Family dysfunction and economic distress

William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying presents the story of the poor and dysfunctional Bundren family in Mississippi, as they take their deceased wife and mother, Addie, from their home to a town that lays a day's ride away for burial. It is told in a number of narratives from different characters who take part in the story, including family members and townsfolk. The stream of conscious style of storytelling relays an intriguing blend of honesty, brutality, and weirdness that is characteristic of many of Faulkner's tales of the South. Each chapter presents a piece of a puzzle that must be put together in the reader's mind in order to get a clear picture of the action, the motives of the characters, and the universal themes. However, at the end of the novel, the picture that emerges is distinctly clear. It is one of a deeply disturbing family dynamic in which every member of the Bundren family serves to perpetuate some particular contribution to an overall family sickness. The reasons for this dysfunction are numerous, but sexuality and poverty are perhaps the most important. These factors affect all of the family members in one way or another, but the children are particularly affected negatively.

In this paper, the dynamic of the Bundren family dysfunction will be analyzed in order to show how each person in the family responded to what might be called the life of the family. The characters will be discussed in turn, following a brief plot exposition, and their contributions to the story as narrators and to the action as actors within the story will be summarized in order to show how Faulkner displayed a group of people who were related not only by familial ties, but also by a kind of universal meanness and pettiness that offers little hope for salvation and reward in the midst of their group struggle. Following this summary, social and sexual themes in the novel will be discussed in order to show how Faulkner built the story as a kind of descent into hell for the deceased woman who, due to her station in life and through her past actions and those of her family in the moment, seems to deserve what she gets. These themes play an important role in driving the family dysfunction.

The Bundren family includes seven people. The mother, Addie, is the deceased who serves as the namesake "I" in the novel's title. The father, Anse, is her lifelong partner, but it has been a partnership built on something other than love and trust. Cash is the eldest child and he is known, as the novel opens, to be a skilled carpenter. Darl is the second eldest child and it is he who seems to be the most articulate and sensitive member of the family. Jewel, is the third son in the family, a bastard offspring of Addie and the family's minister, and is thought by most people to be a self-centered hothead. Next in line of age order comes Dewey Dell, the family's only daughter, who turns out to be pregnant as the novel opens. Finally, there is Vardaman, the baby of the family, an innocent and imaginative child who has yet to reach full maturity.

The basic family structure is a critical element in Faulkner's construction of the story's overall meaning. By developing the story so that the family is dominated by men, Faulkner suggests that there is a patriarchy ordering of the family. By showing the father to be a manipulative, freeloading, selfish man - called by one of the townsfolk who makes an appearance "a lazy man, who hates moving" (114) - he suggests that the majority of the family's problems are caused by Anse. Wadlington (1992) argues that in fact this is largely true, as the family's economic problems lie at the center of their trouble, and that the master of the house is an economic incompetent. However, as the story unfolds, and three older brothers display characteristics of sons who were never shown proper love and acceptance by their mother, a psychological interpretation of the novel also becomes possible which suggests that the dead woman, rejecting her children and her role as mother, is the true source of dysfunction.

In order to discuss the characters fully, an understanding of the novel's action is required. This is due to the fact that the style of storytelling that Faulkner uses is non-linear and experimental. There is a definite flow of events that occur in the story, but because of the multiple narratives and narrators, it is impossible to describe any one character in detail without outlining what all of the characters in the story, including the townsfolk, have said about the story. The story is told through a kind of rumor mill, with each character adding his or her part, so that an eventual whole becomes clear. As the novel opens, Addie is very ill and is about to die. Cash builds her a coffin, right outside her bedroom window. Darl and Jewel leave town to make a delivery for a neighbor. Vardaman catches a fish, kills it, and then cleans it, only later to associate his dead mother with the fish. Cash completes the coffin and they put the dead woman inside. Vardaman, troubled because he can't see his mother inside the box, bores holes in the coffin, which go through the dead woman's face. Dewey Dell barely mourns her mother because she is so worried about her own pregnancy problems. A funeral is held and the men stand on the porch talking rather than going inside to participate. Darl and Jewel return and find buzzards flying overhead, telling them their mother is dead. Darl had already known this because he had a vision of her death and he taunts Jewel by telling him not to worry that the buzzards are flying, not because his beloved horse is dead, but because their mother is dead.

Addie had made Anse promise to bury her in the town of Jefferson. This requires the family to tote the coffin across the Mississippi countryside. Anse is willing to do this because he also wants to get a new set of teeth while they are in town. The family loads the coffin on a wagon largely on the effort of Jewel, as Cash has broken his leg at work and the others seem not to care much. Jewel refuses to ride in the wagon, but follows on his horse. As the Bundrens reach a bridge, they are told it is impassible due to flooding. They attempt to cross at a ford, only to have the wagon overturned, as coffin is knocked out and the family's mules drown. Cash breaks his leg again. Jewel saves the coffin and the family searches the banks for Cash's tools.

In order to buy new mules, Anse mortgages his farm equipment, takes money Cash was saving for a record player, and trades Jewel's horse. The journey continues, and in the next town, Dewey Dell attempts to get an abortion but is denied by the pharmacist. Darl makes a cast for Cash's leg out of cement which eventually irritates the leg, threatening to make it so diseased that the leg will be lost. The family eventually takes to chipping away at the cement cast to get it off. As the family stops for the night, Darl attempts to burn down a barn where the wagon was being kept in an effort to end the journey and incinerate the mother's coffin. Jewel rescues the mules, and then risks his life to get the coffin out.

Finally, the family arrives in Jefferson and they bury the mother. They decide to have Darl committed to a mental institution because this will save them from having to pay for the barn that he burned down. Dewey Dell attempts a second time to get an abortion, only to have a pharmacist trick her into sex in exchange for a fake cure. As the novel ends, the family loads into the wagon to begin the journey back home. Anse appears with a new set of teeth and introduces the children to his new wife, a woman he met while borrowing shovels to bury Addie.

The action in the novel serves to provide a vehicle for describing the family dysfunction in As I Lay Dying. It shows the disloyalty and lack of motherly care of Addie. It also shows the pettiness of Anse, who appears to fulfill his wife's dying wish, but really just wants to buy new teeth and find a new wife. It shows the selfishness of Dewey Dell, who is only concerned about her pregnancy and gives other family members little thought. It shows the long-suffering, to the point of self-immolation, of Cash and the rivalry between Darl and Jewel. And it ultimately shows the innocent simplicity, bordering on mental instability, of the young Vardaman. Each of these family members was affected in different ways by this destructive family dynamic.

Anse, in one of the most telling passages in the book regarding his relationship to the family, goes down the list of family members and whines about how each has cost him money in some way, further complaining that he has to work, when he does so, even though he doesn't have any teeth (35-37). Wadlington argues that because the story is set in the South and Anse is the "master" of the house, such laziness sets in motion a story of economic neglect in a culture where the male parent should be the breadwinner but isn't in this case. This selfishness of the father toward his children and wife is certainly evident, and it impacts negatively on the children. For example, in the youngest child's narratives, Vardaman speaks often of his mother and siblings but almost never talks about Anse. In the one extended passage where the father is mentioned, Vardaman repeats that "Pa Walks around. His shadow walks around" (65-67). That evidently shows that Anse is just a peripheral figure in the children's lives. And when he does come around, he makes no effort to hide his selfishness and pettiness, even going to the extreme of marrying a new bride and getting new teeth the day after he places his Addie in the ground, as noted by Cash (261). Because he has also sold Jewel's horse and used Cash's phonograph money previously to buy new mules, the fact that he wore new teeth had to come as a double insult. He got his dream, but deferred theirs. He was even willing to allow his son Darl to be committed to a mental institute to save having to pay for the barn.

Addie is mainly explored through the product of her children. We find that she seemed incapable of giving real love to the children and to her husband. In the one passage she narrates, she says, "I gave Anse the children. I did not ask for them." (174). She also makes the point that she had no love for Anse, but simply did her duty as a wife, and one presumes this is true in her role as a mother as well. Only to Jewel does she show something like real affection, as when she wanted him to come while she was on her death bed, and the other children notice this (47).

Cash, who serves as the narrator for several passages in the novel but often seems to choke on his words (96, 165), seems to be the most stable character, at least as seen through the eyes of his siblings. However, he doesn't seem to know how to interact with the rest of the family in order to get them to work together and overcome their selfishness and rivalries. In a telling passage revolving around the placement of the coffin on the wagon, but also hinting at more, he says, "It wasn't on a balance. I told them that is they wanted it to tote and ride on a balance, they would have to ..." He doesn't know how to finish the sentence. As the oldest child, the one who earned money (as symbolically represented with his name), perhaps he felt responsibility without authority. He eventually resigned himself to suffer along with the family, and in doing so, seemed to gain his voice, for it is he that narrates the final passage, and does so with a kind of new-found peaceful quiet (258-261). It seems that putting his mother in the grave released him from a burden that he had carried as the oldest child in a family where the mother and father both rejected the children.

Darl has odd visionary abilities and, perhaps because of this, he is the most sensitive and articulate Bundren. He narrates more passages than any other child and perhaps it is this role as spokesperson that ultimately drives him mad. He has an intense rivalry with his brother Jewel, whom he seems to know is not his full brother, for the love of Addie. As fitting for someone with a name that seems to be a variant of Darling - but one that shows reluctance on the part of the parent to go the full way in naming him such - he feels left out of his mother's love. He believes Jewel - again this name seems significant - is favored and it hurts him. He taunts his brother as a result, asking him "if he knows who is father is" and telling him that his mother is a horse (212), possibly in reference to Jewel's beloved animal. He tries to keep Jewel away from the mother on several occasions, as when he takes him on the delivery while Addie was dying and later when he tries to burn the barn down. Jewel seems to love Addie more than the others, perhaps because she has shown him, more than anyone else, "love". He risks his life to save her coffin twice and was sensitive to the fact that Cash was building his mother's coffin right in front of her as she was dying, and it bothered him (14). He wanted to provide her comfort and satisfy her wishes. It is significant that he narrates the fewest number of passages of any child, as he was considered an outsider.

Dewey Dell, whose name symbolizes the female reproductive organs, is obsessed throughout the book with her own needs. She is as selfish and manipulative as Anse and feigns care for Darl, for example, only to turn him in after he set the fire. Perhaps this is because Darl knew that she had wanted her mother to die so that she could get a ride into town (39-40). She takes revenge on Darl, just as Addie had taken revenge on Anse for bearing his children by making him take her on an arduous journey for burial, even when she knew he couldn't afford. She has learned from watching her mother; the women in this family are spiteful.

Vardaman, is a type of holy fool. He tells much of the story having to do with Dewey Dell, as she becomes a kind of stand-in for his lost mother. His comments on the others, because he is young and simple and untouched by the family sickness at the time of the novel's narration, is generally sensitive and thoughtful. Much of the action that he relays carries meaning that is over his head. He doesn't seem to understand, for example, why Darl had to go away at the end of the book (252), but he maintains a spirit of youthful exuberance throughout. His obsession with equating his mother with a fish may have symbolized, however, that he understa/nd that her love was slippery and that the family dynamic and her role in it, to put it bluntly, stunk. It also may have referred to her female sexuality, and the fact that he was under her spell even as that love was unrequited.

There are a number of possible interpretations of the reasons for the family's distress. Wadlington (1992), for example claims that one major factor in the family dysfunction of the Bundrens was the fact that the family was a group of extreme individuals who were trying to act in collective. He places the writing of the book in the context of the Great Depression, as it was published in 1930, and argues that Faulkner was working out the notion that the selfish, devil-may-care individualism of the 1920's was lurching into a collective consciousness at the turn of the decade of the need to act in concert for people if they wanted to survive the Depression. There may be some validity to this point, as Faulkner himself was experiencing great financial tension at the time of the writing and was trying to support his family on books that seemed not to be selling. However, Hubbs (2008) argues that the rural life and social circumstances during the Depression led to the attitude of each member of the family member. Also, Hubbs claims that the fall of the family as a whole portrays the social and economic dents of society, where without money; a family cannot suit and provide for itself. The social conditions cause the Bundrens to be selfish and only live for themselves and isolating outcasts, such as Jewel.

Fowler (2000) believes that the decline of the family was a result of giving power of choice to women, as both Addie had an affair with a minister and Dewey Dell became a victim of teen pregnancy. Similarly, the men in this novel dominated as each of the sons is able to forget about what the Addie actually did for them and just associates her with a fish, horse, and coffin. Fowler claims that the novel's end simply proves that the patriarch was in fact the main cause of the dysfunctional family, as Anse ends up with what he wants - a new set of teeth and a new Mrs. Bundren.

Lester (2005) argues that rural depopulation and social dislocation are the keys to understanding the Bundren family's problems, as the South saw a great uprooting at the time of the novel's writing and this dislocation left people feeling alienated and confused. Likewise, Bucaria (2003) claims that the class distinctions between rich and poor in the South at the time left people in the Bundren's position feeling powerless, without control over their own lives, and suggests that the fact that the Bundrens kept going even in the face of difficulty along their journey made them a symbol of working class dysfunction, oppressed but perservering. Whether these or any other number of possible cases are thought to be valid, the certainty that the Bundren family is dysfunctional and that the dysfunction has negatively impacted upon each member of the family in real and hurtful ways is clear.

In addition to the stream of consciousness narrative and the multiple narrators, Faulkner makes generous use of symbolism in order to discuss major themes in the book that serve to show the family dysfunction. Among these, sexual themes are perhaps most important. Cass, for example, discusses the use of Cash's tools by the carpenter as a way of expressing his manhood. Up until the moment he lost his tools in the river, Cash was making an effort to lead the family in their quest. Once he lost his tools, psychologically his manhood was diminished. He became a fellow sufferer with the rest of the family, allowing his broken leg to suffer almost the point of absurdity (224). It is only when his brother Darl, who seems to know all that goes on in the family and to feel the slights of the mother to her children more deeply than the others is put away for madness and the mother is put away for good that Cash is able to stand on his own two feet and become a narrator properly. The sexual tension that he had felt with the mother and his only legitimate rival, Darl - legitimate in the sense that Darl was the only blood brother old enough to compete for Addie's affection throughout most of his life - had faded away.

On a similar type of interpretation, Chan argues that Faulkner's portrays the women in the story as emotionally distant. Addie is cold to her children and serves as the most important influence in their lives because of the love they needed but were denied. The rejection or withholding of love from her children was the central feature of their lives, and drove much of the action between Darl and Jewel. It is no coincidence that when she was on her deathbed, Dewey Dell knew and understood that she wanted Jewel, the only child she had ever really seemed to love.

The sexual themes play out in the next generation as well. Dewey Dell is obsessed with killing her own child, as she shows in her attempted abortions. Just as she learned from her mother to exact revenge on men, she also learned to reject her children. One can surmise that in the story of the Bundren's future, at the novel's end, the tension between Anse's new bride and Dewey Dell, now coming into her own, will be the dominant force driving the action of the family forward, as the men squabble among themselves in an attempt to win the women's favor. Men, therefore, are castrated in the story and women, symbolically speaking, eat their young.

Subsequently, As I Lay Dying presents a dysfunctional family. Few of the Bundren characters have any real redeeming qualities. Faulkner has painted a portrait of an ugly, poor, petty Southern family. Perhaps the novel can best be summed up, therefore, with a Southern saying that comes from this culture: "When momma ain't happy, ain't nobody happy." In Faulkner's novel, no one is happy and it seems unlikely that they ever will be. Although fingers can be pointed at many different characters, it can be assumed that ultimately the heads of the house (Addie and Anse Bundren) can be blamed for the overall destruction of the family. Overall, as the family's status quo deteriorates, it is evident that there is no hope left and the underlying causes become clear - the patriarch, social and economic circumstances, and sexual themes.

Works Cited

  • Bucaria, Chiara. "William Faulkner | Center for Working-Class Studies." Center for Working-Class Studies | at Youngstown State University. Web. 7 Dec. 2009. <>.
  • Chan. A. Stereotypical, but Revengeful and Defiant: Addie Bundren in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, 2001. Print.
  • Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. New York: Modern Library, 2000. Print.
  • Hewson, Marc. "'My children were of me alone': Maternal Influence in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying." The Mississippi Quarterly 53.4 (2000): 551. Student Resource Center - Gold. Web. 13 Dec. 2009. <>.
  • Hubbs, Jolene. "William Faulkner's rural modernism." The Mississippi Quarterly 61.3 (2008): 461+. Student Resource Center - Gold. Web. 06 Dec. 2009. <>.
  • Mississippi Writer's Page. "William Faulkner." 6, 2009). <>.
  • Ross, Stephen M. 'Voice' in Narrative Texts: The Example of As I Lay Dying. PMLA 94, 1979. Print.

Works Consulted

  • Bucaria, Chiara. "William Faulkner | Center for Working-Class Studies." Center for Working-Class Studies | at Youngstown State University. Web. 7 Dec. 2009. <>.
  • Chan. A. Stereotypical, but Revengeful and Defiant: Addie Bundren in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, 2001. Print.
  • Chappel, Deborah K. Pa Says: The Rhetoric of Faulkner's Anse Bundren. Mississipi Quarterly, 1991. Print.
  • Cook, Sylvia Jenkins. From Tobacco Road to Route 66: The Southern Poor White in Fiction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1976. Print.
  • Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. New York: Modern Library, 2000. Print.
  • Hale, Dorothy J. As I Lay Dying's Heterogenous Discourse. 1989. Print.
  • Hewson, Marc. "'My children were of me alone': Maternal Influence in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying." The Mississippi Quarterly 53.4 (2000): 551. Student Resource Center - Gold. Web. 13 Dec. 2009. <>.
  • Hubbs, Jolene. "William Faulkner's rural modernism." The Mississippi Quarterly 61.3 (2008): 461+. Student Resource Center - Gold. Web. 06 Dec. 2009. <>.
  • Lowe, John. "The fraternal fury of the Falkners and the Bundrens." The Mississippi Quarterly 54.4 (2001): 595+. Student Resource Center - Gold. Web. 13 Dec. 2009. <>.
  • Mississippi Writer's Page. "William Faulkner." 6, 2009). <>.
  • Moreland, Richard C. Faulkner and Modernism: Rereading and Rewriting. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1990. Print.
  • Ross, Stephen M. 'Voice' in Narrative Texts: The Example of As I Lay Dying. PMLA 94, 1979. Print.
  • Sundquist, Eric J. Faulkner: The House Divided. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1983. Print.
  • Wadlington, Warwick. As I Lay Dying: Stories Out of Stories. Woodbridge: Twayne, 1992. Print.
  • Watkins, Evan. Throwaways: Work Culture and Consumer Education. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1993. Print.

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