Faulkner reads from a "Darl" section, starting here: "Pa stands beside the bed. From behind his leg Vardaman peers, with his round head and his eyes round and his mouth beginning to open."
This 1930 novel starts with the death of Addie Bundren--hence the title "As I Lay Dying." Agamemnon begins a speech in Book XI of Homer's The Odyssey with "As I lay dying..." Faulkner's work about the Bundrens in rural Mississippi has echoes of mythology.
Anse is Addie's lazy husband. He fears sweating--it will bring about his death, so he avoids work that may cause sweat. Anse is preoccupied with his wife dying, her wish to be buried 40 miles from home, and money.
We learn of the family's efforts to honor Addie's wish to be buried next to her parents in Jefferson, about 40 miles from the rural area where she lives. The family is poor, so satisfying that request is a hardship. Hauling a coffin for 40 miles in a wagon becomes an ordeal.
By the 8th day, the smell of her corpse in a coffin made by Cash is terrible as the wagon heads for Jefferson. A marshal of Mottson heaps scorn on the family due to that stench.
The novel has 59 sections instead of conventional chapters. In each section, a single character narrates, Darl having the most statements. Readers are given that person's unique perspective--a new writing technique! Faulkner builds upon what James Joyce introduced in Ulysses.
Readers must make sense of the various sections without the help of a third-person narrator. There is no objective commentary. "Objectivity" is a myth anyway. The "truth" or reality of any event or series of events resides in various perspectives.
What year? Try "any time in history." Early chapters give nothing to help us determine the year--no movie star name, no popular song, no political figure. Lack of references to popular culture would be a weakness in a novel aiming for realism, but Faulkner is no realist.
The novel ends with references to a "graphophone"--the name used by Columbia for its talking machines or phonographs (the Victor Talking Machine Company used "Victrola"). A particular machine is described as closing up like a suitcase, the type known as a "portable" to hobbyists. Suitcase models were popular in the 1920s. The novel refers to new records bought through the mail.
Due to that machine and mail-order reference, I view the year as 1929, the year Faulkner wrote most of the book (he finished in January 1930). The "graphophone" in a portable style makes 1929 plausible.
The action covers several days. Readers also learn much through flashback.
The novel begins with a dying Addie Bundren--a strong woman, controlling, willful. Her oldest son, Cash, is in his late 20s. This carpenter (hints of Jesus?) makes her coffin, showing her the work for her approval as she looks out a window. Addie wants proof that her coffin will be solid, well-constructed. Later, Cash foolishly allows cement to be put on his broken leg, which leads to amputation.
The youngest Bundren is Vardaman (age 10?). He is dim, possibly retarded.
Two sons in the middle are Darl and Jewel, who fight. Jewel is unable to accept that his mom is dying. Darl is sensitive and introspective. After Darl burns down a barn (the coffin is in the barn--Darl wants to end this trip in a wagon), he seized by police and is taken to an asylum. The alternative to an asylum would be a lawsuit that the family cannot afford.
Jewel was the product of Addie having an affair with Reverend Whitfield. Violent and impulsive, Jewel is in his late teens (19?) and was Addie's favorite.
Addie's daughter is Dewey Dell--only a teen ("17" she says, and her father also says he has fed her for 17 years). A man named Lafe impregnated her and then told Dewey to buy something at any drugstore to end the pregnancy. Dewey wants to acquire pills that will abort the child, stupidly agreeing to have sex with a drugstore clerk who promises to give the needed pills and procedure. That cad, MacGowan, takes advantage of her dire situation. When Dewey tried to acquire pills earlier in a different town, she was run out of a drugstore.
The Tulls are neighbors of the dying Addie. Vernon Tull heads the Tull household, and his wife Cora visits the dying Addie.
The trip to Jefferson is complicated because of broken wagon wheels, a bridge washed out, a second bridge washed out, drowned mules, and so on. Anse ostensibly travels to Jefferson to fulfill a promise made to his wife, but really Anse wants to buy false teeth. At the end, he has a new wife who holds a graphophone.
Darl ends up in a Jackson asylum, but the novel ends optimistically with a new mother in the family. Anse is excited to have a second chance at life.
Cash has the novel's last word. He seems satisfied that his new step-mother owns a graphophone. Before meeting the new Mrs. Bundren, he confesses to readers, "I don't know if a little music ain't about the nicest thing a fellow can have."