As I Lay Dying: An Allegory of War

In 1930, a man published an unusual book. It used colloquial language of the American south, and followed multiple narrators. The book was called As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner. William Faulkner lived through perilous times. He served in World War I in the Royal Air Force (William Faulkner Joins the Royal Air Force, 1). Though he never saw combat in the war, it is clear from Faulkner’s writings that the war had an effect on him. Faulkner’s first published novel, Soldier’s Pay, revolves around the aftermath of World War I when a wounded soldier comes home.  As I Lay Dying does not hold any direct references to World War I aside from a minute mention of “the war,” by the character Darl near the end (Faulkner, 254). Yet As I Lay Dying is perhaps one of the most potent allegories of World War I ever written. Faulkner’s seminal work is a story of pity and sacrifice by the children of the Bundren family. It is through this telling of pity and sacrifice that the allegory of World War I is made clear throughout the book.

The character of Anse in As I Lay Dying stands as a strong representation of what many readers at the time would equate with governmental overreach. In As I Lay Dying, there is a family called the Bundren’s. As Addie, the mother of the family, dies she makes Anse promise to take her body back to her home town of Jefferson for burial. The father of the family, Anse, does not labor with his children. He is described as being allergic to sweat. This is a symbolic description, meant to show his inability to work, either due to medical restriction or personal laziness. Anse has no teeth; he is unable to bite or chew on his own, and must eat soft foods. While his children give of themselves to fulfill their duty to him and their mother, Anse himself makes very few real sacrifices throughout As I Lay Dying

Anse sells his son Jewel’s horse to pay for transport of his deceased wife’s corpse. He takes money from his daughter Dewey Dell to purchase new teeth. In fact, the purchase of new teeth, along with the acquisition of a new Mrs. Bundren, are Anses’ ulterior motives in going to Jefferson. Along the route to Jefferson, all five children of Anse and Addie make terrible sacrifices. Cash, the oldest son, breaks his leg as the family attempts to forge a river between them and Jefferson.  in that same crossing Darl, the second son, and Jewel, the bastard child of the reverend Whitefield, both nearly drown. Sacrifices, like Cash’s, show the love Addie’s children had for her in keeping their word. Yet Anse is not part of these sacrifices. Throughout the story, he is only ever in the center of attention to be a foil to his family by taking what they have of value for his own purposes. 

Professor of history, Michael S. Neiberg, said of citizens during the post World War I era,  “For most Americans, going to war in 1917 was about removing the German threat to the U.S. homeland. But after the war, [President] Wilson developed a much more expansive vision to redeem the sin of war through the founding of a new world order, which created controversy and bitterness in the United States.” (Hindley, 2017). In many respects, Anse shadows this expansive vision. He took his family to Jefferson under the guise of burying his wife, only to aggrandize himself with new teeth and a new wife. He gains power at the cost of bitter suffering by his offspring. Much like how the United States gained greater authority in the world at large through its involvement with post war Europe.

Addie then represents the cause of conflict for the story. Her life, and her death, mark those around her in indelible ways. In Addie’s chapter of As I Lay Dying, she says of her career as a school marm, “I would look forward to the times when [the students] faulted, so I could whip them. When the switch fell I could feel it upon my flesh; when it welted and ridged it was my blood that ran, and I would think with each blow of the switch: Now you are aware of me! Now I am something in your secret and selfish life, who have marked your blood with my own for ever and ever.” This mark mirrors the mark left on those who survived the horrors of World War I. 

Many soldiers from World War I came home with shellshock, what today is called PTSD, unable to cope with the unending death and fear of death they faced every day. (Butterworth, 2018). The death of Addie acts as the catalyst for the sacrifices of the Bundren family. When she passes, a great storm comes through the county where the Bundren family live, flooding the river, destroying the bridges, and most notably, generating great amounts of mud. Mud is a key element of both As I Lay Dying and the imagery  of World War I. “Almost every painting, photograph, poem, diary, or book about the First World War involves mud. It was as much a part of the war as artillery and trenches, barbed wire and machine guns, hopelessness and heroism.” (Leonard,  2012).  

Darl describes, after the death of Addie, “Overhead the day drive a level and gray, hiding the sun by a flight of gray spears. In the rain the mules smoke a little, splashed yellow with mud, the off one clinging in sliding lunges to the side of the road above the ditch… About Jewels ankles a runnel of yellow neither water nor earth in swirls, curving with the yellow road neither of earth nor water, down the hill dissolving into a streaming mass of dark green neither of earth nor sky.” (Faulkner, 49). This description as told by Darl echoes the sentiments of the above mentioned mediums depictions of World War I. The muddy nature of As I Lay Dying is likely Faulkner intentionally drawing on the environment of the Great War to further connect the two via allegory.

In considering the presence of World War I in As I Lay Dying, it would be easy to see Darl the primary vehicle for powering the allegory between the two. He is a return soldier from the theater of war in France. He even appears to have some elements of PTSD himself, which could explain his breakdown and attempt to burn the remains of Addie. This would be a misreading, though. It is much more nuanced than this. John Limon, professor of English, said of the subject, “Oddly enough, the hypothesis that the Great War explains Darl is not as convincing as the Great War explains As I Lay Dying, itself—its characteristic images, its form, its style. What is the reason for the sheer muddiness of As I lay Dying, which is perhaps the muddiest book in all literature?” (Limon, 2004). 

The children of Addie and Anse give all they have, either willingly or begrudgingly, to fulfill their parents wishes. This act reflects the sacrifices of American soldiers during World War I, in that they gave their lives for what they believed would bring peace, yet instead brought about confusion and continued government meddling in foriegn affairs. As I Lay Dying defines a generation disenfranchised with their authority figures, orphaned by a war that cost more than it was worth.

Works Cited

  1. William Faulkner Joins the Royal Airforce. 2009, History.com. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/faulkner-joins-the-royal-air-force
  2. Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. 1990, First Vintage International Edition.
  3. Hindley, Meredith. World War I Changed America and Transformed its Role in International Relations. 2017, National Endowment for the Humanities. NEH.gov https://www.neh.gov/humanities/2017/summer/feature/world-war-i-changed-america-and-transformed-its-role-in-international-relations
  4. Leonard, Matt. Mud. 2012, Military History Monthly, May 2012 Issue. https://conflictarchaeology1.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/mud-feature-article.pdf
  5. Butterworth, Benjamin. What World War One Taught Us About PTSD. 2018, Theconversation.com. https://theconversation.com/what-world-war-i-taught-us-about-ptsd-105613

Limon, John. Faulkner and War. 2004, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Published by AC Moore

My goal is to one day change the world in the same way Shakespeare did: by infusing the thoughts of the human race with such language and turn-of-phrase that they say them daily, and never even know it was I who wrote it.

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