1. A close analysis of a significant extract from the text presented in a manner effective for the form.
William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying, initially published in 1930 focuses around the death and burial of Addie Bundren. The reader views the story as told through a myriad of different perspectives – 15 viewpoints in all representing the family itself, neighbours, those who seek to cast moral judgement and those who seek to take advantage of the vulnerable procession. The novel produced is a portrait of the intense relationships experienced by members of Bundren family and a snapshot of life Mississippi (and the Deep South in general) during the late 1920’s (the period from which Faulkner draws his immediate references from). The publication date of the novel places it at the crux of a changing America – the evolution between the 1920’s and 1930’s, marked ultimately by the crash of 1929 and contrasting economic conditions. From this maelstrom of conflicting ideals, Faulkner is able to forge a novel, which deals with ideals confronting American society during this point of interchange from a very personal and unique perspective.
"American society was right in the middle of a number of very important transitions: no longer rural, but not yet dominated by either industry or white collar workers: no longer overwhelmingly either Anglo-Saxon or Protestant, but not yet resigned to the idea of becoming a genuinely pluralistic society. America was in a state of precarious balance between the old and the new"(1)
As I Lay Dying can be viewed as "a psychological study of several perspectives upon a truth, and the truth in this case in not dying but the circumstances of being born and living."(2) This viewpoint is established through evaluation of the facts released by each of the speakers within the novel – it is often the children, such as Vardaman who provide facts and illustrations of moral slips which adult characters seek to conceal or speak about only in abstract terms, if at all. It is "This interpretation of the novel [which] makes Addie imperatively its centre. It is her consciousness and her memory of the Bundren past that makes the narrative passages of her family what they are: reflections in both style and point of view of the place of each Bundren in the whole. Addie has only one monologue to herself, but it is the key to the novel."(3) The centrality of Addie to the novel – both as a driver of plot through the carrying out of her will (to be buried in Jefferson) and as a challenge to conservative morals of the time (through her transgression of moral conduct) adds further significance to her lone monologue. The importance of Addie’s chapter can not be understated – as it provides truth and explanation for events, which the reader has been left to piece together from different viewpoints.
The monologue itself deals with four major issues which were contentious in the context of As I Lay Dying’s original publication. These issues are abandonment of religion and god, detachment and failure to fulfil traditional family roles, increasing rural and urban tensions and the difference between men of "hollow words" and men of action. Through Addie’s own words, the audience is able to develop a sense of both her views and actions in relation to these issues and a notion of her self-view. Until this point, the reader has been presented with a portrait of unresolved ambiguity, which ultimately has been provided as a shattered image – through a myriad of different filters. In her own chapter, her own filter remains – "Her thoughts are obviously a rationalisation, revealing a particular and peculiar perspective, natural, right, in character, and often shrewdly perceptive of objective facts. But these thoughts are as biased by personality as are all the other inward visions except that of Darl"(4) It is Addie’s monologue which reveals the most about her own character, facts within the novel and the relationship between As I Lay Dying and it’s context of changing decades.
Addie’s monologue explores the extent of her abandonment of religion and God and allows Faulkner to grapple with the Decline in religiosity experienced in America from 1910-1940’s – experiencing a point of interchange between the 20s and 30s. It is Addie’s search for the "violation" of her aloneness – something only temporarily relieved through children, and not at all through Anse which leads her to commit the ultimate religious transgression committed in the novel – having extramarital sex (and conceiving an illegitimate child) with a minister. " I believed that I had found it. I believed that the reason was the duty to the alive, to the terrible blood, the red bitter flood of boiling through the land. 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; the sin the more utter and terrible since he was the instrument ordained by God who created the sin, to sanctify that sin He had created."(5) This act is designed to reveal the extent of Addie’s attempts to break her aloneness by breaking through to the true reality of situations at hand. Further, the interaction between Addie and Whitfield is described as "a brief affair . . . which Addie had deliberately engaged into in the hope of experiencing, through the overpowered sin of committing adultery, with a minister of God, a violation more complete than anyone had known." (6) While Faulkner’s construction of such an event not only develops the character of Addie to a point of desperation and defiance of religious codes embraced by the likes of Cora Tull, it both represents growing trends in abandonment of true faith and the impact of such events upon the Deep South.
"One day I was talking to Cora. She prayed for me because she believed I was blind to sin, wanting me to kneel and pray too, because people to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too."(7)
Addie’s description of Cora’s attempts at salvation can be viewed as representative of the context under which the novel was produced. During this time period, the Church and spiritual institutions as a whole had begun to loose their influence – a phenomenon reflected upon by Faulkner in As I Lay Dying, through Cora’s typical well-meaning Christianity and the lack of faith among the Bundrens’. During the 20s-30s, it could be said that "The United States in indeed a strong religious society, church-going, publicly pious and addicted to ceremony, however loosely shaped and at times absurd may seem its ceremonial forms . . . they are based less in a sense of personal awareness of sin and humility than in a mood of guileless and well-meant optimism. Religiosity is more striking than faith; the emphasis is less on theological context than on a subjective experience" (8) Ultimately, people such as Cora were not concerned with the theology of their respective denominations, but rather with overriding ideals such as a well-intentioned salvation of non-believers. The routes of the Bundren’s lack of concern for religiosity have routes in the events of the times. "Despite the efforts of the fundamentalists, religion diminished in importance in American life"(9) While Faulkner’s illustrations of well intentioned Christianity and the gradual movement away from religion in America are reflections on contextual events, the all out assault upon religious values (particularly in the Deep South) presented by Addie’s affair with a priest can only be viewed as a direct challenge to values of the times.
Addie’s monologue reveals a fractured and innately flawed family environment, which is slowly rationalised throughout the course of the chapter. The disposable, utilitarian views taken by Addie towards her children and her failure to fulfil the role of mother and wife (which will be explored later) illustrate this point. Faulkner dealt with these issues at a time when family environments were becoming increasingly unstable – due to newly acquired powers for women – gained on the back of the war and the need for increased labour. "As women became less dependant upon men, there was an assault upon the double standard of sexual morality, the birth rate dropped, the divorce rate trebled, and family life grew less stable."(10) As such, Faulkner’s writing can be seen as a reflection of societal and particularly gender revolution – important concepts to consider relating to the context of the novel. The detached assessment of the role of each child in terms of her and Anse’s relationship illustrates her begrudging fulfilment of her feminine role. "I gave Anse Dewy Dell to negative Jewel. Then I gave him Vardaman to replace the child I had robbed him of. And now he has three children that are his and not mine. And then I could get ready to die"(11) This grudging acceptance of her traditionally defined role is perceived by Cora to be a failing of Addie – describing her not to be a "true mother". This assessment can not be deemed entirely wrong either. The reader knows from Addie’s own accounts of her antagonistic feelings towards children she taught in school before marrying Anse, after school going to "where I could be quiet and hate them . . . I would look forward to the times when they faulted, so I could whip them."(12) Addie’s final expression of her attitude towards children and in general towards her relationship with Anse is as follows "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. I would be I; I would let him be the shape and echo of his world."(13) Faulkner’s illustration of Mrs. Bundren’s begrudging acceptance of her marital role can be viewed as both a reflection of the changing attitudes towards child rearing and a challenge to fundamentalist values that a wife should fulfil her duty without resentment.
"The American mind was raised upon a sentimental attachment to rural living and upon a series of notions about rural people and rural life that I have chosen to designate as the agrarian myth: The agrarian myth represents a kind of homage that Americans have paid to the fancied innocence of their origins"(14)
The setting of all Faulkner’s great novels is his native South – a backdrop which allows him to highlight the plight of the agrarian peoples and the conflict between the increasing urbanism of the 20s-30s and conservative rural values. During the time period As I Lay Dying was published, the increasing role of industrial production, increasing rural to urban population shifts and a fundamental moral war was being waged. Increasing production and centralisation of the workforce within cities led to "The eclipse of agriculture as the nation’s largest industry."(15). This event which ultimately lead to the declining influence of rural American areas (although they managed to lobby successfully for prohibition) in a war of ideology against the cities. The result was "a consistent battle on many fronts between the almost equal forces of countryside and town. The countryside was seen by its inhabitants as being the rightful home of white, Protestant America, the repository of the old Puritan values of thrift; hardwork and self-denial"(16) Faulkner’s highlighting of this battle and of the plight of rural workers who generally received about half the wage of coal miners and ¼ that of clerical workers in the face of writers such as Fitzgerald shying away from such issues illustrated the strength of his conviction and the role of his Mississippi upbringing in these issues. Contextually, the battle of values and morals between the rural and urban environments (and populations) served as a major influence to Faulkner’s writing and is touched upon in Addie Bundren’s soliloquy.
Tensions between rural and urban members of society are revealed within Addie’s soliloquy. While recounting her meeting of Anse, Addie states the following: "‘No. I have people. In Jefferson.’ His face fell a little. ‘Well, I got a little property. I’m forehanded; I got a good honest name. I know how town folks are, but maybe when they talk to me . . .’" Anse’s reluctance to continue his attempt at becoming Addie’s suitor and notable loss of confidence upon learning Addie’s relations are "town folk" (although, as he later finds out, dead) provides a deep, personal example of the rift which existed between country and city dwellers/mentalities during the twenties and thirties. This exchange is based upon Faulkner’s experiences of the times – as the urban lifestyle gained dominance over the agrarian community, resentment and a burgeoning class system began to become entrenched in the rural mentality. Tensions between rural and urban members of society revealed in Addie’s soliloquy provide evidence of Faulkner’s highlighting of the situation and indescribably poverty which afflicted some sections or rural American society despite the general affluence of the age.
The final theme explored within Addie’s chapter is that of the hollowness of words. The contempt illustrated by Addie throughout her discourse for men of words and mere words themselves reveal an irritation ultimately with inaction – a will which fills Jewel and Cash (her favoured and oldest sons respectively) upon her death. It is upon her first experience of motherhood – with Cash that her disdain for words develops. "That was when I learned that words are no good; that words don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say at."(17) Further, following her acceptance of Anse’s term of love and the need for love in a relationship Addie develops a greater mistrust of words – believing that such terms are merely fabrications of emotions and feelings which can not be expressed, but rather experienced. "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; that when the right time came, you wouldn’t need a word for that."(18) It is following her acceptance of Anse as a man of words and a re-evaluation of their relationship in terms of the word "love" that Addie develops a coldness towards Anse, declaring him "dead" and allowing a rift to develop within their relationship. Given Addie’s dislike of words, it’s ironic that both the men whom she engages in sexual relationships with are men of words – leading to further embitterment within Addie and no cure for her aloneness. Further, from Addie’s dislike of words, a basic categorisation of the characters in As I Lay Dying can be drawn – between those, such as Cash and Darl who are able to see beyond words, into the heart of people/issues and those such as the Tulls and Anse, who are taken in by the fairytale expectations of their ideologies and dreams – relying upon words.
Addie’s monologue is brilliantly explanatory – peculiarities of the style and strange shifts of action are dissolved in light of Addie’s (even posthumous) control over her children and those around her. Ultimately, the novel revolves around Addie, encountering the themes of death and life along the way. It is Addie’s attitude towards life, as merely a preparation for death and her wish that her father never planted her which separates her from the other characters. Ultimately, her death creates a change in the perception of normal time for each of the Bundrens – according to their perceptions, capacity and own methods of dealing with grief. The novel explores a range of societal issues including: religion, family obligations, country-urban mentalities and the hollowness of words. Ultimately, Faulkner is able to remain a voice of the Deep South, while embracing the societal values, which evolve post 1920s.
Footnotes For Significant Extract
(1) Snowman, D. America Since 1920. (London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd.) 1978 p. 12
(2) Hoffman, F. William Faulkner. (New York: Twayne Publishers Inc.) 1966 p. 61
(3) Ibid, p. 61 – 62
(4) Waggoner, H. William Faulkner – From Jefferson to the World. (Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press) 1959 p. 80
(5) Faulkner, W. As I Lay Dying. (Great Britain: Vintage) 1996 p. 163
(6) Millgate, M. Faulkner (London: Oliver and Boyd) 1961 p. 33
(7) Faulkner, W. As I Lay Dying. (Great Britain: Vintage) 1996 p. 165
(8) Wright, E. American Themes. (London: Oliver and Boyd Ltd.), 1967 p. 22
(9) D’Innocenzo, M. American history from 1877. (New York: Arso Publishing Inc.) 1980 p. 85
(10) Ibid, p. 84
(11) Faulkner, W. As I Lay Dying. p. 165
(12) Ibid, p. 157
(13) Ibid, p. 162
(14) Hofsteader, R. The Age of Reform. (New York: Alfred A. Knopt) 1953 pp. 23-24
(15) Snowman, D. America Since 1920.(London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd.) 1978 p. 5
(16) Ibid, p. 6
(17) Faulkner, W. As I Lay Dying. p. 159
(18) Ibid, 160