Saturday, May 02, 2009

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner


Addie Bundren, despite dying early in a novel in which her only active participation was to watch as her son carefully crafted her coffin beneath her window, is a strikingly memorable and important character. The chapter in her voice, representing her thoughts from beyond the grave, is simply beautiful. It says much. It says it with grace. On the improbable, indeed difficult, conflation of love and her husband (Anse) she says:

He had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that the 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 any more than for pride or fear. Cash did not need to say it to me nor I to him, and I wold say, Let Anse use it, if he wants to. So that it was Anse or love; love or Anse: it didn’t matter.

In this she speaks for Faulkner. She speaks for his aspiration for us all – embrace love – and she speaks for his resignation that we, most of us, fail to do so. The whole of Faulkner’s career could be summed up by that one proud, sad paragraph. But the genius is that this insight comes from a character who is far from sympathetic. Addie’s overwhelming hatred of her husband affects the rest of her life, even her relationship with her children, which is ambivalent at best. Such emotional reticence, though, may have been instilled in her from a very young age. Early in the chapter, she 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.’ She is marked by it. A young teacher, she ‘looked forward to the times when [the children] faulted’ because she could then whip them. ‘Now you are aware of me!’ she would think with each blow. Her life becomes, as her father had ordained, a waiting for death, and in the end, after bearing three children to her husband and one to the preacher Whitfield, she finds herself ready to die. Sin and salvation are just words.

In all of this, Addie Bundren is a powerfully realistic character. She puts me strongly in mind of Edna Pontellier, who is a character I’m greatly fond of, despite the ludicrousness of the ending of The Awakening. There is a grittiness about Addie that doesn’t exist in Edna, and a harshness and a blackness, but even so they could be soul sisters. Of the two, I prefer the nature of Addie’s demise, sending her hated husband on a fool’s errand to bury her body in her home town, to the melodramatic downgoing of Edna. Neither woman was destined to be happy in a world fashioned by men, but I like to think that Addie took her revenge for them both.

1 comment:

Marlene Detierro said...
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