Book Review: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

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As I Lay Dying is a novel that has had a huge impact on American fiction. It’s famous for its unique structure, writing style, and emotional intensity. The story is told from the perspective of each member of the family, including Addie, the family matriarch, and the tone shifts between humor and heart-wrenching sadness.

William Faulkner, the author of the book, has said that he intentionally set out to create a masterpiece. He knew the ending before he even began writing and had a clear idea of where everything would come to a close.

You do not have to read the entire book if you don’t have time. This book review provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.

Let’s get started without further ado.

In this As I Lay Dying book review, I’m going to cover the following topics:

Book Summary

After Addie Bundren’s death, her husband and children encounter horrendous difficulties in fulfilling their promise to transport her body from their rural Mississippi home to a cemetery in Jefferson for burial.

This novel is not divided into chapters. Instead, there are 59 sections, in each of which a single character (whose name appears as the “title” of that section) records what is happening from his or her point of view. 

Thus, the characters speak directly to the reader, but the reader, in the absence of an omniscient (i.e., all-knowing) narrator, must link the speeches together to see the story as a whole. 

In the summary that follows, sections have been grouped together to form a continuous narrative, and the four parts of the story have been given descriptive tides that Faulkner himself did not supply.

Sections 1–23 (Before the Journey)

Addie Bundren is dying. Outside her window, her oldest son, Cash, a carpenter by trade, is constructing a coffin which he holds up from time to time for her approval. 

Addie has already been promised that she will be buried next to her parents in Jefferson, about 40 miles away from the Bundren home in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. Darl and Jewel, the next oldest sons, want to put in another day’s work for a neighbor, since the money will be useful on the trip. 

Addie’s bumbling husband, Anse, gives them permission and sends them on their way. Other neighbors, the Tulls, have come to offer any help they can. Addie’s daughter, Dewey Dell, is joined in the sickroom by Cora Tull and her daughter, while Cora’s husband, Vernon Tull, keeps Anse company on the back porch. Vardaman, Addie’s youngest son, returns home with a large fish he has caught for supper.

The obese Dr. Peabody, who weighs more than 200 pounds, has to be hauled up the hill with ropes to visit his patient in her house. But Addie, having wasted away, dies almost immediately. Dewey Dell is unhappy with the doctor and with herself because she is pregnant and unmarried, but dares not ask him for an abortion. 

Vardaman, a mentally troubled and frightened boy, thinks that Peabody’s arrival has somehow caused his mother’s death. He chases the doctor’s horses away and wanders off, only to appear later, cold and wet, at the Tulls’ farm. Mr. Tull, having returned home earlier, takes Vardaman back to the Bundrens and helps Cash finish the coffin. 

Cash has worked with great care, but has forgotten to allow for the difference that Addie’s burial dress would make. As a result, Addie has to be placed with her head at the foot of the coffin, and her feet, with the dress bunched up around her legs, at its head.

This topsy-turvy situation is made much worse during the night by Vardaman, who now confuses the dead fish with his dead mother, and bores holes into the coffin to let in air for the fish-woman to breathe.

The next morning, the family discover that he has drilled not only through the wood, but also into Addie’s face. A funeral service is to be held before taking the coffin to Jefferson. The Rev. Whitfield, Addie’s former lover and Jewel’s father, arrives to lead the funeral ceremony. 

One of the reasons that he is not devastated by Addie’s death is that he believes Addie has passed on to everlasting life. Another reason is that he is relieved Addie has died without telling Anse about their adulterous affair.

Jewel and Dart, in the meantime, break a wagon wheel on their way home from working at their neighbor’s. By the time they get back and repair the wheel,

Addie has been dead for three days and the body is beginning to smell. Since the river’s water level is high due to recent, heavy rain, the trip to Jefferson seems hazardous to outsiders; nevertheless, the Bundrens pay no attention to the smell or to the possible dangers of the trip. 

They had promised Addie that they would take her to Jefferson, and are resolved to do so. On the third day, Jewel makes ready his spotted horse while the others prepare to load themselves and the coffin onto the wagon. 

Dewey Dell pretends to be packing cakes to take along to sell in town but actually uses the basket to conceal the good clothes she intends to wear when she inquires, in Jefferson, about an abortion. Anse thinks he will buy some false teeth since they are going to town; it’s not that he is vain about his looks (he claims), but that he has been unable to eat enough to keep body and soul together.

Before they can make a proper start, the coffin nearly falls as the sons attempt to place it on the overloaded wagon. But when the wagon is finally ready, the Bundrens move on.

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Sections 24–38 (The Journey Begins) 

Tull’s bridge is the closest route to the main road, but it is submerged under water because of the heavy rain. A detour takes them to Samson’s bridge, several miles away, but this bridge is completely washed out. Samson’s wife is offended by the smell from the coffin, and Samson himself is shocked to find a buzzard in his yard; but he forces himself to offer the Bundrens lodging for the night. 

Anse, however, politely declines beds in the house, since the Bundrens prefer to sleep in the barn with the coffin. They notice the buzzard, but ignore the smell that has attracted it. The next day, the Bundrens are determined to cross the treacherous river. 

But chaos breaks loose as they wade through the water: The wagon overturns, Cash breaks a leg, the mules drown, and the coffin and Cash’s precious tools fall in the water (but Darl and Jewel dive down to recover both the tools and the coffin). They manage to cross the river, but are exhausted by the effort. Jewel rides off on his spotted horse to find a new team of mules.

Sections 39–41 (Rest Stop) 

During the time that the Bundrens are delayed, Faulkner interrupts the narrative so that three characters can look back on events of the past. Cora Tull gives her impressions of Addie as a strange, brooding, sometimes incomprehensible woman—and just possibly not so God-fearing as God (and Mrs. Tull) would have wanted. 

Addie herself now speaks, as if still alive. Addie was a schoolteacher before she “took” (i.e., married) Anse. Her father used to say that life was only a dreary preparation “to stay dead a long time” (i.e., he did not believe in an afterlife). Since Addie hated her young students—and enjoyed only the whippings she gave them when they made mistakes—she despised her father for helping to bring her into a life that led only to death. 

After giving birth to Cash, she realized that words can never convey the meaning that they seek to, since words are “just a shape to fill a lack.” Cash did not need words to announce his birth; he simply arrived. 

Addie believes that when one truly feels an emotion such as love or fear, there is no need for a word to describe it. She partly proved that to herself by means of a nearly wordless affair with the Rev. Whitfield; but after her initial happiness with him, she discovered that he was hiding behind the Word of God just as Anse had hidden behind meaningless platitudes such as “I love you.” 

She soon became detached from life again and bore two more children with Anse— Dewey Dell, to “negative” (i.e., negate and replace) Jewel; and Vardaman, to “replace the child I had robbed [Anse] of.” 

After giving birth to the children, she felt ready to die. The Rev. Whitfield, who speaks next, also recalls the affair, but focuses only on his own weakness and “sin,” and thinks the affair should be forgotten. Unfortunately, he cannot be sure that Addie shares this point of view.

She may even be tempted to make a deathbed confession to Anse. Upon hearing that Addie is dying, Whitfield resolves to speak first and rides to the Bundrens with fiercely pure intentions. But since Addie keeps silent to the very end, he sees no need to transform intentions into words or deeds. Instead, he proclaims the word of salvation.

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Sections 42–59 (The Journey Ends) 

The Bundrens take shelter for the night with Mr. Armstid and his wife, Lula, a farming couple who live nearby. Cash’s broken leg is set by a veterinarian (whom Armstid calls Uncle Billy), but the operation is amateurish and painful. 

Since Jewel was not successful in getting a new team of mules, Anse sets off in the morning on the same errand. For Anse to take the initiative in this way is surprising, but he has a devious motive that becomes clear later. 

He returns, self-satisfied, with news that he has, indeed, obtained some mules from a man named Snopes; but he reveals that he has promised to turn over Jewel’s horse as payment. Jewel angrily rides off on his beloved horse, and Armstid offers his own mules, thinking that he (Armstid) would rather risk losing them than have the Bundrens remain at his home. 

Anse declines his offer but agrees to let the wagon be moved a short distance down the road, away from the house. And there the Bundrens, except for the missing Jewel, spend another night.

The mules are delivered the next day by Snopes’s helper, Eustace Grimm, who says that Jewel—who also reappears—paid for them with his horse. The trip then continues to the town of Mottson. 

Anse buys cement at Grummet’s hardware store to make a cast for Cash’s leg, and Dewey Dell tries to buy some strong medicine for an abortion, but Mr. Moseley, an ethical druggist, reprimands her instead. 

The people of the town are outraged by the smell and the buzzards, and the sheriff forces the Bundrens to move on. They spend their last night on the road at still another farm—that of Mr. Gillespie and his son, Mack.

First, the Bundrens settle under an apple tree, then in a barn that catches fire. Although Darl had lit the fire—evidently intending to cremate Addie’s body—he subsequently helps Jewel’s and the Gillespies’ desperate efforts to prevent as much loss as possible. The animals and the coffin are saved, but Jewel is badly burned.

The visible parts of Cash’s leg have turned black, not from the smoke of the fire but from the beginnings of gangrene. Anse and Mr. Gillespie break off the cast, and the next day the Bundrens enter Jefferson, where they are met with rudeness and astonishment. Anse needs spades to dig the grave, and inquires about borrowing the tool at a particular house just because music from a phonograph can be heard inside. Finally, after several days of hardships, the Bundrens succeed in burying Addie.

Ridding themselves of Addie’s body and of the coffin, however, has not solved the family’s problems. Jewel, burned from the fire and without his spotted horse, has already been humiliated by and forced to apologize to a white pedestrian on the outskirts of town who was offended by a remark that he believed Jewel had made to him (“Son of a bitches”), but that Jewel had actually made to some black men a few steps behind him. 

Darl is taken away to an insane asylum in Jackson for having burned the barn. Dewey Dell, now dressed up, visits a drugstore where Skeet MacGowan, an unscrupulous clerk, persuades her to give him money (ten dollars) and sex for “treatment” (i.e., an abortion).

He gives her a turpentine solution that he knows will not work. Vardaman’s hopes of having the toy train in the drugstore window are disappointed. Cash’s leg is not amputated, but he is told by Dr. Peabody that he will always be lame.

Anse, however, appears with new false teeth that make him look like a new man. He also has a new wife, the duckshaped woman—whom he introduces as “Mrs. Bundren.” She is carrying the phonograph the travelers had heard playing earlier. 

The rest of the family is dumbfounded, but Cash (who has always been the most practical member of the family) supposes that all of them—except for Darl, down in Jackson at the asylum—will enjoy having the machine around the house when they return home.


Addie: Wife of Anse; mother of Bundren children. Strong-willed matriarch; disillusioned with life; believer in deeds rather than words. Controls her family when alive; dominates them even from her coffin until she is buried. She is a focus without whom the family unit disintegrates.

Anse: Husband of Addie; father of four of her five children. Stubborn, sly, lazy, bumbling. Hides behind words and gestures. Usually gets what he wants.

Cash: Oldest son of Addie and Anse; late 20s. Preoccupied with his tools. More comfortable with actions and objects than with words; rarely speaks, and at times is nearly inarticulate. Wants the work of his hands (especially the coffin) to be done correctly because then it speaks for itself. After breaking his leg, he realizes that words are unable to express his agony, so he endures the pain in silence.

Darl: Second son of Addie and Anse; late 20s. Highly articulate, sensitive, introspective. Relies on words, even visions, more than on things. After he burns down the barn, he is declared insane and is taken away to an asylum.

Jewel: Illegitimate son of Addie and the Rev. Whitfield; age 18 or 19. Violent, impulsive. Passionately devoted to Addie, but transfers his inexpressible love for her onto his spotted horse (Darl tells him, “Your mother was a horse”). Proves to be Addie’s salvation when he saves her coffin from the burning barn and when he sells his horse to pay for the last stage of their journey.

Dewey Dell: daughter of Addie and Anse; age 16–17. Believer in fate, but nonetheless tries to change it in her attempts to terminate her pregnancy.

Vardaman: Youngest son of Addie and Anse; age unspecified (probably between 7 and 14). Easily confused; little clarity of mind; perhaps retarded. Often unable to distinguish between things and words, and is uncertain about the meaning of either one.

The Rev. Whitfield: Local pastor. Addie’s former lover; father of Jewel. Somewhat hypocritical; seeks to preserve status quo; hides behind the cloak of religion.

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Main Themes and Ideas

1. Fact vs. Interpretation

The same “fact” can have a very different meaning to various characters since they have conflicting, extremely personal points of view. 

The most fundamental fact is Addie’s death, but there are even contradictory opinions about what this means: the Rev. Whitfield says piously that death is the beginning of everlasting life, whereas Addie had believed the opposite, sharing her father’s belief that life’s purpose is to prepare one “to stay dead a long time.” 

For some of the Bundrens, the most important thing is that Addie’s death becomes their excuse for making a trip to town. The Bundrens think that what they are doing is right, though everyone else believes it is wrong.

Outsiders often appear in pairs (two Tulls, two Armstids, two Gillespies, Dr.Peabody and the veterinarian who sets Cash’s broken leg); they are united in their feeling that the Bundrens are a disgrace, but usually cannot agree upon anything else. 

These outsiders see the Bundrens’ journey as ludicrous and offensive, but the Bundrens are “insiders” (Addie is literally inside the box) and see the trip as necessary, even though each has his or her own reasons for making it. 

The Bundrens act on the assumption that the fact of Addie’s rotting body is meaningless, and are not even aware of it most of the time. Others are revolted by the smell, but even that is only another subjective reaction; the buzzards, after all, find the smell appealing! The interpretation depends not so much on what actually is there to be seen (or smelled) but on who is seeing and smelling. 

The characters, therefore, see “Truth” as being personal and subjective, not as public or objective. This is one reason why the story is told by the characters themselves: they can tell the truth only as they see it, and they disagree about what it is.

2. Isolation 

The characters have little understanding of one another; instead, they tend to be isolated in their own private worlds. The Bundrens have never been a close-knit family, but rather a collection of individuals who happen to live together. What unites them, ironically, is not life, but Addie’s death—her own permanent isolation. 

But even this “unity” is artificial since personal motives underlie the common effort to transport Addie and her coffin. If Anse were not in the market for new teeth and a new wife, he might not go at all (“God’s will be done…. Now I can get them teeth”); Dewey Dell concentrates on aborting an unwanted child more than on burying her mother. 

The Bundrens’ shared effort isolates them from everyone else, but the outsiders themselves are isolated, too; they live in scattered places and lead separate lives. Even the married couples (the Tulls and the Armstids) seem to have little in common except their house and land. The Bundrens are often in conflict not only with outsiders but also among themselves, even while making the trip. 

As soon as Addie is buried, the family disintegrate because they have lost the excuse for being together. Darl is taken away by force without protest from the others; Anse is nearly unrecognizable to his own children with his new teeth; the new Mrs. Bundren (with her “pop eyes”) will never see things the way any of her new children do. Isolation is the reality from which these characters start out and to which they return.

3. Reality and Value Judgments 

Since isolated characters see the world from subjective points of view, they make different value judgments about appearance and reality. 

For Addie, words are treacherous things because they appear to be real and other people seem to pretend that they have value, but actually words either refer to things that do not exist or they hide what one genuinely feels and thinks. 

Anse is partly responsible for Addie’s belief, since he speaks trite phrases that conceal from others—and from himself—what he really thinks and feels (e.g., when he tells Addie that he “loves” her). What he says and what he does do not correspond. Intentions, however, are most significant to the Rev. Whitfield, whether or not they are ever verbalized or acted on.

Superficially, Anse and Whitfield are as different in this respect as they are in birth, training, vocation, and vocabulary, but in each man there is a basic discrepancy between what he is and what he seems to be.

This shared personality trait is indicated by the fact that both of them have been Addie’s lover. Other characters (and the reader) face discrepancies between words and actions, and between mental concepts and physical things. Darl’s internal visions are highly imaginative but do not always correspond to what is really happening outside his mind. 

For example, he sees the barn burning as a staged version of an ancient Greek tragedy. Vardaman is often involved with imaginary situations; thinking his mother is a fish, he bores holes into her coffin and, inadvertently, into her face.

The point is that firm distinction between the “real” and the “unreal” tend to disappear or to become unimportant when making value judgments. Sometimes the reader is not sure whether to laugh at the absurd, grotesque things the characters do, or to cry because the characters themselves are so deeply committed to, and affected by, their own actions. 

The journey, nearly a catastrophe from the beginning, is filled with titanic struggles and death-defying escapes. Yet the obstacles are met and finally overcome as in a comedy of errors: the Bundrens get to Jefferson despite the odds against them, and Addie’s most important wish is granted. This is, therefore, a story in which life and death are portrayed as being a series of tragicomic events.

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1. Deep Characterization

One of the biggest pros of the book “As I Lay Dying” is the way Faulkner portrays the characters. Through the use of stream-of-consciousness writing, Faulkner provides a unique insight into each character’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations. This deep characterization allows readers to fully understand and empathize with the characters, making them feel like real people rather than just fictional creations.

2. Engaging Writing Style

Despite its unconventional writing style, the book is engaging and keeps readers interested throughout. The use of stream-of-consciousness writing creates a sense of immediacy and intimacy that draws readers into the characters’ worlds. Additionally, the lack of a traditional plot creates a sense of mystery and suspense that keeps readers guessing until the very end.

3. Unique Narrative Structure

The narrative structure of “As I Lay Dying” is unique and innovative. By presenting the story through multiple perspectives and using a non-linear timeline, Faulkner creates a complex and multi-layered narrative that challenges readers to think deeply about the story and its themes. This approach also allows Faulkner to explore different aspects of the characters and their experiences, providing a rich and nuanced portrait of the Bundren family.


1. Lack of Clear Storyline

While the language and narrative structure of the book are impressive, the story itself is somewhat disappointing. The plot revolves around the Bundren family’s journey to bury their matriarch, but the use of multiple perspectives and stream-of-consciousness writing style makes it difficult to follow the storyline. As a result, readers may spend more time trying to figure out what’s going on than actually engaging with the story.

2. Static Character Development

The characters in “As I Lay Dying” are interesting and unique, but their development is static throughout the book. Rather than evolving or changing over the course of the story, the characters are revealed to the reader slowly and without significant growth. This lack of character development may leave some readers feeling unsatisfied or unfulfilled.

3. Challenging Language and Dialect

While the language of the book is beautiful, it can also be challenging to read at times. The use of stream-of-consciousness writing and strong dialects can make the text difficult to follow and may require readers to reread passages multiple times to fully understand them. This could potentially make the reading experience frustrating for some readers.


As I Lay Dying is a powerful exploration of family, loss, and the human spirit. Faulkner’s unique narrative structure allows readers to delve into the minds of the characters, witnessing their thoughts, emotions, and motivations as they navigate the complex web of relationships and hardships that define their lives.

The novel’s vivid descriptions of rural Mississippi and the challenges faced by the Bundren family paint a haunting portrait of the human condition. As I Lay Dying is a must-read for anyone seeking a deep, thought-provoking, and emotionally charged story that will stay with them long after the final page has been turned.

About The Author

William Faulkner, a famous American author, was born in New Albany, Mississippi in 1897. Although his family lived in Oxford, Mississippi, he mostly lived in Oxford, except for short stays in Hollywood to write scripts and extended visits as a writer-in-residence elsewhere.

Faulkner didn’t complete high school and worked odd jobs before serving briefly in the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1918. Later, he worked in journalism in New Orleans. In 1929, he began writing a saga called “Yoknapatawpha” County, which was loosely based on Oxford, and introduced “Jefferson,” the county seat.

Faulkner’s most significant literary works include The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), and Light in August (1932). He also wrote Absalom, Absalom! (1936), The Unvanquished (1938), The Hamlet (1940), Go Down, Moses (1942), and many short stories and novels such as “The Bear,” “A Rose for Emily,” and “Spotted Horses.” His final novel, The Reivers, was published in 1962.

In 1949, Faulkner was honored with the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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