As I Lay Dying
by William Faulkner
Analysis: What’s Up With the Title?
William Faulkner’s title comes from a favorite speech of his in Homer’s Odyssey, Book XI. Odysseus has traveled to the Underworld, essentially to get directions. Once there, however, he’s bombarded by the ghosts of all his dead comrades. One in particular is Agamémnon, who tells the story of his own death. He’s super pissed that 1) he was killed by his evil, scheming, adulterous wife, and 2) that witch wouldn’t close his eyes as he was dying. The line goes a little something like this: "As I lay dying, the woman with the dog's eyes [that would be his wife he’s talking about here] would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades [a.k.a. the Underworld]."
Eyes…eyes…that sounds familiar to us. When we’re done here, go read what we have to say on eyes in "Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory."
But we’re not done yet. Because, while we’re digging around in Book XI of the Odyssey, we happen to notice Odysseus’s buddy Elpênor, who is also dead (a common theme in the Underworld). Elpênor died by falling off a roof. Sound familiar? Yes, Cash also fell off a roof, though he was very nobly mending a church, whereas Elpênor was irresponsibly drunk. And, wait a second, isn’t all of the Odyssey about a quest, just like As I Lay Dying?
Bingo! Go and read what we have to say about "Genre." Great, now you know what we’re talking about when we say that As I Lay Dying is an ironic inversion of the classic quest. In the Odyssey, the quest is just and sensical and ends with a happily ever (if somewhat bloody) after. In As I Lay Dying, the quest is pointless and destructive. In ancient Greece, people get what they deserve. Elpênor drank irresponsibly and so he died. In As I Lay Dying, divine justice couldn’t be less just. Cash was mending a church as a volunteer when he fell and broke his leg. Whitfield, a cheating hypocrite, makes a safe and easy crossing over the same river which devastates the Bundrens on their journey. Unfair? Yes, and also ironic – like we tell you in "Genre."
Before you leave, think about the tense and the person used in the title. As I lay dying. Addie dies a good 150 pages before the end of the novel. So, she’s only dying for a quarter of the text. Who is still dying – present tense – in the rest of the story? Come to think of it, can we be certain that the "I" refers to Addie? After all, she only narrates one of the fifty-nine sections in this text. Why should she get to title the novel? Could it possibly be Darl? Faulkner himself?
What the title does tell us is that As I Lay Dying is about just that – dying. Not a dead body, but the very act of dying. And if you want to be all morbid about it, you could say that this is the one, indisputable fact in a novel which doesn’t allow for any other kind of certainty (see "Point of View"): everyone is dying. Darl, Dewey Dell, Vardaman, Cash, Anse, Tull, and every other narrator in the text is united by this fact and this fact only. They are all alive, which means they are all going to die, which means they are all, one way or another, in the process of dying. And so is the reader. (Ouch, we know.)