Elucidating Addie Bundren in As I Lay Dying

Morna Flaum, Highland Mills, New York

Annette Wannamaker’s article, “Viewing Addie Bundren Through a Feminist Lens,” attempts to explain Addie Bundren, the mother in William Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying, in terms of feminist linguistic theory.  Ms. Wannamaker’s thesis, that “[m]ost 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,” while certainly not a wholly satisfactory or comprehensive analysis, provides a starting point for thinking about this complex and obscure character.  However, for the most part, Ms. Wannamaker’s “lens” limits and diminishes a reader’s capacity to decode Faulkner’s intentions or to grasp the nature of Addie’s misery.  Faulkner’s penetrating exploration of the interstices of language and the profound aloneness of the human condition despite language is better viewed through a humanistic lens.

While examining Addie’s chapter, Ms. Wannamaker states: “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.”  On the one hand, Addie Bundren most certainly never heard of a patriarchal construct in her beleaguered life, but, on the other hand, Addie’s chapter is full of musings about the uselessness, or inadequacy, of words, certain words like ‘motherhood’, ‘fear’, ‘pride’, ‘love’, ‘sin’, and ‘salvation.’  These words for heavily weighted concepts strike Addie as so far from adequate that those people who had never experienced the concepts embodied by those words must have made them up.  Describing her experience with Cash, her first child, Addie says:

That was when I learned that words are no good; that words don’t 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 fear; pride, who never had the pride. (171)

But is Addie’s frustration with the inadequacy of words due to the repressive patriarchal society she lives in and the exclusionary nature of patriarchal language?  Ms. Wannamaker says that this particular passage “shows that Addie recognizes that language is constructed, that someone ‘invented it.’  [Addie] also realizes that language is a male construction; it was invented by someone who never experienced childbirth.”  Unfortunately, this interpretation greatly constricts the meaning of the passage and disconnects it from many other points that Addie tries to make about her feelings throughout this paragraph and the rest of her chapter.  As an immediate example, what about Addie mentioning fear and pride in the same segment?  Would Ms Wannamaker say that Addie meant that fear and pride were emotions men could never have but would only make up words for not having? 

Addie’s difficulties with language are much more attributable to her personality, her intelligent complexity and unique emotional make-up, than they are to a generalized theory of patriarchal oppression.  Patriarchal language repression would not explain Addie’s feelings as a young school teacher who hated the school children and could only feel connected to them or that she was making an impression on them when she was switching them.  She describes her hatred of the children by saying, “I would have to look at them day after day, each with his or her secret and selfish thought, and blood strange to each other blood and strange to mine” (170).  Addie returns to her feelings about the school children when talking about how motherhood changed her, because she has finally experienced emotions through motherhood that change her profoundly and that give her a new perspective with which to evaluate and understand her previous feelings:

[now] I knew that it had been, not that [the school children] had dirty noses, but that we had had to use one another by words like spiders dangling by their mouths from a beam, swinging and twisting and never touching, and that only through the blows of the switch could my blood and their blood flow as one stream. (172)

Certainly Addie is talking about the disconnection between beings and the inadequacy of language to unite them, the inefficiency of communicating by “swinging and twisting and never touching” each other with words.  But is this disconnection due to patriarchal language or the existential condition of humanity in general, each human being wrapped up in an isolated package of skin?  Addie discovers, through her relationship with her newborn Cash, that many of her previous feelings and ideas, such as how much she hated children, or how much she had hated teaching students, were not because her students had annoyed her, intruded on her or disturbed her.  It was she who longed to disturb them, intrude on them.  The only way she could make an impact on them was by whipping them.  When she whipped them she felt alive, like she could feel the whip “upon my flesh; when it welted and ridged it was my blood that ran, and I would think with each blow of the switch: Now you are aware of me!  Now I am something in your secret and selfish life, who have marked your blood with my own for ever and ever” (170).  After she became a mother, Addie realized that the school children had never violated her aloneness at all, “that it had never been violated until Cash came.  Not even by Anse in the nights” (172).  So Addie actually wanted and needed to have her aloneness violated.  She was terribly alone.

Explaining her emotional discoveries in words, especially these subtle existential feelings as the example above reveals, is truly difficult for Addie, and here Ms. Wannamaker’s point is very valid:

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. (Wannamaker)

But as valid as Ms. Wannamaker’s observation is, once again, it is not possible to attribute this character’s troubles, at least not directly or exclusively, to the “male construction” of the language.  If, as she states in her definition, “because language, or the symbolic order, is phallocentric, women are not represented within it and cannot effectively use it to define themselves,” then why do Addie’s sons, particularly Darl and Vardaman, strive so frequently to find their meanings in-between words?  By layering words and their opposites into patterns of ambiguous construction, Darl and Vardaman also wrestle with the impossibility of using words to express their feelings.  Darl says, “And since sleep is is-not and rain and wind are was, it is not.  Yet the wagon is, because when the wagon is was, Addie Bundren will not be.  And Jewel is, so Addie Bundren must be.  And then I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room.  And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is” (80).  Vardaman says, “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” (53).  Close examination of these passages would reveal that these male characters are also struggling to use language to pinpoint an indescribable feeling – a precise moment in time when loss occurs, a precise way of describing how loss breaks time or of how death evacuates meaning from existence.  These are existential dilemmas faced by males and females alike, by all humans.  Faulkner’s use of language in the minds of characters who ordinarily would be considered by the literary class to be too culturally deprived to have these existential ideas, and the profound difficulty the characters have in using language to express these ideas, actually obliterates class and gender distinctions by showing that no humans high or low, male or female, young or old, will ever possess a language that perfectly connects them with each other, that perfectly captures the essence of being, that there is no word that is being.  Language is an imperfect tool, but not exclusively because it is “patriarchal”.  Addie observes: “I knew that that word [the word ‘love’] was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack; that when the right time came, you wouldn’t need a word for that anymore than for pride or fear” (172).  That lack, that void between word and meaning, feeling and thinking, being and saying, the living world and books, self and other (or not-self) is the existential void that Addie dwells on for the bulk of her chapter.

Consciousness of this void is what surrounds Addie in her profound aloneness.  Her ambiguous construction, when speaking of the school children, begins “I knew that it had been, not . . .” (172).  This passage relates to the very beginning of her chapter, where in the first paragraph she describes the end of each teaching day, when instead of going home after the last little dirty-nosed student had departed she “would go down to the spring where I could be quiet and hate them [the students].  It would be quiet there then, with the water bubbling up and away and the sun slanting quiet in the trees and the quiet smelling of damp and rotting leaves . . .” (emphasis added) (169).  Addie believes at that time, pre-motherhood, that her urge for quiet is because she experiences the students as violating her aloneness.  Once she experiences not-aloneness, with her newborn Cash, she realizes that the students had never violated her aloneness, “that it had never been violated until Cash came . . .” (172).  But she welcomes the violation, “[m]y aloneness had been violated and then made whole again by the violation . . .” (172).  Her previous hatred of her students and her desire to whip them was due to her frustration with the unbridgeable void between her being and their beings; the aloneness she felt was unbearably accentuated by being located in the middle of their vitality.

To complete this far too cursory examination of Faulkner’s literary legerdemain in laying bare the angst of linguistic existentialism embedded in Addie’s chapter, one has to examine both the placement of her chapter and the condition of her character.  Addie’s chapter in As I Lay Dying is remarkable due to the fact that she is dead.  Addie is also the character that most successfully navigates or circumscribes the “lack” or void between life and words.  Her condition of deadness, speaking from the void between is and not-is makes her the perfect vehicle for Faulkner to describe the indescribable, approach the unapproachable, express the inexpressible, as he so gracefully does, does-not.  The placement of Addie’s chapter in the middle of her long journey from deathbed to grave is also significant.  Not only is this long journey in itself expressive of the void, or gap between is and not-is, life and death, it also models the journey of the soul to the afterlife described in classic mythology .  Addie’s voice speaks in the book only after her coffin crosses the flooded river.  This river parallels the river Styx, and her voice comes after that point, as a shade is allowed to speak once in Hades as it were.  Addie’s family paid the price of passage to Charon with two mules and Cash’s broken leg.  Only after this price is paid is Addie able to speak.  The other way that Addie’s voice is “sandwiched” by Faulkner is his placing her chapter directly between Cora’s and Whitfield’s chapters, both of which are mainly about the undisclosed adultery between Addie and the minister Whitfield.  While Cora doesn’t know about the adultery, she awakens the reader to the sinfulness she herself perceives in Addie, revealing more about Addie through reporting conversations she had with her in life than any other person in the entire book, including Addie.  Then comes Addie’s chapter, not only in defense of herself but to express her linguistic angst and make as clear as possible the central drama of her life.  The final piece of this central triptych, Whitfield’s piece, confirms the identity of “he” with whom Addie confesses she “sinned” and shows Whitfield’s pathetic hypocrisy in his relief that his adultery has not been caught out by a confession by Addie on her deathbed.  Whitfield’s hypocritical use of religious jargon to assuage his personal guilt reasserts the void between word and deed quite literally:I have sinned, O Lord.  Thou knowest the extent of my remorse and the will of my spirit.  But He is merciful; He will accept the will for the deed, Who knew that when I framed the words of my confession it was to Anse I spoke them, even though he was not there.  (179)

Whitfield’s pious hypocrisy, his ability to exploit the gap between word and deed rather than suffer by it as Addie did, highlights the fact that some aspects of Ms. Wannamaker’s feminist arguments might be valid.  Women can be disenfranchised by the same language men benefit from.  But women are not always the have-nots, and men are not always the haves.  And the issue of Faulkner’s intent as a humanist, not a feminist, must be of primary concern always.  Still, in this case, Whitfield’s horrid refutation of Addie, coated in a slick piety that separates him from his own deeds, reads like this: “I entered the house of bereavement, the lowly dwelling where another erring mortal lay while her soul faced the awful and irrevocable judgment, peace to her ashes” (179).  Even though Whitfield is saved embarrassment because of Addie’s silence about their affair, he still dismisses her as lowly and erring, and, because of her silence, deserving of the awful judgment he glibly convinces himself he has avoided.

To Ms. Wannamaker ‘s credit, she does step back from her insistence on blaming all of Addie’s problems on patriarchal issues and states that “Faulkner probably did not intend to create in Addie a subversive female 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.”  After having examined Addie’s frustration with the existing symbolic order (i.e. language, all language, not just “patriarchal” language), it is time to proceed with understanding Addie from another perspective, as “a person who is outside the margins” and examine Ms. Wannamaker’s more valid point that “Addie is trapped within a larger social system that oppresses her in a number of ways.” 

“[Addie] is a woman and a mother, a person who feminist theorists would describe as ‘traditionally mute’” (Wannamaker).  Certainly Addie, through her consciousness as represented by Faulkner, was an intelligent woman.  Her job as a schoolteacher confirms this.  The larger social system she was oppressed by, rural southern 1920’s society, dictated that any intelligent woman who was not married could only be a schoolteacher.  Addie’s way out of teaching was marriage, a choice she explains abruptly and coldly: “And so I took Anse” (170).  That she did not enjoy sex with him is plain when she says her aloneness had never been violated “[n]ot even by Anse in the nights” (172).  The gap between how Anse felt and how she felt was described as “He had a word, too.  Love, he called it.  But I had been used to words for a long time.  I knew that that word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack” (172).  So, as a traditionally mute woman, Addie did not ask for better and she did not leave an unhappy life.  Instead of asking for a different life she says, “I gave Anse the children.  I did not ask for them.  I did not even ask him for what he could have given me: not-Anse.  That was my duty to him, to not ask that, and that duty I fulfilled” (174).  Her only revenge against her husband was so passive and silent that she could say “my revenge would be that he would never know I was taking revenge” (173).  In addition to being silent and passive, remember that Addie and her family are clearly on the lowest rung of impoverished rural southern white society; her husband Anse is a failure who has convinced everyone in the area, including his children, to help him do everything.  Throughout their epic journey to bury Addie, Anse requires help at every turn.  His neighbors say that they have helped him so many times they can’t quit, and Uncle Billy puts it like this: “I reckon [God’s] like everybody else around here . . . He’s done it so long now He cant quit” (89).  Addie is quite obviously a silent, intelligent, resentful, passive, long-suffering wife with no social mobility, no outside support and only her children to bring her any kind of comfort.  So in this way, Ms. Wannamaker’s feminist opinion of Addie being “traditionally mute” and “outside the margins” is absolutely correct.  Her tragic statement to Cora, “My daily life is an acknowledgment and expiation of my sin” reveals how abjectly trapped Addie is by every aspect of her life, including her own intelligence, passion and insight, which in a less oppressive society could have, possibly, helped her (167).

In sum, using Ms. Wannamaker’s article as a foil has inspired a deeper understanding of As I Lay Dying but not due to the correctness of her theories.  While it is true that through Addie Faulkner paints a truly sympathetic and tragic picture of the plight of women in her era, in her social and economic situation, it is also painfully obvious that Faulkner’s linguistic tour de force is minimized and misunderstood when examined in the context of feminist linguistic theory.

Works Cited

Faulkner, William.  As I Lay Dying.  New York: Vintage International, 1985.

Rouse, W.H.D.  Homer: The Odyssey.  New York: New American Library, 1937.

Wannamaker, Annette.  “Viewing Addie Bundren Through a Feminist Lens.”  Teaching Faulkner Newsletter Archives.  25 July 2004.

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