"Because if there is a God What the Hell is He for?": Frenchman's Bend and Its Piety in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying

Charles A. Peek, University of Nebraska at Kearney

Many critics seem to assume that, except possibly for Addie's, any religious sentiments in As I Lay Dying are hypocritical, so it is interesting that Faulkner didn't regard even Whitfield as hypocritical, saying instead that he was a victim of a convention by which he was forced to live (Faulkner in the University 114). The novel does, of course, deal with hypocrisy. Indeed, from 1900 onward, in the intellectuals' revolt against the village, there was a growing sentiment against what was seen as, and often was, hypocrisy in American religious life, a hypocrisy the intellectuals attacked under the names of Puritanism, Victorian Morality, or Calvinism. The climate created by the attack was partially what brought about the movement of the New Woman and the sexual revolutions of the Gay '90s and Roaring '20s. In the attack on religious hypocrisy, those moments which American religion had seemingly sanctified-­especially the gendered moments of Marriage, Birth, Motherhood--came to be considered shams.

Faulkner makes use of all this in his portrait of Addie, her experiences of marriage and giving birth, and her comments about her own marriage, children, and affair. Her recognition that she "had been tricked by words older than Anse or love" (Vintage Corrected Text 159) expresses her awareness of the sham of idealizing these moments; and her assertion that she "hid nothing . . . tried to deceive no one . . . would not have cared" expresses her own refusal to be a hypocrite (161). She is an embodiment of the new sexual freedom and anti-Puritan feeling which were the grass roots version of the intellectuals' sentiments.1 Yet it is important to recall that, however aware of the intellectual sentiments of his day Faulkner may have been, he denied being an intellectual and his roots were in the rural, parochial life of his South, a background which, as his own life and career became increasingly complicated, he seems to have grasped with renewed fervor.2

Faulkner's dual sympathies, both for the intellectuals' revolt and for the area they found revolting, influenced how hypocrisy in the novel, far from being ubiquitous, is sharply focused, first on the self-serving Cora, her lack of self­awareness and thereby her all the more ironic pontifications, and secondly in what are often counted the mixed-motives for the funeral journey. Vernon Tull's begrudging respect for Cora, however, might temper even our judgment of her and suggest that she is less hypocritical than inconsistent. And while there will be more said about the motives and spirit of the journey, the other religious sentiments expressed in the novel seem curiously free from hypocrisy.

Their religious sentiments do, however, present a piety plagued by doubt, a set of mixed feelings caused by the radical distance between life on the road and life in the house, between external economic demands on folks barely better than sharecroppers and internal religious beliefs and spiritual aspirations which have sustained them, somehow, between their suffering and their sins. The mixed feelings expressed in their religious views draw not so much from the widespread attack on hypocrisy as from another feature of the intellectuals' discontent. In what was perhaps the most influential work of its time, America's Coming of Age, Van Wyck Brooks wrote,

So it is that from the beginning we find two main currents in the American mind running side by side but rarely mingling--a current of overtones and a current of undertones--and both equally unsocial: on the one hand, the transcendental current originating in the piety of the Puritans, becoming a philosophy in Jonathan Edwards, passing through Emerson, producing the fastidious refinement and aloofness of the chief American writers, and resulting in the final unreality of most contemporary American culture; and on the other hand the current of catchpenny opportunism originating in the practical shifts of Puritan life, becoming a philosophy in Franklin, passing through the American humorists, and resulting in the atmosphere of our contemporary business community (4­5).3

Brooks adds, and this sentence is telling for As I Lay Dying's portraits of Darl and Jewel, that, "It is just here, at the moment of choice, that . . . there is nothing . . . but to lurch violently to the one extreme or the other . . . according as intellect or the sense of action preponderates . . ." (13-14).  

The era found a common trope for this dilemma in the hypothetical young men which populate its essays and fiction, young men sensitive but so divided as to want ballast, being blown to one expression or another of despair. Brooks, Randolph Bourne, and Joseph Wood Krutch were among those who created such portraits; and surely Darl and Jewel are Faulkner's embodiments of the type so prevalent in his day.4  However, in others' accounts, this rarefied atmosphere of the sensitive young was characteristic only of young men. Faulkner extends the trope to the theretofore neglected experience of women-­Addie--and the collective experience of the country folk themselves, some of whom, in the Revolt of the Rednecks, became politicians the Faulkner family supported. And among them and in their religious utterances, Faulkner found a people whose ideals and realities, while horribly distanced from one another, were nevertheless tenaciously held together. Indeed, what characterizes their piety is this balancing act, the balance for which Cash Bundren continuously pleads.

A few representative passages show what is typical of the myriad of expressions of religious sentiments found in the novel. Leaving aside the obviously confused sentiments of Cora, these expressions are launched, as the title of this paper indicates, by the reflections of Jewel which culminate in the exclamation, "If there is a God what the hell is He for?" (14). This concludes a passage in which Jewel puts himself in the place of God at the incidents when Pa and Cash are injured; in God's place, Jewel would have let the two die, Pa so there would be no journey and Cash so there would not be "that goddamn adze going One lick less. One lick less and we could be quiet"; had Jewel been God, "it would just be me and her on a high hill" (14). This is the typical form of the religious utterances of the novel: they are expressions of varying degrees of acceptance of God coupled with questioning his wisdom or goodness in dealing with their situation, their problems, their suffering, but refusing withal to let go of God.

Following this pattern, Anse, in his turn, tells us, "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" (34). He echoes this again, saying, "Eight miles of the sweat of his body washed up out outen the Lord's earth, where the Lord himself told him to put it" (97). Peabody tells us, "Too bad the Lord made the mistake of giving trees roots and giving the Anse Bundrens He makes feet and legs. If He'd just swapped them, there wouldn't ever be a worry about this country being deforested someday" (38). We hear the same pattern in Vardaman's statement, "God made me. I did not said to God to made me in the country" (59). Tull puts his "trust in my God and my reward" but questions the holes bored into Addie's face: "If it's a judgment, it aint right. Because the Lord's got more to do than that. He's bound to have." Even more poignantly, Tull challenges, "It aint right. I be durn if it is. Because He said Suffer little children to come unto Me dont make it right, neither" (66). And the same pattern is voiced poetically in Dewey Dell's self-assurances, "I believe in God, God. God, I believe in God" (108).

In addition, there is that remarkable passage which for me still defies precise attribution, in which we hear what is apparently a "Carcassonne"-like dialog:

     It's a fact. Washed clean outen the ground it will be. Seems like something is always happening to it.

         Course it does. That's why it's worth anything. If something didn't happen and everybody could make  

    a  big crop, do you reckon it would be worth the raising?

        Well, I be durn if I like to see my work washed outen the ground, work I sweat over.

        It's a fact. A fellow wouldn't mind seeing it washed up if he could just turn on the rain himself.

       Who is that man can do that? Where is the color of his eyes?

       Ay. The Lord made it to grow. It's Hisn to wash up if he sees it fitten so. (80-81)5     

Even Cora qualifies her belief that "in my husband and children I have been more blessed than most" with the caveat, "trials though they have been." And it is Cora who, though she believes Heaven to be her great reward, calls it "the Great Unknown" (20). 

The ordained Whitfield may believe that he "wrestled with Satan" (164), but these lay folk all see themselves as wrestling with God. In the light of this struggle, when Anse truncates Job's phrase to its opening statement, "The Lord giveth" (26 for an instance), he is not trying to acknowledge God's giving while escaping his taking away; rather it would seem that what Anse and others must constantly assure themselves is that the Lord gives, all the evidence of their lives proving to them that he most assuredly takes away. Yet, assure themselves again and again they all do, balancing their experience of material decrease with spiritual increase, their losses with their rewards. Perhaps they could use a new god, one who encouraged them to take collective responsibility for the enhancement of their material lives. But what should they do in the meantime, while everything in their material environment conspires against that enhancement even as they are "doing the best we can" (189)?6 Over against the way Van Wyck Brooks indicates that values and practicalities are divided in the American personality, these poor, mostly uneducated, certainly betrayed country folk have managed to so keep the two balanced that their personalities are defined by both. The material culture evoked by the road motif and the spiritual culture invoked by the motif of home and kinship, road and fish, frontier and family, are held together in their piety and its expression. This is neither blind faith nor literalist belief; it becomes that only in one such as Cora, who unlike her neighbors is alienated from her own experience.7 Indeed, Cora's insensitivity and Darl's and Jewel's oversensitivity are the extremes that frame the piety of the rest of this rural community, a piety that refuses to lose track either of its suffering or its salvation.


  1. The readiest sources regarding the intellectual revolt are Henry May, ed . ed., "The Discontent of the Intellectuals: A Problem of the Twenties," The Berkeley Series in American History (Chicago: Rand McNally & Company, 1963); Harold Stearns, ed., Civilization in the United States (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1922); Frederick Lewis Allen, Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the Nineteen-Twenties (New York: Harper & Row, 1931); Warren I. Susman, "The Useless Past: American Intellectuals and the Frontier Thesis: 1910-1930, Bucknell Review, XI (March 1963), 1-19. Faulkner always pretended to be unaware of the work of the intellectual community, but recent investigation of his reading during the period leading up to As I Lay Dying suggests he had regular access to the journals in which they published. See Thomas L. McHaney's paper, tentatively titled "What I Was Reading at the P.O.," in the University Press of Mississippi forthcoming publication of the 1997 Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference papers. 
  2. See Frederick R. Karl, William Faulkner: American Writer (New York: Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, 1989), 382-383. 
  3. Van Wyck Brooks, America's Coming-of-Age (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1958). The title essay, however, was originally published in 1915; though there is no evidence Faulkner read it, we do know he had read other of Brooks's works. 
  4. Brooks's account is referenced above; Bourne's appears in May, referenced above. Joseph Wood Krutch, The Modern Temper (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929), 4-7. 
  5. For a careful study of some of these passages, especially, of the Old Marster metastory, see Warwick Wadlington, As I Lay Dyinq: Stories out of Stories (NewYork: Twayne, 1992), especially chapter 7 where he discusses both "Old Marster" and the political leadership the Faulkners supported . Since the next to last utterance in this dialog echoes God in Job (see Job 38-41, especially 38:26,34), it is possible that this is a medieval-like debate somewhat in the vein of Faulkner's short story, "Carcassonne," here between a Cash- or Tull-like character on the one side and God on the other. It should be clear my concern here is not to evaluate the truth or falsity of their faith; after all Tull's objection is based in part on misunderstanding how the word "suffer" is used in "Suffer the little children." I want only to demonstrate that these are peopIe of faith and realism, that they hold in balance their impoverished and threatening material culture and their religious culture with its hopes and ideals.
  6. I mean this question to reflect the similar issue Solzhenitsyn confronts in his chapter "Each Has His Own Interests" in Cancer Ward which culminates in this dialog:     

    "What she suffers from is an underdevelopment of science," said Vadim. He had found himself a strong argument. "When science advances, all chickenhouses will be clean and decent."

    "But until science advances you'll go on cracking three eggs into your frying pan every  morning, will you?" said Shalubin . . . "Wouldn't you like to work in a chickenhouse for a  bit, while science advances?"

    "He's not interested in that!" came the gruff voice of Kostoglotov . . . (383).             

  7. Note how Cora's interpretation of the log as "the hand of God" comes only at the expense of ignoring the log altogether: "Log, fiddlesticks," says Cora (literally ignoring the log in her own eye), with none of the anguish of Darl's perception of the log as like Christ. Just as easily, she consoles herself for the loss of her eggs, "it's not like they cost me anything except the baking" (139, 134, 8). Anyone who "couldn't afford to use the eggs" herself (5), and yet counts her sweat, her baking for so little, lacks a serious grip on her own reality.
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