The story is told from the perspectives of 15 characters--including Bundren family members and local residents. The constant change in point of view can make for an uneasy read because much of the action and relationships must be inferred. Faulkner uses this technique to his advantage; the reader gets inside the mind of each character. For instance, Vardaman (the youngest Bundren child), rambles near-nonsense after his mother dies; but we see a shift as he calms throughout the journey.
The cast of characters is a motley crew. Jewel is the product of Addie's affair with the town's resident minister. She loves Jewel more than the others although he treats her harshly. Darl, who seems the most logical when he questions carrying Addie's corpse all the way to Jefferson, is the same one who attempts to set her coffin on fire by igniting the barn in which it is stored overnight. Later, he is committed to a mental institution, but the reader may have good reason to question the intentions of the family in this case. Throughout the book, Darl is the one who senses things; he seems to gain information through extrasensory perception and this frightens his family.
Setting: As I Lay Dying
A fictional Mississippi county in the first half of the 20th century is the backdrop for this story. Faulkner's tale is filled with quirks--from the beginning, when Addie watches Cash construct her coffin outside her window, to the tumultuous river-crossing when the coffin and all of Cash's tools are nearly lost, and right through to the end. Darl wonders why anyone would go through all that trouble when they've encountered nothing but obstacles from the moment of their departure.
The journey takes so long that Addie's decomposing body begins to stink. As we can imagine, few people are willing to help a desperate family caravaning a coffin of rotting flesh. In the end, the family reaches their destination and Addie's request is fulfilled. For Anse's part, he gets his new false teeth--along with a new wife he meets in town. Any careful reader will know that the Bundren family's drama is far from over.
An intricate philosophy is woven into the tale--a subtle questioning of life and existence. Vardaman identifies his now-dead mother with a fish he recently caught and cleaned. In response, Darl claims that his mother was, i.e. does not now exist. If his mother does not exist, he has no mother; therefore, he does not exist. The uneducated ideas exchanged between the brothers lead them into sometimes traumatizing despair.
There is a richness in the drawn-out Southern drawl that Faulkner employs. Overall, the book is simple and complex at the same time. Faulkner writes in short, stream-of-consciousness chapters, but it is our job to dig deeper inside the interplay between characters and circumstances in which they find themselves. In doing so, we discovers the richness of Faulkner's work.