As I Lay Dying

The Reviews

In William Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying, Anse Bundren’s character lacks thrust in a time that tried men’s souls and sinews.  Anse’s mettle is questionable given his lack of fortitude, leadership, and true grit in a time that called for it.  Faulkner’s larger statement about mental and demographic life in 1920’s America comes into play through Anse’s perspective.

The natural death process of Addie Bundren is the smelting fire that extracts assorted ores from each character in the novel.  As Addie lays dying, her family, kinsmen and neighbors become players on an edgy stage.

To add emphasis to the character of Anse, one needs to compare him to his son Jewel.  Jewel Bundren is the antithesis of his lack-luster father.  He is spirited and fiery, full of vim and sap.  Perhaps he is more like his paramour-preacher father, Brother Whitfield.  In the charismatic Christian churches of the Deep South, particularly in these times, the pulpit was a fiery place.  The men who preached from them spat lightning bolts and passion.  Of such a seed is Jewel.

Anse is further made drab by his wife’s perspective.  Addie, in her black-hearted reptilian account sums her husband up in one statement, “And so I took Anse” (Faulkner 170).  It is clear from the text that Addie settled for Anse from her place as a school teacher who awaited the best offer.  She knew that she did not have forever to wait upon a more desirable mate.  So she took Anse and reluctantly put on the heavy, unforgiving yoke of a farmer’s wife, bearing his children grudgingly, shouldering her lot in life with a seething, secret contempt.  Her married life seems a series of retributions – against Anse, against her family, against God.  Indeed, Addie Bundren seems like an Isobel Gowdie of sorts — a woman who absconds nightly in her astral body to worship Satan and have sex with him.

Anse’s all-purpose, abject misery is exacerbated by his wife’s secret hatred.  It is as if her sold, sinister soul taints the air of their environs.  The novel is pervaded by an unwholesome miasma both literally and figuratively.  Addie’s character is best revealed in her slice of the novel.  Thinking of the school children whom she taught, she recalls “instead of going home I would go down the hill to the spring where I could be quiet and hate them” (169).

So it follows that Addie’s illegitimate favorite son, Jewel, would be full of fury, passion, charisma, and a touch of hell.  This cocktail of attributes makes him a force to be reckoned with in a time when it was called for.  This force is what, juxtaposed against his cuckold father, makes him tower over Anse as a man in a time where men needed to buck-up, if they were to survive what was coming.

The Great Depression was coming.  Times were changing violently all over the world, not just in the carpet-bagger-raped Old South, but also in Russia.  It is Russia specifically that serves a parallel with Anse Bundren as an independent farmer in the kulak.  During that time the farms owned by Russian kulaks were the last hold-outs against the Bolshevik Revolution.  They were resourceful, honourable men of wherewithal and integrity.  But firstly, kulaks were Christians like their beloved Czars.  Josef Stalin wanted to wipe out the independent farms because he knew that the kulak was the one Russian he could not dominate. The farmer fed off of his own labour. He did not need a medium of exchange to survive. Farm families were large and self-supporting. Sons and daughters grew vigorous on fresh air and wholesome fare. These families were a force to be reckoned with. So Stalin set about starving them out with man-made famine. He seized their crops and let a Russian winter do the rest.  Soon they and their animals would starve. Those who did not die of starvation were declared an enemy of the State and slaughtered systematically.

In the kulak, as in Jewel Bundren, there is a necessary mettle required to hold your ground, support your family, feed your horses and prove your worth upon the earth.  In Anse, there is no such animal.  He is an abject, self-assigned loser.  He fans the flames of his dying wife’s hatred with his mealy-mouth acquiescence to the flow.  Anse’s acceptance of his lot in life is pathetic and riling to a personality like Addie’s and the kulak.  It goes counter to what makes a man great and keeps teeth in his head.  Even Anse’s lack of teeth at his age shows that he did not practice necessary hygiene – a telling wall to people of his caliber.

Anse’s caliber is also reflected in his unextraordinary daughter who was stupid enough to have pre-marital sex in a day before birth control.  She focused on the mundane like her father, not expecting much from his human experience.  She echoed her father in driveling acquiescence, letting people cajole, dupe, and manipulate her into regrettable situations.  The cad at the drugstore is a keen example of this.  The only thing she shared with her mother was her acceptance of the harrowing yoke of muliebrity.

Unlike the veiled love that Jewel harbored for his spotted horse, Anse seemed to regard the loss of his wife with a kind of resignation.  There was an animal husbandry stance about this as though Addie had been a good old mule; a beast of burden who had worn herself out “chapping.”  A wife was breed-stock, domestic servant, childcare.  Now that she is dead, he rigidly clings to his promise of dragging her festering carcass across flood rivers as though it is to be his great badge of achievement in an otherwise mediocre life.

There is a vulgarity to Anse’s character as though Faulkner wanted to smear the gentleman farmer of these times.  In the effete, lackluster character of Anse Bundren there is a negation of the persona of his ilk.  These were times when the rural agrarian Southeast was being preyed upon by wily, northern financiers.  Many such farmers had been foreclosed upon by carpet-baggers and were now farming their former lands as share-croppers.  Like the Russian peasants, they had become little more than slaves to men who had swindled their birthrights out from under them.  Given these circumstances, any independent farmer of these times should be possessed of a kulak-style demeanor.  His spine should be a starched one and his walk an Alexandrian stride.  A farmer in Anse’s boots should have a self-certain cadence with head held high like Jewel and his horse.  Anse never gallops, he plods and slogs in crestfallen humiliation.  Any independent farmer who survived the Civil War and held his own land in the South had to be part kulak.  Though the maneuver that enslaved such men was more insidious in the American South, it was no less nefarious than what occurred in Bolshevik Russia.

Hence, it serves well here to compare Anse Bundren to the kulaks.  With the exception of Jewel, Anse’s other sons seemed rattled by reality.  They seemed mentally-addled in a surreal way, cracking under the stress of Anse’s promise to Addie.  Cash was a stoic mute.  Vardaman seems like a loony, nattering child who assigns fish’dom to his mother.  Darl finally snaps and sets the barn on fire.  Let a man’s sons speak for the content of his character.

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