I know I have said this numerous times before, but the characters are what make a story for me. Without well-developed, realistic characters, I don't connect with the book. And while I may still enjoy it, I will never love it.
As I Lay Dying is a perfect example of a great character-driven book. Each chapter or vignette is told from the point of view of one of the family members of Addie Bundren. From their perspective, we watch Addie die, and then the family's journey to put her to rest. In each character we find something that is driving them in their grief.
The only daughter in the novel, Dewey Dell, is harboring a dark secret. Now that her mother is dying (and well...dead as the book moves on), she has to confront the darkest of demons as the only female in the family. She has no one to turn to, no one to ask for help.
For Jewel, his pride and anger get in the way of realizing what is happening. He lashes out at the other characters and tries to wound them so he doesn't have to feel anything.
Cash is too busy making the coffin to care about anything else. His only concern is to make it perfect for his mother, to honor her by building her the best coffin he can before her dying eyes. He saws day and night to complete it for her, not caring for rain or the thoughts of the other family members.
The neighbors are upset that Anse, Addie's husband, hadn't called for help long before, and they continue to gossip about the family as they mourn and try to fulfill Addie's wishes.
For the youngest, Vardaman, it is the inability to understand what is happening to his mother. Vardaman has one of the most recognizable chapters from the entire book:
"My mother is a fish," (84).
At first, that simple line seems silly. Why is that line an entire chapter's worth of thought from one little boy? But if you really think about it, that one line says so much about Vardaman, and how he views death compared to the rest of the family. For me, it sums up much of how we feel about death. Vardaman has only seen death in the day to day actions of his life on the farm. He hunts and kills farm animals for food, and catches fish. He has seen death in those animals-the wide-eyed look of nothing. That is the only way he can comprehend how he must see his mother, dead like the fish he brings home. For him, that is all he knows of grief and dying and that is how he copes.
It might seem weird, that this book full of eclectic characters is a favorite of mine, even with all of its morbid and disturbing thoughts. But in a way, I am like all of them when it comes to grief. I am afraid, proud, scared, and unsure of what the next steps are. And even though things get rough for the Bundrens, they survive, each on their own with their own kind of grief. It is a powerful story and one that I cherish as I read through it. Each of these characters must heal in their own way, and learn to survive in a world without Addie.
It is a story that could only be told one way, and I am glad Faulkner is doing it right.