Part of what makes As I Lay Dying such a notable text is the way in which Faulkner’s Modernist approach allows him to disrupt traditional literary conventions, such as the idea of a reliable narrator and the arc of a quest narrative. Switching back and forth between narrative voices, disrupting the linear progression of time, and challenging the hero archetype are all strategies that Faulkner uses to explore the psychological depths of his characters and the flaws inherent in each of them. Given this nonconventional narrative structure, no single character clearly stands out as the sole protagonist or antagonist driving the plot forward. Each member of the Bundren family has their own set of motivations that lie beneath the overarching goal of burying Addie in Jefferson, and these motivations lead to a plethora of individual conflicts that play out simultaneously. Darl’s struggle to grasp the significance of life and death while contending with the harsh and self-serving nature of his family members, however, emerges as arguably the most central conflict of the novel. With his at times omniscient narrative voice and thoughtful nature, Darl functions as a guide for the reader until, of course, he goes mad. The tension between his philosophical outlook on the world and the hypocrisy of the family’s journey to Jefferson allows Faulkner to highlight the role that perspective plays in disguising human flaws.
The early chapters of the novel, which lead up to the inciting incident of Addie’s death, work to establish the dynamics of the Bundren family, foreshadow the selfish motivations behind the impending trip to Jefferson, and reveal Darl’s reflective point of view. Through the rotation of narrative voices, the reader learns that Anse is rather useless when it comes to supporting his family, and his three adult children, Cash, Darl and Jewel, take on most of the responsibility. This sense of obligation causes Jewel and Darl to be away from the farm on a delivery when Addie dies, although Darl senses that she has died even before he and Jewel return home. His seemingly omniscient perspective, which also comes into play as he suspects Dewey Dell’s pregnancy and narrates Anse’s reference to new teeth moments after Addie dies, sets him apart from the other characters in the novel. Beyond the fact that Darl is the only one who expresses affection toward Addie, he seems to know that the family’s journey to Jefferson will not be the morally upstanding quest that Anse makes it out to be.
As the family begins to make their way toward Jefferson, the natural obstacles that emerge and the Bundrens’ responses to them highlight the absurdity of their mission. The heavy rains that flood the river and wash away the bridge function as nature’s way of attempting to reset the cycle of life and death broken by the mistreatment of Addie’s corpse. Instead of acknowledging this cosmic symbol, the Bundrens continue to pursue their questionable goal and clumsily attempt to drive the wagon through the river. The chaos of the novel’s rising action emerges through numerous narrative voices, but the underlying sense that their journey is ill-fated pervades them all. Darl jumps from the wagon as the water begins to sweep it away and emerges empty-handed despite Vardaman’s belief that he will save the coffin, an action which suggests his unwillingness to continue participating in such an unnatural and dishonorable venture. Despite his lack of effort, Jewel and Cash manage to guide the wagon and coffin out of the water, and their defiance of what Cora views as “the hand of God” leaves them even more tainted, both physically and morally, than they were initially.
The climax of the novel occurs when Darl sets fire to the barn in which Addie’s days-old corpse rests overnight, and this act represents his attempt to purify his mother by saving her from the selfishness and deceit that has corrupted her final journey. Ironically, Darl’s act of heroism also involves a lie, suggesting that he is not completely immune to his family’s faults, and ultimately fails. Jewel manages to pull Addie from nature’s grasp yet again, an outcome which ensures the continuation of the family’s self-serving attitude toward their trip to Jefferson. Unable to impose his wider, philosophical understanding of Addie’s death onto others, he cries over her battered coffin and ultimately falls from grace.
In the novel’s falling action, the Bundrens commit Darl to a mental institution in Jackson after learning of his actions. While Cash explains that they hope to avoid legal action from the Gillespies by sending Darl away, he also questions what means to be “crazy” or “sane.” This notion, which establishes Cash as the narrative’s new reliable narrator, suggests that the family sent Darl away because they are incapable of understanding his perspective. With Darl, the final obstacle, out of the way, the remaining Bundrens bury Addie, and Anse achieves his primary, selfish goal: getting new teeth and finding a new wife. The quest may be complete, but the moral corruptness of the remaining characters and the lack of a meaningful outcome emphasizes the persistence of a superficial worldview rather than a more thoughtful one.