Fifteen Ways of Looking at the Bundrens
Cheryl Lester, University of Kansas
Despite its formal complexity, the underlying situation and narrative of As I Lay Dying is actually quite simple. Addie Bundren dies, leaving her husband and five children to fulfill her request that she be buried forty miles away, in Jefferson, with her people. A poor farming family from northern Mississippi, the Bundrens lay Addie’s body in a homemade coffin, load her in a mule-driven wagon, and set out for Jefferson in the heat of the summer. On a nightmarish journey, they manage to cross a flooded river and save Addie’s putrifying body from a fire, and they succeed in laying her body to rest in town. Through multiple points of view and interior monologues, the novel reveals both the secret desires and problems of the Bundren family and the way that the Bundrens are viewed by others.
The South underwent rapid change during the lifetime of William Faulkner (1897-1962), which spanned the cataclysms of world wars, the modernization of southern life, the depopulation of the rural South, the migration of millions of southerners, and the generalization of consumerism. Although we credit Faulkner for having offered us so rich a purchase on this rapidly changing world, we also recognize that his writings can offer us no more than a situated view of southern life, constructed from the limited point of view of his particular experience and self-interest. Belonging to the elite class of southerners, Faulkner belonged to a family that had already profited from life in Mississippi for generations. The Falkners once owned slaves and later retained field hands and domestic servants. They owned land and leased their land to tenant farmers. They built homes, acquired education, became professionals, published books, held political office, and traveled outside the state of Mississippi and abroad. Hence, Faulkner’s responses to the modernizing South were shaped by the knowledge, opportunities, and challenges he acquired as a well-established member of the elite who, as an eldest son, had particular responsibility for maintaining or replenishing his family fortunes. In his first four novels, Faulkner explores the challenges of negotiating these expectations from the perspective of a young man, who was also, among other things, a struggling artist, returning soldier, college student, entrepreneur, family member, suitor, and potential husband.
By the time Faulkner published his fifth novel As I Lay Dying, on 25 October 1929, the day after the stock market crashed and ushered in the more than decade-long Great Depression, Faulkner’s personal ambitions and imaginative possibilities were narrowed by his decision to take on actual commitments. In June, he had not only married his former sweetheart Estelle Oldham just two months after her divorce from Cornell Franklin, but he had also become the stepfather of her two children, Malcolm and Victoria. He was undeterred by the fact that neither his parents nor Estelle’s believed him capable of assuming such responsibilities and, in an assertion of will if not complete readiness, soon established his new family in a run-down 19th-century mansion that he purchased on credit. As the replacement for Estelle’s much wealthier former provider, Faulkner had a new interest, which he explores in As I Lay Dying, in the challenges facing white southern husbands, fathers, and elder sons in families of reduced means.
Faulkner intensified his labor in order to meet his new responsibilities and expectations. He increased his rate of literary production, and he also began systematically enhancing the value of his literary properties by using narratives to string them together. He had already found a rich source of material in “his own little postage stamp of soil,” but now he was cultivating that literary soil so as to increase its yield. By using narratives to link the themes of his writings together, Faulkner began to evoke a fictive “place,” a literary empire with the potential to become greater than the sum of its parts. His use of narratives to connect themes and create an enticing fictive world in fact prefigures marketing practices that became habitual to 20th-century consumer culture. Just as Faulkner was able to increase his readership by linking his writings together to evoke the fictive world of Yoknapatawpha County, so too do corporate producers enhance their consumer bases by linking together their product lines as characters or objects belonging to worlds like Disneyland, Star Wars, or Hogwarts, fantasy “worlds” whose contents acquire meaning and value as fetish objects through a process of thematization or commodification. With As I Lay Dying, not only does Faulkner further commodify his literary properties, but he also thematizes the belated commodification of everyday life in the South (and the desirability to the Bundrens of new commodities, like bananas, toy electric trains, and graphophones), with the attendant decline of traditional agrarian life. With the body of Addie Bundren as a kind of all-day family pass, the poor white Mississippi farming family of As I Lay Dying sets out on a grueling burial journey that leads to the commodified wonders of the provincial metropolis of Jefferson.
Like The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying makes use of modernist narrative devices like multiple points of view and stream-of-consciousness interior monologue to fragment any illusion of harmony that a reader might have wished to attribute to family action, pastoral life, marital and filial devotion. Such narrative techniques enable Faulkner to desanctify his portrait of the Bundren family, whom he depicts as a loosely-bound group with competing desires, little agreement, few shared experiences, and many secrets and betrayals. That the journey is a selfish act rather than an expression of devotion is revealed through Anse, for example, who characterizes the occasion to go to Jefferson for the first time in twelve years not only as the fulfillment of a promise to his wife but also as an opportunity to buy a pair of false teeth. Like The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying also disrupts the chronology of its narrative to allow a dead character a last expiration of spirit. This revelation of Addie Bundren’s inner feelings and thoughts, which focus on her bitter disappointment with marriage and motherhood and on the adulterous affair that led to the birth of her third son, aptly named Jewel, provides a deeper context for the family’s limited ability to communicate or cooperate with one another. More broadly speaking, the multiple points of view also offer both author and readers an opportunity to take distance from individual narrative perspectives and to entertain multiple, sometimes even conflicting, identifications. Even more broadly speaking, the multiple points of view place readers on either side of a divide that separates country folks from town folks, that undermined the marriage of Addie and Anse, and that explains why the Bundrens appear less and less reputable and more and more burdensome, the closer they get to town. To a world that serves as a center for capital exchange, they bring almost few skills, less capital, and an infuriating attitude of entitlement, indignation, and self-sufficiency.
In the preface to his later novel Sanctuary, Faulkner asserts that he wrote As I Lay Dying while working the night shift at a coal-fired electric power plant in Oxford. According to his self-fashioning, he wrote the novel on an upside-down wheelbarrow during low-usage hours, with the humming sound of an electric generator in the background. More than any of his other odd jobs, which included, for example, working at an arms factory, a bookstore, and the post office, this job at the power plant provided Faulkner with an image for the surreal juxtapositions created by the belated and uneven modernization of the South. As opposed to families like the Bundrens, Faulkner himself, widely traveled within and beyond the South, could navigate both the fading traditional agrarian world represented by wheelbarrows and mule-drawn wagons, a world that persisted longer in the South than anywhere else in the nation, and the dominant modern world represented by electric power, trains, mass-produced sound recordings, inexpensive record players, and the depopulation of the rural South. Faulkner and other southern elites were participants in the redevelopment of the southern economy, with the privilege of metropolitan savoir vivre and consumerist savoir faire. They looked with humor and disdain at country bumpkins like the Bundrens, whose poverty and isolation left them out of pace with and unprepared for the transformations that were rapidly overtaking them and their way of life, like the road that had come “right up to [Anse’s] door” (35).
By propelling the Bundrens from the countryside to town, As I Lay Dying evokes to comic effect the tragic spectacle of modernization as it uprooted and deskilled millions of ordinary southern folks, putting an abrupt end, for better and for worse, to their familiar way of life. “It must have been like a piece of rotten cheese coming into an ant-hill,” says Albert, the pharmacist’s assistant, neatly characterizing the opprobrium that greeted the Bundrens and their kind as they were flushed from the countryside and forced to seek new identities and livelihoods in cities and towns.
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Cheryl Lester is Associate Professor of English and American Studies at the University of Kansas, where she has offered courses in American literature and culture since 1987. Her published articles on Faulkner include “Make Room for Elvis,” in Faulkner and Postmodernism: Proceedings of the 26th Annual Yoknapatawpha Conference, ed. by John Duvall, Ann Abadie and Donald Kartiganer. (University of Mississippi Press, 2002). 143-166; “Migration (African American),” in A William Faulkner Encyclopedia, ed. by Chuck Peek and Robert Hamblin (Greenwood Press, 1999). 158-161; "If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem and the Great Migration: History in Black and White," in Faulkner in Cultural Context: Proceedings of the 22nd Annual Yoknapatawpha Conference, ed. by Ann Abadie and Donald Kartiganer. (University of Mississippi Press, 1997). 191-227; and "Racial Awareness and Arrested Development: The Sound and the Fury and the First Great Migration (1915-28)," The Cambridge Companion to William Faulkner, ed. by Philip Weinstein (Cambridge University Press, 1994). 123-145.