As I Lay Dying: The Oprah Book Club Lectures
Robert W. Hamblin
In 2005 Professor Hamblin led the Oprah Book Club's online discussions of As I Lay Dying for Oprah Winfrey's "Summer of Faulkner." Those discussions included a number of video-taped mini-lectures on the characters, themes, structure, and context of the novel. Teaching Faulkner is pleased to offer the transcribed texts of those lectures to our readers.
Almost all writers incorporate their own personal experiences into their work, though it would be a huge mistake ever to argue for a direct correlation between an author and a character. The Hemingway hero is not Ernest Hemingway, though Hemingway’s protagonists clearly have a great deal in common with their creator. Faulkner frequently noted that he used “experience, observation, and imagination” in creating his characters and plots; and though he always insisted that the imagination was the key component, he also acknowledged the personal element in his work.
It’s highly doubtful that Faulkner (or any other Mississippian) ever saw a family transporting an unembalmed, decaying corpse on a week-long trek through the north Mississippi countryside, shooing away the buzzards along the way. But there are elements in As I Lay Dying that are almost certainly drawn from Faulkner’s personal experience. In fact, the characterization of Addie Bundren may be modeled in part on two individuals whom Faulkner knew very well: his mother and himself.
As Joseph Blotner and other Faulkner biographers (most recently Jay Parini) have told us, Maud Falkner was an intelligent, well-educated, talented, and strong-willed woman who was married to a husband who was never much of a success in anything he attempted. To make matters worse, Murry Falkner was an alcoholic who frequently withdrew into long periods of apathy and self-pity. In her final illness, at age 88, Maud asked her son if she would have to see her husband in heaven. “No, not if you don’t want to,” Faulkner told her. “That’s good,” she replied; I never did like him.” This is quite similar to what Vernon Tull says of Addie: “Wherever she went, she has her reward in being free of Anse Bundren.”
But Faulkner didn’t have to be reminded of his mother and father when writing about an unhappy marriage: he was living one himself. Faulkner and Estelle Oldham had been childhood sweethearts and planned to be married, but when Estelle’s parents objected to the match, Estelle jilted Faulkner and married a wealthy lawyer, Cornell Franklin, instead. That marriage, however, lasted only a few years; and when Estelle and her two children returned to Oxford in 1927, she and Faulkner resumed their relationship. This time it was Faulkner who was reluctant, but the couple was married in 1929. From the very start, however, it became obvious that this would be a troubled marriage: Estelle, drinking heavily and still emotionally wounded from her previous marriage and divorce, attempted to drown herself in the Gulf of Mexico on the honeymoon. Faulkner’s correspondence of this period clearly reflects his feeling that he had made a mistake in marrying Estelle, and his ambivalence toward her and the marriage seems reflected in the portrayals of Caddy Compson in The Sound and the Fury and Temple Drake in Sanctuary. And Addie Bundren’s disillusionment and despair in As I Lay Dying, set down just five months after Faulkner’s marriage to Estelle, may well be Faulkner’s own.
Addie may also be speaking for Faulkner in other ways. Her views on religion and her doubts about an afterlife find parallels in Faulkner’s life and comments. Moreover, he seems to share her skepticism about words and deeds. For example, he called The Sound and the Fury, almost universally acknowledged as one of the greatest novels ever written, his “magnificent failure.” None of his books, Faulkner said, ever matched the “dream of perfection” he had in his head. Something was always lost when that dream was reduced to “cold words on the paper.”
While there may be significant parallels between Addie Bundren and William Faulkner, there is one monumental difference: she took her attitudes, thoughts, and emotions with her to the grave, while Faulkner transmuted his into some of the most remarkable prose ever written including the dying thoughts of Addie Bundren.
The Journey Motif
Many of the world’s great stories center on a journey of some type Ulysses’ struggle to get back home after the Trojan War; the Hebrews’ exodus and search for the Promised Land; Dante’s tour of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven in The Divine Comedy; the medieval knightly quest for the Holy Grail; Chaucer’s pilgrims on the road to Canterbury; Tom Jones’s trip to London; Ishmael’s voyage aboard a whale ship in Moby Dick; Huck Finn’s float trip down the Mississippi.
As Joseph Campbell, the famous comparative mythologist, has reminded us, epic journeys in myth and literature are typically long and quite dangerous, requiring great skill and courage and sacrifice, and thus are undertaken only by gods or god-like heroes. Usually, too, these stories dramatize not only the growth and maturation of the hero but also some benefit to the community that derives from the hero’s struggle, sacrifice, and triumph.
Faulkner reprises this legendary motif, or pattern, in his description of the Bundrens’ trip through the north Mississippi countryside on the way to Jefferson, and his use of this old, familiar story involves many of the traditional elements. Certainly there can be no question of the Bundrens’ resolve and courage in the face of difficulty and danger; one can accurately apply to them the statement Faulkner wrote about another group of characters in another book: “They endured.” And what the Bundrens endure are the age-old, elemental threats of flood and fire.
Nevertheless, Faulkner’s depiction of the Bundrens’ journey, when compared to the older stories, seems largely ironic. While the Bundrens exhibit an impressive degree of tenacity and even courage, and while their quest eventuates in a successful conclusion (at least in terms of its stated intention of burying Addie), their heroism and triumph are undercut and diminished in a significant number of ways. For example, Faulkner’s travelers are neither gods nor larger-than-life heroes: they are poor hill farmers whose outlandish attitudes and behavior flaunt common morality and decency and lead to their social estrangement. The heart of the story the conveyance of a decaying corpse from one end of the county to the other strikes most readers as not merely unconventional and bizarre but even slightly insane. Additionally, whatever nobility may be found in keeping a promise, even a foolish one, to a dead wife and mother is mocked by the selfish motives of each of the travelers: Anse’s remark is typical: “Now I can get them teeth.” And finally, there seems to be no redemptive communal effect to the trials of the Bundrens no baptismal cleansing by water or spiritual purification by fire or epiphany of awareness or insight. On the contrary, the trip leads to the disintegration of the family (not at all ameliorated by the introduction of a new Mrs. Bundren) and a sharp division of neighbors.
Of course, this is only one possible reading of the novel. Like much else in this novel, as indeed in all of Faulkner’s works, it’s left to the reader to decide whether the Bundrens’ journey is heroic or comic, noble or ludicrous, genuine or ironic. Then again, maybe it’s something of all of these and maybe Faulkner’s intent is to mirror the mysterious and contradictory nature of all human motives and endeavors.
Stream of Consciousness
As I Lay Dying is an outstanding example of what is called “stream-of-consciousness” narration. The term is borrowed from psychology and is used to identify any literary narrative that focuses upon the unspoken thoughts of a character. While there are some technical distinctions that need not concern us here, the term is often used interchangeably with another literary device, the “interior monologue.” In both forms the focus is upon the random, disordered, fragmented, and momentary flow of thought (hence “stream”) before it has become conscious speech. Novelists who have become noted for their extensive use of stream of consciousness include Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Richardson, and Faulkner.
Authors are drawn to stream of consciousness as an excellent means of dramatizing the subjective, private, and often unconscious thoughts and motives of their characters. In such narratives the interior workings of a character’s mind are given precedent over external actions and events. Indeed, many stream-of-consciousness narratives, like Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, seek to present pure consciousness largely divorced from any significant external action or plot. But it should be noted that Faulkner is something of an exception in this regard, since even in his most extended stream-of-consciousness narrations, there is always a substantial action being referenced. In fact, one way to view Faulkner’s place in the history of the novel is to recognize how effectively he combines the traditional emphasis upon action or plot with the modern concern for mental processes and the psychological motives for human behavior. A typical Faulkner novel is concerned with both what happens and why it happens.
Consider how this definition applies to As I Lay Dying. Certainly there is an unfolding external action that the reader follows with interest and suspense. Addie Bundren is dying, and her husband Anse has promised her that he will bury her in town. Their oldest son Cash is making her a coffin, and the entire family is preparing to transport the body by mule-drawn wagon to town. Much of the novel deals with this trip and the obstacles the Bundrens face along the way, and a considerable part of the reader’s interest is to find out what the next obstacle might be and whether they will ever arrive at their destination.
But this simple surface action is not at all what Faulkner’s great novel is really about. The real journey a reader takes in this book is not to Jefferson but deep inside the complex, conflicted, and often nightmarish thoughts of the characters. Darl’s brooding questions about identity and reality, Jewel’s pent-up anger and desire for revenge, Cash’s obsession with neatness and order, Dewey Dell’s anxiety over her personal circumstance, Vardaman’s innocent confusion over death and grief, Anse’s inner struggle between inertia and honor, Addie’s frustrations, regrets, and secrets these are the dark, hidden places explored and exposed by Faulkner’s marvelous stream-of-consciousness prose. And while to neighbors like Tull and Samson the Bundrens may appear to be a devoted family unified by a common, if quite absurd and even slightly crazy, cause, the reader knows the other, secret Bundrens: selfish, divided, frightened, dysfunctional, lonely, and, worst of all, unloving and unloved.
Viewpoint in As I Lay Dying
The first thing that almost all readers notice about As I Lay Dying is that the narration of the story is tossed around like a football on a playground. First Darl speaks, and then Cora, and then Darl again, and then Jewel. Eventually we learn, if we bother to keep count, that there are 15 different narrators and 59 separate chapters in the novel. Fortunately the story line being presented is a fairly simple one: about a rural Mississippi family, the Bundrens, who are taking the corpse of Addie, the mother, back to her home town, Jefferson, to be buried with her family. So it’s not the plot, which is actually quite simple, but the way Faulkner chooses to unravel the plot, that makes this a complicated novel. And why would anyone choose to tell a story in this fashion?
Like all truly original artists, Faulkner prized uniqueness, creativity, experimentation. He seldom tells a story the same way twice. He once criticized Hemingway because he felt that Hemingway had perfected a single style that he employed over and over again, without “splashing around, trying to experiment.” Faulkner, by contrast, is one of the most experimental of all novelists, and As I Lay Dying is one of his finest experiments, a tour de force of technique.
The principal result of Faulkner’s shifting the storytelling from one character to another is fairly easy to identify, and quite compelling. We know from our own experience that if two or more people observe the same event they will see it, and later tell it, somewhat differently. Anyone who has ever served on a jury knows how a parade of witnesses, some friendly, some hostile, present varying and often contradictory versions of the same event. And the juror must decide what actually happened and who’s telling the truth and who isn’t. It’s the same with this novel, with the reader playing the role of the juror. Is Cora right about which of the sons is Addie’s favorite? What is Anse’s real reason for wanting to go to Jefferson? Why is Jewel so angry and spiteful? What is Darl’s problem? Answers to such questions depend on who’s talking. Clearly, what Faulkner is conveying here is not absolute Truth (with a capital T) but a truth (little t) that depends in large measure on viewpoint.
Scholars have pointed out that Faulkner may have been influenced by the Impressonist and Cubist painters such as Monet and Cezanne in his depiction of a truth that is very subjective and almost constantly evolving. Faulkner viewed, and wrote home about, the works of these artists on his visit to Paris in 1925. Certainly one can easily see the similarity of As I Lay Dying to Monet’s series of paintings of the same object for example, haystacks or the cathedral of Rouen. In both these paintings and Faulkner’s novel truth is always, to a great degree, personal, relative, and ever-changing.
Problem of Language
One of the dominant themes of As I Lay Dying is the difficulty of human communication, caused not only by the problem of finding the right word but also by the discrepancy between words and deeds. Addie Bundren expresses this theme most distinctly when she says that “words are no good; that words don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say at.” We quickly discover that Addie is not the only character in the novel who feels this way. Others particularly Vardaman, Darl, Cash, and Dewey Dell also have difficulty in communicating their innermost thoughts and relating words to deeds.
It might seem surprising that any writer, whose medium of expression is words, and particularly a writer like Faulkner, one possessed with such an immense vocabulary, would have characters voice such skepticism about the adequacy of language. But it is not so surprising when we recognize that this is an attitude shared by many of the writers of Faulkner’s generation Ernest Hemingway, e. e. cummings, John Dos Passos, and Willa Cather, to name only a few. We must recall that this was the so-called “Lost Generation” that felt betrayed by the abstractions and inflated rhetoric of the nineteenth-century a century whose ideas and values had crumbled in the wake of the colossal tragedy of World War I. To Hemingway’s Frederic Henry of A Farewell to Arms words like “sacred, glorious, and sacrifice” have become, in the context of the folly of the war, meaningless and obscene. It’s a theme that would reverberate throughout the literature of the twentieth century: Jack Burden of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men says: “The good do, and liars talk.”
This problem of communication, of using language to create accurate representations of reality and meaningful, fulfilling relationships, is everywhere present in As I Lay Dying. We see it in the multiple and fragmented viewpoints, each character imprisoned in his or her own little box of stream-of-consciousness thought, side by side on the pages of the book, sometimes overlapping in content but never quite merging into an overall unity. We see it in the disparity of styles within these individual sections, which are sometimes presented in the colloquial folk language appropriate for the characters but at other times in words and concepts that seem quite beyond these characters’ situation and circumstances. We see it in the characterization of Darl, who disdains speech yet often knows things about other characters that have never been expressed in words. We see it perhaps best of all in Vardaman, who surely has the highest intellect and largest vocabulary of any schoolboy in Mississippi yet finds that all that thought and language ultimately fail him, leaving him only with the metaphoric riddle, “My mother is a fish.”
Regarding the issue of language and its relationship to reality and truth, this sentence, perhaps the most enigmatic statement in American literature, may well represent the very essence of the novel. As we have known since Plato, a word is not the thing; it is only a symbol or an approximation of the thing (hence the need for metaphors); and ultimate meanings about life and reality or ourselves and other human beings are extremely difficult to reduce to words and thus always remain something of a mystery.
Addie Bundren is one of the great tragic heroines in all of literature. A number of critics have associated her story with that of Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. But there are other famous heroines with whom she can be equally compared Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, for example, or Tolstoy’s Anna Karanina, or Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley. All of these women are strong characters who feel trapped in unfortunate personal and social circumstances and long for some means of escape.
Faulkner presents Addie as a fiercely independent, strong-willed woman who is driven to bitterness and despair by the discrepancy between the reality of her situation and the expectancy of her dreams. In actuality she is an idealist who longs for, but never finds, fulfillment of her hopes and aspirations. Hers is the agony of all romantics who feel betrayed by life.
Her father told her it would be this way. “The reason for living,” he said, “was to get ready to stay dead a long time.” But Addie resists this thinking for as long as she can. Unlike Cora and other religionists, she has no faith in an afterlife, and this disbelief adds to her urgency to find meaning and happiness on this side of the grave. She searches for what existentialists call “authentic existence,” stripped of all props and illusions. She whips her students, attempting through such violence to force herself into their “secret and selfish” lives. Then she marries Anse, hoping that marriage and motherhood might supply relief from her angst. Those failing, she takes Whitfield for a lover, but that relationship too cools and ends unhappily. Finally she is left only with her distrust of all relationships and ideals and, of course, her precious Jewel, a symbolic reminder, like his horse, of the wild and free and energetic life that she desperately longed for but never found. Her disillusionment is best expressed in her skepticism about language: “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.” Addie’s despair is worse, she says, in early spring, when she realizes, with the narrator of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” that “April is the cruelest month,” since it ironically brings a false promise of life and vitality to the land of the dead.
Addie may be ready to die, but Faulkner is unwilling to let her do so. He compounds the irony of her situation by allowing her, like the characters in Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, to speak, as it were, from the grave. Addie may not believe in a spiritual life after death, but clearly she continues to have tremendous power and influence over her family and neighbors even after her death. Though she is given only one monologue, she is the center of the story, after her death as much as before. Even when she is in her coffin, her children still vie for her attention and favor; neighbors still recollect and gossip about her; and, most significantly, almost miraculously, her lethargic husband gets off his haunches and begins to move, albeit slowly and indecisively, with some degree of ambition and purpose. It is as though something of the passion and vitality and will of Addie has escaped the coffin (as Vardaman had hoped) to infuse and empower all who have known her. It is a distinctly ironic and secular form of resurrection, but a resurrection nonetheless. And through it Faulkner dramatizes the indisputable force and appeal of this truly remarkable character.
Anse Bundren is one of the most fascinating characters in American literature. Poor, lazy, shiftless, self-centered, and basically irresponsible, he is, in many respects, a caricature of the ignorant country bumpkin, the legendary hillbilly/redneck. Even his physical description fits the stereotype: tall, hump-backed, toothless, wearing patched overalls and a hangdog expression, unshaven, lower lip filled with snuff. He reminds Darl of “a failing steer or an old tall bird.” But this is only the surface appearance, a first impression. Faulkner, as he typically does with most of his characters, probes far beneath the surface, revealing a character of immense complexity and paradox, one who if not heroic certainly is not villainous, one who if not deserving of the reader’s sympathy may at least be afforded an ounce of pity.
The past is always crucial in the life of any Faulkner character, and it’s important to recognize that Anse was not always the person he is in the present tense of the story. Though he is now afraid of work, believing that he will die if he sweats, he has not always been averse to hard labor: “[His] feet are badly splayed, his toes cramped and bent and warped, with no toenail at all on his little toes, from working so hard in the wet in homemade shoes when he was a boy.” This is where many people must begin: poor but with a strong work ethic. Eventually Anse was industrious and successful enough to own his own farm no small feat for a Mississippi hill farmer in the 1920s. And his wooing and winning of Addie was no less an achievement. A townswoman, a school teacher (and thus very likely the best educated person in Anse’s part of Yoknapatawpha County), Addie represents quite a catch for a young farmer. And while Anse’s courtship of Addie is anything but romantic, it is sincere, and persistent, and successful.
But all of that was before the rich storekeepers in town (who cheat the country folk) and the politicians (who build the roads) and the lawyers and sheriffs (who would take Darl away, leaving Anse short-handed in the fields) and the bad weather and hard times have made it so very tough for hardworking farmers. It may be that Anse hasn’t become lazy so much as he just got tired, beaten down and worn out by his long, losing struggle with what Faulkner calls in another book “the implacable earth.”
And, say what one will about the unconventional actions he takes to prove his point, he does have a sense of honor. He made a promise to Addie, and come (literally) hellfire and high water he intends to keep it. Yes, it’s true that the promise gets all mixed up with his desire for some false teeth (the new wife is a bonus, not premeditated), but it’s the promise and not the teeth that impels the journey to Jefferson. He didn’t lose his teeth just last week.
Once, in response to a question about As I Lay Dying, Faulkner commented that all of the characters in the book were victims of their environment, “of land in which there wasn’t much relief from the arduous hard work, [where] there was nothing to please the spirit no music, no pictures, most of them couldn’t read and when they could, the books were not available, and so they took what relief they could. . . .” In such circumstances, Faulkner said, people just do the best they can do.
By the time we meet him, Anse Bundren has been robbed of his youth, his health, his material well being, his desire, and, now, his wife. Perhaps the trip to Jefferson is one last attempt to regain his manhood and dignity. Perhaps he’s just doing the best he can do.
What Drives Darl Mad?
Almost any character in this book would provide an interesting case study for a psychoanalyst. But Darl presents a special case, since at the end of the book he is presumed insane and committed to the asylum. What is it that drives Darl mad, if indeed he is actually so?
The most intelligent and thoughtful, even philosophical, of the Bundrens, and certainly the most widely traveled (he has been to France during World War I), he is also possessed of a clairvoyance (or maybe it’s just a heightened imagination and intuition) that enables him to see and know things that appear to be beyond the normal powers of perception. He knows without being told, for example, that Jewel is not Anse’s son and that Dewey Dell is pregnant. And he knows that, of all the Bundrens, he is the most alienated, the most troubled, the most lost.
Everyone, Bundren or not, recognizes that Darl is different, weird, even abnormal. Dewey Dell, who represents the body, physicality, fears his preternatural powers, noting that he says things “without words” and sits at the table “with his eyes gone further than the food and the lamp.” Cash says of him at the end of the novel, “This world is not his world; this life his life,” confirming at that point what the reader has already suspected for quite some time. According to Vernon Tull, Darl’s problem is that “he just thinks by himself too much”; and as Tull goes on to say, too much thinking divorced from action is not healthy.
And what is it that Darl thinks about in these nineteen interior monologues that are among the most brilliant passages that Faulkner ever wrote? The most obvious answer to the question is the obsessive sibling rivalry that leads him to taunt Jewel with reminders of his paternity and the death of his mother. But Darl’s struggle with identity and meaning seems to involve much more than a simple, if extreme, case of sibling rivalry. A careful reading of the text suggests that a deeper source of his problem might be a conflicted sexuality. Though he is very curious about Jewel’s suspected all-night trysts with a mysterious lover, and though he is acutely conscious of Dewey Dell’s “leg coming long from beneath her tightening dress,” as well as her “mammalian ludicrosities,” and though he brings home from France a spy-glass in which he could see “a woman and a pig with two backs and no face,” the only sex act he confesses in the novel is his childhood practice of “[lying] with my shirt-tail up, . . . feeling myself without touching myself, feeling the cool silence blowing upon my parts.” His neighbors, especially Cora and Eula Tull, think he should get married, but, although he is in his late twenties or early thirties, he gives no indication of desiring to do so.
And what is the source of Darl’s apparent aversion to sexuality? Could it be the adulterous behavior of his mother and her subsequent rejection of him in favor of Jewel? If so, then the characterization of Darl begs comparison with that of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, another character who thinks too much and whose mother’s act of infidelity leads to a the son’s rejection of both women and sexuality. “I have no mother,” Darl says; that woman is now just “Addie Bundren.” So, is it really Jewel whom Darl hates, or is Jewel just a scapegoat on which Darl heaps his hatred of his mother? And is Darl’s attempted burning of Addie’s corpse an act of mercy intended to stop an insane journey, or an act of vengeance in which he revenges himself upon the mother who has abandoned him by seeking to deny her wish to be buried in Jefferson? Typically, Faulkner leaves such questions to the reader. And, it must be added, he offers yet another possibility: as Cash points out, maybe Darl isn’t mad after all. “Sometimes,” Cash says, “I think it aint none of us pure crazy and aint none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way.”
Darl versus Jewel
Early in the novel the reader becomes aware that there exists a strong sibling rivalry among all the Bundren children, but this conflict is most intense in the relationship between Jewel and Darl. Jewel fantasizes about being alone with his mother, “just . . . me and her on a high hill and me rolling the rocks down the hill at their faces.” Darl knows that Jewel is Addie’s favorite and he further knows, somehow, that Jewel is not Anse’s son. This knowledge leads Darl to taunt Jewel mercilessly. “Jewel, do you know that Addie Bundren is going to die?” “Who was your father, Jewel?”
Though we are not aware of it on a first reading, this rivalry between the brothers for the affection of the mother is symbolized in the opening chapter of the novel, when we first meet Darl and Jewel. They are coming from the field, and Darl is walking ahead of Jewel. But when they come to the cottonhouse Jewel takes a shortcut by stepping through the windows and moves ahead of Darl on the path. One of the first things we learn in graduate school is that any object that is longer than it is wide is a phallic symbol, and any object that contains openings is a female symbol. So the windows here may be associated with the female principle, in this case, Addie. Jewel is embraced by his mother, Darl is not: so Darl must walk around the cottonhouse. And Jewel has now moved ahead of his brother on the path just as he has in the favor of their mother. The alienation that Darl feels from being displaced in Addie’s affection is further symbolized in the scene in which Darl, drifting off to sleep in a stranger’s room, reflects that “I don’t know what I am. I don’t know if I am or not.” and concludes: “How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.”
But Darl has no home and, he feels, no mother. “I cannot love my mother,” he says, “because I have no mother.” And for this reason he hates and avenges himself upon his brother Jewel.
Cash Bundren: Unlikely Hero
As I Lay Dying is, according to most readers, a book without a hero, at least in the traditional sense of the term; but the character who probably comes closest to that role is Cash.
Silent as a narrator for the first third of the novel, Cash speaks through his work. “Chuck. Chuck. Chuck,” goes his adze as he builds the coffin, day and night, in sunshine or rain; and Darl says of him, “A good carpenter, Cash is. . . . Addie Bundren could not want a better one, a better box to lie in.” When he does first speak in his own voice, Cash explains, in a thirteen-point outline, why he made the casket on the bevel: it is a voice not only of reason and pragmatism but also of adjustment and accommodation, of doing the best one can with the tools available. And if you have a barn to build and a funeral to attend, take your tools with you to the funeral so you won’t have to make a second trip.
Cash knows there are dreamers and idealists who want more from life than life can deliver: “It aint always the safe things in this world that a fellow. . .,” he says of Jewel’s night prowling; but he leaves the sentence unfinished, perhaps not wanting his mind to go where his life has no way to follow. It’s best to accept one’s limitations, don’t let them defeat you, in fact, turn them to your advantage and benefit. If you don’t have the lumber to build a courthouse, Cash says, then build a chicken coop, because “it’s better to build a tight chicken coop than a shoddy court-house.” Whatever you build, “drive the nails down and trim the edges well.”
(A parenthetical note: since Faulkner frequently compared the work of the writer to that of a carpenter “I just try to drive the nails straight,” he once said of his craft, “so the cabinet comes out right” some readers are inclined to view Cash as one of Faulkner’s several portrayals of the artist. This parallel adds one more reason for possibly viewing Cash’s role in the novel as heroic.)
All of the Bundrens suffer on the way to Jefferson, but none of the others undergoes the physical pain that Cash endures. Only recently recovered from a broken leg, he breaks the same leg again in the river fording. And then, when the pain from riding in a bumpy wagon becomes increasingly severe, the family places the leg in a concrete cast. Through it all, as his leg and foot turn black and then red from bleeding when the concrete is hammered off, Cash never complains. “It feels fine,” he says. In town Darl asks Cash if he wants to go see Dr. Peabody, but Cash refuses until after Addie is buried.
Cash’s tremendous capacity to endure, even deny, great physical pain seems symbolic of his handling of psychological pain as well. The oldest son, he surely must have experienced something of the same rivalry and jealousy for the love of the mother that we see in Darl and Jewel (his building the casket seems one last effort to purchase her love), yet he is not as troubled and mentally unbalanced by the situation as his brothers. And unlike Jewel, who says to those who subdue Darl at the end, “Kill him. Kill the son of a bitch,” Cash expresses sincere grief and regret that his brother is being carried to Whitfield. He may be the one Bundren capable of love.
We should not overlook the fact that, in this novel of multiple voices, Cash is given the last word and a future vision of the Bundrens: back home, sitting in the house on a winter evening, listening to another mail order record on the gramophone. For most readers this seems to be so little for the Bundrens to have to look forward to, but for Cash, apparently, it is enough.
“Dark comedy” is the label applied to Shakespearean plays that are considered too tragic to be comedies yet too comic to be tragedies. It’s a term that may also be used to describe Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, a novel that is essentially tragic but at the same time is also one of the most humorous books Faulkner ever wrote.
A list of the funniest lines in this novel would certainly include the following:
Jewel: “because if there is a God what the hell is He for” (15). Anse: “God’s will be done. Now I can get them teeth” (51). Tull: “I think that if nothing but being married will help a man, he’s durn nigh hopeless” (68). Vardaman: “My mother is a fish” (79).
Cash, explaining how far he fell off the church: “Twenty-eight foot, four and a half inches, about” (85). Darl, on Jewel’s suspected lover: “She’s sure a stayer. I used to admire her, but I downright respect her now” (126). Addie, on Cora’s self-righteous arrogance: “Like Cora, who could never even cook” (166). Armstid: “A man aint so different from a horse or a mule, come long come short, except a mule or a horse has got a little more sense” (176). MacGowan, to his fellow clerk when Dewey Dell enters the store: “I’m going into conference” (233).
Consider also the following descriptions:
Of Jewel, exhausted from working around the clock, falling asleep while milking the cow, “his hands up to his wrists in the milk and his head against the cow’s flank” (122); and at the table, “going to sleep in his plate, with a piece of bread halfway to his mouth and his jaws still chewing” (123).
Of Anse, who “looks like a figure carved clumsily from tough wood by a drunken caricaturist” (156).
Of Cash, after he has fainted from the pain of his broken leg: “with big balls of sweat standing on his face like they had started to roll down and then stopped to wait for him” (177).
Of the young Mack Gillespie: “his eyes and mouth three round holes in his face on which the freckles look like English peas on a plate” (210).
Of the new Mrs. Bundren: “a kind of duck-shaped woman . . . , with them kind of hard-looking pop eyes like she was daring ere a man to say nothing” (249).
Even quite a few of the major plot details strike a reader as comic, though in a macabre sort of way: a decaying corpse kept above ground for nine days before burial; a child boring holes in the casket so his mother can breathe; setting a broken leg in cement and then, when that has clearly done more harm than good, breaking the cement apart with a hammer and a flat iron; the seduction of a naïve, ignorant country girl by a town knave; a grieving husband using his wife’s funeral as the occasion to get himself some new teeth and a new wife.
Many readers find in As I Lay Dying its absurd actions, its grotesque characters and imagery, its disjointed style the influence of surrealist painters. But there is another influence that is equally as important: the yarnspinning tradition of the Old Southwest. Begun by frontier humorists such as Augustus B. Longstreet, made famous by Mark Twain, and perpetuated by Southern writers as different as Erskine Caldwell, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and Faulkner, these comic tall tales feature unsophisticated and often grotesque frontier or hillbilly characters who are involved in exaggerated, outlandish, and often outrageous behavior.
Faulkner clearly belongs in the Southwestern Yarnspinning tradition, but, like O’Connor’s, his humor is typically more bleak and pessimistic than his predecessors. As I Lay Dying is an extremely funny book, but its humor often serves cruelty, hypocrisy, stupidity, misogyny, class prejudice, even misanthropy. In this novel laughter is never very far from tears and in the case of Darl, who laughs more than anyone at the end, the laughter teeters on insanity.
Is It Hopeful or Pessimistic?
Readers who have read Faulkner find it difficult to square his tragic and, on the surface at least, pessimistic works especially those of his early to middle career like As I Lay Dying with the optimistic remarks of the Nobel Prize speech. “I decline to accept the end of man,” Faulkner said. “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.” The statement is often taken as a supreme profession of hope and optimism. It’s a message that resonates with great force in American society, where winning is our national creed.
Some argue that the speech is mere rhetoric (the kind that Addie Bundren would deplore), a public posturing that has little relevance to the great fiction. Others accept the sentiments of the speech as genuine and sincere. The truth may lie somewhere in between, as As I Lay Dying seems to demonstrate.
There can be no question that the Bundrens (whose name is suggestive of “burdens”) endure a natural catastrophe, public scorn, and violent conflict within their own family to succeed in their endeavor to return Addie home to Jefferson for burial. And, at least in a legalistic sense, the family unit is restored at the end with the acquisition of a new wife and mother.
But the Bundrens’ victory is considerably compromised by the tragic consequences of their trip. Anse may have a new wife and a set of false teeth, but the rest of the family seem to have lost more than a mother: Darl is declared insane and is forcibly delivered to the asylum in Jackson; Dewey Dell has failed to secure her abortion and, in the attempt, has been sexually victimized once more; Cash has been crippled, possibly for life; Jewel has lost his horse; and Vardaman has failed to even see, much less acquire, the toy train that he covets. These may have endured, but it can hardly be said that they have prevailed.
Or maybe they have, in Faulkner’s sense of the word. Faulkner is essentially a tragic writer, and the Nobel Prize speech may not be as optimistic a statement as it is generally taken to be. For one thing, the speech is more about the role of art than it is a commentary on the human condition, and for Faulkner the artist, art is always superior to actuality. Secondly, his statement about prevailing is in response to a specific question he raises: will humankind destroy itself with the atomic bomb? No, Faulkner says, humans will not destroy themselves; they will go on and on and on. But the downside to that future, as he makes clear in all of his books and numerous interview statements, is that human nature and behavior will not change for the better. Human history will continue, but it will be characterized by the same old struggles between good and evil that have marked the past. Human beings can be brave and tenacious and kind and idealistic and good, but we are also selfish and hateful and greedy and lustful and evil.
Just like the Bundrens.