The quilt is drawn up to her chin, hot as it is, with only her two hands and her face outside. She is propped up on the pillow, and we can hear him every time he takes up the adze or the saw. If we were deaf we could almost watch her face and hear him, see him. Her face is wasted away so that the bones draw just under the skin in white lines. Her eyes are like two candles when you watch them gutter down into the sockets of iron candle-sticks. But the eternal and everlasting salvation of grace is not upon her.
I suppose you could say that As I Lay Dying (1930), by William Faulkner (1897-1962), is a little outside my usual tastes. It came recommended by an American friend, however - I gather that it is a not-uncommon high school text - and so it duly joined the TBR shelves some years back. I'm glad it did. Told in a stream-of-consciousness style by a rotating cast of viewpoint characters, As I Lay Dying centres around the quiet (indeed, silent) death of one Addie Bundren, and her family's fractious and somewhat inept journey to bury her - some distance away, at her request - in the town of Jefferson, Mississippi.
The narration is shared between the members of the Bundren family (the book's main voice being that of the thoughtful and articulate second-eldest son, Darl), their neighbours Cora and Vernon Tull, their local doctor, and various individuals encountered during the journey, mostly people whose land the family crosses en route, or whose barns they spend the night in. (And mostly people who are left bemused by the antics of this family with the coffin whose occupant is starting to smell). Everyone, of course, has a good supply of prejudices and secrets and predicaments, which are revealed but largely unresolved in the course of the novel.
There are five Bundren siblings: Cash and Darl, both probably in their mid-to-late twenties, Jewel, perhaps eighteen or twenty and Addie's favourite, Dewey Dell, seventeen and the only girl, and Vardaman, who seems to be emotionally and mentally much younger. All of them apparently still live at their parents' house, working the land (they grow cotton and raise some livestock) and occasionally making extra money by labouring on other farms in the area. Their father, Anse, is not so much a ne'er-do-well as a ne'er-do-anything-much-at-all; Darl tells us:
The shirt across Pa's hump is faded lighter than the rest of it. There is no sweat stain on his shirt. I have never seen a sweat stain on his shirt. He was sick once from working in the sun when he was twenty-two years old, and he tells people that if he ever sweats, he will die. I suppose he believes it.
Dewey Dell notes the same thing ("Pa dassent sweat because he will catch his death") to explain why neighbours and friends have to come and help the rest of the family pick the cotton. In his own, self-pitying narration, Anse maintains, "It ain't that I am afraid of work" and complains of "me and Addie slaving and a-slaving" to feed the (in his eyes ungrateful) family, although any slaving that goes on during the book, at least, leaves him untouched.
Nonetheless, Anse keeps a peevish control over the family finances, recalling with some bile how he had to pay out for Cash to train as a carpenter (and how Cash deprived him of six months' labour on the family farm after breaking a leg while helping construct a church roof), and veritably foaming at the mouth when he learns that Jewel has been sneaking off at night to work for a neighbour in order to save up and buy himself a horse. In the latter case, Anse's annoyance is three-fold: that Jewel is using his energies elsewhere ("Taken the work from your flesh and blood and bought a horse with it", as Anse puts it), that Jewel spent (his own) money in secret, and that Anse might have to pay to feed the horse. The level of control over the lives of his adult sons to which Anse feels entitled is striking, as is the fact that none of them can or will leave, despite their clear frustration and resentment; presumably their options are limited indeed. (Jewel flounces away in a rage on a couple of occasions, but always returns).
Finally, Anse appears to resent Addie's illness, again as lost labour and potential expense; when Dr Peabody is finally called out to see her - something Anse has hitherto refused to do - his main preoccupation is the cost:
And now I got to pay for it, and me without a tooth in my head, hoping to get ahead enough so I could get my mouth fixed where I could eat God's own victuals as a man should.
The reader could be forgiven for thinking, charitably, that some of this internal muttering is just displacement, ill-expressed grief at the prospect of losing his wife, but it seems from the very end of the novel that Anse's sorrow is short-lived if not non-existent: in Jefferson, he disappears for an afternoon, and returns to the party with a new wife (and a new set of teeth, purchased by stealing money from both Cash and Dewey Dell). It's impossible to be sure whether the second Mrs Bundren is a long-term mistress newly-married, or something else entirely.
During the journey, which is long and plagued by mishap (flooded rivers, collapsed bridges, etc) and poor planning, Anse repeatedly refuses offers of hospitality - hot meals and beds for the night - sanctimoniously insisting that he does not want to be "beholden" to anyone. This seems to be less about pride and more about an unwillingness to contribute work to his hosts' farms in exchange (still less offer his own hospitality in return some future day). It is an insult to his would-be hosts and it is certainly in blithe ignorance of his children's needs - two of whom are slowly cracking up, and a third, Cash, who has broken his leg again in an accident (this last is dealt with by the simple and disastrous means of pouring concrete over the wound, fixing him to the family cart and leaving infection to set in).
Amid all this long- and short-term emotional stress, the characters misjudge, snipe at, and occasionally sympathise with each other, in the dialogue and in their narration. Darl reflects approvingly on Cash's efforts to make Addie's coffin for her where she can watch while she dies ("A good carpenter. Addie Bundren could not want a better one, a better box to lie in. It will give her confidence and comfort"), while Jewel fumes:
It's because he stays out there, right under the window, hammering and sawing on that god-damn box. Where she's got to see him. Where every breath she draws is full of his knocking and sawing where she can see him saying See. See what a good one I am making for you.
Darl is the most articulate, or at any rate wordy (he describes the flooded river as "that single monotony of desolation", for example), and sensitively observant of the group, and his narration accordingly gives us the most novelistic if hardly unbiased view. Others express themselves in more limited or idiosyncratic ways. Vernon Tull's chapters - quite effusive when set against how laconic he is in speech - are heavily inflected by local dialect and syntax, while his wife Cora tends to hold forth in her mind as she does (to Addie, at least) in person, preaching her principles and fixating upon certain phrases and observations long past the point of banality. (Unlike Cora, good-hearted Vernon does not speculate on thoughts or motives, tending to note where people's gazes tend and the surface of their expressions, without attempting to read significance or mood.)
Cash is detached, Jewel angrier. Dewey Dell, heard from only infrequently, is all suppressed desperation and frantic entreaty; she is several months pregnant, and has been given ten dollars by the child's father to get an abortion (this is the money that Anse later steals from her; she, of course, cannot explain what it is for). She worries at words, trying them in different orderings to see if they produce new results, and is prone to finding pathetic fallacies to link her situation and self to the land around her:
I said You don't know what worry is. I don't know what it is. I don't know whether I am worrying or not. Whether I can or not. I don't know whether I can cry or not. I don't know whether I have tried to or not. I feel like a wet seed wild in the hot blind earth.
Dewey Dell's plight is moving, although much of it only hinted at and it is clear that she is not really Faulkner's focus; she fails to get her abortion and her future, by the end of the novel, looks bleak indeed. She is meant to step into her mother's shoes, and take care of the household - Dr Peabody makes this plain when he instructs her, immediately after Addie's death, to stop mourning and start seeing the needs of the poor men of the family ("I would try not to let it grieve me. I expect you'd better go and get some supper ready. It don't have to be much. But they'll need to eat.") We can only imagine Anse's reaction at the thought of another of his family members selfishly depriving him of their labour (and producing another mouth to feed!).
Vardaman's narration is, as might be expected, childish, and grows increasingly fractured as the emotional pressure bears on his young mind - the title of the post is the entirety of one of his chapters, expressing his inability to understand Addie's death and the prolonged 'afterlife' of her journey to be buried. It is also breathless when recounting moments of drama, as when the flooded river upsets the cart and sweep's Addie's coffin away:
Cash tried but she fell off and Dad jumped going under he went under and Cash hollering to catch her and I hollering running and hollering and Dewey Dell hollering at me Vardaman you vardaman you vardaman and Vernon passed me because he was seeing her come up and she jumped into the water again and Dad hadn't caught her yet.
The one voice that is mostly absent from this cacophony is that of Addie herself. She speaks barely a word in dialogue, narrating only one chapter - and that after her death. Everyone else fills her silences, or creates them, with their own interpretations of her thoughts and feelings. Cora, whose words I used to open this post, is the most outspokenly judgemental of all (although apparently only within the hearing of her husband or, in the past, of Addie), seeing in Addie nothing but pride, the opposite of everything she strives to be:
I have tried to live right in the sight of God and man, for the honour and comfort of my Christian husband and the love and respect of my Christian children. So that when I lay me down in the consciousness of my duty and reward I will be surrounded by loving faces [...] Not like Addie Bundren dying alone, hiding her pride and her broken heart. Glad to go. Lying there with her head propped up so she could watch Cash building the coffin, having to watch him so he would not skimp on it, like as not.
Lazy, pompous Dr Peabody has his own take on the matter when he sees her just before she dies:
She watches me: I can feel her eyes. It's like she was shoving at me with them. I have seen it before in women. Seen them drive from the room them coming with sympathy and pity [...] That's what they mean by the love that passeth understanding: that pride, that furious desire to hide that abject nakedness which we bring here with us, carry with us into operating rooms, carry furiously and stubbornly with us into the earth again.
Peabody's initial assumption ("When Anse finally sent for me of his own accord, I said 'He has wore her out at last'") about Addie's fate seems an accurate one. We get glimpses of the harsh realities of this life for women, mostly through others' eyes; as Tull reflects:
"She's a-going," he says. "Her mind is set on it." It's a hard life for women, for a fact. Some women. I mind my mammy lived to be seventy and more. Worked every day, rain or shine; never a sick day since her last chap was born until one day she kind of looked around her and then she went and taken that lace-trimmed nightgown she had had forty-five years [...] and laid down on the bed and pulled the covers up and shut her eyes. "You all will have to look out for pa the best you can," she said. "I'm tired."
But Addie is no passive, saintly victim, either. What she has to say for herself is full of bitterness, and much bound up in Cora's notions of - and their arguments about - sin and duty. She is roundly dismissive of Cora's loud scruples and her calls to repent, convinced that
sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who have never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words.
The prevailing impression we get is of an impatient intelligence gone to seed, a clear-sighted, restless woman brought up to believe life was to be endured, not enjoyed: she remembers that her father once told her, "the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time". (Cora recalls that Addie's own version of this: "My daily life is an acknowledgement and expiation of my sin.") Before her marriage she was a schoolteacher, who hated her charges for her lack of power over them; she wed Anse, who in her retelling appears as a young man of little sense but substantial property, without any expectation of or apparently even desire for happiness.
Her relationship with Anse only bore out her assumptions ("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"), but the birth of her children altered things, and not for the better. With the arrival of Cash, she says, her "aloneness had been violated and then made whole again by the violation"; becoming a mother threatened her selfhood, and made it impossible to merely endure life as before. An affair with a minister produced Jewel, apparently the only one of her offspring she felt able to love. The others are bargaining chips, given to Anse in exchange for the roof over her head or in payment for Jewel whom she "stole" from him:
I gave Anse the children. I did not ask for them. I did not even ask him for what he could not 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 word.
The fierce disregard of Addie has left its mark on the whole family, and while every member of the family bar Darl and Jewel has some ulterior motive for the journey to Jefferson, they all nonetheless strive in the shadow of her coffin to carry out her last wish, as if to earn the approval in her death that they never had while she was alive.
Not a cheerful book, and not the sort of thing I would normally choose to read; but a fascinating, multi-faceted one, even so, a tapestry of life in the early twentieth-century American south. Perhaps two quotes provide a touchstone for the attitudes to life herein: one, from a minor character named Moseley, highlights the (sardonically) grim side:
And then, life wasn't made to be easy on folks: they wouldn't ever have any reason to be good and die.
And the other, from Vernon Tull, emphasises that sometimes the only traps in life are the one you make for yourself:
If it's a judgement, it ain't right. Because the Lord's got more to do than that. He's bound to have. Because the only burden Anse Bundren's ever had is himself.
(who's been quiet during the past month because it turns out that teaching undergraduate history, even for only half a term, is a lot of work... ;-))