Addie Bundren: Force of Nature
Not only in reality, but also in the fictional world of literature, women have been silenced from time immemorial. This is the case in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, a novel that details the journey of a family as they travel to bury the deceased matriarch of the family, Addie Bundren. Some critics, like Linda Wagner, disagree contending that the book is “the story of Addie Bundren and her best-loved son Jewel” (74). Marc Hewson agrees with the more positive spin on Addie’s position, arguing that:
through the process of Addie’s monologue and the combined actions and thoughts of her children, the dynamic feminine and maternal principle which she maintains negates the stolid and unmoving male principle, and Addie herself becomes a possible source of female power in the book. (552)
But I argue that the first red flag, indicative of her silenced position, should be the fact that she is the character that has died and that this is a sign of a much deeper problem. As Patricia Yaeger remarks, “Faulkner puts Addie Bundren’s dead body at the axis of As I Lay Dying and gives it a smell” because she is just another woman on the assembly line of a family that is mass produced by Anse Bundren, who simply goes and gets another wife when Addie dies (61). John Earl Bassett notes that “every member of the family displays toward Addie a latent hostility” (127). And Cinda Gault remarks that there is “a lingering sense that life continues to be restrictive for mothers” and that “Faulkner’s corpse metaphor emphasizes physical constraints” (440-441). Yaeger, Bassett, and Gault are all aware that Addie is in a marginalized position, a position of someone who has been silenced. Because Addie has been silenced, she becomes nothing more than a force of nature and this ultimately leads to the disintegration of her family. As a woman, and particularly as a mother, Addie is transformed by Anse into merely a force of nature because her marginalized position in society causes a buildup of frustration which she takes out on her family and, ultimately, like the literal forces of nature which they must face, this leads to the disintegration of her family.
The forcible removal of Addie’s autonomy results in a powerless woman. She has no say in the number of children that she and Anse will have because she is not even allowed to have power over her own body. She describes giving children to Anse as her “duty to him” (Faulkner 174). And the way that she depicts her first pregnancy and Anse’s response to it demonstrates how little say she had in the matter:
Then I found that I had Darl. At first I would not believe it. Then I believed that I would kill Anse. It was as though he had tricked me, hidden within a word like within a paper screen and struck me in the back through it. But then I realised that I had been tricked by words older than Anse or love, and that the same word had tricked Anse too, and that my revenge would be that he would never know I was taking revenge. And when Darl was born I asked Anse to promise to take me back to Jefferson when I died, because I knew that father had been right, even when he couldn’t have known he was right anymore than I could have known I was wrong.
“Nonsense,” Anse said; “you and me aint nigh done chapping yet, with just two.” (172-73).
Anse does not even so much as consider that Addie does not want to have children, or maybe did not even want to have children in the first place; he simply tells her that they are not done yet. And indeed, they are not, for they have two more children together after Darl is born. Gault notes that “it is after she marries, but more so after she becomes a mother, that Addie’s physical autonomy is more limited” (444). Her opinion or desires about having children are completely ignored and the number of children that the couple has seems to be entirely up to Anse. Addie loses her autonomy in the sense that she no longer has freedom over her own actions – it is up to Anse now. Addie cannot govern her own body, Anse decides when they have sex. And Addie cannot govern her own desires, Anse decides how many children they will have. As a result, Addie is completely powerless – she loses control of herself, both mentally and physically. By marrying Anse, she is transformed into an utterly powerless creature; she is no longer a person, for a person has the autonomy to govern themselves, their bodies, their actions and desires. Addie no longer displays any of that, she now displays the traits of a totally passive creature, incapable of governing her own actions or desires and incapable of exhibiting any signs of power.
Her powerless position begins the process of her downfall into a position of a mere force of nature. From the very beginning, Addie seems to be empty, void. She lacks the lively characteristics that make us human and it is not just because she is dying, it is because someone else has taken the life out of her:
The quilt is drawn up to her chin, hot as it is, with only her two hands and her face outside. She is propped on the pillow, with her head raised so she can see out the window, and we can hear him every time he takes up the adze or the saw. If we were deaf we could almost watch her face and him, see him. Her face is wasted away so that the bones draw just under the skin in white lines. Her eyes are like two candles when you watch them gutter down into the sockets of iron candle-sticks. But the eternal and the everlasting salvation and grace is not upon her. (Faulkner 8)
Her family has laid her in a bed, allowing her simply to wait for death and while it is true that it was probably physically impossible for her to be moving around, it is also true that she showed no signs of wanting to remain alive. Indeed, she tells the reader that her father told her that “the reason for living is getting ready to stay dead” and after she has her children, she can “get ready to die” (175-176). A person who wants to die is a person out of whom the life has gone. Addie has lost her will to live. Indeed, she and Jewel are given only one chapter of the book each because, as Wagner says, “Addie and Jewel are … the silent ones” (74). She has been silenced, physically and mentally, by Anse and she no longer has any reason to live; she now exists only as a force of nature, an object against which the Bundren family fights in their journey to bring her to her resting place. A person who is silenced is a person who is never heard. Addie is never heard because she has lost her autonomy and she has lost her voice. As a voiceless person who lacks autonomy, she has lost the traits that make her human – her ability to will her own life and be heard and respected by others. That which is not human is an object – Addie has become an object. The object that she becomes is a force of nature, against which the Bundren family fights on their way to Jefferson to bury her.
Addie’s death, and the effects of it, finalize her destiny as a mere force of nature. Because she has lost her autonomy, because she has lost the ability to govern herself, she resigns herself to death. Her death completes the transformation that Anse intended: she has lost her humanness, she is now nothing but an object. The object that she becomes is a force of nature. Her death brings her back to the earth and she becomes part of it:
Then the wagon tilted over and then it and Jewel and the horse was all mixed up together. Cash went outen sight, still holding the coffin braced, and then I couldn’t tell anything for the horse lunging and splashing. I thought that Cash had give up then and was swimming for it and I was yelling at Jewel to come on back and then all of a sudden him and the horse went under too and I thought they was all going. I knew that the horse had got dragged off the ford too, and with that wild drowning horse and that wagon and that loose box, it was going to be pretty bad, and there I was, standing knee deep in the water, yelling at Anse behind me: “See what you done now? See what you done now?” (Faulkner 154).
Jewel and Cash and Darl are fighting with the coffin as if it is wind or fire or a storm, a natural force against which humans must wrestle to achieve their ends. In fact, the narrative is so confusing here, because the coffin and the horse and the wagon and the people are all falling together, that it is difficult to tell what exactly is going on other than this: Addie’s sons are struggling with her coffin. Lawrence Buell notes that Addie has a “truculent but loyal illegitimate son Jewel, Addie’s trial but also her favorite among the five siblings, whose brute strength saves her coffin from flood waters and a barn fire along the way” and the significance here is that Addie’s coffin needed to be saved (94-95). It is almost as if it had a mind of its own and acted independently of any of the Bundren family members. Addie is dead at this point, yet her coffin is giving her sons quite a difficult time. This exemplifies the notion that her dead body in her coffin has become a force of nature, much like the flood waters and the fires and the other difficulties that the family faces on their journey.
As a force of nature, Addie indirectly affects her children, but does not directly influence them. This is where the absence of Addie is most apparent – the influence that she has over her children is utterly indirect. She does not talk with them, she does not support them or encourage them, she only affects them psychologically by her absence. She is criticized by her neighbors for her parenting skills:
And so when Cora Tull would tell me I was not a true mother, I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle from one to the other; and that sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words. (Faulkner 173-74).
So both Addie and her neighbors acknowledge that she is a silent, removed mother. Addie has already determined that words are inadequate, noting that Cora wanted her to pray for her sins “because people to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too” (176). Bassett agrees that Addie “makes a strong case against empty verbalism and the inadequacy of words to capture the terrors of living, the ordeal of doing” (126). Addie’s life is full of terrors because she is marginalized. When you do something long enough, you start to believe in it. Addie has been silent for so long, because Anse has been silencing her throughout their entire marriage, that she now begins to see value in the silence and she cannot understand the worth of words. Unfortunately, this is no way to connect with one’s children. This silence is what separates her from her children, this silence is what transforms her from human being to force of nature. According to Bassett, “ultimately human experience and interaction require language” and this is the missing link between Addie and her children – language. She lost her language when she married Anse and he decided when they would have children and how many they should have, regardless of her desires. She lost her language when she lost the ability to govern her own wishes and actions. Her language is stuck inside of her:
Sometimes I would lie by him in the dark, hearing the land that was now of my blood and flesh, and I would think: Anse. Why Anse. Why are you Anse. I would think about his name until after a while I could see the word as a shape, a vessel, and I would watch him liquify and flow into the vessel, until the jar stood full and motionless: a significant shape profoundly without life like an empty door frame; and then I would find that I had forgotten the name of the jar. (Faulkner 173)
These are Addie’s thoughts as she lies beside her husband; she has them, but she is not able to vocalize them. If her children never hear her vocalize anything, what do they know about her? What can they possibly know about her? What can anyone know about a person who never speaks, except that there is probably a reason for their silence? There is a reason for Addie’s silence and it is this silence that drives a wedge between her and her children. Because she cannot speak to them, she can have no direct influence over them. She can only inadvertently and indirectly affect them. Even before she literally dies, she is largely absent in the lives of Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman.
Addie’s inability to exercise influence over her children creates an utter lack of a maternal presence which is severely felt by her children. This is apparent in her death scene:
She lies back and turns her head without so much as glancing at pa. She looks at Vardaman; her eyes, the life in them, rushing suddenly upon them; the two flames glare up for a steady instant. Then they go out as though someone had leaned down and blown upon them.
“Ma,” Dewey Dell says; “ma!” Leaning above the bed, her hands lifted a little, the fan still moving like it has for ten days, she begins to keen. Her voice is strong, young, tremulous and clear, rapt with its own timbre and volume, the fan still moving steadily up and down, whispering the useless air. Then she flings herself across Addie Bundren’s knees, clutching her, shaking her with the furious strength of the young before sprawling suddenly across the handful of rotten bones that Addie Bundren left, jarring the whole bed into a chattering sibilance of mattress shucks, her arms outflung and the fan in one hand still beating with expiring breath into the quilt. (Faulkner 48-49)
This is the first sign of the disintegration of a family member as the result of Addie’s death. Dewey Dell exhibits an expected display of emotion, but the rest of her storyline suggests that her end is not stable; for her, the trip turns into a quest for an abortion and she becomes silent, withdrawn, and ultimately, she is a key player in the violent removal of Darl to a mental institution. Hewson suggests that “by mourning her [Addie] and contemplating their relationships with her, Cash, Darl, Jewel, and Vardaman learn to emulate her and adopt her suspicion of patriarchal constructs” (552). This point of view, however, fails to acknowledge the endings to each of their stories: Cash has a broken leg, Darl ends up in a mental institution, Jewel is silently angry because his father has sold his horse and Vardaman is confused, continually comparing his mother to animals, and seemingly unaware of what has actually happened. Wagner gives insight into the response of one family member, Jewel, and acknowledges that his reaction to the loss of his mother, both because she has died and because she was practically dead while still physically alive, is distressing:
First he [Faulkner] shows clearly how distraught Jewel is over Addie’s imminent death: he is rough with his beloved horse; his voice is “harsh, savage” as he insults Tull for being a “buzzard”; he complains bitterly about Cash’s building the coffin under her very window (only Jewel cannot bring himself to say the word coffin): “let it be private,” he cries in anguish. (75)
The disappearance of Addie, both through her physical death and through her marginalization while still alive, has harmful effects. Her children clearly feel this absence and all of them, but particularly Jewel and Darl, have a difficult time dealing with it. Children are the center of a family and if, because of the silencing of their mother, they are not functioning effectively, there are serious issues at hand. The examples from Faulkner’s text of the felt absence of Addie by her children are many. They feel this absence because she has lost herself, she has lost autonomy and as such, she has nothing to offer them; she cannot be heard by them because she has been silenced. In this sense, there is a direct connection between Addie’s marginalized position in society and the downfall of her family members.
Because at this point she is merely a force of nature, her pent up energy gets taken out on her family. As has already been demonstrated, Addie is a silent character. She has been silenced by her husband, Anse, and by the conformities of society. This wears on her to the point where she is getting ready to die and seems to be looking forward to it. The truly telling aspect of her pent up frustration, however, is the fact that it comes to fruition on her family, injuring Cash’s leg, driving Darl to madness and residence in a mental institution and nearly killing Jewel, her favorite child, in a burning barn:
The sound of it has become quite peaceful now, like the sound of the river did. We watch through the dissolving proscenium of the doorway as Jewel runs crouching to the far end of the coffin and stoops to it. For an instant he looks up and out at us through the rain of burning hay like a portiere of flaming beads, and I can see his mouth shape as he calls my name. (221-22)
In effect, the family is self-destructing. Because of Anse’s treatment of Addie, Addie has become a marginalized woman, a woman who has no control over her own destiny and who has no relationship with her children. This disconnect between her and her children and her utter inability to establish any relationship because she has no autonomy destroys her. It destroys her in the sense that it destroys her will to live. It then goes on to destroy her family. Some destructive side effects have already been mentioned – injuries, abortions, insanity. But the very essence of Addie’s family unit is destroyed on the final page of the novel when Anse says “meet Mrs. Bundren” (261). She is the new Mrs. Bundren, she has taken Addie’s place. As the new Mrs. Bundren, she represents the new Bundren family. The family that Addie was once a part of no longer exists – it died when she died. In the days leading up to and following her death, the practical effects of her death on her children are clear. But the new Mrs. Bundren represents the theoretical destruction of Addie’s family. It is easy to see how this happened: Anse immediately silenced Addie after they marry, Addie’s silent position causes a gap between her and her children and the loss of her will to live, and these factors conclude in negative paths of life for Addie’s children. All of the pain in Addie’s life and the lives of her children can be traced back to Anse and his immediate treatment of Addie as subservient to him. When the pent up energy of Addie shows itself in frustrated acts against her family, we can look back to Anse and see his fatal error when he depleted Addie of her autonomy. The lack of autonomy is the cause of the dismantling of the Bundren family. It is not even the case that Addie is seeking revenge on Anse and on her children, it is simply that Anse removes the factors that make her human and so she becomes like nature – wild, uncontrollable and sometimes, destructive.
The exercise of the pent up frustration affects the family just as do the other forces of nature that they have had to face. And the effect that it has is devastating. It is not necessary to reiterate the damages – physical, mental, practical – to the other family members, but the passage when Jewel saves Addie’s coffin from the burning barn demonstrates just how much Addie’s death has affected the family:
“Jewel!” Dewey Dell cries; “Jewel!” It seems to me that I now hear the accumulation of her voice through the last five minutes, and I hear her scuffling and struggling as pa and Mack hold her, screaming “Jewel! Jewel!” But he is no longer looking at us. We see his shoulders strain as he upends the coffin and slides it single-handed from the saw-horses. It looms unbelievably tall, hiding him: I would not have believed that Addie Bundren would have needed that much room to lie comfortable in; for another instant it stands upright while the sparks rain on it in scattering bursts as though they engendered other sparks from the contact. Then it topples forward, gaining momentum, revealing Jewel and the sparks raining on him in engendering gusts, so that he appears to be enclosed in a thin nimbus of fire. Without stopping it overends and rears again, pauses, then crashes slowly forward and through the curtain. This time Jewel is riding upon it, clinging to it, until it crashes down and flings him forward and clear and Mack leaps forward into a thin smell of scorching meat and slaps at the widening crimson-edged holes that bloom like flowers in his undershirt. (222).
In this scene, it is almost as if the coffin has a mind of its own. The Bundrens struggle with it just like they struggle with fire and floods and literal forces of nature. But more importantly, it is almost as if Darl, who is narrating this passage, is unaware of the personal connection that he has to Addie. Their relationship is so depleted that he hardly recognizes her as his own mother. Not only does Addie’s death affect them practically, it dwells in their emotional lives, manipulating their psyches and disintegrating the family unit.
Ultimately, it can be said that Addie is the cause of the complete downfall of the Bundren family. But, as is often the case, there is a cause behind the obvious cause. In this case, that cause is Anse Bundren. And, perhaps even more accurately, the society at large that determined that Addie, because she is a woman and because she is a mother, ought to be in a position of subordination to her husband. The autonomy of the subordinated person gets so jammed up inside of the person, with no outlet, that at some point, it flows out uncontrollably. For Addie, it happens after she dies. She cannot control the journey on which the Bundren family is taken by her coffin. It is a journey that involves injuries, abortion, confusion, insanity and a new Mrs. Bundren. Thus, it is a journey that totally turns upside down and reinvents the Bundren family – it is a journey that destroys the old Bundren family and replaces it with a new one. And it is Addie who takes them on this journey. Thus it is Addie who inadvertently eradicates her family.
Bassett, John Earl. “As I Lay Dying”: Family Conflict and Verbal Fictions.” The Journal of Narrative Technique 11.2 (1981): 125-134. JSTOR. Web. 11 May 2016.
Buell, Lawrence. The Dream of the Great American Novel. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014. Print.
Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. New York: The Library of America, 1985. Print.
Gault, Cinda. “The Two Addies: Maternity and Language in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women.” American Review Of Canadian Studies 36.3 (2006): 440-457. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 11 May 2016.
Hewson, Marc. “My Children Were of Me Alone”: Maternal Influence in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.” Mississippi Quarterly: The Journal Of Southern Cultures 53.4 (2000): 551-567. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 11 May 2016.
Wagner, Linda W. “As I Lay Dying:” Faulkner’s All in the Family.” College Literature 1.2 (1974): 73-82. JSTOR. Web. 11 May 2016.
Yaeger, Patricia. Faulkner and Material Culture. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007. Print.
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