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Addie Bundren of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying has often been characterized as an unnatural, loveless, cold mother whose demands drive her family on a miserable trek to bury her body in Jefferson. For a feminist understanding of Addie, we have to move outside the traditional patriarchal definitions of "womanhood" or "motherhood" that demand selflessness from others, blame mothers for all familial dysfunction, and only lead to negative readings of Addie. She also has been characterized as yet another Faulkner character who is unable to express herself using language. This modernist view of the inexpressiblility of the creative spirit does not apply to Addie simply because she is not an artist; she is a woman and a mother, a person who feminist theorists would desribe as "traditionally mute." To characterize her using universalizing, humanist terms erases the way that her character is marked by her biological sex and by the gender roles she is forced to play. Addie is not a representative of humankind, or even of womankind, but an individual woman trapped in a partriarchal world that represses her desires and silences her; a woman who longs to find an identity of her own that is outside patriarchal constructions and not always definable in relation to the men and the children in her life. Most importantly, Addie is a character who is acutely aware of the linguistic and social oppression that traps her into a life she does not want.
Many feminist/post-modern theorists see language as a patriarchal construct that excludes women. As Jeanie Forte writes, this characterization of language is informed by Lacanian theory, which, in turn, is influenced by Freudian theory: "For Lacan, power relationships are determined by the symbolic order, a linguistically encoded network of meaning and signification that is internalized with the acquisition of language; and which Lacan sums up as the Name-of the Father, recognizing the inherent patriarchy" (220). In other words, language is a phallocentric system created by men that represents males as subjects and females as objects. It follows, then, that because language, or the symbolic order, is phallocentric, women are not represented within it and cannot effectively use it to define themselves. Using this feminist definition of language, I will illustrate that Addie sees language as a patriarchal construct that she stands outside of, that cannot explain her identity or her sexuality, and that she cannot use. Julia Kristeva writes, "many women . . . complain that they experience language as something secondary, cold, foreign to their lives. To their passion. To their suffering. To their desire. As if language were a foreign body" (131). This is the way in which Addie views language.
Addie's chapter in As I Lay Dying, the only chapter in which she is allowed to speak, is her attempt to come into, to explain, and to use a language that is foreign to her. While Addie is trapped within a larger social system that oppresses her in a number of ways (not only linguistically), this is mainly a chapter about patriarchal language and about the inability of that language to express her desire, her identity, and her very existence. Addie says:
And when I knew that I had Cash . . . That was when I learned that words are no good; that words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at. When he was born I knew that motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the ones that had the children didn't care whether there was a word for it or not. I knew that fear was invented by someone that had never had the fear; pride, who never had the pride (Faulkner 163-164).
This passage shows that Addie recognizes that language is constructed, that someone "invented it." She also realizes that language is a male construction; it was invented by someone who never experienced childbirth. And she knows that because she is forced to communicate using language constructed by someone "other" than herself, she has no control over it, no power within it. When Addie tries to speak, each word carries with it meaning she does not intend. And Addie is aware of this. She knows that language speaks for her and that even in the act of trying to move beyond language, she must use language. In order to convey the meaninglessness of words, she must use words.
But I think it is precisely Addie's inability to express her thought using words that gives her chapter such power. Through her awkward attempts to express the inexpressible, we see the way language fails to convey Addie's existence. A key point in Addie's monologue comes when she cannot find a word within the symbolic order to represent her body in the way that she perceives it to be: "The shape of my body where I used to be a virgin is in the shape of a " (Faulkner 165). There is no word within patriarchal language to describe Addie's sexuality. Because it is not represented through language, her body--specifically her genitalia--does not exist, it is invisible; it is--as Lacan describes it--a "lack," an emptiness, nothing. Because a woman lacks a penis and therefore the power of the phallus, she cannot be represented within the symbolic order. For example, Addie does not have a word to describe her sexual desire for the minister. She can only refer to what she and Whitfield do in the woods as "sin": "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" (Faulkner 166). Addie is aware of the lack of a word to describe her desire and of the construction of a word like "sin" by the very man with whom she was "sinning."
The word "sin" is significant in this example because it is the only word Addie can find to express her sexual desire or the sex act: it is a word loaded with signification, most of which is negative. Addie's sexual desire can only be described as something filthy, evil, and unnatural. Feminist theorists claim that women's desire historically has been characterized in this way. To alter the way in which women and female sexuality are perceived, some feminist theorists have called for a feminine language, a feminine way of writing, that would convey female sexuality in the same way that patriarchal, phallocentric language conveys male sexuality. Helene Cixous's mandate for women is "to terrorize patriarchal discourse by writing from the locus of the inscription of difference, i.e., female sexuality" (Forte 225). This feminine form of writing would, theoretically, give a voice to women who have been silenced, especially the "mother," whom Tania Modleski describes as the "traditionally mute body" (Phelan 102).
Can Faulkner, as a male novelist, write in a feminine language that subverts patriarchal discourse? The whole point of feminist writing is to give women a voice outside the symnbolic order, to let women speak for themselves, instead of being spoken for by men. In Addie's case, she literally is being spoken for by the author(ity) of this novel: William Faulkner. French feminist theorists would argue that men can write e'criture feminine and cite such writers as James Joyce as examples. Faulkner probably did not intend to create in Addie a subversive feminist speaking her own language, but the words he gives Addie to speak do show her as a person who is outside the margins and frustrated by the existing symbolic order.
I think the main question to explore about Addie's use of language is: Just how successful is she in subverting the dominant ideology of her world? In some ways, Addie does gain power over language because her words set into motion all of the actions that occur in this book. Her husband and children trek across the county with her coffin because they are obeying her word: "I done my best," Anse says. "I tried to do as she would wish it" (Faulkner 100). Anse's doing, however, does not match up with Addie's intent. When she asked to be buried in Jefferson, I don't think she intended her stinking and battered corpse to be dragged through water, set on fire, and displayed through the county as the centerpiece in a macabre parade. The events in the novel ironically illustrate Addie's inability to use language because the deeds her words produce do not match their intent. I don't think, though, that what happens after her death would surprise Addie, who says, "And I would think . . . of how the high dead words in time seemed to lose even the significance of their dread sound" (Faulkner 167).
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Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. New York: Vintage Books, 1964.
Forte, Jeanie. "Women's Performance Art: Feminism and Postmodernism." Theatre Journal. May 1988.
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Kristeva, Julia. "A Question of Subjectivity--an Interview." Modern Literary Theory: A Reader. Ed. Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh. New York: Routledge, Chapman, and Hall, 1989.
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