In order to fully understand Addie as a character, it is imperative to consider several aspects that drive the narrative--the deeds that she implores her family to fulfill upon her death, and the words that she either fails to find or finds inadequate to express herself. Therefore, it is not about what kind of woman Addie is, but rather the circumstances in which such a woman exists within that makes her case interesting and unique.
Being unable to discover herself in the true sense as a complete person, separate from a less than loving husband and her burden of children, and how she is unable to comprehend what she might want out of her life. Furthermore, the streak of rebellious sense of discovery that she possesses, but is never fully able to implement in her life leads her to do things or bid other things for her that sound bizarre to neighbors, outsiders, or even the readers of the novel.
“As a young schoolteacher in the neighborhood of Anse’s farm, she endures the bitterness and frustration of not knowing what she is searching for” (Van O’Connor 47). In more straight-forward depictions of Addie, she is described as a person not too aware of her life. For example, in decoding Addie’s character, Max Putzel writes “Anyway Addie is a town woman, a schoolteacher who looks down on plain folks like the Tulls. Only later do we learn how Addie had hated her job and her pupils, as her father had taught her to hate life itself. But once, stirred to the depths of her being by signs of springtime and life slipping away from her grasp, she had taken and married Anse out of convenience. Addie’s family had long passed and so both were orphans without kin, and she had been alone with her hatred. However, she came to regret marrying Anse, for she soon found him out. When her second son, Darl, was born she made Anse promise to bury her in Jefferson with her own people. And she hated Anse and would not lie with him, wanting only to die. But ten years later at a camp meeting she was deeply stirred once more, this time by the preacher who came to her in the woods “dressed in sin like a gallant garmen” (Faulkner 167). Soon after, she gave birth to her Jewel and so was forced to give Anse two more children of his own to make up for her sin and her deceit (which was worse) and her enjoyment of both” (Putzel 201).
But this is an overly simplistic approach to understanding the motivations of Addie. A statement that Addie repeats in various forms throughout her narrative, as well as the throughout the entire novel is “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.” These words of her father cannot be interpreted as a hatred of life, but a deeper respect for and a preoccupation with death. Her wish to buried in Jefferson is a manifestation of this deeply-held belief that she needs to make adequate arrangements for her death, which according to her might be of a longer duration in terms of permanence.
The most important contribution of Addie to the novel and perhaps even American literature, however, is the voice of the woman, or the lack thereof. A seemingly simple and normal life becomes an object of “grotesque, tragic comedy” because of a promise she extracts and her husband, in false heroism, agrees to fulfill. The liberty to explore her emotions and the freedom to talk about her sexuality are Addie’s primary concerns. She rebels against the patriarchal society that does not allow her the freedom nor the tools of expression necessary to accomplish just this. In more than once instance, by her seeming incapability to either name or put in words her feelings towards her sexuality, Addie successfully embodies the psychological oppression of the female in the male-dominated society. As Annette Wannamaker points out with examples from the novel, “it is precisely Addie’s inability to express her thought using words that gives her chapter such power. Through her awkward attempts to express the inexpressible, we see the way language fails to convey Addie’s existence. A key point in Addie’s monologue comes when she cannot find a word with the symbolic order to represent her body in the way that she perceives it to be: “The shape of my body where I used to be a virgin is in the shape of a ‘(Faulkner 165). There is no word within patriarchal language to describe Addie’s sexuality. Because it is not represented through language, “her body-specifically her genitalia--does not exist, it is invisible; it is--as Lacan describes it--a "lack," an emptiness, nothing. Because a woman lacks a penis and therefore the power of the phallus, she cannot be represented within the symbolic order. For example, Addie does not have a word to describe her sexual desire for the minister. She can only refer to what she and Whitfield do in the woods as "sin": "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" (Faulkner 166). Addie is aware of the lack of a word to describe her desire and of the construction of a word like "sin" by the very man with whom she was "sinning"“ (Wannamaker).
The second most important, but equally as significant, contribution of Addie is the psychological power of a seemingly powerless woman on a typical family. Her lack of stern voice in the happenings during her days alive, become her strengths when she is dead. If the “carnival-esque” funeral procession is an objectification of the maternal body and some underlying preoccupation of man with the body of the mother is to be taken as the final rite of passage of Addie, it is also imperative to consider the power held by women in spit of, or perhaps precisely through her so-called weaker position in this male oriented society.
Addie’s death not only aids in bringing about a common purpose to her family, but also advances the culmination of several storms brewing in their individual lives. Anse finds it beneficial to return home with a new Mrs. Bundren. Darl is sent to an asylum at the end of the novel, even though it is his though processes that seem the most sane in the novel. Jewel comes to show his affection and devotion to his mother but only after her death as he saves her from water and fire though he always acted hurt to her while she was alive. Cash, the oldest son, with whom Addie shares a special bond endures immense physical and mental pain to accomplish what is seen as his mother’s death wish. The pregnant and penniless Dewey Dell finds herself at similar crossroads although her motivations behind the journey along with the dead body were entirely different. She finds herself none the wiser even at the end of the novel. Vardaman, the youngest son is constantly perplexed by the happenings and tries to interpret it within his own, small world of limited references. This is to show that Addie was not very effective in her life with her husband or her children, but she might have achieved something of a miracle in committing all of them to a purposeful journey (though it might seem bizarre or grotesque to outsiders) which culminates in either self-actualization or reassertion of stereotypes.
The third contribution of Addie which is directly in resonance to the beliefs of any feminist philosophy is her exposition of a person’s alone-ness. She talks of it almost as a universal right to retain the traces of individualism. Any act that forces this alone-ness is a gross violation and the principal reason for all bitterness. The theory that a person has the right to alone-ness, as opposed to loneliness, is a strong precursor to the theory of a female individual--an almost unheard of concept in the not so emancipated times of Faulkner. The urge to go against the set rules of society and discover the terms of life by oneself is the purpose of any feminist. Being left alone to try and to accomplish them is the “alone-ness” that Addie speaks of. However, a marriage that is more of a compromise than a sought after union honoring love and any personal fulfillment, child birth glorified by all others and by society, and not allowing the woman herself to decide whether she wants such violations of her principal space are all disillusions Addie suffers in life. As pointed out by O’Conner, “we live, she believes, by violating our aloneness. Words like love and sin, which signify the violations are often too abused, used meaninglessly……and those who are not involved, regardless of the events in which they are caught, do not live meaningfully- they move through the world like wraiths” (47).
Fetterley states that “Power is the issue in the politics of literature, as it is in the politics of anything else. To be excluded from a literature that claims to define one’s identity is to experience a peculiar form of powerlessness- not simply the powerlessness which derives from not seeing one’s experiences articulated, clarified, and legitimized in art, but more significantly the powerlessness which results from the endless division of self against self, the consequence of the invocation to identify as male while being reminded that to be male- to be universal, to be American- is to be not female” (2). Addie seems to be entirely excluded from the novel which would essentially establish her as a powerless figure in the novel. Her chapter, however, which remains the only chapter in which she possesses a voice, defines and shapes her identity more so than the entire contents of the novel.
To conclude, perhaps the most important contribution towards feminism through the representation of Addie is the fact that she is not a representation of any race or gender, but on an individual who struggles, mostly unsuccessfully, through her life to find an identity of her won outside of the conventional social boundaries. The very concept of identity and the words that are associated with this exploration are so deceptive that they are as false and constrictive as any other orders of a patriarchal society. Both the sense of social oppression and her inability to find the right language to communicate this oppression essentially the reasons for her disillusionment. She states that “When I knew that I had Cash…That was when I learned that words are no; that words don’t 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 (Faulkner 163-4).
We mentioned several times throughout the semester that language is an invention of society, always reforming; it is a model of a society. It is precisely because of this that the terms used for several feminine emotions do not carry the sincerity or familiarity with the female truth. They are attempts by a male dominated society to cast unknown phenomenon of both body and mind that happen in a female to suit their worldview. As Annette Wannamaker points out, this heightened sense of awareness of the fact that the language she uses is not adequate to express the feelings only her bosom can feel is the ultimate pronunciation of the feminist worldview--that the world never took into account what a woman had to say and more importantly, how she wanted to say it. Wannamaker mentions that Addie knew “that because she is forced to communicate using language constructed by someone "other" than herself, she has no control over it, no power within it. When Addie tries to speak, each word carries with it meaning she does not intend. And Addie is aware of this. She knows that language speaks for her and that even in the act of trying to move beyond language, she must use language. In order to convey the meaninglessness of words, she must use words.”
One may even view this as a prompt from Faulkner--that women need to create their own idiom to recreate their life experiences, their feelings and expectations, their dreams and aspirations and most importantly, their own personal journey towards self discovery and self identity. It is also a taunt to the existing system of both thought and language that a new and different set of communication was imminent. For example, if a woman who was well within the limitations placed on her by a patriarchal society had such a sway over the family to make them embark on a seemingly bizarre and twisted journey, it would be a challenge to comprehend how the female mind works when a new idiom is created.
Faulkner essentially utilizes three different tools to achieve a greater impact to this depiction of feminism through Addie: the stream of consciousness narrative in which he writes proves to be a major contributor to this effect. The reader is not allowed to settle into a narrative style or a perspective. But all of them contain Addie or her dead body either in the foreground or background of consciousness. It does not allow the reader to lose sight of Addie, making them think what kind of woman would have her family go through all of the trouble after her death and what is her influence on the family that they undertake it?
The second most important technique that Faulkner uses to draw attention to the feminist overtones in Addie’s character is by the placement of her own narrative. When the story has been going along narrating the trials of the family in trying to grant Addie her wish in death, Faulkner surprises the reader by adding her own narrative. By this time, the reader is surely curious about the character but would not expect getting a firsthand narrative of Addie. What can one expect at that point is perhaps a third person recounting of a life more or less ordinary. But suddenly, the reader is opened to the innermost world of the woman whose dead body forms the focal point around which the novel revolves. In the summary of As I Lay Dying in Great American Writers, Baird Shuman writes, “Addie Bundren’s one, thematically pivotal chapter occurs two-thirds of the way through the novel-five days and twenty eight chapters after her death. This deferral, initially disorienting, reinforces the death as a subject of psychological accommodation rather than a mere psychological fact” (490).
The third and perhaps the most important tool is the absence of Faulkner himself. He is absent essentially because the narrative is crowded with so many narratives and all of them offer different motivations and angles to the events. As William E. Cain puts it “A more appropriate way of characterizing As I Lay Dying is difficult to imagine, for Faulkner is indeed missing--missing as Addie is missing, nonetheless commanding our attention and our attempts to account for his seemingly invisible control” (177). However missing Addie may be from the events of the novel, and perhaps even the events of her own life, it is unmistakable that she epitomizes the underlying feminist tones that As I Lay Dying propounds.
Cain, William E. Philosophical Approaches to Literature: New Essays on Nineteenth and Twentieth-century Texts. Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press, 1983.
Fetterley, Judith. "On the Politics of Literature." Literary Theory: An Anthology.
Putzel, Max. Genius of place: William Faulkner's triumphant beginnings. Los Angeles: LSU Press, 1985.
Van O'Conner, William. The Tangled Fire of William Faulkner. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2009
Wannamaker, Annette. Viewing Addie Bundren through a feminist lens. 26 February. Teaching Faulkner. 11 May 2009.