As I Lay Dying was published in 1930, immediately following the work that many consider to be Faulkner's masterpiece, The Sound and the Fury. The Sound and the Fury is widely considered to be among the greatest of the modernist novels, and is hailed as a masterpiece of 20th century literature.
In both of these novels, Faulkner built on a tradition begun by modernist authors like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Faulkner used stream-of-consciousness narrative to explore perception and thought as the basis of experience. Objective reality does not exist in As I Lay Dying; we have only the highly subjective interior monologues of fifteen different narrators. Darl, who emerges early as the novel's most important narrator, is eloquent but considered strange by his family and neighbors. He ends up being put into an asylum, with his older brother Cash musing on the definition of "insane." Evaluating "truth" becomes an equally tricky enterprise, with Faulkner depicting a truth as mutable and violent as the river the Bundrens cross midway through the novel.
The structure of As I Lay Dying is powerful and innovative. Fifteen narrators alternate, delivering interior monologues with varying degrees of coherence and emotional intensity. The language is intense and highly subjective, with a recognizable change in language depending on the narrator. Each section falls somewhere in the range from confessional to stream-of-consciousness. The novel is a series of interior monologues, and through these fragmented passages we piece together the story of Addie Bundren's death and the transport of her body to Jefferson.
The narrative appears fragmentary, but the story demonstrates admirable unity: it is limited to the span of a few days, and the different sub-plots are logically and skillfully interwoven. Faulkner's innovation is in how we see this unified set of events: we are forced to look at the story from a number of different perspectives, each of which is highly subjective. In The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner made use of some elements of this technique. However, As I Lay Dying presents us with a far greater range of voices. Additionally, The Sound and the Fury provides a clearer distinction between unreliable and reliable narrators. Part Three of The Sound and the Fury is narrated by a man who is unmistakably evil, and Part Four helps clarify the novel through its use of a more objective third-person narrator. The voices in As I Lay Dying are more numerous and more ambiguous.
Among Faulkner's achievements, in this novel and elsewhere, was the rendering of the vernacular of the South into poetic literary language. The Bundrens live in Faulkner's fictional community of Yoknapatawpha County, a setting used in many of his novels, and they are among the poorest characters in all of Faulkner's work. And yet Darl is one of Faulkner's most articulate and poetic creations. His destruction has a tragic depth and dignity. Faulkner depicts the besieged and impoverished Bundrens with empathy and grace, although he never romanticizes them, nor does he shy away from depicting their ignorance and failings. His depiction here of poverty and rural people is among the most rich and layered portraits in all of literature.