[I have written about this novel in 3 sections. I never started reading a new section until I had finished writing about the one before, so didn’t know how the novel would end until I had read the final one.]
8 February 2015
The first third – to where the coffin is in the wagon
This is an extraordinary novel. Whenever you think you might know where you are with it, you realise you don’t. The plot, or rather the events of a few days in July, might be summarised in a paragraph. A thumbnail sketch of each character might be given in a sentence. And these things would convey nothing of the intense and disorientating experience of reading it. I read the first 70-odd pages, stopped, and immediately read them all again. Ok.
I’ve read other Modernist novels of this era, and the one I’m reminded of most strongly is Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927, three years before this one). The setting could not be more different – a farmstead that barely supports a family of dirt-poor Southerners as opposed to the holiday home of an English middle class academic and his family during a vacation with friends – but some things are almost identical. The author gets us deep inside the consciousness of different characters, giving us their often highly idiosyncratic points of view. Faulkner does this by having each chapter notionally narrated by a different character; Woolf by allowing the omniscient third-person narrative swoop in and out of the minds of different family members or friends. Both disorientate the reader: the characters refer to people and events we know nothing of, and we simply have to piece together their individual biographies from what emerges over many pages. In both novels, an inescapable feature of the human condition is the separateness of everyone from everyone else. And so on.
Is it time for those thumbnails? Darl, one of three more or less grown-up sons, narrates the opening chapter that places us in a surreally described world. He is walking ahead of Jewel, one of his brothers – until Jewel overtakes him by walking directly through the cotton-house in the middle of the field instead of taking a detour consisting of four right-angled turns. (Count them – it adds up. But don’t ask me what a cotton-house is.) That’s Jewel for you. He sees what needs to be done and does it. He’s often furiously contemptuous of everybody else in the process but, a third of the way through, I still don’t know why. Darl, meanwhile, seems to go along with things. Their neighbours, Vern and Cora Tull, and especially the sentimentally Christian Cora, see Darl as loving and caring. But we haven’t seen a lot of evidence of it: when a decision is made to take the horse and wagon to carry some wood for sale, it’s Darl who repeats that it will be worth three dollars to them.
The decision about the wagon is a crucial one because – because Faulkner has decided to make it so. Their mother is dying, their other grown-up brother is sawing the wood for her coffin outside her window – you should see the fun Faulkner has with descriptions of that activity – and there’s a big storm coming. Within the next few hours – novelists can have things happen like this, especially if they aren’t interested in realism – the mother dies, the storm arrives, the wagon lurches into a ditch, the bridge is washed away, and the doctor is stranded at the house because the fourth brother, still a child, has chased away his horse and buggy. This younger brother, Vardaman, has what we would now call mental health issues. He is convinced it was the doctor’s arrival that killed his mother, and so strongly associates this event with the huge fish he’s mysteriously managed to catch that one of his chapters consists of precisely five words: ‘My mother is a fish.’ I haven’t read enough American fiction to make a judgment, but this novel seems to press enough of the buttons to qualify as Southern Gothic.
Their mother is on her deathbed for most of these early chapters. And then, despite Cash’s attempts to explain that he has very carefully made the coffin so that it will ‘balance’ with the body in it, is inside it with her head where the feet should be. Through the neighbours’ conversations we are given the impression that Addie Bundren lived a hard and thankless life, supporting a no-good husband and trying to bring up five children. We’ve met her husband, Anse, and it’s hard to disagree with the neighbours. An experience in his twenties has convinced him that if ever he sweats he will die – so it’s a running gag that you can always tell one of his shirts because there are no sweat-stains on it. Humour in this novel is always as bitter as that. Anse hovers around ineffectually throughout these chapters. He calls the doctor too late and can’t influence the decision about taking the wagon despite constantly fretting about what will happen if they need it for his wife before the others return with it. Everything he touches – the makeshift rain-cover for Cash’s lantern, the sheet on his wife’s bed – is spoiled. But he is sticking by one decision he has made: his wife is going to be buried 40 miles away in Jefferson, with her folks, according to her wishes. As someone says, ‘It’s like a man that’s let everything slide all his life to get set on something that will make the most trouble for everybody he knows.’ Yep.
So, Addie is dead. The only daughter, Dewey Dell – where does Faulkner get these names? – had been fanning her monotonously for ten days. Now she can stop, and worry instead about what she can tell nobody about. In the first chapter narrated by her we have been shown how easily it is for someone like her to let herself become pregnant. Now, she frets about how easily the doctor could help her if only he knew what she needed. But how can he know? She isn’t going to tell him. Darl is aware – she, or Faulkner, has been able to explain that she has conveyed the knowledge to him without words and that he has conveyed his understanding, also without words – but nobody else must know. In this world, that’s a given.
I just mentioned Faulkner. For me, the author is as vivid a presence as any of the characters, because this whole novel is so clearly a constructed thing. It is a literary artefact, and if we occasionally forget that fact we are quickly reminded of it. Modernist novelists make up their own rules, or break the ones they might abide by at first. I wrote at the start that the narrative is ‘notionally’ shared among the different characters and, at first, we can believe that we are hearing different views expressed in individual voices. But in only the third chapter in the novel, six or seven pages in, what this farmer’s son is seeing is conveyed in a voice that is plainly not his. Jewel is settling his skittish horse as Darl watches: ‘Jewel is enclosed by a glittering maze of hooves as by an illusion of wings; among them, beneath the up-reared chest, he moves with the flashing limberness of a snake.’ Then: ‘They stand in rigid terrific hiatus, the horse trembling and groaning. Then Jewel is on the horse’s back. He flows upward in a stooping swirl like the lash of a whip, his body in midair shaped to the horse.’ And so on. It’s wonderful descriptive writing, Faulkner at the height of his powers. It isn’t Darl.
That’s ok. In fact, it seems to become a self-imposed convention that Faulkner is allowed to render a scene as vividly and as visually precise as this whenever he’s in one of the chapters headed with Darl’s name. Later, when Darl is stuck in the storm miles away, his chapter contains an account of his mother’s death in striking detail. Later still, as Cash saws by the light of a lantern, we get ‘a thin thread of fire running along the edge of the saw, lost and recovered at the top and bottom of each stroke in unbroken elongation, so that the saw appears to be six feet long, into and out of pa’s shabby and aimless silhouette.’ So, in the middle of this strange parable of the horror of the human condition (which is what it seems to be), we get moments of cinematic precision. None of it seems real… and then suddenly it does.
The middle third – to the arrival at Armstid’s
Some things that I didn’t make a big deal out of last time are shown to be important. I mentioned Cora’s Christianity, but not that she routinely interprets the Bundren family’s sufferings as judgments from God for their sins. Meanwhile she lets it be known, all the time, how utterly secure she feels about her own godliness. Whitfield, the local preacher, is a big part of this Christian fundamentalism. The last time I wrote, he had recently ridden his horse across the flooded ford to the farm, getting soaked to the waist, in order to pray over Addie’s body. It’s only now that we begin to understand something about his motive for this apparently selfless act. It isn’t unconnected to the fact that in this novel, sex is everywhere. As for the family…
…Cash, a genuinely skilled carpenter, has a limp from the broken leg he suffered when falling ’28 feet and four and a half inches, about.’ Very precise, Cash. Darl is seen as somehow different from the rest of the family, although it isn’t quite clear how. He gives people a certain ‘look’ that they find disconcerting, as though he can somehow see right through them. I’ve mentioned Jewel’s default position of furious contempt for everybody else in the family, but hadn’t mentioned how independent he makes himself. The direct path he takes through the cotton-house in the opening chapter is looking more and more symbolic. The almost unmanageable horse turns out to have been his own purchase, and the fact that only he can get near it is not a coincidence. Nothing is in this book.
Addie’s final journey becomes the frame for this middle section. Not that her family gets her very far. The road is beset with obstacles that Anse likes to incorporate into his constant refrain that he doesn’t begrudge her any of it. All the family except Jewel are in the cart with the coffin, and they make their way past the nearby cemetery on their way to the next bridge along the river. It’s down. So they come all the way back and attempt to cross the river where their own bridge is down. It’s a disaster. They end up at the farm of a neighbour we haven’t met before, Armstid, and Anse is as keen as ever not to make himself obliged, even as Armstid and his wife do whatever they can to help. Exactly the same had happened at Samson’s, near the other bridge. ‘I wouldn’t be beholden’ is the proud cry of the man who has never got by without help from absolutely everybody.
Is this novel a comedy? Despite the satirical comments of the neighbours, no it isn’t. I asked myself the same question about To the Lighthouse and came up with the same answer. But there’s something almost unbearably solemn about characters, and an author, who are so unflagging in their serious purpose. It’s no surprise that two years after this novel, in England, there appeared a spoof of the literature of rural misery. There’s no connection between As I Lay Dying and Cold Comfort Farm, which is sending up a very English tradition. But you can imagine some of the lines in Faulkner’s tour de force appearing in a satire. My favourite at the moment comes from the dead woman – I’m not making this up – as she muses on the futility of existence: ‘my father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time.’ The chapter this appears in might be the most extraordinary in the novel, but my God.
So, not a satire. What, then? What is it that makes this novel more than its worn-out, dirt-poor, smashed-up parts? From the start, I’ve taken it as a given that this is Faulkner’s vision of the human condition. Different characters do whatever is within their capabilities to get through the day, live their lives, get by. Each member of the family – including Addie, we now know – has his or her own strategy. With Addie, a walking existential black hole, it seems to be the perpetuation of misery. (I’ll come back to her.) With Anse, among other things, it’s one long self-justification for his own uselessness and pride in his own imaginary independence. With Cash it’s calculations and precision. With Darl it seems to be little more than a matter of just getting through the day. With Jewel it’s all in the negative: he wants to reject everything his family stands for, if it stands for anything. Dewey Dell? God knows, but it involves a chronic awareness of her own nakedness beneath her clothes and, apparently, a need for fulfilment that only seems to have come to her through sex. Vardaman? He’s neediness on legs, and hasn’t found a way to deal with any of it.
Then there are the neighbours. Are they any more than a chorus, giving us the world’s opinion of the loser in their midst? (They don’t ever call him that. The OED tells me the word was first used in this sense in 1955, but he became an archetype in American fiction long before. It’s no surprise that a novel considered among the greatest of the 20th Century has ‘a luckess man’ as its main protagonist.) We’ve heard Uncle Billy’s opinion. Samson’s is the same, concerning this man who, through an affectation of honour, is causing a lot of work for other people. ‘I notice how it takes a lazy man, a man that hates moving, to get set on moving once he does get started off, the same as he was set on staying still, like it ain’t the moving he hates so much as the starting and the stopping. And like he would be kind of proud of whatever come up to make the moving or the setting still look hard.’
They’re a chorus all right, but Vernon and Cora also have other roles. The more distant neighbours are simply put out by Anse’s stubbornness – there’s a comic riff from Samson concerning the bad temper his wife turns on him when Anse refuses her fierce generosity – but the Tulls have much more work to do. Anse can belittle Vern’s kindness because, understandably, it is offered so reluctantly. But he really does offer it, unless the demand really is unreasonable, and Anse reaps the benefit. In a way, like all the neighbours, Vernon is an archetype of that hard-nosed generosity of American frontier mythology.
Cora is a different matter. She’s a figure of fun from the start, routinely handing out judgments and blame while she blithely sings of her own salvation: ‘I’m bounding toward my God and my reward….’ Except, fairly quickly, we see the callous mean-spiritedness of her religion. She proudly remembers her condemnation of Addie for her refusal to change her sinful ways…. She’s another archetype, and even Vernon is satirical about her. Faulkner clearly has it in for Bible-thumping Christians, so it comes as no surprise when we get Whitfield’s story. Addie has just told us that Jewel is not Anse’s son. It’s Whitfield who tells us he’s the father. He describes how, on his way to give Addie the last rites, he had seen his crossing of the flooded river as a trial by water sanctioned by God. He interprets her death before he arrives as God’s message of forgiveness to him: he will not have to confess his guilt, because he has been absolved. In Faulkner’s universe, it seems that Christians have a way of finding a way out for themselves.
There’s a worse trial by water before this and, over several chapters, it becomes an extraordinary set piece. To get here, they have passed by the nearby cemetery again – it’s called New Hope, ho-ho – and Tull has managed to help Anse, Dewy Dell and Vardaman across the ruins of the bridge. Jewel has a hard time riding across the ford, now much deeper than when Whitfield crossed it, but it is going to be harder for Cash and Darl to get the wagon across. Jewel has got a rope to them, but a fallen log crashes into it and they go over. The two mules are lost, but they manage to save the wagon and coffin. Darl and Jewel even manage to save most of Cash’s tools. But, on the river-bank, Cash is only half-conscious and keeps vomiting. His leg is broken, again, and he might have other injuries. They manage to get him to Armstid’s place, where Anse grudgingly lets them all rest.
And then we get Addie’s chapter. Bleak? I’ve already quoted from near the beginning, and it doesn’t get any better. Her life-force, if you can call it that, seems to consist of hate. She had been a teacher, and the first thing she tells us is how, ‘after 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’s that special place she goes to that marks her out as unusual. And then comes her father’s remark about life preparing us for death and ‘I would hate my father for having ever planted me.’ Marrying Anse is not an act of love – it’s hard to say exactly what it is – and she resents everything about her life. With the arrival of 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 don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say at.’ Childbirth, more than anything else, is a violation…. And so on. She shows contempt for Anse, who is already dead as far as she is concerned, but the chapter ends with her even more particular contempt for Cora and all those like her. ‘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.’
Not a lot of hope there. And I haven’t even mentioned all the buzzards.
The final third
What is this book for, exactly? A lot of people regard it very highly indeed, and I’m impressed both by the circle of hell that Faulkner has created and the ways he invents to describe the bizarre states of mind of the people who have to live there. As a hymn to wretchedness it’s a marvel, but I’m not sure what it has to teach us about the human condition. Maybe Faulkner isn’t trying to do any such thing, of course, but there’s something about the relentless darkness of it that makes me think that he probably is. We’re stuck with a life of existential misery. Get over it.
If there’s anything new in these final chapters, it’s that every character is even more firmly bound to follow an undeviating course of action than had been made clear before. It isn’t that we simply have a group of country people who are set in their ways – although we’ve had that from the beginning in, say, Anse’s single idea of burying his wife in Jefferson, or Cora’s endless repetition in her first chapter of how she hasn’t lost anything by baking the cakes. Then, it was almost comic. Now they are all like characters from Greek myth, eternally shackled and with no prospect of escape. One of them, Cash, undergoes this fate almost literally. To protect his broken leg, he is first strapped up and secured to the coffin in the wagon. Later, his family – because they are incapable of any deviation either from the original plan or their accustomed mind-set – encase the leg in cement. Other characters ask why they didn’t leave Cash at Armstid’s, why they didn’t call a doctor, why they applied cement directly to the skin of his leg. They assume they are speaking to people capable of exercising free will. They don’t know they are in a novel by William Faulkner.
We get the playing-out of what are presented as inevitable facts of these people’s lives. Dewey Dell, whose package doesn’t contain Cora’s cakes but ten dollars, visits first one pharmacy and then another. The money was given to her by Lafe, the man who got her pregnant, and he has told her they will be able to fix something for her. At the second pharmacy she lets herself be persuaded that part of the treatment involves having sex with the assistant pretending to be a doctor. That’s Dewey Dell for you. Jewel is slightly more complicated. When Anse, in his usual sheepish-defiant way, tells him he has sold his horse, Jewel rides away on it. Of course he does. But, later, men arrive from the stables with the mules Anse has bought with the money, because – because what? Jewel is as bound by the Bundren family loyalty as they all are, and has given up his horse. Darl’s case is also complicated. In the bizarre code he lives by, the man who has been party to the shady deal involving Jewel’s horse needs to be taught a lesson. Darl burns his barn down, is later arrested and will probably spend the rest of his life in jail. But a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do, as though it is written in some implacable Book of Fate. And don’t even ask about Vardaman, who insistence that Jewel’s mother was a horse has some deep Faulknerian mystery to it that I’m not even going to try to unpack.
Anyway. They get to Jefferson. Jewel almost gets into a fight, but is persuaded that it isn’t their priority at the moment, what with the nine-day-old corpse that is making everybody they meet almost retch. And there’s a mystery: Cash, having told them that he doesn’t mind waiting to see a doctor until after they have dug the hole, mentions that the wagon is in front of ‘Mrs Bundren’s house.’ This is the first mention of such a place in Jefferson, and later we hear that Anse had ‘pulled up at Mrs Bundren’s. It was like he knowed.’ The novel ends with introductions, as Anse, having defiantly used the last bit of money to pay for the new teeth he’s been promising himself all along, returns with ‘a kind of duck-shaped woman all dressed up.’ ‘“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.’
Not realism, then. Surrealism, as I suggested at the beginning? Expressionism? There were a lot of artistic and literary movements in the 1920s and 30s, and Faulkner seems to have been a pioneer in a muscular form of Modernism in which it is made clear that however hard lives may be, this writer has the cojones to deal with it. (The OED has it that the first use of the Spanish word for testicles in this sense was in 1932 – by Hemingway, another muscular American writer.) It’s part of a mythologising of America, standing alongside not only the literary greats but the directors of westerns, creating a pioneering history in which men fought almost impossible odds because there was nothing else they could do. In our own century a certain necessary revisionism is taking place concerning the roles of women in the history of the United States but, if he’d known about such an idea, I can’t imagine Faulkner being terribly interested. In this novel, the only woman capable of rational thought is an implacable force of nature and is bad news for every man she meets. Other women tend to be little more than thorns in the sides of their long-suffering husbands, and there are almost comic riffs on this idea. I fear I might be repeating myself, but maybe that’s what’s written in my own Book of Fate. How would I know that this is simply what I’m destined to do?