William Faulkner's novel As I Lay Dying tells the story of a family living in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. The matriarch of this family, Addie Bundren, is approaching death and her family prepares for this event through various means based upon the personality of that character and the particulars of their relationship with this family member. Upon her death, Addie asks her son to allow her to be buried in Jefferson, Mississippi and a large part of the plot concerns the efforts that the Bundrens must undertake in order to fulfill their mother's dying wish. Addie is at the center of the story and all of the actions of the children, and her husband also, are reflections on this matriarchal figure. More than this, literary scholars have argued that the story is an extended metaphor for the American south in the period following the Civil War and up to the turn of the century. According to literary critic Wesley Morris, Addie Bundren is the Old South (155). "This is the myth that [Faulkner] will go to any length to deconstruct" (Morris 155). The mother of this family, Mrs. Addie Bundren, is a symbol for the south in the period before the schism in American society, her husband is an example of the new south and its attempt to abandon the society of the pre-war period, and each of her various children is a representative of one type of person living in the south following that time.
Addie Bundren is a woman who has reached the end of her life. For most of the story she is dead, but she still has an important impact on the rest of the story, even to the point of providing narration during certain parts of the story. Addie claims domination over all of the members of her family and the children in particular. She says "My children were of me alone" (Faulkner 167). This shows how she felt the children were belonging to her and their fathers had little right or authority over them. The reason that the family is travelling from their home to Jefferson is because of a final wish to be buried there. To appease their matriarch's last request, the family undergoes emotional and financial distress. It is perhaps no coincidence that the surname of the family is almost an anagram of the word "burden." The type of woman that Addie was is up to debate. Some classify her as a decent woman and a loving mother and wife. Many others considered her a dinosaur, a relic of an old regime filled with the venom of the land on which she lived. Addie herself admits to some sadomasochistic tendencies while as a teacher. She enjoyed hitting and beating her students for even the smallest of infractions. She says:
When the switch fell I could feel it on 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 (Faulkner 170).
One cannot read this passage and not think of the atrocities suffered by African-American slaves in the south before the Civil War. Slaves were constantly abused and mistreated, even murdered, by their white oppressors. The process not only allowed for the punishment of other human beings with inhumane means, but it turned people who may not have had the instinct to harm others into sadistic, and brutal monsters.
Anse Bundren seems to be a man unwilling to see the truth of his situation, either in his marriage to Addie or in his later, more abrupt marriage at the end of the novel. The impending death of his wife at the beginning of the story does not seem to cause him grief. Instead, he looks upon the event as an inconvenience to him. It seems that the only reason that he is even willing to fulfill his wife's dying wish is to use the same trip to get himself a pair of false teeth. He is the kind of man who thinks only of himself and his present needs. If his desires coincide with the wishes of others, then he will consider appeasing them. However, there must always be something in it for him. Even though the family has had to sell everything that held any value to them in order to make the journey to Jefferson, Anse finds himself a wife and enough means to acquire his new death and a brand new gramophone. This is emblematic of one of the psychologies of the new south. These are the selfish people who honor the past and their obligations only reluctantly and only if they see some benefit to themselves. According to Wesley Morris, Anse's selfishness leads to the inevitable ending wherein the man picks up a new wife. All that matters is the continuation of the bloodline and the unmentioned but obvious desire for a partner to fulfill his sexual gratification. The fact that Anse marries while on a journey to bury his late wife illustrates the character of this type of person (Morris 150). There is no loyalty to the old guard and once the time has passed, this person wants to move on and take up new salacious interests.
The only daughter of the Bundren family, Dewey Dell Bundren, is a young woman, only seventeen years old. She has not even reached the age of adulthood but she is already pregnant. For young women in the 1920s and 1930s being an unwed mother was not the same as it is in the modern period. Nowadays, women have children from a plethora of fathers, the majority of them birthed out of wedlock. This was not the case in the period before the Second World War. Women, particularly women from rural areas who were low class and had limited financial possibilities, when she got pregnant she would be faced with one of two choices. Either the young lady could have an abortion with was both illegal and extremely dangerous or they could get married to the young man who had impregnated her. If the young man was not willing to do the "right thing," then she could find a potential substitute and the man would raise the child as if it were his own. Dewey gets doubly abused by the men of the rural south. One man gets her pregnant and instead of offering her up his hand in marriage gives her $10 in order to have an abortion (Faulkner 27). Twice Dewey tries to get medical assistance and purchase medication which would terminate the pregnancy. In the first instance, her request is denied. In the second instance, the pharmaceutical employee promises her abortion assistance in exchange for sexual favors. When she accepts his offer, she finds out that her attempts to get an abortion are again denied. MacGowan, the pharmaceutical man uses her ignorance to extract sexual favors from Dewey. "It won't hurt you…You've had the same operation before. Ever hear of the hair of the dog?" (Faulkner 247). All of the men in Dewey's life who know about her pregnancy demand that she either terminate the pregnancy or that she get married. When Anse takes Dewey's ten dollars, it seals her fate. She does not have the means to abort her pregnancy and will either have to marry the local boy or accept a life of shame and scandal as an unwed mother. The community of the south demands that she fit into the societal norm. Women of the south who do not have money will have to get married and then get pregnant. The order in which those events occurred is immaterial to the fact that they must occur.
Vardaman, the youngest of all the Bundren children, does not see his mother's death with the same perception as the other members of the clan and this leads him to an unexpected act of violence and desecration of the body. When Addie dies, the child compares her to a fish that he had caught and subsequently killed earlier in the day (Faulkner 84). The child enjoyed fishing and cleaning the scales of the dead fish is part of that process. He is yet unable to see that death is anything permanent and still equates the corpse as being the person. This is shown later when Addie has been sealed in her coffin and the lid of her tomb nailed shut. The idea of his mother being shut up in that wooden box is absolutely disgusting to young Vardaman. To alleviate his mother's suffering, he sneaks down to her casket while the others sleep and drills two holes in the coffin. This allows his mother to breathe, he thinks and will make being dead somehow more comfortable. He does not understand what death is or that his mother's…