A Creative Essay on Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying
by Robert Russell
I knew he would do it. It was just like I told Cora, “He is my cross and he will be my salvation. He will save me from the water and from the fire.” I saw it and he did it.
When I was four days gone, I saw him passing the water, the wagon leaning with the current, horses springing upward with legs stiff and turning downward again through the stream. And he leaning and turning too, but always righting himself, bobbing afloat again like a plank of wood. And Anse standing like a post or a tall bird on the bank, watching, not moving, just mumbling his mouth. Amid the toil I lay calm in the slow silence just like him standing, leaning against the tree, blind and calm in his inert existence.
I recall a great jolt and the slow silence was replaced with the constant hissing which seemed to linger, always already there, like the snore of the saw that saw my last breath. And yet, the hissing held me, motionless, like a voiceless echo, in a state of floating, balancing upon a precipice over the valleys of beginning and ending. But then, it was he that held me, pulling against the profound push of the water, and the slow silence creeping up again, the hissing pushing back into the background. I was offset in the water, pushing against the pull, pulling against the push, floating, moving, before being lifted unto the bank, him kneeling beside, wooden-faced and cursing, and Anse standing motionless, dead, mouth mumbling.
When I was eight days gone, I saw him materialize out of darkness, when the moonlight spilled silver and the cat had run off. I had been put up in the barn and the barn was now aflame. The loft took first, a soundless explosion, the horses whinnying and leaping in the stalls, eyes rolling and hooves stamping. He paused above me, stooping, and looking at him, his face furious. Leaping into the stalls, he unleashed and beat the horses into motion, swinging and slamming doors as the flames multiplied into a profound conflagration. And Anse standing like a post, dead, at the house, watching, unmoving, just mumbling his mouth.
I recall planks splintering, mules braying, cows running and men too, with tails of nightshirts flapping in the smoke then nightshirts on the mules. Flaming hay showered from the roof, pouring into the open space like fiery droplets, hissing and multiplying as they hit the wood. I was scooted then lifted, teetering and unbalanced, and pulled into the smoldering wood of the barn’s wall, passing through a hole bored in the side like I were being born again. I saw his shirt, smoking and full of holes, the skin on his back stripping and falling down as he jumped up and ran up and ran away, steam rising to unveil a coordinated whole of splotched hide.
Darl saw him too, and I saw Darl see it. I saw Darl before Darl could even see Darl. I saw it coming, and once it was coming, there was no stopping it. No stopping the fading away. His laughs and yeses growing louder and more numerous, and when they put him on the train, with their mismatching coats and I in the earth, I recall something left within me, something different, distinctive: an unmistakable air of definite and imminent departure. And I lie, the darkness darkening, the silence deepening, the void of death seeping to supplant the lingering echoes of my aloneness, reverberations slowly diminishing to naught. That invisible horizon sprang forth from the edges of nothingness, slowly encroaching. “All one yet neither, all either yet none.” I have become a word, an empty shape of letters, a sound to fill a lack, deprived of an etch in a headstone and short to live in the mouths of my men, destined to die again into infinity. It doesn’t matter. My father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time, and finally that time has come. I am done lying. I am ready. It is done.
From beyond the grave, Addie recalls her conversation with Cora wherein she had pontificated the need for Addie to repent her sins, a claim to which, Addie responds, “He is my cross and he will be my salvation. He will save me from the water and from the fire.” (168). While Cora initially believes Addie is speaking about God, she quickly realizes “that she did not mean God” (168) and instead the “he” referred to Jewel. The imagery of the water and fire in Addie’s statement foreshadows to the two events from which Jewel saves his mother: first, Jewel saving the coffin which has fallen off the wagon during the crossing of the river; the second, Jewel saving the coffin from the barn fire which Darl sets at the Gillespie’s household. Addie’s statement, “I saw it and he did it,” refers both to the sight from beyond the grave which presupposes her section within the novel, ambiguously narrated as a flashback yet situated after her death; as well as the epistemological collapse between sight and knowing, a theme which permeates the novel, with particular respect to Darl who displays a certain “second sight,” an ability to see and know things which he physically could not.
The style of Addie’s epilogue attempts to mirror the style of her section in the novel, which in its own way, blends the styles of the other characters’ sections–it is at once terse and repetitive, like the sections from Cash and Vardaman; as well as descriptive, even magniloquent, such as Darl’s sections. The words “pass,” “look,” “lean,” “stiff,” “turn,” “hissing,” “profound,” and “linger,” recur throughout the epilogue, continuing their repetition which has thus run the length of the novel. The tension between movement and stasis is also continued, hence the “backwards and forwards,” “upside down,” “floating,” “motionless,” “balancing” and specifically, Addie’s recollection of how Jewel ropes her coffin as it plunges down the river, “pushing against the pull, pulling against the push.” The repeated descriptions of Anse “just standing,” “watching,” and “mumbling his mouth” echo both his repeated mannerism of mouth chewing as well as Addie’s perspective of Anse, as someone incapable of imparting influence. The phrase, “balancing upon a precipice over valleys of beginning and ending” blends Darl’s description of Dewey Dell’s dress shape as the “valleys of the earth” (164) with Addie’s statement, “But for me it was not over. I mean, over in the sense of beginning and ending, because to me there was no beginning nor ending to anything then” (175), revealing a link between motherhood, nature, and Addie’s experience with death. Addie also describes Jewel as being “wooden-faced” and “cursing,” a repeated description most often attributed from Darl throughout the novel.
Addie also repeats the phrase “slow silence” in her recollection of the river scene. She initially uses the phrase when describing holding Jewel as an infant in her lap: “Then there was only the milk, warm and calm, and I lying calm in the slow silence, getting ready to clean my house” (176). Repeating the phrase here emphasizes her strong connection to Jewel: Jewel being the one, the “salvation,” having saved Addie as one of her children and now again as an adult. And Jewel saves her yet again during the barn burning scene, which she describes by repeating a few of the descriptions from Darl’s section about the event: “materialize of darkness” and “soundless explosion” (218). Darl and Addie’s perspectives align when Jewel steps before her coffin, “stooping, looking at me, his face furious” (219), an alignment which portrays a merging of their “second sight” abilities. Addie’s description of being “lifted, teetering and unbalanced, and pulled into the smoldering wood of the barn’s wall, passing through a hole bored in the side like I were being born again” invokes multiple themes and images: the holes which Vardaman bored into her coffin; the passing through, or traversing, a physical barrier which has been at the center conflict of the novel; and the passing from life into death, an endeavor which Addie herself is currently undertaking, her physical death ending her life but rebirthing her consciousness into a sort of half-death as she is still aware of the events taking place.
Also, Addie’s description of Jewel’s burned back as a “coordinated whole of splotched hide” invokes Vardaman’s mysterious experience after Addie’s death when he goes to the barn to be alone and cry, describing “an illusion of a coordinated whole of splotched hide and strong bones” (56). Repeating Vardaman’s description through Addie not only further conveys Addie’s over-seeing perspective from beyond the limits of life, beyond yet close to the events taking place, as well as her connection to Vardaman, but also introduces Vardaman’s own foreshadowing of the barn burning as Addie’s conversation with Cora had foreshadowed as well–both working to sustain the theme of “second sight” which permeates through the novel and extends beyond just Darl.
In the final paragraph, Addie remarks on Darl’s mental devolution, what she refers to as his “fading away,” claiming to have seen it happening from the start before Darl was even aware. Darl’s final section in the novel sees him laughing and repeating the word “yes” as he has fully succumb to dissociation, speaking about himself in the third-person, while he is being escorted by train to the mental institution in Jefferson shortly after Addie is buried. As Addie watches Darl being taken away, their words align again but describe different experiences: Darl describes the wagon through the window of the train as being “something different, distinctive. There is about it that unmistakable air of definite and imminent departure” (254); whereas Addie uses the same words to describe the finality of death, the final ceasing of her consciousness which has lingered after her physical death, allowing her to see and describe the events which have since transpired. As the “void of death” approaches, Addie, facing its totality and emptiness, hears Vardaman’s words “all one yet neither; all either yet none” (57), which then calls to her mind her earlier monologue about words being “a shape, a vessel…motionless: a significant shape profoundly without life like an empty door frame…And when I would think Cash and Darl that way until their names would die and solidify into a shape and then fade away, I would say, All right. It doesn’t matter” (173). Addie turns the latter sentiment about names towards herself in these final moments. “It doesn’t matter” that her grave bears no headstone, since her name is just a sound, a shape, “destined to die again” and be forgotten. The final line reiterates Addie’s famous statement, “My father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time” (169). Addie is finished; she is “done lying,” the word “lying” containing all possible interpretations: lying as the physical act of lying down; lying as the act of committing falsehoods; lying as related to having sex, and in turn, childbearing and motherhood–all nuances having permeated throughout the text of the novel. She is ready, she is done, and so the novel is done as well.
Faulkner, William, As I Lay Dying, Vintage International Ed, New York, NY, 1990.