2. A formal critical discussion between two or three scenes which show the relationship between context and ideology (1,000 words)
As I Lay Dying is a novel which represents a unique set of values held within Southern American culture during the 1920s and 1930s. The range of personal, historical, cultural and workplace conditions under which it was composed and responded to served an important role as the foundations of a value system which is reflected within the novel. Moseley’s chapter recounts his interactions with Dewey Dell, who is seeking abortive drugs from his pharmacy and reveals much about the role of women and attitudes towards marriage and abortion during the 1920s and 1930s. Cora’s chapter, which serves as the introduction to Addie’s sole monologue provides insight into: attitudes towards religion, family values and the strength of the Southern Christian movement during this time period. Ultimately, the novel provides a deeply moving portrait of this period of American history and culture.
As I Lay Dying was written between shifts at a job he was given: "six weeks one summer when he made the most of the long, long intervals between feeding spadefuls of coal into the boiler he had been put in charge of in an electricity-generating plant. According to Faulkner, no one bothered him there, the continual hum from the enormous old dynamo was "soothing," and the place itself was otherwise "warm and silent."(1) Faulkner himself was born in New Albany, Mississippi, with much of his life eventually revolving around Oxford, Mississippi. It was from this background that Faulkner came to draw his experiences with the often-impoverished poor – despite his own family being of aristocratic origin. This upbringing, combined with an introduction to the culture and primary figures of Modernism (literary movement) provided the two major points of differentiation for Faulkner’s work – a willingness to reveal the reality of the agrarian myth and his own unique experimentation with language and conventions – notable in the stream of consciousness, multi-perspective features of As I Lay Dying. As I lay dying was composed in a unique perspective, although designed to provide much needed revenue for Faulkner, it provides a unique reflection upon Southern American culture of the period.
Mosley’s chapter and his indignant refusal of Dewey Dell’s request for an abortion encapsulate southern religious values, the sanctimoniousness and well-intentioned actions of the times. Refusal by the religious to acknowledge or assist those seeking abortions led to the endangerment of both the fetus and the mother as many sought illegal abortions during the 1920s. "The maternal mortality rate in the United States in 1920 was 680 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births (Lerner & Anderson 1963) . . . Illegal abortion accounted for about 50 percent of all maternal deaths in 1920."(2) This legislation was a carry over from political and social concerns raised in America society during the middle decades of the 19th century, during which: "state legislatures began to restrict the increasingly common practice of abortion. Some lawmakers feared for the safety of women undergoing abortions. Others reacted negatively to what they considered indecent advertising. Concerned about falling birthrates, many opposed all forms of fertility control, not just abortion. But the greatest pressure for legal change came from the American Medical Association (AMA), founded in 1847."(3) Lobby groups such as the AMA, lead by an overriding motive of religiosity and correct moral behavior had increasingly strong impact upon the American mindset, particularly in the agrarian South. Mosley’s chapter reflects the attitudes of a number of doctors during the 1920s and 30s towards abortion.
"Well, I haven’t got anything in my store you want to buy," I said, "unless it’s a nipple. And I’d and advise you to buy that and go back home and tell your pa, if you have one, and let him make somebody buy you a wedding license."(4)
Mosley’s chapter further explores the themes and values evoked by Southern conservatism. His moral judgement of Dewey Dell is based on more than just her search for abortive drugs. Throughout the discourse, he reveals concerns about her marital status, ability to mother and her impact upon his own religious convictions. The relationship between As I Lay Dying and the context it was created in, 1920s Southern America become more obvious upon closer inspection of the text. The unfaltering rejection of Dewey Dell’s attempts to gain abortive drugs illustrate neither care nor compassion for Dewey Dell herself, but rather appear to be an attempt at the maintenance of values embraced at the time – the sanctity of life, the marital unity and the maintenance of patriarchy. "A thousand dollars wouldn’t be enough in my store and ten cents wouldn’t be enough," I said. "You take my advice and go home and tell you pa or your brothers if you have any or the first man you come to in the road."(5) Ultimately, such notions are founded in self-preservation of Mosley himself "Me, a respectable druggist, that’s kept store and raised a family and been a church-member for fifty-six years in this town. I’m a good mind to tell your folks myself, if I can just find who they are."(6) and for the dogmatic maintenance of values which were widely prevalent during the time. "But it’s a hard life they have; sometimes a man . . . if there can ever be any excuse for sin, which it can be. And then, life wasn’t made to be easy on folks: they wouldn’t ever have any reason to be good and die. "Look here," I said. "You get that notion out of your head. The Lord gave you what you have, even if He did use the devil to do it; you let Him take it away from you if it’s His will to do so. You go on back to Lafe and you take him that ten dollars and get married with it."(7) Mosley’s chapter serves as a reliable, although personal reflection upon values embraced at the time.
Cora’s Chapter further extrapolates upon themes developed in Mosley’s chapter, providing greater insight into the relationship between As I Lay Dying and the context it was produced and received in. The fundamentalist suspicion of sin among all mortals, to be determined at the Lord’s discretion is represented deeply within this chapter. "Just because you have been a faithful wife is no sign that there is no sin in your heart, and just because your life is hard is no sign that the Lord’s grace is absolving you."(8) Although Cora ultimately misjudges both the faithfulness of Addie and Addie’s knowledge of her own sin, the chapter illustrates the effect of religion upon society in the late 1920s. Further, Cora’s resentment of Addie – based upon the assumption that Addie believes she knows more about sin and salvation than the deeply religious members of Southern congregations (represented by the bold text below) illustrates the need among many Americans (at the time) to be recognised for their piety. "Because it is not us that can judge our sins or know what is sin in the Lord’s eyes. She has had a hard life, but so does every woman. But you’d think from the way she talked that she knew more about sin and salvation, than them who have strove and laboured with the sin in this human world."(9) The ironic reflections of Cora’s chapter when viewed along with the down to earth revelations of Addie’s chapter provide both an insights into values of the time and to the character of Cora herself.
The deep, although often hypocritical religiosity reflected upon in William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying can be seen as representative of the context under which it was both produced and received. While the initial crafting of the novel drew upon the late 1920s, it was the early 1930s and beyond in which it was immediately received and analysed. It is this link which places As I Lay Dying at the intersection of two decades and the evolution of cultures and ideals across time.
Footnotes For Two to Three Scenes
(2) Abortion: Medical & Social Aspects. http://www.drhern.com/fulltext/ency/paper.htm
(3) Readers Companion to American History – Abortion. http://college.hmco.com/history/readerscomp/rcah/html/ah_000400_abortion.htm
(4) Faulkner, W. As I Lay Dying.
(5) Ibid, p. 190
(7) Ibid, p. 191
(8) Ibid, pp. 154 – 155
(9) Ibid, p. 155