, Flannery O’Connor would define this kind of style as grotesque.

From this point of view, Faulkner considered his literary models to be Joseph Conrad, Fyodor Dostoevskij, Melville, Turgenev, and Flaubert. He was able to represent these authors’ themes in a new way. For example, “My mother is a fish” is the single sentence that forms Chapter 19. Vardaman, the youngest son of the family, recounts the sentence after the coffin of his mother has gone into a river.

Other contemporary writers adopt this innovation. For example, Roberto Bolaño’s novels take on a similar structure. Also George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire – from which the award-winning TV show Game of Thrones is derived – show different voices telling the story.

This technique of fragmenting the narrator is comparable to the artistic vanguards, such as Cubism. Also, Cubist painters used to break down an image in order to compose it in a new way. 

Yoknapathawa, a condensed America.

This fictional setting of the county of Yoknapathawa is a recurring element in Faulkner’s oeuvres, appearing as scenery in fifteen of his novels. In Yoknahualpa – just as Lowry in Under the Volcano does in Mexico – he wanted to represent a condensed image of the life in the South of the United States. Here he saw the presence of violence, ignorance, and sacredness. The novel is full of sacred symbols and images. In chapter 19, the fish represents both the mother and a symbol for Christ and resurrection. For this symbolic power, which appears also through the presence of fire, the journey of the Bundren family can be paralleled to that of Alvin Straight in The Straight Story (1999), David Lynch’s movie inspired by a true story and set in Iowa

As I Lay Dying‘s fortune

Despite William Faulkner’s standing today, he achieved public acclaim as an essential author only after 1946. In that year, the American editor Malcolm Cowley published an anthology of Faulkner’s writings, The Portable Faulkner.

Harold Bloom, the seminal American literary critic, put Faulkner among 26 writers he discussed in his seminal 1994 masterpiece of literary criticism The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, and he has defined As I Lay Dying as the most original novel ever written by an American.

Faulkner’s style has built a legacy: nowadays, every fiction writer must take into consideration his way of telling a story.