Friday, March 3, 2017

Used to Words: Finding Relevance in William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying" #SOL17 Day 3

My AP Lit and Comp students do not like Addie Bundren, the matriarch in William Faulkner's novel As I Lay Dying. 

The group reading Faulkner's gothic modern novel have been quite critical of Addie, proclaiming her a mean mom who only loves one of her children, Jewel. They have shown little compassion for Addie, reserving their harshest criticisms for her. 

The students have fixated on Vardaman's observation: "My mother is a fish." And just as the Bundren children struggle to grieve overtly for their dying, ultimately dead mother, my students have approached her with a level of emotional detachment. 

Still, listening to students talk about Addie, hearing their condemnation of her, I'm reminded of the social-cultural conditions in which she "lay dying," and I find myself softening my judgment  and seeing her as a signal of all we have to lose as the new world order journeys toward destruction of many hard-won rights women have known during my lifetime. 

As I Lay Dying is a journey story told from multiple points of view. It's the tale of a family hauling the casket with their dead mother's body to her childhood home in Jefferson, Mississippi, which they do out of a sense of familial obligation. 

There are 15 different first-person narrators in the novel, yet Addie gets only one of the 59 sections in the book, and we hear her voice only after she is dead. That seems appropriate as Addie says, 

I could just remember how my father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time.

Addie's father physically abused her and she continues the cycle with her own children as she 

would look forward to the times when they faulted, so I could whip them. 

This desire to beat her offspring accompanies Addie's vicariously reliving her own beatings. This violence precipitates Addie's decision to marry Anse, to settle for Anse. 

Simply, Addie's marriage is one of expediency, a mode of escape. She says, 

I would hate my father for having ever planted me

Addie sees life as a cycle. As a woman she's trapped in her preparation for death. Early in the novel we witness Addie watching Cash build her coffin with the precision Noah used to build the arc. Most of the novel forces the reader to see Addie in her coffin, but her father's home symbolizes a tomb in which Addie lives; only by marrying Anse can she move from one "resting place" to another. 

So I took Anse. And when I knew that I had Cash, I knew that living was terrible and that this was the answer to it. That was when I learned that words are no good; that words don't ever fit even what they are trying to say at. When he was born I knew that motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the ones that had the children didn't care whether there was a word for it or not. I knew that fear was invented by someone that had never had the fear; pride, who never had the pride. 

In short, Addie's life is a construct, one grounded in tradition and patriarchy. It's Anse whom Addie holds responsible for the conception of her two oldest children before she's ready for childbirth. It's Anse whom Addie proclaims as dead when he insists she bear more children. 

He did not know that he was dead then.

Addie pushes against tradition, both traditional marriage and motherhood, and it's this tension that renders Addie dying as she yet lives. Thus, in giving in to tradition, in fulfilling her obligation to her husband and her children, Addie lays dying. 

But Anse also dies. 

And then he died. He did not know he was dead. 

Both the irony and paradox of forcing women to abide by traditions they neither construct nor desire forces the death of their husbands, and in Addie's case, the madness of her children. A forced "love," a love embodied only in alphabet text, a word empty of form and shape and meaning apart from its literal being embodies emptiness. Faulkner illustrates this through Addie. 

Ultimately, Addie's marriage to Anse functions through rote repetition of marital and familial obligations. Addie fulfills her duties, but she's also left to clean up her house after an affair that results in Jewel's birth. 

Several things about Addie's passage strike me as relevant: 

Cora judges Addie, calling her sinful and admonishing her to eschew her sinful nature, but Addie has a response that echoes one of Faulkner's themes, the idea that language fails to articulate the challenges of modern life.

People to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too.

This idea resonates in that it recognizes a propensity to castigate women who want control over their own bodies as sinful, as in need of salvation. Thus, we see an onslaught of attacks on Roe vs. Wade. We witness the defunding of Planned Parenthood, which provides much-needed health screening for women. We see the proposed abolition of the Children's Health Insurance Program. 

My students' reactions to Addie echo their idealism and the value they place on marriage. It speaks to their desire to one day have families and their sense of obligation a mother has to her children. 

But Faulkner offers a cautionary note that reaches past the early twentieth century into our world, and that warning signals that we must not waste nor lose sight of the past and its relevance to the present. That language has power only so long as we do not allow words to become 

just a shape to fill a lack.

As with Addie, we have been 

used to words for a long time.

And I would think the high dead words in time seemed to lose even the significance of their dead sound. 

Otherwise, we, too, will soon be dead already and not even know it. 

March marks the month-long Slice of Life Story Challenge.
Thank you to the Two Writing Teachers team for sponsoring
this month's challenge and for promoting the writing life. 


  1. Such a powerful piece to read this early in the morning!

    1. My post yesterday was light and informal.

  2. Wow. What a powerful conversation to have with your students. I teach seventh grade, and we just wrapped up a unit on "The House on Mango Street" which also allowed us to delve into a lot of issues about gender expectations. Important work.

    1. "The House on Mango Street" is an excellent connection to Faulkner's observations about gender roles, and I bet many of my students have read it. Thank you for stopping by and for reading this long post. I told my husband I didn't expect it to get comments! Faulkner is a hard "pill" to swallow for many.

  3. This is simply brilliant, Glenda. The way you weave our contemporary story with Addie's moves me as the current days also worry me.

    Your line resonates so: "Still, listening to students talk about Addie, hearing their condemnation of her, I'm reminded of the social-cultural conditions in which she "lay dying," and I find myself softening my judgment and seeing her as a signal of all we have to lose as the new world order journeys toward destruction of many hard-won rights women have known during my lifetime.

    It is the harshness that is most alarming to me. The right and wrongness with so little time spent on understanding, as opposed to judging. I think of Peter Elbow's believing and doubting game and wish we could all approach the day to day happenings playing.

  4. Love how you connect AILD w/ current topics. You are a much-needed voice right now! I did my undergrad thesis on AILD so it has a special place in my heart.