The story of a dysfunctional family and its epic journey across the South, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is famous for its use of multiple narrators who interpret and recount the journey of the Bundren clan from their own unique perspectives. All of the characters, whether members of the family or outsiders who encounter them on the way to Jefferson, have their own agendas and specific views of the world around them, with each of these perspectives in some small way contributing to the larger themes and ideas of Faulkner’s novel. This paper will examine the philosophies of three of these characters in particular — Anse, Cash, and Darl Bundren — in order to analyze how their differing voices, opinions, and styles of narration allow Faulkner to explore multiple themes and create a more complex novel than would be possible with a single unified narrator. As the father and ostensible leader of the Bundren clan, Anse is the character who seemingly appears to be the most intent on getting his wife to Jefferson and burying her with her family. He seems committed to honoring Addie’s final wishes, saying multiple times that “I give her my promise” because her “mind was set on it,” as well as being the one who insists that the journey must be completed as soon as possible even though that entails making a dangerous river crossing that kills his wagon team and injures Cash (114-15, 125-26). However, Anse’s lazy, hypocritical, and self-interested streak is revealed well before the novel’s shock ending: he claims that “he was sick once from working in the sun when he was twenty-two years old” and that if “he ever sweats, he will die,” although that does not stop him from berating Jewel for being tired and unproductive (17, 130). A firm believer in the sedentary lifestyle, he also places the blame for his misfortunes and those of his relations on the presence of the road, which he sees as an enabler of trouble:Durn that road… a-laying there, right to my door, where every bad luck that comes and goes is bound to find it… when He [God] aims for something to be always a-moving, He makes it long ways, like a road or a horse or a wagon, but when He aims for something to stay put, He makes it up-and-down ways, like a tree or a man… because if He aimed for man to be always a-moving and going somewhere else, wouldn’t He a put him longways on his belly, like a snake? It stands to reason He would (35-6).To Anse, life is a series of tasks that must be completed before a man can finally achieve his ultimate dream of becoming completely stationary, whether that be working hard as a child so that he can earn the right to enjoy a relaxed lifestyle in adulthood or traveling down the very same road he denounces in order to find a wife and settle down (11, 171). Anything that conflicts with his personal comfort, whether it is the death of his wife or the actions of his children, will cause him to take action to rectify the situation, even at the expense of those he supposedly loves. For example, in order to pay for the wagon trip, he steals the money Cash was going to use to purchase a graphophone (190), agrees (without permission) to trade Jewel’s horse in exchange for a new team of mules (191), and tries to guilt Dewey Dell into making her give him the ten dollars for her abortion, saying:It’s just a loan. God knows, I hate for my blooden children to oppose me. But I give them what was mine without stint. Cheerful, I give them without stint. And now they deny me. Addie. It was lucky you died, Addie (246).As Deborah Chappel notes, this quote contains multiple blatant lies: “Anse won’t repay the money, he never gave anything unstintingly in his life, and… he doesn’t at all mind being reproached” (Chappel, 277). In effect, he is so successful in achieving his goals in the novel precisely because he is a master manipulator, one who possesses the capability to control the other characters around him. The continued repetition of the two phrases “would you begrudge her?” and “wouldn’t want us beholden” also indicate his willingness to use the memory of his dead wife as an excuse for his actions, whether it is claiming that Jewel had “no affection or gentleness for her,” convincing Tull to let him loan out his mule, or not leaving the injured Cash in the care of Armstid because he wants to do the burial first (19, 140, 195). He is even willing to address the ultimate inconvenience, the lack of a wife, by remarrying immediately after the burial, thus negating the entire emotional impact of the trip to inter Addie (261). By employing the petty and languid Anse as a narrator, Faulkner allows the reader to better understand the mindset of a uniquely Southern archetype, the poor white farmer. Anse is the author’s attack on the type of provincial bumpkin whose close-mindedness and stupidity had maintained the South’s status as a region disconnected from the greater United States and whose unwillingness to reintegrate into the national fabric would keep it that way unless and until there was a dramatic change in attitude. The character’s emphasis on inactivity and selfishness represents a region-wide malaise and reluctance to break with the identity the South had fashioned for itself from the post-Civil War period up until the time of Faulkner’s writing in the late 1920s. Anse Bundren is the South at its very worst, with him and his family representing the staleness and stagnation that beset the region as a result of its self-imposed isolation. Unlike Anse, Cash is the hardest worker in the family, as well as the only one who has managed to learn a trade beyond mere sustenance farming. However, his narratives in the first half of the book do not deal with the emotional trauma of losing his mother or even give a linear account of the events going on around him; rather, they are discourses about the engineering principles that went into creating the coffin. This unique philosophy makes him the most analytical and level-headed member of the Bundren clan, but it also indicates that he lacks the emotional ability to address his mother’s death directly — and that it is only by focusing his grief into his carpentry that he can truly express himself. When Anse calls him into the house to inform him of Addie’s death, Cash doesn’t know to respond:Cash does not look at him… Cash does not answer… Cash looks down at her face. He is not listening to pa at all. He does not approach the bed. He stops in the middle of the floor, the saw against his leg, his sweating arms powdered lightly with sawdust, his face composed… After a while he turns without looking at pa and leaves the room. Then the saw begins to snore again (50).That he enters the room caked in sawdust and carrying a saw indicates the centrality of his profession to Cash’s identity, that even when faced with personal tragedy he must perceive it through the lens of his job in order to truly comprehend it. In effect, he can only empathize with Addie’s passing by turning it into a job involving wood, nails, and tools, which is why immediately after viewing her corpse he resumes sawing the planks for the creation of the coffin. As a result, this coffin becomes a physical manifestation of his grief and emotionality, thus explaining why he becomes so obsessed about making everything about it as perfect as possible. Extra time is invested in beveling it despite the torrential downpour he must work through (79), while he also frets about the fact that Addie was laid in the coffin in the opposite direction from which he intended, saying “I made it to balance with her. I made it to her measure and weight” (90). His constant repetition of the admonition that “it is not on a balance” is more than a logistical concern; instead, it is him expressing a fear about the safety of his beloved mother and the wooden tribute he has made to her life. Another interesting element of Cash’s personality is his need for the tools of his trade: when the family wagon is hit by a log and capsizes in the middle of the river, he is knocked unconscious at precisely the same time as he loses them. According to Tim Poland, “with the near loss of his tools comes the near loss of Cash’s identity, the tenuous, relative identity that is the chief commodity in which the Bundren family trades” (Poland, 118). Without his tools, Cash loses his defining feature and the items that make him an active part of the narrative, the result of which relegates him to the status of a secondary character who can only lie in the back of the wagon alongside the rotting corpse in the coffin he himself created. It is only when they are retrieved from the water that he returns to consciousness, but with a “newfound awareness of the relativity of that identity and how deeply it is rooted in his function as a carpenter” that causes him to “reassess his own identity… and the fragile reality of all identity” (Poland, 119). This new Cash is a more balanced and descriptive storyteller, capable of recounting events with a more advanced level of perception than the formulaic lists he provided in his early chapters. He also takes over the role of most competent narrator from Darl, who seems to descend into lunacy at exactly the same moment that Cash reappears with his (literally) retooled understanding of the world. Although his chapters lack the profound insight that Darl’s provide, Cash’s later accounts are more level-headed and reasonable than any other family member’s up to that point, which is why Faulkner has him recount the ultimate ironic shock of his father’s hasty remarriage. By having the most sensible character describe these final events, the sense of anti-climax is magnified and further emphasizes just how irrelevant the family’s epic journey really was. In contrast to the rest of the Bundrens, Darl is in some way disconnected from the others both in terms of identity and geography, having actually left the South to serve in France during World War I. As a result, his narrations are the most complex and intellectually rich, and he even possesses the ability to describe events, such as Cash constructing the coffin, that are transpiring while he is physically in another location (75-81). This intangible distinction he possesses, which in some way separates him from his other family members, tends to unsettle people like Vernon Tull, who describes him as “queer”:He is looking at me. He don’t say nothing; just looks at me with them queer eyes of his that makes folks talk. I always say it aint never been what he done so much or said anything so much as how he looks at you. It’s like he has got inside of you, someway” (125).As a result of his unique ability to peer into people’s minds and witness proceedings that he is not tangibly a part of, Darl’s philosophy is highly intertwined with concepts of identity and self-perception, both his own and others. When Vardaman asks him where his mother is, Darl replies, “I haven’t got ere one… Because if I had one, it is was. And if it is was, it can’t be is. Can it?” (101). The use of the past and present forms of “is” suggests that Darl defines existence based on a more advanced level than the rest of his family, who still refer to Addie’s corpse as “her” even though she has already died. He is aware of the divide that death creates between being and not-being that renders Addie’s identity into something different from what it once was, just as he is more perceptive than the other Bundrens in his own self-characterizations. His alternate uses of the first and third persons to describe himself are representative of Darl’s innate knowledge about things he really should not be privy to, whether that be Dewey Dell’s tryst, Jewel’s illegitimate status, or even his own existence. Darl somehow knows that he is being observed and followed by some outside source (the reader), and that this switching of perspective between his own personal “I” and the outsider’s “He” indicates his awareness of this situation. He is cognizant of the fact that he is a participant in a story and that this knowledge separates him both from the other characters — who consider him “queer” because of the special information he possesses — but also from the audience, of whom he is in some part conscious even though he cannot fully reach them; he knows that he still belongs in the world of the narrative. This idea is corroborated by the lack of any real relationships he has with other figures in the novel, be it within the family or in the wider circle of the Bundrens’ neighbors and acquaintances. Jewel curses him frequently, Anse becomes upset over his decision to make an extra $3 while Addie is dying, Dewey Dell notifies the police about his barn arson, and even Cash has no problem with sending him to a mental institution, saying that it would be a “better” situation for him (17, 237-38). In this sense, Darl is a representation of Faulkner himself: his profound statements, narrative voice, and consciousness of the world around him all belong to the author who is broadcasting them through a source within the story itself. By analyzing the differing philosophies present in the chapters described by Anse, Cash, and Darl Bundren, three of the primary narrators in the novel, it is possible to trace how these differing voices make it possible for Faulker to fully emphasize several different facets and themes in the novel. With his steadfast belief in remaining sedentary and his exploitative personality, Anse represents the zealously backward Southerners who embrace their region’s status as a backwater and who refuse to reintegrate into the rest of the country with an almost inbred sense of stodginess. In contrast, the workmanlike and analytical Cash sees the world through the lens of his profession, even to the point where he is incapable of expressing emotion unless he manifests it in his carpentry. However, the shock of losing his tools — and by extension his identity — forces him to undergo an emotional and intellectual transformation that turns him into a more balanced, likeable chronicler, making him the ideal choice to deliver the ultimate ironic twist that ends the story. Finally, the most prominent figure in the book is Darl, who, with his special ability to peer into the psyches of others and observe events far away from his present location, is more aware of the gradations of identity that exist than are the other figures in the book, even to the point where he is capable of recognizing the multiple viewpoints from which his own life is being viewed. His ideology is reminiscent of Faulkner himself, and by employing it in tandem with Anse and Cash (as well as every other speaker in the book), the author has modified the form of the novel to give it greater complexity as well the ability to explore more ideas and themes than would be possible with just one narrator. By emphasizing these multiple philosophies and the way in which they influence the way in which the characters who adhere to them view the world, Faulkner is reflecting on the fundamental lack of an objective truth at the heart of the novel. Every one of his characters is an unreliable narrator with his or her own individually twisted and skewed take on life. The result of those perspectives ultimately leads readers to question what they really do and do not know about the events taking place in the story.Sources:Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying: The Corrected Text. Modern Library Edition. Modern Library, 2008. Print.
In typical modernist fashion, William Faulkner experiments in his work with a number of nontraditional stylistic and thematic characteristics, including brokenness, fragmentation, despair, pessimism, perception distortion, and the rejection of societal norms. In his novel As I Lay Dying, he focuses on a sense of alienation and separation, particularly within the Bundren family. Members of the Bundren family exhibit various dysfunctional relationships with one another, with their lovers, and even with God. Examples of these relationships include husband and wife, parent to child and sibling to sibling; in many of these cases, the Bundrens display seemingly violent affection toward each other. Addie and Anse, the heads of the Bundren household, do not provide an example of the ideal marriage. In fact, this duo is the epitome of a broken communion. Each treats the other as more of a burden than someone to rely on; both may even prefer independence to the company of their spouse. Their indifference toward one another begins as soon as they are engaged, and for good reason. Addie’s decision to marry Anse occurs without much consideration. Upon realizing that he owns a small piece of property, falsely believing that he is a hard worker with a “good honest name,” Addie decides to take him up on his offer; as she nonchalantly puts it: “So I took Anse” (Faulkner 171). Soon thereafter, however, misery sets in. After giving birth to Cash, Addie claims that her “aloneness” has been violated. Addie detests motherhood almost as much as she comes to despise her lazy, useless husband. After discovering that she was pregnant with Darl, Addie “believed that [she] would kill Anse,” she was so upset (172). Addie believed that Anse had tricked her into having another child by his use of words. The use of the word “love” was nothing more than a tool of manipulation in Addie’s eyes. From that point forward, he is dead to her. Anse’s “love” for Addie results in the unhappiness that derives from sleepless motherhood. Even as a schoolteacher, Addie hates the children; in fact, she enjoys hating the children and loves having the privilege to whip them.Addie’s hatred for her husband grows to the point that she lay awake at night, alone in her self-pity, thinking, “Anse. Why Anse. Why are you Anse” (173). She longs to be rid of him and misses her innocence, along with the shape of her virgin body, both of which were intact before meeting him. At this juncture, once Anse had “died” to her, Addie makes the conscious decision to sin against God and her husband. Driven by her misery, Addie finds herself sinning in the arms of the ordained priest, Whitfield. Addie falls deeply in love, for the first time in her life, with Whitfield. But the affair ends as suddenly as it began. The only remaining fragment of Addie’s broken heart comes in the form of a third baby boy, appropriately named Jewel. Though Addie decidedly mistreats her husband, Anse’s regard for his wife is not much better. He views his marriage more as a well thought-out business deal instead of a committed acknowledgement of love and devotion. Anse seeks out Addie for her looks and perhaps a salary that would pay to his advantage. His proposal to Addie occurs without any additional knowledge of who she is as a person; therefore, clearly, adoration and respect never had the opportunity to develop. Once Addie gets sick, Anse waits until it is too late before calling Doctor Peabody, more concerned with saving money than his dying wife. Confused and outraged, Peabody asks, “Why didn’t you send for me sooner?” and, upon hearing Anse’s explanation, exclaims, “Damn the money. Did you ever hear of me worrying a fellow before he was ready to pay?” (44). Author of the article “As I Lay Dying: Faulkner’s All in the Family,” Linda W. Wagner narrows in on Anse’s “non-action” as “parasitic mockery.” Wagner points out that Anse is, ironically, able to endure — outlasting the more active and ambitious — despite his laziness, indifference, and even negligence (Wagner 73). Anse goes as far as selfishly claiming that his wife’s misfortune is simply the consequence of “bad luck,” seemingly lacking any sort of sympathy. Anse seems to believe this bad luck of his comes from living by a road “where bad luck prowling can find it and come straight to my door, charging me taxes on top of it” (Faulkner 36). Upon Addie’s deathbed, Anse cannot even find it within himself to shed a tear, or show any sort of sadness for that matter. After awkwardly staring at his dead wife for a brief moment, he apathetically remarks, “God’s will be done. Now I can get them teeth” (52). Even the neighbors’ daughter, Kate Tull, recognizes Anse’s lack of appreciation for his wife and predicts that once Addie dies, “he’ll get another one before cotton-picking” (34). Though Anse may not outwardly detest Addie as she does him, he does clearly lack any sort of affection for his wife — dead or alive. The Bundren adults are not the only dysfunctional members of this family, however; the Bundren children also exhibit displays of abnormal affinities with each other. Instead of having bonded compassion for their siblings, they each demonstrate a form of hostility toward one or more other members of their family. Darl and Jewel, for instance, quite obviously dislike each other. Darl’s distaste for his brother derives from the evident understanding that Jewel is their mother’s most beloved accomplishment. Darl’s jealously causes him to treat Jewel with distain. Fully aware that his mother will die in their absence, Darl more or less forces Jewel to accompany him on a mission for three dollars because, “I want him to help me load,” he says (28). Darl furthers his brother’s pain by callously repeating, “Jewel, do you know that Addie Bundren is going to die? Addie Bundren is going to die?” (40). Wagner explains that, “For Darl, his mother’s preference for Jewel is continual torment […] Jewel’s misery is Darl’s delight, cut off as he has been from Addie’s affection by the taciturn younger boy. Darl lives in Jewel’s emotions” (Wagner 75). Addie’s poor moral characteristics have been passed on and affect her children in more ways than one. Perhaps if Addie had given all of her children more attention and equality, they would not have grown to treat each other with such resentment. Addie’s maladjusted nature trickles down to her naïve, adolescent daughter, Dewey Dell, whose relationship with Darl has its flaws as well. Darl, with his uncannily clairvoyant abilities, is particularly in tune with Dewey Dell. After she sleeps with Lafe and becomes pregnant, Darl makes a point to somehow silently inform Dewey Dell that he knows what occurred and is not happy about it. In her own words, “I saw Darl and he knew. He said he knew without the words like he told me that ma is going to die without words […] and I said ‘Are you going to kill him?’ […] and that’s why I can talk to him with knowing with hating because he knows” (Faulkner 27). Darl’s knowledge of his sister’s circumstances causes her to abhor him. She is embarrassed and ashamed of having conceived out of wedlock, especially considering the era, therefore Darl’s knowledge is an additional burden for her to bear. She would rather endure this problem unaccompanied; she even refuses to tell Lafe. Darl’s comprehension leaves Dewey Dell feeling exposed, naked even. She feels him watching her, his eyes “swim[ming] to pin points. They begin at my feet and rise along my body to my face, and then my dress is gone.” Dewey Dell becomes inflicted by her brother’s understanding to the point of having nightmares about him. She once dreams that she “rose and took the knife from the streaming fish still hissing and [she] killed Darl” (121). Clearly, Dewey Dell is so distraught by this twist of fate that she would prefer her own brother’s death to his realization of her mistake. Darl is not the only person Dewey Dell seems to have an impractical relationship with, however. The dynamic between Dewey Dell and her lover, Lafe, is also very uncomfortable and atypical. First, take into consideration the manner in which Dewey Dell conceives. The act of sleeping with Lafe occurs impulsively and without confirmation of his love. Especially for this time period, losing her virginity without notions of love and under unwed circumstances was unheard of. The decision, to her, seems liked the next unavoidable aspect of her day on the farm. She leaves the fate of this life-changing decision up to the current state of her daily chore in the manner of a little girl playing “he loves me, he loves me not.” She says, “if it don’t mean for me to do it the sack will not be full and I will turn up the next row but if the sack is full, I cannot help it” (27). Therefore, once the sack was full, her decision was made for her. Her attitude toward the situation after the fact further demonstrates the immature quality of their relationship. The pair lacks any sort of closeness or bond that allows Dewey Dell to be comfortable with Lafe and the unfortunate outcome of events. She does not even want to tell Lafe about the baby and repeatedly remarks, “He could fix it all right, if he just would. And he don’t even know it. He could do everything for me if he just knowed it” (63). This quote confirms that she wants nothing to do with Lafe’s baby, and yet she refuses to mention this consequence to him even though she needs his help taking care of the situation. The fact that she is not only willing but also desperate to be rid of the child inside of her further proves that she does not love Lafe; what happened between them was just an inevitable incident. Perhaps, as she has grown up witnessing her parents’ lack of affection toward one another, this notion of “settling” has been portrayed as acceptable to her. Additionally, since Addie has proved to be an insufficient mother to her children, including Dewey Dell, her daughter has not been exposed to typical motherly nature. Therefore, Dewey Dell has no desire to raise a family of her own because of her mother’s own dislike for her given role. The negative effect of Addie’s disposition on all of her children is apparent; her indifference (toward all but Jewel) leaves them feeling just as alone as she does even as they pine for her affection. The repercussions of her favoring of Jewel are most noticeable in Darl. The silent bond that Jewel and Addie share causes Darl to jealously treat Jewel poorly. Wagner claims that “the character of Darl himself — in all his mockery, hurt perception — is only further evidence of the power of Addie’s acts” (Wagner 75). Vardaman, as the youngest, is also deeply devastated by his mother’s death — mostly likely because he was never given the opportunity to be loved by her. Now that she’s gone, he feels like he has failed in earning her attention and will not be able to try any longer. After her death, his speech and actions drift toward insanity; Wagner explains, “The grief-crazed child parallels Jewel in that he can bear his mother’s death only through action […] In despair at this mother’s absence, Vardaman runs Peabody’s team, hides, walks four miles to the Tulls’ house, opens his mother’s window so that she can feel the rain, and finally augurs holes into her coffin (and face) for the same purpose” (Wagner 77). Throughout the novel, he confusingly denies his mother’s death, and at one point believes that she is a fish and her death was his responsibility. Obviously, if Addie is dead then she has no need to “feel the rain,” but Vardaman rejects this possibility. After she passes, he says, “Then I begin to cry. I can feel where the fish was in the dust. It is cut up into pieces of not-fish now, not blood on my hands and overalls. Then it wasn’t so” (Faulkner 52). His confusion for what he has done to the fish and what has happened to his mother is great. As time passes, the two incidents mesh completely into one, and a complete section of Vardaman’s only says, “My mother is a fish” (84). As the youngest child, Vardaman’s reaction to his mother’s death is the most drastic and dramatic. The remaining children react more subtly. The relationship between Dewey Dell and Addie is so insignificant that she barely takes time to mourn her mother’s passing, consumed as she is by her own problem. Jewel, on the other hand, taken by his mother’s exclusive affection, grows to resemble her characteristics most closely — particularly her subtle and silent temperament. Darl comments, “That’s why she named him Jewel”; he was her most cherished object, comparable to a precious gem (18). Both are violent, quiet, and have an unspoken and deep love for the other. The devastation, grief and psychological damage Addie has caused her children in her wake are direct consequences of the way she treated them individually while alive. Addie is acutely aware of the effects of her actions and even remarks, “Cora Tull would tell me I was not a true mother,” and yet she does nothing to change this truth. Her favoring of Jewel and neglect of the others creates a cycle of insecurity and hostility among her children, but Addie remains indifferent. Various characters in the novel also have interesting perceptions of their relationship with God. Many of these relationships are egocentric and self-righteous while being judgmental of others. Take Addie, for instance. Unlike most women of this era, she believes that her infidelity with Whitfield is worth the sins she commits. In fact, she shows no remorse at all for her actions; Addie feels that she deserves this transgression. God and man owe her the right to be happy with another man. Her notion of sin is explained by the following: “I would think of sin as I would think of the clothes we both wore in the world’s face, of the circumspection necessary because he was he and I was I […] I would think of him as thinking of me as dressed also in sin, he the more beautiful since the garment he had exchanged for sin was sanctified” (174-175). Sin was something that had to occur in order for her to make it through another day; sin was a beautiful escape. “Sin is just a matter of words,” she says, “to [people] salvation is just words too” (168). She also recognizes that the sin they commit together is intensified by the fact that he is an ordained minister; however, instead of feeling bad about this fact, Addie sees it as a turn-on. To her, this makes him all the more beautiful because he is sacrificing his vows and lifestyle for her company. The fact that Whitfield consents to these relations is proof that he too has an unsettling relationship with the God he purports to serve. Anse, like his wife, makes no religious effort and does not hide this fact. He too thinks that the world owes him something, despite his laziness and apathy, and believes that the God should take care of him — especially since He placed him by the bad luck of a road. He considers himself to be a good man, commenting:I have heard men cuss their luck and right, for they were sinful men. But I do not say it’s a curse on me, because I have done no wrong to be cussed by. I am not religious, I reckon. But peace is in my heart: I know it is. I have done things but neither better nor worse than them that pretend otherlike, and I know that Old Marster will care for me as for ere a sparrow that falls. But it seems hard that a man in his need could be so flouted by a road (28).His quote is filled with contradictions, first claiming he is not a sinful man then claiming he is a sinful man but he is no worse than other sinful men that pretend they are not. Obviously, his ideas of right and wrong, good and bad have become obscured throughout his lifetime. The final, most interesting aspect of the dysfunctional relationships within As I Lay Dying derives from Faulkner’s experimental blurring of the lines between what is considered normal or not. Faulkner meshes the connotations of affectionate love and violent hatred to create some sort of violent affection. Violence is present in some of the less loving relationships as well. The relationship between Addie and her beloved Jewel involves this twisted paradox. Darl, always observant, understands his mother’s bias for Jewel and notes “that’s why ma always whipped him and petted him more” (18). It would seem that if a mother adored one child more than the rest, then that child would not receive as much reprimanding, but that does not hold true here. Action of any kind was for the Bundrens an expression of their affection for one another. Jewel at one point silently wishes that “it would just be me and her on a high hill and me rolling rocks down the hill at their faces, picking them up and throwing them down the hill faces and teeth and all by God” (15). Jewel believes that sharing this violent act with his mother would be enjoyable and advantageous for the two, almost as one would consider going to the park or getting ice cream with their parents: just something that should occur to take everyone — and their misery — out of the picture. Faulkner also demonstrates “violent love” through characters who may not even realize it. Vardaman sincerely believes that he is sweetly helping his mother by drilling holes in her coffin; however, the audience is left with a gory vision of a dead women’s face being unknowingly destroyed. The imagery of dead Addie and Vardaman’s dead, bloody fish becomes entangled together by the boy’s grief, expressing contradictions of love for his deceased mother and the violent, confused destruction of his fish.Lastly, Dewey Dell’s situation presents contradictions as well. An act typically performed out of love and happiness leads to intense pain and suffering for Dewey Dell, both physically and emotionally. She is so wrapped up in her worry that she has little time to think of anything or anyone else. Her baby, a symbol of unconditional love and adoration to most, is her leading source of strife; therefore, she plans to take care of this problem by having an abortion: “That’s what they mean by the womb of time: the agony and the despair of spreading bones, the hard girdle in which lie the outraged entrails of events” (121). William Faulkner, experimental and groundbreaking as a modernist writer, plays with the notion of brokenness and fragmentation by confronting the family system. Each member of the Bundren family has his or her own set of vices — particularly against one another — within his novel As I Lay Dying. He characterizes notions of dysfunctional relationships between husband and wife, parent and child, sibling and sibling, and even God and man. In a number of these relationships, violence and sadism become very prominent as means of destruction and, paradoxically, affection. Works CitedFaulkner, William. As I Lay Dying: The Corrected Text. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.Wagner, Linda W. “As I Lay Dying: Faulkner’s All in the Family.” Galileo. JSTOR: College Literature. 1974
At the crux of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is the issue of communication. The characters’ methods of communicating are many and vary, in some cases, depending upon the characters’ relationships with one another. Verbal communication is curt and generally without special significance; the very value of words – the vehicle by which verbal communication moves – is called into question both explicitly and through Faulkner’s nuanced semantic games. As a counterpoint to the potentially problematic mode of verbal communication, more esoteric and pure forms are postulated: Darl and Dewey Dell are able to communicate notions and facts without words in something akin to telepathy; looks reveal undiluted emotional truth, and characters are occasionally able, through gaze alone, to see very profoundly into those who surround them. The question becomes: How does the novel ultimately reconcile these differing modes of communication and what light does this reconciliation shed on words and communication at large, in the world?Conversation is infrequently used to express anything of substance in As I Lay Dying, rather it is relegated to the realm of the banal and practical. When the local men convene on the Bundrens’ porch the day of Addie’s funeral, they speak not of Addie’s death or of the futility of Anse’s proposed journey to Jefferson, but of the weather and of Cash’s fall: “’You feeling this weather, aint you?’ Armstid says,” “’A fellow can sho slip quick on wet planks,’ Quick says” (90). This banter is vacuous and uninteresting even to those engaged in it. Faulkner counterpoints that which is spoken aloud with alternate italicized text representative of what the speaker would like to have expressed. Tull marvels – mentally – at Anse’s foolishness in insisting on waiting for Darl and Jewel to return with the Bundren team and not instead borrowing Tull’s and setting off to Jefferson days sooner, before the route had flooded: “ [Addie] laid there for three days in that box, waiting for Darl and Jewel…on the third day they got back…and it already too late…’Take my team, Anse.’ ‘We’ll wait for ourn. She’ll want it so’ (92). It is as if there exists an understanding silently acknowledged by the characters that one should not speak aloud of such matters, for in doing so some misplaced sense of propriety would be violated; it is only appropriate to speak superficially of matters mundane and irrelevant. Alternately, Darl is given to frequent challenging and abstract interior musings, focusing heavily on matters of being. “I don’t know if I am or not,” he says. “Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not” (80). (To fully grasp his meaning, one may need to read such lines very carefully and/or more than once.) Darl is utilizing the only tool at his disposal to narrate his thoughts: semantic expression. His ruminations become gradually more difficult to follow: he asserts that when one begins to fall asleep, he “empties” himself of being. Darl concludes that because he is awake and has not emptied himself, “…I am is” (81). He says, “Yet the wagon is, because when the wagon is was, Addie Bundren will not be” (80). The divers formulations of “to be” that Darl here employs become so complicated and pregnant with meaning and double entendre that they cease to mean anything and become self-reflexive. The attention is as much on the transmutations of the verb as on its suggested meanings; one questions if indeed the meanings are not so abstract as to no longer have any worldly application or referent. Faulkner uses Darl’s penchant for metaphysical rumination to draw attention to words’ brittleness: the form of to be can only signify and suggest so much before falling wholly apart. For this reason, Darl is unable to very lucidly render his thoughts; language is his limitation.Addie Bundren, the Bundren family matriarch, has a profound distrust of words. She is offended by words such as “fear”, “motherhood”, “pride” – “I knew that fear was invented by someone that had never had the fear” (172). The word itself is meaningless, a superfluity: all words, even love, are “just a shape to fill a lack…when the right time came, you wouldn’t need a word for [love] anymore than for pride or fear” (172). She knew that Anse did not truly love her because he used the word. “Love” is a shape to fill a lack: Anse lacked the true feeling, the real sensation that love signified, and so he used the word in an attempt to disguise this; using the word is then, in effect, a mode of trickery. Addie and her son Cash, her first child, did not need to use the word – the sensation was sufficiently meaningful. Her ideas about the naming – wording – of feelings and its inherent meaninglessness is comparable to her understanding of the names of human beings: Anse’s or Cash’s or Darl’s name, once pondered for a time, melts away and becomes a shape, an empty container for the person whom it signifies – this container devoid of meaning when divorced from its referent, and therefore without inherent meaning. “It doesn’t matter what they call them,” Addie says (173). Samson, a man who gives shelter to the Bundrens for a night, thinks of a man he knows, MacCullum, yet whose first name he cannot recall: “Durn it, the name is right on the tip of my tongue” (113). This is a man with whom he has “traded off and on for twelve years”, whom he has known “from a boy up” – “But durn if [he] can say his name” (119). There is a disconnection between knowledge of the signified – a living, breathing human being in this case – and the signifier – that human being’s name: knowledge of the name does not necessarily indicate knowledge of the man, and by the same token one may know the man without knowing the name. The name is an abstraction, the concrete thing – its human referent – is the object of value and meaning.Because the characters of As I Lay Dying are hostile to language and names (things used to verbally communicate in the world), non-verbal communication is the preferred method by which feelings – and secrets – are expressed. “I always kind of had a idea that [Darl] and Dewey Dell kind of knowed things betwixt them,” Cash says. Darl knows that Dewey Dell has been impregnated, yet she has told no one. The novel posits that this type of communication has more value than verbal communication: the non-verbal, almost telepathic, connection that they use to communicate has consistent veracity where the information passed via verbal communication is subject to human error and general subjectivity. This mode bypasses issues of propriety and fear which might inspire attempts to occlude truth. Dewey Dell says: “…and then I saw Darl and he knew. He said he knew without the words like he told me that ma is going to die without words, and I knew he knew because if he had said he knew with the words I would not have believed that he had been there and saw us” (27). Dewey Dell affirms the telepathic communication’s authenticity. She only knows that Darl truly knows of her sexual encounter with Lafe and the subsequent pregnancy because of the wordless method by which he communicated it to her. She, like her mother, distrusts words; people can use words to lie and deceive. Her bond with Darl, however, supersedes such things as that: it is a sophisticated method of communication, not affected by human fallibility; it operates on a higher plane.The eye is a motif in As I Lay Dying; it is a vehicle for truthful non-verbal communication of impressions, thoughts, and feelings. Looks, stares, and flashes of life and color convey meaning more truthfully and holistically than does language. Nearly every page of the novel, regardless of who is narrating, is peppered with allusions to characters’ eyes: “pale rigidity of his eyes” (128), “his eyes fumbling” (132), “her eyes, the life in them, rushing suddenly upon them” (48). Gaze has the power to reveal feeling in a distilled, simplified manner. Dewey Dell has specific reasons for needing to get to town and Samson’s attempts to coerce Anse into giving up the trip infuriate her: “…and then I found that girl watching me. If her eyes had a been pistols, I wouldn’t be talking now” (115). “…I sholy hadn’t done nothing to her that I knowed,” Samson says; though he cannot locate why her gaze projects such anger, her eyes betray absolutely her feelings.Darl’s eyes – his gaze – Tull theorizes, are what “makes folks talk” about him; they are true culprit of his attaining the status of “other” within the community. “I always say it aint never been what he done so much or said or anything so much as how he looks at you” (125). Darl’s gaze then has communicated something to those with whom he has come in contact, some part of himself has become evident through his mode of looking. What is communicated, however, is unexpected and unsettling. The eyes are the window into a person, the space through which one must pass to access another human being; therefore, the significance of the look in As I Lay Dying is immense. Through their respective gazes, Darl and Cash are able to connect in this way: “…he and I look at one another with long probing looks, looks that plunge unimpeded through one another’s eyes and into the ultimate secret place where for an instant [we] crouch flagrant and unabashed…alert and secret and without shame” (142). The two are “without shame” in this instant; they are in supernatural and complete communication – a communication in which words play no part – and they achieve a kind of peace through it. Tull says that Darl’s way of looking is “like he had got into the inside of you, someway” (125). What is unsettling then is that the person being seen will enter into a kind of unwilling (and unfamiliar) communication in which Darl is able to see and understand that individual in a, perhaps, disturbingly complete way. Language is an imperfect means of expression: under its strictures, emotions and human beings are reduced to abstract signs (words and names, respectively) and complicated ideas are often unable to be properly brought to fruition, the shallow signs collapsing under the weight of the ideas’ levels and nuances. The people who populate the novel (the Bundrens, the Tulls, the various neighbors and others) do not have great respect for the spoken work, their conversations reflecting this in their terseness and general irrelevance. The characters’ instinct is that it is inappropriate to speak of certain things in certain contexts (this sense of propriety part of a unique code of American Southern cultural mores that Faulkner draws on) and, even with command of and will to use language, for certain things it is flatly insufficient. To counterpoint the reductive and faulty mode of conventional verbal communication, other marginal modes of expression, modes bordering on the supernatural in some cases, are presented. Holistic and perfect modes of communication – Darl’s beyond-human telepathy – do not exist in reality; human beings in the world face the same communicative problems as do the characters in As I Lay Dying. Darl, the one character who mastered the esoteric art of “[getting] into the inside” of people and communicating in a pure non-semantic manner, is in the end institutionalized – his mode of seeing the world too provocative and upsetting. And despite being occasionally abetted by the undiluted truth in an involuntary gaze or flash in one’s eye, the remaining characters must – as all human beings must – cope with the imperfect, human modes of communication, modes stifled by issues such as shame, propriety, and subjectivity; however, an attempt must also be made to exploit as fully as possible these limiting communicative modes – as Faulkner has – in the hopes of revealing some kind of fundamental truth.
William Faulkner uses multiple narrators in As I Lay Dying, a technique that enables him to illustrate different mindsets on events and ethical questions. Some narrators’ motivations are clear: Dewey Dell is determined to get an abortion, for example, and Vardaman longs for a toy train and bananas. Jewel is more difficult to understand, and is the only member of the Bundren family who gives no personal narration following Addie’s death. Because the reader can only understand Jewel through the accounts of others, she may be particularly confused as to why Jewel would help Anse, a man to whom he has neither biological nor affable ties, by giving up the horse that has long been his only outlet for expressions of love. The explanation is that Jewel realizes he must compromise his principles to achieve anything, and that he becomes increasingly willing to question his immediate reaction to situations.In order to understand Jewel’s final decision to help Anse, one must examine the relationship between Jewel and both his mother and horse. The filial relationship between Jewel and Addie is unique both emotionally and genetically. While Cash, Darl, Vardaman, and Dewey Dell are all the children of Anse and Addie, Jewel is the child resulting from the affair between Addie and Father Whitfield. As such, Addie favors Jewel over all the other children. Addie even admits to Cora that Jewel “is [her] cross and he will be [her] salvation. He will save [her] from the water and from the fire” (168). On the other hand, Addie’s opinion toward Cash and the rest of her children is made apparent in Addie’s own narration when Addie claims, “And when I knew that I had Cash, I knew that living was terrible and that this was the answer to it” (171). Addie considered having children with Anse both punishment and preparation for death as opposed to something from which to derive pleasure and love. Nevertheless, as a mother, Addie knew that she had to treat all of her children equally, and hated herself and Jewel in a way for forcing her to deceive the others into thinking she loved them all equally when love was a word she could not even comprehend. In this sense, Addie “whipped” Jewel more, disciplining him to make up for her overly-expressed love toward him. Since Jewel’s only source of love was that disguised by Addie’s anger, Jewel has also learned to love in such a way. To his horse, Jewel’s “tough-love” is reciprocal of his mother’s “teachings.” Jewel’s treatment of the animal that he bought with his own money with curses and pushes mixed with spoils and treats is Jewel’s highest form of expressing love.Jewel’s love for his mother is obvious in his sole narration “dedicated” to Addie. Although Jewel’s hostile proclivity is thoroughly on the surface, his underlying intentions of wanting the best for his mother are obvious. Jewel goes as far as to wish that “it would just be [him] and her on a high hill and [him] rolling the rocks down the hill at [everyone’s] faces, picking them up and throwing them down the hill faces and teeth and all by God” in response to the constant attention by all that Addie is receiving on her deathbed. Furthermore, Jewel, except for “crazy” Darl, is the only one of the Bundren family that goes to Jefferson in order to bury his mother with no selfish side-intentions. Jewel’s love for his mother cannot be explicitly stated, for, like his mother claimed, the word love is only used by those who have never felt it. However, he would do nearly anything for her; Jewel would even break into a burning barn to rescue her coffin. While Jewel’s hostility toward anyone creates uncertainty about his character, he undoubtedly lives by one guiding principle: to do whatever it takes to please his mother.However, when Anse asks Jewel to give up the horse in order to buy another team to continue on the way to Jefferson to bury Addie, Jewel must then decide between the two loves of his life: his horse and his mother. For Jewel to choose the horse, his mother would have to be buried near Armstid’s house, disregarding her last wish. If Jewel chooses his mother, she could make it to Jefferson, but he would lose the living animal for which he had cared so deeply. Contrary to Armstid’s belief, Jewel does not choose to help Anse because Anse just has “something” about him that makes any man want to help him. Jewel does not help Anse for Anse’s sake; he merely realizes that the love for his mother, without which he would never have lived to be able to have a horse to love so, is more important than his love for his horse. The entire journey to Jefferson would have been pointless if he refused to relinquish his horse, a disrespect Jewel does not wish to give his mother. Despite his immediate reaction to run away to avoid giving up his horse, Jewel learns a new lesson in giving the horse to Snopes: to consider all the consequences of his actions before they are made. He realizes that his natural inclination to run away contradicted his overall desire to do the best for his mother. At the same time, his demand to put the coffin in the wagon without a balance led to its falling in the river, a complete disrespect of his mother. Thus he begins to question all his reactions to situations. This lesson is exemplified by Jewel reconsidering his anger toward the man whom he thought commented on his mother’s smell in Jefferson. Instead of punching the man as he normally would, Jewel goes as far as to apologize for his outburst. With the two he held most dear gone, Jewel realizes that his hostility has not gained him anything, although the losses themselves may not necessarily have been preventable. As such, giving up his horse is perhaps the beginning of a new outlook on life for Jewel, one in which he attempts to act in a loving way. Although Jewel cannot yet stop this aggression, he has undoubtedly begun an internal conflict in which he must recover from the loss of his two loves and learn a new way to live.
One of the central thematic elements of As I Lay Dying is the distinction between fact and interpretation of fact. Clearly, any objective fact can result in a multitude of subjective interpretations because the characters all have individual points of view. Their perspectives of any empirical truth depends upon their prejudices and perceptions; as a result, nothing that is said can be fully trusted or assumed to be pure in its objective truth. Though the novel is structured on the basis of the fact that each character experiences the same events, they all differ in their interpretations and perspectives. Since each character possesses a point of view that the reader cannot know for sure is entirely accurate and truthful, the theme of As I Lay Dying may be that there is no such thing as objective truth. To raise this question of reality, William Faulkner introduces two literary techniques in As I Lay Dying that draw into question the validity of the information being provided. Faulkner not only engages in the use of a wide variety of narrators, but he also utilizes stream-of-consciousness to heighten the inability to distinguish between fact and interpretation. The technique of stream-of-consciousness allows for narration to be introduced as if the thoughts are being read as the characters are thinking them; ideas and memories arise without premeditation and as such bear the mark of immediacy. In addition, because it is the character’s thoughts rather than dialogue with another, the first instinct is to believe them, since thoughts are usually unfiltered. The use of stream-of-consciousness also serves to obscure the journey toward finding an objective truth. For instance, Cora Tull’s perspective on the relationship between Addie and Darl or Addie and Jewel is significantly dissimilar than the perspectives of those characters, themselves. Thus, any supposedly objective truth that exists in any circumstance cannot necessarily be found in just one particular point of view. Another instance of this shifting perspective is in how Jewel and Peabody consider Addy in terms of being victimized, where as Anse clings to his reality that places him as a victim. Another technique that Faulkner uses is to structure the novel in the form of disconnected monologues. For example, consider the difficulty of constructing an accurate timeline of events from the monologue in which Dewey Dell faces off with Vardman in the shed. Faulkner writes: “”You durn little sneak!” My hands shake him, hard. Maybe I couldn’t stop them. I didn’t know they could shake so hard. They shake both of us, shaking. “I never done it,” he says. “I never touched them””(Faulkner 383). Both characters insist and believe in their own innocence, but clearly both cannot be innocent. In addition, they are each so wrapped up in insisting upon their version of the story that the sequence of the actual circumstances is confused within their own consciousness. Dewey Dell believed that Vardaman was covertly watching her, whereas Vardaman labored under the impression that Dewey Dell was going to tell him off. The result is a blending of the past and the present and the inability to come to anything even close to an objective reality. In another instance, the reality of exactly what was taking place between Cora and Darl remains forever locked in mystery because the perspectives presented are contradictory. As Faulkner writes, “He did not answer. He just stood and looked at his dying mother, his heart too full for words” (Faulkner 355). Cora views Darl through the rosy lens of being a loving mother; she also thinks he is Addie’s favorite. From Darl’s perspective, however, he seems to be completely unresponsive to his mother and the three dollar load. Furthermore, most of the others believe that it is Jewel who is the favorite. This utter disconnect serves to call into question the reliability of the narrators. What the characters think and which words they speak, meanwhile, create a foundation upon which to build yet another subjective reality: the reader’s. Faulkner also builds the reader’s sense of his or her own, individual perspective by making use of figurative language in describing scenery and characters. Characters often resort to using metaphors and similes as well as other stylistic turns of phrase. For example, when Darl seeks to incite Dewey Dell, his attempt is not explicit. Rather, it is accomplished through the use of double entendres. The double entendre is a microcosm of the shifting realities of the story: The phrases have factual meaning, but can be interpreted in various ways. For example, Darl remarks, “Those cakes will be in fine shape by the time we get to Jefferson” (Faulkner 483). “Cakes” serves as a metaphor for Dewey’s pregnancy. It is Darl, in particular, who employs these descriptive flourishes in his narrative; his talent causes some to consider him strange. Thus, Faulkner employs word choice not only to allude to the shifting realities of the novel, but, also, to delineate the differences between the characters. The unique language used by characters in the novel often is a revelation more profound than the textual content of their narratives. Indeed, the words that each character speaks provide the only real insights into the objective reality of the novel. For example, there are Tull’s multiple references to religion and scripture. It is important in understanding her to pay attention not only to the fact that she is referencing religious iconography, but to how she makes those references. Her manner is to voice them almost like a child would repeat a catechism he does not fully understand. It becomes obvious that Tull herself does not fully comprehend the profundity of the religion she clings to. Neither does she seem to fully understand what is taking place among her family. In contrast, Jewel regularly uses obscene language and speaks quite insensitively, and his quick temper is mirrored by the violence of his language. The Bundren family cannot agree on an objective reality because they make little attempt at arriving at any genuine understanding of each other. Just as the novel is a collection of individual narratives and memories, the Bundren family refuses to be a cohesive unit; they are simply a set of disconnected individuals who happen to share a common ancestry. The great irony is that what seems to at last bring about their unity is not a celebration of life, but an occasion of death. Yet even this attempt at a final reconciliation is only tenuous, as each family member has their own personal and private motivations that they refuse to share with each other. Usually, in fact, they seem to be callously disregarding the fact that Addy is simply a rotting corpse. In perhaps the most perverse reversal of subjective truth, some of them are repulsed by the stench of death–yet the buzzards flying overhead are drawn to the scene exactly for that stench. Objective truth is merely the result of intensely personal subjectivity; what is appalling to one person will be appealing to another. Thus, As I Lay Dying presents even the dead member of its cast of characters in a subjective light by questioning whether objective truth can exist. Addie’s true qualities as a human being remain a mystery; some may view her as a character treading in the icy waters of evil, while others may arrive at the conclusion that she is the only character worthy of any admiration. The multiple viewpoints and the stream-of-consciousness technique all create a work that is purposely subject to interpretation. There is no objective truth to the novel any more than there is any objective truth to the events that take place within it. Faulkner’s engagement of multiple narratives also serves to become a filter that is necessary for sorting out lies and opinions from factual events. The result is naturally unsettling and confusing–but, as Faulkner desires to make people ask tough questions about the nature of reality and the search for an objective truth, that is exactly his intent.
“He had a word, too. Love, he called it.” Although Addie Bundren dismisses the word love when used by her husband, Anse, as “just a shape to fill a lack,” her other relationships are not as empty (172). In As I Lay Dying, Faulkner reveals the nontraditional love of Addie’s children after her death as the family ventures to bury her body in a nearby town. Often irrational, her four children struggle to cope with the death of their mother, especially when coupled with the disgraces heaped on her dead body by her selfish husband. The compassion of Vardaman, Cash, Jewel, and Darl toward their mother, however uncommonly shown, proves the authenticity of their sentiment in a way words could not. Vardaman’s immaturity and lack of guidance leads him to express his legitimate grief in unhealthy and often incomprehensible ways. Initially, Vardaman seeks to find the cause of the expected death of this mother. His ignorance and emotional turmoil lead him to blame Doctor Peabody due to his recent visit. By blaming Peabody for having “kilt” his “maw,” Vardaman reveals the anguish caused by the death of the mother he loves (54). In his emotional state, Vardaman, drawing on a past dramatic experience, believes Addie needs air to survive, which forces him to ask Cash if he is going to “Nail it? Nail it?” (65). No strong adult figure emerges to explain the reality of death or counsel Vardaman, who is obviously distraught. His desperate and misguided love and loss, rather than reducing him to a melancholy stupor, instead leads him to “save” his mother by drilling air holes in the coffin and her face (67). However, the link Vardaman creates between his mother and the fish he caught and subsequently slaughters is illustrative of the love he maintains for his mother. Initially after Addie’s death, Vardaman mistakenly believes the disappearance of his large fish and the “disappearance” of his mother are inextricably linked. The fish becomes a symbol whose existence must be verified by Vernon, a neighbor who previously sees Vardaman and the fish. Because Vardaman strongly believes that “with both of us it will be and then it will not be,” there is no doubt of the emotional significance of the fish to Vardaman (67). As this thought matures the details are simplified until Vardaman bluntly proclaims that his “mother is a fish” (84). Although not a traditional comparison used to remember loved ones, Vardaman is only capable of expressing his complex emotions in terms of events he understands.Like Vardaman, whose personal experiences shape the way he displays love, Cash’s technical skills allow him to grieve his mother’s death in equally potent though more subtle ways. In an attempt to show Addie the respect she deserves, Cash painstakingly constructs her coffin, using his wood-crafting skills to display his love and devotion. Although some characters view Cash’s decision to build Addie’s coffin within her sight as disrespectful, the “Chuck. Chuck. Chuck. of the adze” undeniably comforts Addie, who understands Cash’s affectionate action (5). Unsurprisingly, however, Cash’s logical mind is unwilling to accept the motives of his precise crafting. Instead of admitting he bevels the edges because he wants to give his mother the best, rather he enumerates thirteen reasons why a bevel is the most practical option. The closest he comes to voicing the truth is his vague thirteenth point: “It makes a neater job” (83). Even after the creation of the coffin, Cash continues to fret over its maintenance, strengthening the symbolic relationship between the coffin and his mother. After a piece of mud is flung from the road onto the coffin, Cash “scours at the stain with the wet leaves” in an effort to preserve the sanctity of the coffin, as well as the memory of his mother (109). While Cash does not feel the need to verbalize the strong love he has for his mother throughout the novel, it is Addie’s section which proves this to be an inherent characteristic of Cash, not a product of his grief. The relationship between Addie and Cash did not necessitate the verbalization of their shared emotion, love. Because Addie recognizes that “Cash did not need to say it to me nor I to him,” Cash finds other outlets, such as viewing the coffin symbolically as his mother, to express his love (172). Although Jewel, like Cash and Vardaman, uses a physical object to represent his mother, he also allows his anger to color his actions and decisions. While Cash is making the coffin outside of Addie’s window, Jewel exhibits his first sign of aggression in regard to his mother’s memory. Instead of recognizing Cash’s true motives for crafting the coffin, Jewel angrily demands Cash “go somewhere else,” as if the creation of the coffin expresses Cash’s desire to see “her in it” (14). This unprovoked anger, undoubtedly a coping technique, is soon augmented by the symbolic significance Jewel places on his horse. Great thought is not required for the other characters to determine that “Jewel’s mother is a horse” (95). When Darl carries the assertion farther, reminding him that “it’s not your horse that’s dead,” Jewel erupts in anger, almost as if he can not bear to allow others to witness the depth of his devotion to his mother (94). Once the arduous steps required of Jewel to purchase the horse are revealed, the importance he places on it falls into perspective. Even with his beloved horse, however, an all encompassing anger is omnipresent in Jewel’s interactions. Many of Jewel’s selfless actions–like saving Addie’s coffin from the river and barn fire–seem to be prompted by his love-provoked anger. Even as his mother’s body rots in her casket, Jewel defends her honor, intentionally provoking a fight and risking bodily injury (228).While the other Bundren brothers have physical manifestations of their mother, Darl lacks these concrete links and instead views the matter philosophically. Without Addie, or at least a physical representation of her, Darl’s own life loses focus and meaning; the continuity once present is erased. Initially, Darl even struggles with the idea of loving his deceased mother. Darl concludes, “I cannot love my mother because I have no mother” (95). This definitive statement does not settle Darl’s active mind, however, and he quickly expands upon his notion. When discussing the subject with Vardaman, who is still comforted by his concrete fish symbolism, Darl thinks only of Addie as a “was,” and because of this he concludes she “can’t be is.” More importantly, from this Darl proclaims, “Then I am not” (101). Linking his own existence with that of his mother is his subtle way of displaying love and grief. It is not until much later that Darl allows these thoughts to affect his actions. After more than a week tolerating the torture of Addie’s dead body, Darl expresses his love through selflessly sacrificing his own freedom to end the disrespect being paid his mother. In a desperate effort to allow his mother the peace she deserves after death, Darl sets fire to Gillespie’s barn, effectively trying to burn his mother’s rotting carcass. Vardaman’s comforting words–“Jewel got her out. You needn’t to cry, Darl.”–are ironic when Darl’s intentions are considered (225). Through accepting the inevitable consequence, imprisonment, of his action, Darl proves his love in a way the other characters cannot even begin to comprehend. Despite the common perception, Darl’s actions were not insane, but rather those of a son desperate to save his mother, even after death. While the other characters may keep their mother alive through physical manifestations that hold special significance, it is only Darl who truly thinks about the best interests of Addie. The ways in which Vardaman, Cash, Jewel, and Darl express love for their dead mother are, if not uniform, closely related nonetheless. With the exception of Darl, Addie’s other sons rely on personally meaningful objects to provide a method of displaying their affection. While Darl refrains from using symbols, he instead takes direct action and unfortunately pays the price. Although the love of Addie’s sons towards their mother is manifested in peculiarly non-traditional ways, at least they did not rely on empty words.
One of William Faulkner’s most celebrated qualities is his inventiveness. As I Lay Dying has fifteen unique narrators, one of them a dead woman, and the novel avoids traditional ideas of linear and chronological structure. Faulkner’s style demands that his readers are aware of his multi-faceted process of seeing a story: if he tells the events in four or five different ways, it is because he knows the reader can imagine twenty. The evolution of Faulkner’s stories grows past the creation process and into the fabric of the novels themselves. In As I Lay Dying, each character’s interpretation of the events represents a different facet of grief, sorrow, confusion, and countless other emotions. As each individual character shifts from actor to narrator, his or her description of an event becomes just as important as the action. Several examples described here serve to illustrate this characteristic of the novel.First, in the eighteenth section Cash lists thirteen reasons why he constructed the coffin on the bevel. While some of his reasons are justifications of why the bevel is better, other lines seem to have very little significance. They are all important, however. The beginning lines are mostly related to carpentry: they discuss surface gripping space, nailing, and water runoff. The following lines relate the bevel itself with the vertical or horizontal position of a body. The sixth line is simply “except,” and the next line challenges the fourth and fifth lines before discussing “animal magnetism” in the seventh and eight lines. Then, the following reasons explain how a beveled coffin looks when placed in the ground. But Cash’s conclusion is in the last lines: beveling is better, so he did it.Cash’s ideas on carpentry are closely tied to his personal philosophy. He believes that if things are done “on the line,” they will be successful, and therefore, better. His succinct bullet points speak to the orderliness of his character, but the items suggest that he has considered more than simply practical points in his construction of the coffin. The mention of animal magnetism-the attraction between animate objects as well as between animate and inanimate objects- suggests that Cash is considering the importance of Addie’s harmony with her surroundings. Animal magnetism is not a rational idea, but its mention suggests that Cash has taken into consideration how bodies interact with each other. Ironically, the lack of animal magnetism between the members of the Bundren family is striking: the entire family is estranged in some way. Darl, Anse, and Addie, specifically, are at a loss as to how to interact with others. Vardaman, not fully connecting with the events in the novel, lashes out. But Cash is the disciplined perfectionist (shown again in his exact knowledge of the distance he fell from the church roof) working on his masterpiece in his mother’s coffin. He invests all of his energies into this project, revealing his deep affection for her. Cash’s narrative in the thirty-eighth section is two sentences: “It wasn’t on balance. I told them that if they wanted to tote it and ride on a balance, they would have to.” Even in his state of delirium, he is still devoted to the rules of carpentry like a religion: the answer to all lies in “balance” and “line.” When things are unbalanced, or out of line, they are doomed; if they are balanced and on line, then they will succeed. While it is obvious that no amount of balance would have helped the Bundrens cross the river, Cash still insists on this belief. Just as carpentry is Cash’s religion and Addie’s coffin is his masterpiece, the tools with which he made the coffin are like the weapons he uses to defend Addie, and their eventual loss is symbolic of emasculation.The children’s differing responses to Addie’s death each reflect an aspect of their characters. Cash’s deadpan, mechanical list discussing the bevel seems at first a sign of coldness, or even, simple-mindedness, but his decision to assemble the coffin in front of Addie’s window is a touching and beautiful gesture of his love and dedication. In contrast, Jewel, his mother’s favorite, remains completely uncommunicative throughout the novel, as his he is the only Bundren child whose narrative does not follow after Addie’s death. While Dewey Dell speaks frequently, her thoughts are consumed with her own problem of pregnancy. She laments this inability to focus but feels powerless to change it. Vardaman’s struggle to understand the nature of his mother’s death reflects his sense of isolation more than his physical age. Cash and Jewel’s fierce desires to take care of Addie highlight not only their rivalry, but also their personalities and approaches to solving problems. While Cash cradles her, and later risks his life save the coffin, Jewel boldly wants to take her across the river on his horse. One of the primary themes of As I Lay Dying is that sanity is not only frequently unsteady, but also unsteadily defined. Cash claims that sanity is defined by the community’s opinion of a person or event. For Faulkner, the distinction between sanity and insanity becomes a social construct. Darl, the martyred intellectual, is the most philosophically sophisticated, but regarded as insane. Characters in Faulkner’s stories are often overwhelmed by the problems and magnitude of themselves, the region, and the world. By approaching this question from the highly varied, deeply personal angle he assumes in As I Lay Dying, Faulkner allows the reader to consider the fluidity and varying degrees of sanity.
William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying presents an aggressive view of an unusual family. The Bundren family’s mother figure, Addie, dies. While transporting her body to Jackson for burial, the remaining six family members struggle to make it alive, uninjured, and in time so that the corpse stops rotting and smelling. Jewel, one of the elder brothers, remains the most determined and attached to their mother throughout their odyssey. However, he vocally and violently confronts those involved in transporting his mother in any way, including his family. During the journey, Jewel’s usage of the aggressive phrase “son of a bitch” illustrates the reverse ideas of familial relationships in the Bundren family as well as an inability to differentiate between animals and humans.
Jewel’s primary use for swearing is to refer to members of his family. When lifting the coffin, he refers to Cash as a “goddamn…think-nosed soul”, calling him “son of a bitch” while they try to keep it balanced (96). At the same time, Darl taunts Jewel when they go to get supplies to bring Addie to Jefferson. He retaliates through swearing as well (40). Jewel never uses this term for any other family members, leaving it for Cash and Darl. “Bitch,” by technical definition, is a female dog. Animals and their images present themselves throughout the book, with dogs appearing at all times. Jewel himself “looked like one of these bulldogs, one of these dogs that don’t bark none” (235). Using this, if Cash and Darl are “sons of bitches,” then they are no different from animals, just as Jewel is. They are all merely puppies in a litter, young animals who cannot control themselves in an appropriate manner. This shows that if they are no different from animals, then the older Bundren brothers have no need to act like humans. In doing so, they do not have to follow human or societal ideology, but can create and follow their own, explaining the weird behaviors of the three: Darl’s ability to just “know” things, Jewel’s stoic and “wooden behavior”, and Cash’s illogical logic.
However, Addie is clearly their mother by genetics. Since they are self-consciously construed as “sons of a bitch,” that “bitch” is Addie. Addie is only a female dog, further blurring the line between animal and human in the Bundrens’ minds. Vardaman’s “mother is a fish” (84), while “‘Jewel’s mother is a horse’” despite being the same person (101). They are not able to differentiate between the variations in thinking and perception, but make it clear that because they are all related. Then, there is no way the siblings cannot be dogs themselves. Despite despising one another, they are all the same at a genetic and very primal level. Consequently, the line blurs between animal and human, continuing to make the humans animalistic while the animals remain themselves or more humanoid. In this way, the dogs as a pack are a family with a distinct pecking order. The leader of the family casts them out or to the bottom if they do not obey, like Jewel, or they must follow Anse’s rules. Even though he is useless, he rules the Bundren “pack”. Addie herself is also a bitch in the insulting sense of the term. She had Jewel, who isn’t Anse’s child, just to spite her husband. Jewel is her “jewel”, making Jewel specifically her “son of a bitch.” The negative term is a positive enforcement for all of them, building the family relations and showing how they connect and relate in an animalistic, pack-like way.
But, the only ones referred to as “sons of bitches” are the older males in the Bundren family. Dewey Dell and Vardaman are not referred to or cussed out using “son of a bitch”. This is because neither of those children are Addie’s, in a belonging sense of the term. Addie “gave Anse Dewey Dell to negative Jewel” (176).Dewey Dell is not Addie’s, because she gave her to Anse as replacement for her own personal child, her son. Vardaman isn’t hers either, because while Dewey cancelled out Jewel, Addie “gave [Anse] Vardaman to replace the child [she] had robbed him of” (176). In doing so, they are not her sons, because Dewey is female, and because Addie gives Anse both of them. Addie does not actually want them. However, the genetic relation is still prominent, though not through Jewel’s cussing. Vardaman continues to draw Addie as another animal in his mind. She is instead a fish to Vardaman, because he doesn’t belong to her; he is not a “son of a bitch” as a dog, but is still related in a different way. Vardaman can make the familial connections, stating that “Cash is [his] brother” (195), “Jewel is [his] brother” (210), and “Darl is [his] brother” (249). Because Vardaman draws these conclusions, he is indirectly a “son of a bitch,” so that such wording indicates his relationship to everyone in his family while remaining disconnected through animalistic images.
The Bundrens are all “sons of bitches,” in some manner or another. While being directly called so by Jewel, Cash and Darl then can intrinsically use this information. They do not have to act as what is considered “normal”, drawing in Cash’s animalistic logicality while Darl’s insights remain a more natural occurrence than the family itself. Thus, Faulkner’s narrative highlights her more animalistic or unusual, non-human instincts, such as revenge on Anse or the similar logical calculations she makes to negate her illegitimate child. However, as Dewey and Vardaman are not figuratively hers, they are not “sons (or daughters) of bitches,” meaning that they are not only not called that, but are not as prominently weird as the others. The usage of the term “bitch” invokes the animalistic image of the elder Bundrens, showing their connection as well as the dissonance between the other members of the family.
William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying tells the story of the Bundren family when the matriarch of the family dies. Faulkner alternates perspectives between each member of the family and their neighbors. While most characters focus on their thoughts around Addie’s death, Darl Bundren is more aware of his surroundings. He focuses on appearances and sensory details rather than how he feels about his mother’s death. Faulkner writes Darl this way to show his personality. Faulkner shows the audience Darl’s personality rather than telling them about Darl. If Faulkner had used stream of consciousness as he did with the other characters, he would have contradicted how he wanted to craft Darl.
When the audience is introduced to Darl, he and Jewel are walking home when he hears Cash making their mother’s coffin. Darl vividly describes the cotton house and how Jewel cuts through it to be ahead of him. He relates, “The path runs straight as a plumb-line, worn smooth by feet and baked brick-hard by July…” (Faulkner 3). Already we can start to put together Darl’s character. He pays close attention to detail even in the most trying times. As the audience continues to read and experiences different characters, they can clearly see that Darl is the most observant. The language Darl uses in each of his chapters is significantly more elevated than that of his family and neighbors. He describes, “Jewel’s eyes look like pale wood in his high-blooded face” (Faulkner 17). His elevated language provides evidence for reasoning that Darl is the most intelligent member of the Bundren family. Darl’s thoughts are more critical of the world around him when compared to his family. However, his eloquence in thought does not cross into his direct speech patterns, so Darl’s family may not know exactly how intelligent he is.
Throughout the non-Darl chapters, the characters consistently mention Addie Bundren and her death. Anse is determined to keep his promise to Addie that he will bring her back to Jefferson to be buried with her blood family. Dewey Dell reminds Anse about his promise to Addie and even earlier in the book is upset with Jewel and Darl leaving home while their mother is dying. Jewel is upset that everyone seems to be watching Addie die when he would rather just be alone with his mother. Vardaman is visibly distressed when Addie dies and accidentally drills a hole in Addie’s head. Even Cash, one of the main characters, is thoughtful of Addie when the family is trying to cross the river. Darl hardly mentions Addie in his chapters. In fact, he hardly shows any emotion about his mother’s death at all. He refers to Addie as ma only in one of his chapters, “It was ma that got Dewey Dell to do his milking, paid her somehow” (Faulkner 130), and after this paragraph, he returns to calling her Addie. This could show how strained his relationship with his mother is.
After days of traveling with Addie Bundren’s rotting corpse in a simple wooden coffin, Darl has a mental breakdown. He tries to burn the barn down where they have stopped for the night. However, Jewel saves the coffin, or Darl would have succeeded. Traveling with a rotten corpse would unnerve any person, but to try to destroy one’s own mother’s body is a sign of extreme disturbance. Why would Darl try to burn his mother’s corpse? Has the experience made him snapped? Is Darl simply a psychopath? The answer lies within his mental deterioration. The text states, “Darl had a little spyglass he got in France at the war” (Faulkner 254). He was in a war that took place in France, a soldier in World War I most likely. The Great War was the first modernized war with heavy artillery and chemical warfare. Darl would have seen horrific scenes of violence. His lack of emotional attachment to his mother might be explained by his military experience. To show any emotion in active combat could be hazardous to himself and his fellow soldiers. The smell of a decomposing body might have triggered a flashback for Darl. He would remember his fallen comrades in No Man’s Land. Soldiers would be simply left in No Man’s Land when they were killed in action; it was too dangerous for living soldiers to retrieve the bodies, and the fallen would stay in No Man’s Land until they were torn to shreds, buried with dirt from explosions, or eaten by vermin. If a soldier died in the trenches, his body could become part of the maze-work of the trenches. Darl is perhaps desensitized to the concept of a dead body. That is why he so easily decides to set afire his own mother’s body. He isn’t a psychopath with no feeling; he’s a war veteran with posttraumatic stress disorder. He pays more attention to his surroundings because he would have to take notice of enemies approaching during combat. Since he had a spyglass, his role in the army might have been a lookout. He would need to pay attention to detail.
Why would Faulkner write Darl as this war veteran, though? Did Faulkner simply need a plot device? One could argue that, yes, Faulkner did need a plot device to make the story have more challenges than simply obstacles nature presents the family. On the other hand, I argue that Faulkner uses Darl as the unofficial narrator of the story. Even with alternating perspectives, Darl could be the narrator. He knows his mother died despite being absent from home. He knows that Dewey Dell is pregnant even though she hasn’t told anyone. Darl knows that Jewel has a different father than the rest of the Bundren children. Even during his mental breakdown on the train, he narrates in third person. His family could sense his unique ability, and that is partially why they decide to send him to the mental asylum. Was Darl Bundren slowly slipping into insanity, or was his perspective simply transitioning into the formal narrator? Faulkner carefully wrote Darl’s character to transition into being a subtle narrator.
In the essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” Alice Walker presents a moving portrait of matrilineal art and creativity extending throughout black history. Following this line, Walker illustrates generations upon generations of lost artists, mothers and grandmothers “driven to a numb and bleeding madness by the springs of creativity in them for which there was no release” (232). Among her imagined foremothers, Walker conjures the nameless ghosts of unrecognized genius and talent: stifled painters, thinkers, and sculptors emerge as black incarnations in the tradition of Virginia Woolf’s Judith Shakespeare. Walker traces this lineage, suggesting that even when systemically repressed and silenced, this creative spirit has survived, if only to be passed down in the hope of finding expression in the next generation of black women.
In her exploration of Walker’s fascination with matrilineal inheritance, Dianne Sadoff notes a certain disparity between Walker’s veneration of her foremothers in certain texts and her anxieties about motherhood in others. Proposing a revision of Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s theory of the “anxiety of influence” unique to female authors—itself a revision of Harold Bloom’s model of literary influence—Sadoff suggests that although Walker’s conception of matrilineage appears “not at all melancholy or anxiety laden,” her fixation on the subject “masks an underlying anxiety that emerges, although disguised, in Walker’s fiction” (7).
Indeed, for all Walker’s veneration of mothers—both biological and otherwise—the sacred state of motherhood receives a notably different treatment in Meridian. Walker’s second novel sees motherhood both implicitly and explicitly aligned with necessary and inevitable death. Complete with a cast of corpses both literal and metaphorical, mothers dying both real and symbolic deaths, Meridian presents an unmistakable association between womanhood and death, underscoring a dominant patriarchal narrative in which female martyrdom is privileged at best, and demanded at worst. Silenced by a patriarchal order reflected in a Lancanian conception of paternal structures of meaning, these mothers see their voices stifled and suffocated in their offspring, rather than renewed in the promise of a new generation as illustrated in “In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens.”
Out of this cast of corpses, Meridian’s titular character emerges to break the cycle of silence and martyrdom by refusing motherhood—the most privileged form of female sacrifice. In refusing to accept suffering or to privilege the sacrificial rite of motherhood, Meridian issues a challenge to the patriarchal order, one that parallels a similar rejection of the martyrdom associated with the novel’s conception of collectivist activism. In Meridian, dominant narratives surrounding both womanhood and political collectivism encourage and privilege suffering and sacrifice for an allegedly noble cause. Both as a woman and an activist, Meridian maintains her individuality at all costs, refusing to conform to any collectivist demands that insist she sacrifice her identity or independence. In refusing to conform to these patriarchal standards and rejecting martyrdom, Meridian escapes the narrative of sacrifice that plagues her fellow activists. As Lynn Pifer outlines, Meridian’s eventual reconciliation of political activism with her need for individualism parallels her gradual reclamation of voice. At the end of the text, Meridian—who spends much of the novel refusing to participate in authorized discourse—at last “finds her voice and moves beyond her method of strategic silences” (Pifer 88). Meridian’s rejection of motherhood issues a challenge to the patriarchal narrative of suffering, while simultaneously breaking the Lacanian cycle of silence. In rejecting motherhood and martyrdom, Meridian gains the freedom to accept and use language outside the parameters of authorized patriarchal discourse.
As noted, motherhood in Meridian is enacted primarily by a cast of dead women. Among the ensemble are literal corpses, along with departed women whose deaths have lived on in folklore, and even still-living women who have suffered metaphorical deaths. To this body count, I offer for comparison the addition of another famous literary corpse mother: Addie Bundren in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. At various points throughout Meridian, the decidedly postmodern novel invites comparison to its modernist predecessors, specifically in its occasional evocation of a distinctly southern gothic grotesque. This Faulknerian imagery is perhaps most evident in the novel’s bizarre opening scene, featuring none other than the novel’s first maternal corpse: the body of the slain Marilene O’Shay repurposed as a carnival attraction. This influence resurfaces later in the novel, with the description of Meridian’s mother bearing prominent similarities to Faulkner’s Addie Bundren. Presenting Faulkner’s Addie as parallel to Walker’s Mrs. Hill, an analysis of the Lacanian significance of Addie’s rejection of language illuminates a similar treatment of language and motherhood at work in Meridian. First, however, it may be helpful to examine the corpse mothers of Meridian exclusively.
The novel’s first corpse, the grotesque Marilene O’Shay, functions as a literal embodiment of the dominant female narrative against which Meridian pushes. Pointing to the the three epithets painted on O’Shay’s carnival trailer: “Obedient Daughter, Devoted Wife, and Adoring Mother (Gone Wrong),” Pifer illustrates the ways in which the corpse “sums up the narrow possibilities for women in a patriarchal society,” (80). Significantly for Meridian, whose reluctance to submerge or obscure her identity drives much of the conflict in the story, these “possibilities” all necessarily compromise a woman’s individuality, redefining her identity in terms of her relationships within the patriarchal order.
While Marilene’s violent death at the hands of her husband speaks to a recurring motif of sexual violence against women throughout the novel, perhaps of even greater significance is her ability to fall back into her husband’s favor in death. Despite the allegedly universal acknowledgement among authorities and family members alike that O’Shay’s actions against his wife are justified, “Cause this bitch was doing him wrong,” the wronged husband softens considerably toward his wife in death (Walker 7). When her body resurfaces years later, according to the local legend, “He’d done forgiven her by then, and felt like he wouldn’t mind having her with him again,” (8). In death, Marilene O’Shay is the embodiment of ideal womanhood: sacrificed, silent, and, as Pifer notes, “utterly possessed” (81). In her petrified and powerless state, Marilene ascends to such a high rank of patriarchal womanhood that her value is literally quantifiable. Deciding his wife’s body could be “a way to make a little spare change in his ol’ age,” Henry O’Shay effectively commodifies his wife (Walker 8).
Marilene’s successors, the novel’s other female corpses, all follow in her footsteps as “mothers gone wrong,” in some capacity or other. Meridian highlights a narrative in which womanhood is almost synonymous with motherhood, depicting a series of women who simultaneously meet their demise and maximize their societal value as martyrs through motherhood. The Wild Child is the next victim of womanhood to surface in the novel. “Running heavily across a street, her stomach the largest part of her,” The Wild Child dies largely a victim of her pregnancy (Walker 25). While in life, The Wild Child is rejected by all but Meridian, in death her value increases, not unlike that of Marilene O’Shay. When The Wild Child dies, the same Saxon classmates who previously begged their house mother to have Meridian’s young ward removed from the honor’s house find new appeal in the slain girl, showing up to her funeral in large numbers and prompting to Meridian to drily remark, “I would never have guessed Wile Chile had so many friends” (28). In life, The Wild Child is at best an inconvenience, at worst an abomination. In death, she suddenly becomes an attractive symbol of martyrdom, one the students repurpose for their own misguided and ultimately self-destructive demonstration.
Fast Mary is another figure of Saxon folklore whose tragic death, romanticized by the students, renders her a sacred martyr of The Movement. In a particularly gory instance of “motherhood gone wrong,” Fast Mary is forced to hide a pregnancy from the Saxon administration before dismembering the child and attempting to dispose of it. After getting caught, Mary hangs herself in solitary confinement. Like The Wild Child, Fast Mary owes her popularity to her tragic death, in which she is immortalized as another symbol of martyrdom for the would-be Saxon revolutionaries. As Pifer notes, the students “relish the story of a girl forced to go to terrible lengths to maintain the college’s demands,” (82). In fetishizing Fast Mary as a tragic and heroic icon, Saxon’s aspiring activists unwittingly fall into the patriarchal narrative themselves by equating Fast Mary’s worth with her suffering.
While the deaths of Marilene O’Shay, The Wild Child, and Fast Mary are literal, other living women in the novel suffer symbolic or metaphorical death. As Pifer summarizes, “Perfect women in this community, as Meridian well knows, are perfectly mindless, nicely dressed, walking corpses” (84). Most notable among these walking corpses is Meridian’s own mother, who compares motherhood to “being buried alive” (Walker 42). Not unlike the young Saxon women canonizing Fast Mary’s tragedy within their community folklore, Meridian’s mother finds herself trapped in a patriarchal narrative that praises motherly suffering and sacrifice. Although she disdains the shabby outward appearance of other mothers, Mrs. Hill cannot help but imagine in these women “a mysterious inner life, secret from her, that made them willing, even happy, to endure” (41). Meridian’s mother is so seduced by the glorified image of maternal suffering that she decides to join their ranks herself, only to realize that “the mysterious inner life she had imagined was simply a full knowledge of the fact that they were dead, living just enough for their children” (42).
Despite her disappointment, Meridian’s mother completes the patriarchal narrative by ultimately coming to take pride in her suffering and sacrifice, proudly proclaiming that she has six children, “Though I never wanted to have any,” (Walker 88). Sadoff presents a similar analysis of Mrs. Hill, further contextualizing her inevitable demise from independent woman to walking corpse within the tradition of matrilineal decay:
Now anti-intellectual, prejudiced, and blindly religious, Meridian’s mother nonetheless once fought her father’s sexism, her own poverty, and the racist system to become a schoolteacher. The cost: her mother’s life and willing self-sacrifice. As a daughter who becomes a mother and so participates in matrilineage, Meridian’s mother represents the history of black motherhood: a legacy of suffering, endurance, and self-sacrifice. (23).
Against this portrait of Mrs. Hill, I present for comparison Faulkner’s Addie Bundren, whose own embodiment of maternal suffering reflects Lacanian structures of meaning that illuminate Meridian’s challenge to the patriarchal order and reclamation of voice.
Both Meridian’s mother and the matriarch of the Bundren family belong to the quasi-deceased. While Mrs. Hill finds metaphorical death in motherhood, Addie narrates her sole chapter in Faulkner’s famously polyvocal narrative from beyond the grave. Both women are former school teachers who ultimately feel deceived once persuaded to abandon their teaching posts for marriage. Equal parts unimpressed and violated by their husbands, both women bemoan the false promises of domestic bliss. “I realized that I had been tricked by words older than Anse or love,” Addie laments, referring to the ancient tradition of the patriarchal order to which she has fallen victim (Faulkner 100). Mrs. Hill, too, blames systems beyond herself in the assertion that “she could never forgive her community, her family, his family, the whole world, for not warning her against children” (Walker 41). Both women struggle to define and identify with love, and both ultimately end up at lukewarm conclusions; Mrs. Hill settles with a “toleration for [her husband’s] personal habits that she identified as Love,” while Addie remains skeptical of the concept altogether, mustering only the indifferent claim, “It was Anse or love, love or Anse, it didn’t matter” (Walker 41, Faulkner 99). Perhaps most significantly, both women feel an intense violation and abstraction with childbirth. Addie remarks that her “aloneness had been violated” with the birth of her first child, while Mrs. Hill’s first pregnancy finds her “as divided in her mind as her body was divided, between what part was herself and what part was not” (Faulkner 99, Walker 42).
In her analysis of As I Lay Dying, Doreen Fowler identifies another key aspect of Addie’s character, one that surfaces in Mrs. Hill’s character as well: a rejection of language. Addie’s famous, fragmented pronouncement that “words are no good; that words dont [sic] ever fit even what they are to say at” prefigures her denouncement of each in a series of social constructs— including love, sin, fear, and salvation—as merely “a word like the others; just a shape to fill a lack” (Faulkner 99). Interpreting this in Lacanian terms, Fowler argues that “Addie hates language because it is based on separation and difference” (320). In basic Lacanian ideology, as a Fowler outlines, a child enters the realm of the symbolic and acquires language by becoming aware of difference and separating from the mother, reflecting Saussurean structures of language that insist a sign has meaning only in its difference from other signs. If separation from the mother is the key to the symbolic realm, then “the murder of the mother is constructed as positive step toward establishing identity,” thus providing an explanation of the mother-as-corpse motif prominent in both As I Lay Dying and Meridian (317).
However, it is not enough to simply kill the mother. Once the child has achieved this separation from the mother, the child must then “generate substitutes for her that are permissible within the Law of the Father” (Fowler 320). This production of substitutions is where the previously shared experience of the Lacanian order diverges for sons and daughters. Fowler calls on Nancy Chodorow’s theory of maternity to explain the daughter’s inevitable repetition of her mother’s fate. According to Chodorow, when the child attempts to recreate the initial unity with the mother through replacements, the daughter does so by becoming a mother herself, thus renewing the Lacanian cycle and perpetuating a patriarchal order that in turn demands the new mother’s own death (Fowler 318). Addie hates language because it is made possible by the same patriarchal system that necessitates her death. Parallel to Addie’s rejection of language is Mrs. Hill’s rejection of creative expression of any kind.
Much like the generations of lost artists Walker memorializes in “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” Mrs. Hill is aware that “creativity was in her, but it was refused expression” (Meridian 42). Unlike the silenced foremothers of “Gardens,” however, Meridian’s mother does not appear to carry any hope of passing her stifled creativity along to the next generation. Rather, her silence is deliberate and in some sense vengeful, “a war against those to whom she could not express her anger or shout, ‘It’s not fair!’” Finding herself trapped in the living death demanded by the patriarchal order, Meridian’s mother wants to see the same fate inflicted on the next generation. Mrs. Hill vows never to forgive her foremothers for not warning her, and in turn enacts her revenge through silence, refusing to warn the next generation of women. Meridian’s friend, the oft-pregnant Nelda, suspects as much: “Nelda knew that the information she had needed to get through her adolescence was information Mrs. Hill could have given her” (Walker 86). A victim of the Lacanian cycle, Mrs. Hill keeps quiet, in her silence willfully allowing the next generation of women to fall victim to the same metaphorical death. In spite of her mother’s influence, however, Meridian successfully refuses motherhood, finally breaking the Lacanian cycle of matricide.
In As I Lay Dying, Addie’s revenge by silence comes to fruition, with her pregnant daughter—the teenaged Dewey Dell—failing to procure an abortion and succumbing to her role as the displaced, deceased mother. Meridian, however, suggests a more hopeful future for womanhood. Meridian successfully breaks the Lacanian cycle of martyrdom by refusing motherhood—through adoption, abortion, and finally, castration. In this refusal to privilege maternal suffering or to compromise her identity by allowing her child’s needs to obscure her own, Meridian issues a challenge to the patriarchal order, one she will repeat against the collectivist demands of The Movement.
Not unlike her mother, Meridian displays her own complicated relationship with language throughout the novel, preferring silence over blind participation in authorized patriarchal discourse. In her analysis, Pifer parallels Meridian’s successful reconciliation of her political and personal beliefs at the end of the novel with her simultaneous reclamation of voice. Throughout the novel, Meridian flees the erasure of the individual dominant in narratives of motherhood and activism. Aware of the self-destructive powers of collectivism, Meridian repeatedly rejects the authorized discourse of a series of communities, beginning with her childhood church congregation. Meridian’s inability to “say it now and be saved,” to pronounce empty allegiance to the Christian savior and martyr, resurfaces in her inability to complete the oath promising to kill for The Movement (Walker 16). Rejecting systems that obscure individuality and privilege martyrdom, Meridian pursues a path of independent activism in much the same way as she chooses a single life not submerged in wife or motherhood. She refuses to seek glory as a martyr for any cause, understanding that “the respect she owed her life was to continue, against whatever obstacles, to live it, and not to give up any particle of it without a fight to the death, preferably not her own” (220). When this understanding leads to the realization that Meridian could in fact kill, it is not for the sake of any blind collectivist doctrine or “movement,” but rather for her own sake or that of another individual. Pifer’s reading sees Meridian’s transcendence of the “murderous philosophy of the would-be revolutionary cadre” consummated as she joins her voice in song with the congregation and “her personal identity becomes part of their collective identity” (88).
Meridian’s reclamation of her voice signals an acceptance of language—a reply to her mother’s tight-lipped rejection of creative expression—that breaks with the Lacanian order. In her refusal to have children, Meridian refuses to continue the Lacanian cycle of achieving difference and separation only to submerge it once again in an attempted return to unity through childbirth. In breaking this cycle, Meridian issues a challenge to the patriarchal order. Freed from the obligation to discard her independence and submerge difference—the Lacanian heart of language—in motherhood, Meridian gains full control of her voice. Meridian no longer has to pass the creative spark silently on to the next generation. She does not have to bury her stifled voice in her mother’s garden. Free of the patriarchal order, Meridian finally gives life to the voices of her foremothers.
Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. Edited by Michael Gorra. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.
Fowler, Doreen. “Matricide and the Mother’s Revenge: As I Lay Dying.” The Faulkner Journal 4. 1&2 (1991). Rpt. in As I Lay Dying. Edited by Michael Gorra. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.
Pifer, Lynn. “Coming to Voice in Alice Walker’s Meridian: Speaking Out for the Revolution.” African American Review, vol. 26, no.1, 1992, pp. 77-88. JSTOR.
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