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Addie's odyssey in William Faulkner's "As I lay dying"


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“As I lay Dying” is a 1930 novel in the genre of Southern Gothic, by William Faulkner.

He said that he wrote the novel from midnight to 4 AM over the course of six weeks and that he didn’t change a word of it. Faulkner wrote it while working at a power plant, and described it as a “tour de force”. His fifth novel is consistently ranked among the best novels of the 20th century literature. The title derives from Book 11 of Homer’s Odyssey, wherein - in Sir William Marris ’s edition published in 1925, which Faulkner must have read - Agamemnon tells Odysseus:

“As I lay dying, the woman with the dog’s eyes would not close my eyes as I descended into Hades”

As in many of Faulkner’s works, the story is set in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, which Faulkner referred to as “my apocryphal county”, a fictional rendition of the writer’s home of Lafayette County in the same state.

The novel utilizes “stream of consciousness” writing technique, multiple narrators, and varying chapter lengths. The book is narrated by 15 different characters over 59 chapters. It is the story of the death of Addie Bundren and her poor, rural family’s quest and motivations - noble or selfish - to honor her wish to be buried in her hometown of Jefferson, Mississippi.

As the book opens, Addie is alive, though in ill health. Addie and others expect her to die soon, and she sits at a window watching as her firstborn, Cash, builds her coffin.

Anse, Addie’s husband, waits on the porch, while their daughter, Dewey Dell, fans her mother in the July heat. The night after Addie dies a heavy rainstorm sets in; rivers rise and wash out bridges the family will need to cross to get to Jefferson.

The family’s trek by wagon begins, with Addie’s body in the coffin. Along the way, Anse and the five children encounter various difficulties. Anse frequently rejects any offers of assistance, including meals or lodging, so at times the family goes hungry and sleeps in barns. At other times he refuses to accept loans from people, claiming he wishes to “be beholden to no man”, thus manipulating the would-be-lender into giving him charity as a gift not to be repaid.

Jewel, Addie’s middle child, tries to leave his dysfunctional family, yet cannot turn his back on them through the trials. Cash breaks a leg and winds up riding atop the coffin. Twice, the family almost loses Addie’s coffin: first, while crossing a river on a washed-out bridge (two mules are lost), and second, when a fire of suspicious origin starts in the barn where the coffin is being stored for a night.

After nine days, the family arrives in Jefferson, where the stench from the coffin is quickly smelled by the townspeople. In town, family members have different items of business to take care of.

Cash’s broken leg needs attention. Dewey Dell, for the second time in the novel, goes to a pharmacy trying to obtain an abortion that she does not know how to ask for. First, though, Anse wants to borrow some shovels to bury Addie, because that was the purpose of the trip and the family should be together for that.

Before that happens, however, Darl, the second eldest, is seized for the arson of the barn, and sent to the Mississippi State Insane Asylum in Jackson. With Addie only just buried, Anse forces Dewey Dell to give up her money, which he spends on getting “new teeth”, and marries the woman from whom he borrowed the spades.


JEWEL (chapter 4)

IT’S because he stays out there, right under the window, hammering and sawing on that goddamn 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. I told him to go somewhere else. I said Good God do you want to see her in it. It’s like when he was a little boy and she says if she had some fertilizer she would try to raise some flowers and he taken the bread-pan and brought it back from the barn full of dung. And now them others sitting there, like buzzards. Waiting, fanning themselves. Because I said if you wouldn’t keep on sawing and nailing at it until a man can’t sleep even and her hands laying on the quilt like two of them roots dug up and tried to wash and you couldn’t get them clean. I can see the fan and Dewey Dell’s arm. I said if you’d just let her alone. Sawing and knocking, and keeping the air always moving so fast on her face that when you’re tired you can’t breathe it, and that goddamn adze going. One lick less. One lick less. One lick less until everybody that passes in the road will have to stop and see it and say what a fine carpenter he is. If it had just been me when Cash fell off of that church and if it had just been me when pa laid sick with that load of wood fell on him, it would not be happening with every bastard in the county coming in to stare at her because if there is a God what the hell is He for. It would just be me and her on a high hill and me rolling the rocks down the hill at their faces, picking them up and throwing them down the hill, faces and teeth and all by God until she was quiet and not that goddamn adze going. One lick less. One lick less and we could be quiet.

ADDIE (chapter 40)

In the afternoon when school was out and the last one had left with his little dirty snuffling nose, instead of going home I would go down the hill to the spring where I could be quiet and hate them. It would he quiet there then, with the water bubbling up and away and the sun slanting quiet in the trees and the quiet smelling of damp and rotting leaves and new earth; especially in the early spring, for it was worst then.

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. And when I would have to look at them day after day, "each with his and her secret and selfish thought, and blood strange to each other blood and strange to mine, and think that this seemed to be the only way I could get ready to stay dead, I would hate my father for having ever planted me. I would look forward to the times when they faulted, so I could whip them. When the switch fell I could feel it upon my flesh; when it welted and ridged it was my blood that ran, and I would think with each blow of the switch: Now you are aware of me Now I am something in your secret and selfish life, who have marked your blood with my own for ever and ever.

And so I took Anse. I saw him pass the school house three or four times before I learned that he was driving four miles out of his way to do it. I noticed then how he was beginning to hump--a tall man and young --so that he looked already like a tall bird hunched in the cold weather, on the wagon seat. He would pass the school house, the wagon creaking slow, his head turning slow to watch the door of the school house as the wagon passed, until he went on around the curve and out of sight. One day I went to the door and stood there when he passed. When he saw me he looked quickly away and did not look back again. In the early spring it was worst. Sometimes I thought that I could not bear it, lying in bed at night, with the wild geese going north and their honking coming faint and high and wild out of the wild darkness, and during the day it would seem as though I couldn't wait for the last one to go so I could go down to the spring. And so when I looked up that day and saw Anse standing there in his Sunday clothes, turning his hat round and round in his hands, I said: "If you've got any womenfolks, why in the world dont they make you get your hair cut?" "I aint got none," he said.

Then he said suddenly, driving his eyes at me like two hounds in a strange yard:

"That's what I come to see you about,”

"And make you hold your shoulders up," I said. "You haven't got any? But you've got a house. They tell me you've got a house and a good farm. And you live there alone, doing for yourself, do you?" He just looked at me, turning the hat in his hands. "A new house," I said. "Are you going to get married?” And he said again, holding his eyes to mine: "That's what I come to see you about." Later he told me, "I aint got no people. So that wont be no worry to you. I dont reckon you can say the same." "No. I have people. In Jefferson.”

His face fell a little. "Well, I got a little property. I'm forehanded; I got a good honest name. I know how town folks are, but maybe when they talk to me . . ."

"They might listen," I said. "But they'll be hard to talk to." He was watching my face. "They're in the cemetery." "But your living kin," he said. "They'll be different." "Will they?" I said. 'I dont know. I never had any other kind.”

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 dont 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. I knew that it had been, not that they had dirty noses, but that we had had to use one another by words like spiders dangling by their mouths from a beam, swinging and twisting and never touching, and that only through the blows of die switch could my blood and their blood flow as one stream. I knew that it had. been, not that my aloneness had to be violated over and over each day, but that it had never been violated until Cash came. Not even by Anse in the nights.

He had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that that 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 anymore than for pride or fear. Cash did not need to say it to me nor I to him, and I would say Let Anse use it, if he wants to. So that it was Anse or love; love or Anse: it didn't matter. I would think that even while I lay with him in the dark and Cash asleep in the cradle within the swing of my hand. I would think that if he were to wake and cry, I would suckle him, too. Anse or love: it .didn't matter. My aloneness had been violated and then made whole again by the violation: time, Anse, love, what you will, outside the circle.

Then I found that I had Darl. At first I would not believe it. Then I believed that I would kill Anse. It was as though he had tricked me, hidden within a word like within a paper screen and struck me in the back through it. But then I realised that I had been tricked by words older than Anse or love, and that the same word had tricked Anse too, and that my revenge would be that he would never know I was taking revenge. And when Darl was born I asked Anse to promise to take me back to Jefferson when I died, because I knew that father had been right, even when he couldn't have known he was right anymore than I could have known I was wrong. "Nonsense," Anse said; "you and me aint nigh done chapping yet, with just two." He did not know that he was dead, then. Sometimes I would lie by him in the dark, hearing the land that was now of my blood and flesh, and I would think: Anse. Why Anse. Why are you Anse. I would think about his name until after a while I could see the word as a shape, a vessel, and I would watch him liquefy and flow into it like cold molasses flowing out of the darkness into the vessel, until the jar stood full and motionless: a significant shape profoundly without Me like an empty door frame; and then I would find that I had forgotten the name of the jar. I would think: The shape of my body where I used to be a virgin is in the shape of a and I couldn't think Anse, couldn't remember Anse. It was not that I could think of myself as no longer unvirgin, because I was three now. And when I would think Cash and Darl that way until their names would die and solidify into a shape and then fade away, I would say, All right. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter what they call them.

And so when Cora Tull would tell me I was not a true mother, I would think how words go straight up in a thin, line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle from one to the other and that sin and love and fear are-just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words. Like Cora, who could never even cook.

She would tell me what I owed to my children and to Anse and to God. I gave Anse the children. I did not ask for them. I did not even ask him for what he could 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. That was more than he asked, because he could not have asked for that and been Anse, using himself so with a word. And then he died. He did not know he was dead. I would lie by him in the dark, hearing the dark land talking of Cod's love and His beauty and His sin; hearing the dark voicelessness in which the words are the deeds, and the other words that are not deeds, that are just the gaps in peoples' lacks, coming down like the cries of the geese out of the wild darkness in the old terrible nights, fumbling at the deeds like orphans to whom are pointed out in a crowd two faces and told, That is your father, your mother. I believed that I had found it. I believed that the reason was the duty to the alive, to the terrible blood, the red bitter flood boiling through the land. I would think of sin as I would think of the clothes we both wore in the world’s face, of the circumspection necessary because he was he and I was I; the sin the more utter and terrible since he was the instrument ordained by God who created the sin, to sanctify that sin He had created. While I waited for him in the woods, waiting for him before he saw me, I would think of him as dressed in sin. I would think of him as thinking of me as dressed also in sin, he the more beautiful since the garment which he had exchanged for sin was sanctified. I would think of the sin as garments which we would remove in order to shape and coerce the terrible blood to the forlorn echo of the dead word high in the air.

Then I would lay with Anse again--I did not lie to him: I just refused, just as I refused my breast to Cash, and Darl after their time was up--hearing the dark land talking the voiceless speech. I hid nothing. I tried to deceive no one. I would not have cared. I merely took the precautions that he thought necessary for his sake, not for my safety, but just as I wore clothes in the world's face. And I would think then when Cora talked to me, of how the high dead words in time seemed to lose even the significance of their dead sound.

Then it was over. Over in the sense that he was gone and I knew that, see him again though I would, I would never again see him coming swift and secret to me in the woods dressed in sin like a gallant garment already blowing aside with the speed of his secret coming. But for me it was not over. I mean, over in the sense of beginning and ending, because to me there was no beginning nor ending to anything then. I even held Anse refraining still, not that I was holding him recessional, but as though nothing else had ever been. My children were of me alone, of the wild blood boiling along the earth, of me and of all that lived; of none and of all.

Then I found that I had Jewel. When I waked to remember to discover it, he was two months gone. My father said that the reason for living is getting ready to stay dead. I knew at last what he meant and that he could not have known what he meant himself, because a man cannot know anything about cleaning up the house afterward. And so I have cleaned my house. With Jewel--I lay by the lamp, holding up my own head, watching him cap and suture it before he breathed--the wild blood boiled away and the sound of it ceased. Then there was only the milk, warm and calm, and I lying calm in the slow silence, getting ready to clean my house.

I gave Anse Dewey Dell to negative Jewel. Then I gave him Vardaman to replace the child I had robbed him of. And now he has three children that are his and not mine. And then I could get ready to die.

One day I was talking to Cora. She prayed for me because she believed I was blind to sin, wanting me to kneel and pray too, because people to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too.

CASH (Chapter 59)


While we was there pa said he was going to the barber-shop and get a shave. And so that night he said he had some business to tend to, kind of looking away from us while he said it, with his hair combed wet and slick and smelling sweet with perfume, but I said leave him be; I wouldn’t mind hearing a little more of that music myself. And so next morning he was gone again, then he come back and told us get hitched up and ready to take out and he would meet us and when they was gone he said.


Pa was coming along with that kind of daresome and hangdog look all at once like when he has been up to something he knows ma ain’t going to like, carrying a grip in his hand, and Jewel says, “Who’s that?” Then we see it wasn’t the grip that made him look different; it was his face, and Jewel says, “He got them teeth.” It was a fact. It made him look a foot taller, kind of holding his head up, hangdog and proud too, and then we see her behind him, carrying the other grip—a kind of duck-shaped woman all dressed up, with them kind of hardlooking pop eyes like she was daring ere a man to say nothing. And there we set watching them, with Dewey Dell’s and Vardaman’s mouth half open and half-et bananas in their hands and her coming around from behind pa, looking at us like she dared ere a man. And then I see that the grip she was carrying was one of them little graphophones. It was for a fact, all shut up as pretty as a picture, and every time a new record would come from the mail order and us setting in the house in the winter, listening to it, I would think what a shame Darl couldn’t be to enjoy it too. But it is better so for him. This world is not his world; this life his life. “It’s Cash and Jewel and Vardaman and Dewey Dell,” pa says, kind of hangdog and proud too, with his teeth and all, even if he wouldn’t look at us. “Meet Mrs. Bundren,” he says.

Outlaw Woman? Famous American Author and Nobel Prize Winner Toni Morrison once said, “Outlaw women who don't follow the rules are always interesting to me, because they push themselves, and us, to the edge. The women who step outside the borders, or who think other thoughts, define the limits of civilization, but also challenge it." (No coincidence that Morrison wrote her master's thesis on Faulkner).

Look back over Addie’s chapter and see the ways in which she thinks other thoughts as compared to the expectations of wives, mothers and motherhood during that time. How might many people consider her to be an outlaw woman?

- Explain why you think Faulkner chose to represent a mother in this way. What point might he be making through Addie’s chapter?

  • With your group members, please answer these questions below. Make sure to carefully examine the text to come up with your answers.

1. What does Addie think about motherhood? Who does she think invented it?

2. “My father said that the reason for living is getting ready to stay dead. I knew at last what he meant and that he could not have know what he meant himself, because a man cannot know anything about cleaning up the house afterward. And so I have cleaned my house” . She repeats this line from her father twice. What’s the deeper significance of this? What are motifs seen within it? Who are the two children that Addie consider to be hers? Why?

3. So why would Faulkner create this character that goes against all expectations of being a mother and a wife? WHY DOES THIS MATTER? What is the message ?

4. Pull out two quotes from Addie’s chapter. What do these quote tell us about Addie? How does this influence the family?


LODI - Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)

Just about a year ago

I set out on the road

Seekin' my fame and fortune

Lookin' for a pot of gold

Things got bad and things got worse

I guess you will know the tune

Oh Lord, stuck in Lodi again

Rode in on the Greyhound

I'll be walkin' out if I go

I was just passin' through

Must be seven months or more

Ran out of time and money

Looks like they took my friends

Oh Lord, I'm stuck in Lodi again

The man from the magazine

Said I was on my way

Somewhere I lost connections

I ran out of songs to play

I came into town, a one night stand

Looks like my plans fell through

Oh Lord, stuck in Lodi again

If I only had a dollar

For ev'ry song I've sung

Ev'ry time I've had to play

While people sat there drunk

You know, I'd catch the next train

Back to where I live

Oh Lord, I'm stuck in Lodi again

Oh Lord, I'm stuck in Lodi again

THE WEIGHT - The Band (1968)

I pulled into Nazareth, was feelin' about half past dead

I just need some place where I can lay my head

"Hey, mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed?"

He just grinned and shook my hand, "no" was all he said

Take a load off Fanny, Take a load for free

Take a load off Fanny

And you put the load right on me

I picked up my bag, I went lookin' for a place to hide

When I saw Carmen and the Devil walkin' side by side

I said, "Hey, Carmen, come on let's go downtown"

She said, "I gotta go but my friend can stick around"


Go down, Miss Moses, there's nothin' you can say

It's just ol' Luke and Luke's waitin' on the Judgment Day

"Well, Luke, my friend, what about young Anna Lee?"

He said, "Do me a favor, son, won'tcha stay and keep Anna Lee company?”


Crazy Chester followed me and he caught me in the fog

He said, "I will fix your rack if you'll take Jack, my dog"

I said, "Wait a minute, Chester, you know I'm a peaceful man"

He said, "That's okay, boy, won't you feed him when you can"


Catch a cannon ball now to take me down the line

My bag is sinkin' low and I do believe it's time

To get back to Miss Fanny, you know she's the only one

Who sent me here with her regards for everyone


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