by Jane Zwart
William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying is a hard read.
Published in 1930, As I Lay Dying is a hard read because it assigns each of its 60 or so chapters to one of 15 narrators, about half of whom belong to the Bundren family. Most chapters rely on stream-of-consciousness; that is, most chapters read like the transcript of a character’s thoughts—but not at all tidied for the reader’s benefit.
At the same time, reading this book proves hard on account of its plot. It kills off Addie Bundren, mother of five, almost immediately. Then it relates the ten-day-long ordeal it takes to get her homemade coffin in the ground, her husband having promised to bury her in a town some 40 miles away.
Unthinkable—almost slapstick—misfortunes befall the Bundrens the whole way, some gruesome, some pitiful, some pretty well-deserved, some appallingly unfair. And the whole way, the reader overhears the unspeakable things that teem in its narrators’ minds: fury and heartbreak, guilt and pettiness, horror and bewilderment.
Well, what I discovered this semester is that As I Lay Dying is an even harder read at the end of Lent.
And having just put two sections of an American Lit. survey through just that, I thought I owed them a letter as they departed to celebrate Easter. It follows.
I’ve taught As I Lay Dying a handful of semesters, and every go-round is about 60 percent affliction. Not because unraveling Faulkner’s prose is grueling—it is, of course, but I count that a happiness.
No, the affliction occurs where feeling does. That is: what pains me is not parsing the Bundrens’ quirks of narration; rather, it is the family’s story itself, wrenched out of shape by both life and grief. Their sad, perverse quest pains me. As do the absurd delays that keep Addie Bundren from her grave and her survivors in her thrall. Et cetera.
And bearing witness to the pain this novel costs you belongs on the side of affliction, too.
So every go-round, I ask myself again whether the pain that teaching As I Lay Dying inevitably causes is worth the truths it tells.
Up to now, each time I’ve eked out a “yes.” I’ve re-upped on As I Lay Dying for another semester for pretty predictable reasons. Because it plumbs human nature. Because it dissects grief. Because it names brokenness and precludes easy judgment. Because it prizes compassion (albeit sometimes by describing its absence). Because it is difficult and because it is beautiful.
But I’ve always second-guessed those “yeses.” After all, reading As I Lay Dying well will wring a person’s heart—and my students incline toward tenderheartedness already. Your hearts don’t need much wringing.
Enter this semester. For the first time (my syllabus for American lit and the liturgical calendar aligning), I found myself teaching As I Lay Dying during Holy Week.
Now, I have very few fixed liturgical traditions. But every year, come Holy Week, I read John Updike’s poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter.” Here it is:
“Seven Stanzas at Easter”
Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
It was as His flesh; ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.
And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.
All at once, I knew: I had been teaching As I Lay Dying for sound reasons, for defensible reasons. But I had not been teaching it with Easter in sight.
For the record, I still hope what I hoped before. I hope that, having read this book, you will grieve more unapologetically and hold awkward vigils less fearfully. I hope that you will recognize and mend the brokenness that death makes stark.
But far more than that, I hope that reading As I Lay Dying will be for you what it has become for me. I hope you will find in it a means to reckon with the “cell’s dissolution”; with the failure of some beloved, “valved heart”; with the “vast rock of materiality […] eclips[ing …] the wide light of day” because you have Easter in plain view.
I hope that even as you reckon with the body turned ruinous and the clumsy march of pallbearers and the neat fit of coffin to dead end tunnel, you will know that the monstrosity of death is also our best hint about what Christ’s resurrection undoes.
The poet enjoins us not to make that resurrection “less monstrous,” not to “mock God with metaphor.”
It is death itself, of course, and its consequences—the perishable corpse, the heavy box, the stricken child, the tongue-tied mourner—that Faulkner’s novel refuses to “mock with metaphor.” But in doing so, it details what Christ’s resurrection reverses, from bereavement to rot.
This year, although I didn’t know it until now, I taught As I Lay Dying so that, come Easter, I could answer the words “Christ is risen” not by rote, but by heart: “Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia.” And I hope that your alleluias, too, will borrow grateful defiance from what you know about the mortality that Christ’s resurrection overturns.
Jane Zwart teaches English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.