Like any work of literature, there are two ways to interpret "As I Lay Dying" -- as a work of plot, or as a work of character. The second method seems to be more common, and in some ways, it may been what William Faulkner was aiming for. He does tell each chapter from the view of a different character, and helpfully titles each chapter thusly, so that you know from whose viewpoint you are reading: which does make the book somewhat simpler. However, there are two reasons why the plot of the book should be studied, perhaps before the characters are. The first is that in any work, character and plot are complementary of each other, and one doesn't make sense without the other. The second is that in the case of "As I Lay Dying", the characters reveal themselves through oblique inner monologues instead of through prosaic descriptions. This makes sorting out which character is which, and what their motivations are, somewhat difficult until the reader has finished most of the novel and/or they have studied a Cliff's Notes version of the book. On the other hand, the plot of the work is fairly simple: a poor rural family must transport their dead mother, via wagon, to her hometown for burial.
The plot is actually fairly simple, but within that plot, various levels of conflict are brought up:
- Humans versus nature: One of the most basic and understandable parts of the book, and frankly the part that kept me on track after some of the opening monologues had confused me to pieces. The book includes dramatic scenes where the family attempts to ford a river and almost has the coffin, the wagon, and several family members wash away because of it. Other than providing action in a plot that is heavy on introspection, these scenes are important for other reasons. First, they give a lot of shape to the characterization, because the characters only become who they are when faced with obstacles. In fact, some of the natural hazards end up showing characters in a different light: when the coffin washes away at the ford, it is Jewel, who before then had seemed like somewhat of a dandy who did not want to participate in the adventure, who risks himself and his beloved horse to rescue the coffin. Secondly, the book is, as the title suggests, about death, which could be seen as the most basic natural obstacle that humans must face.
- Social group versus social group: How much Faulkner intended this as a theme, and how much of it is unavoidable background, is something that I am not sure of, because I don't know enough about Faulkner's politics or about the social situation at the time of writing. One of the major points of the book is that the family who is undergoing this voyage is a poor, rural family that has to journey through the world of slightly richer, slightly more urban people. This becomes an especially big problem when combined with the morbid, difficult situation under which they are traveling. In one scene, a law officer orders them to leave town because the wagon they are traveling in smells like death. In other scenes, they are either neglected or exploited by most of the pillars of middle class society: the church, the medical profession, and the merchant class, included. Again, I do not know whether this is because Faulkner is writing something explicitly political, or whether he is just including it for dramatic effect.
- Interpersonal conflict: The family group that is making the voyage has to temporarily put their animosities aside to make the journey, something that they fail to do for long. Each character has conflicts with the other characters, either open rivalries or conflicts of deception and omission. While bound to their common goal, each character also has an agenda of their own, which conflicts with the overall mission. Some of these conflicts come to a head quite dramatically in the closing chapters. Some of the social conflict from outside of the family could also be seen as interpersonal conflict.
Those are three obvious levels of conflict in the book. One area of conflict is conspicuous by its absence, at least for the current reader: there is no racial conflict or struggle mentioned in the book, with black residents only being mentioned once or twice in passing. I don't know if this is a deliberate omission, or rather that racial conflicts were not seen as important at the time as they did in hindsight. It is an interesting issue, to say the least. The last level of conflict could be seen as the three way struggle between Faulkner, his narrators, and the reader. In somewhat of a darkly whimsical fashion, I can imagine Faulkner stuffing his characters, protesting, into that cramped wagon with a corpse. But there is a large amount of conflict between what happens in the book, how the characters describe it, and how the reader chooses to interpret it. And this metaconflict, together with the many other levels of conflict, is one of the major lenses with which to read "As I Lay Dying".