Among Faulkner’s total body of works, As I Lay Dying stands as a companion piece to The Sound and the Fury, the novel published the year preceding the publication of As I Lay Dying. The earlier novel is a criticism and condemnation of the so-called “aristocracy” of the South; the latter, a criticism and condemnation of the backwoods hill people who, through their ignorance, deny any value to life. Other similarities between these two novels are readily noticeable. A mother who affects the destiny of her children, levels of awareness presented through startling techniques, and characters who advocate a nihilistic philosophy are seen in both novels. Darl’s searching questions into the meaning of life strongly suggest the disturbed personality of Quentin Compson (the son in The Sound and the Fury), and in a vaguer sense, Benjy’s idiocy is again reflected in Vardaman.
William Faulkner (1897-1962) was born in New Albany, Mississippi, but his family soon moved to Oxford, Mississippi. The action of almost all of his novels takes place in and around Oxford, which he renames Jefferson, Mississippi. Faulkner, therefore, was very familiar with the type of person presented through the characters of the Bundrens. Even though Faulkner is a contemporary American, he is already considered one of the world’s greatest novelists. In 1949, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, the highest prize awarded to a writer.
Most of Faulkner’s novels probe deeply into the mores and morals of the South. He was not hesitant to criticize any aspect of the South. This may seem surprising since Faulkner came from a rather distinguished Mississippi family. His grandfather, Colonel William Culbert Falkner (the “u” was added to Faulkner’s name by mistake when his first novel was published and he retained this spelling), came to Mississippi from South Carolina during the first part of the nineteenth century. The colonel appears in many of Faulkner’s novels under the name of Colonel John Sartoris. Colonel William Falkner had a rather distinguished career as a soldier both in the Mexican War and the Civil War. During the Civil War, Falkner’s hot temper caused him to be demoted from full colonel to lieutenant colonel.
After the war, Falkner was heavily involved in the problems of the reconstruction period. He killed several men during this time and became a rather notorious figure. He also built a railroad and ran for public office; he was finally killed by one of his rivals. During all of these involved activities, he took time to write one of the nation’s bestsellers, The White Rose of Memphis, which appeared in 1880. He also wrote two other books but only his first was an outstanding success. The intervening members of the Falkner family are not quite so distinguished as was the great-grandfather.
With the publication of his third novel, Sartoris, Faulkner placed his novels in a mythological county which he called Yoknapatawpha County. The county seat was Jefferson, the town to which the Bundrens are carrying Addie to be buried. Most of the rest of Faulkner’s novels take place in this county. Some of the characters in As I Lay Dying have already appeared in a preceding novel or will appear in a later work. The Tulls and the Armstids appear in several short stories and in a couple of other novels but not as main characters. Peabody appears in several places. The wild horse that Jewel possesses is the subject of one of Faulkner’s most successful short novels, Spotted Horses.
Thus, one of Faulkner’s great achievements is the creation of this imaginary county. He worked out his plan so carefully that we feel we know a character when he later appears in another work. With the publication of Absalom, Absalom! in 1936, Faulkner even drew a map of this county and showed the places where certain events took place.
In all of his work, Faulkner has used new techniques to express his views of man’s position in the modern world. In his early works, Faulkner viewed with despair man’s position in the universe. He saw man as a weak creature incapable of rising above his selfish needs. Later, Faulkner’s view changed. In his more recent works, Faulkner sees man as potentially great, or, as he expressed it in his Nobel Prize speech and in A Fable, “man will not merely endure; he will prevail.” But in almost all of his novels, Faulkner penetrated deeply into the psychological motivations for man’s actions and the dilemma in which modern man finds himself.
Of As I Lay Dying, Faulkner writes that he wrote it in six weeks while working on the night shift (from twelve midnight to six A.M.) in a heating plant. He would fire up the boilers, then, using an overturned wheelbarrow, he would write until the boilers needed firing again. Of Faulkner’s many achievements, this novel is one of his most popular.