Updated: Nov 27, 2019
Today we continue our journey through Faulkner's South with an article by Joseph L. Blotner, which sets out to show the many Christian references throughout As I lay Dying, and how these references are used to reflect the social status of the Bundren family.
In his article "As I Lay Dying: Christian Lore and Irony", Blotner develops his thesis by briefly summarizing the Old Testament story of Noah and the flood, as well as very quickly mentioning the story of Mary and the Virgin birth. While Noah’s family was better off after the great flood, the Bundrens were worse off, as Darl was now thrown in an insane asylum, Dewey Dell was preparing to birth her bastard child, Cash has an infected leg and will be unable to walk for almost a year, and Anse is even more foul of a human being than when the novel started. Although there is a stark contrast between Faulkner’s story and the story of Noah that he draws from, Blotner uses James Joyce’s Ulysses to lend support to his argument, stating that:
“…when he used Greek myth in Ulysses:
to show, by comparison with the heroic figures of ancient times,
the low estate to which modern man has fallen” (14).
At first glance, Blotner’s argument is unconvincing, and it is not until he compares other novelists’ use of mythology to show the stark contract between god and man that his argument becomes clear. There is no arguing that Faulkner was influenced heavily by his Christian upbringing. Whether positively or negatively, it rears its head in every one of his works.
Addie is nothing like Mary. Mary conceived Jesus through the power of God, remaining a virgin, and remaining faithful to His request. Addie conceived Jewel from an affair with a holy man, the town minister, Whitfield. Jewel is angry, selfish, and does not have anything in common with Jesus other than the first letter of their names. However, Jewel represented a sort of salvation for his mother, as she tells Cora Tull that he is her cross and her salvation, presenting what she perceives as not only salvation from her own sins, but perhaps salvation from the miserable, unhappy life she was living. She bestowed her hopes and dreams onto Jewel because he was the only child she had that was not fathered by her hateful husband, Anse. Although these reasons stand in direct opposition of the purity in Jesus’ story, the biblical reference almost humanizes Addie and Jewel more, making them seem all the more flawed because of their delusions.
Blotner takes us back to the story of Noah and the reasons why he built the ark. He built it because God told him there would be a flood to wash away all the depraved hedonism, so Noah’s job was to save a male and female animal of each species in order to ensure that they all live on. Noah brings his family aboard the ark as well, and they remain there for 40 days and 40 nights. Noah’s reasons were pure, which is in stark contrast to many members of the Bundren family. Anse does not travel to Jefferson to fulfill his wife’s wishes, he does so to get a set of false teeth, and as we find out at the end of the novel, to find a replacement wife.
Dewey Dell goes to Jefferson to find someone or something that can help abort her unborn and unwanted child, and Cash goes to barter over the gramophone he wants. Jewel, the pseudo Christ-like figure of the novel, is the only character whose intentions for going to Jefferson seem honorable. Blotner also draws smaller parallels, such as how both Noah and Anse could feel the rain coming, and how there was a building of the ark with Noah, and a building of the coffin with Anse.
This review by Blotner serves as a New Criticism, as it focuses on the underlying text, analyzing the symbolism and imagery found in the novel, and while the writer makes many strong points that force the reader to think more deeply about the religious undertones in As I Lay Dying, I feel that he did not successfully support the second part of his thesis, which was that Faulkner used Christian inferences to
“throw light on the status of the Bundrens
in the world of Yoknapatawpha County” (14).
Blotner provides nothing that lends support to this statement, and he makes the assumption that readers of this review can draw the correlations themselves. What he does do is prove that this is a flaw in his argument by quoting an essay written by Olga Vickery, where she wrote:
“Faulkner has not yet made clear the significance
of the social and economic level represented
by the Bundrens in his saga” (14).
Blotner uses Vickery’s essay to show that the Bundrens, in their low socio-economic status, embody the vices of the environment they live in, and that perhaps that is why all the members of that family live a rather meaningless and selfish existence.
Blotner writes that Anse replacing his late wife with a new one is “a symbol of the mechanized civilization which Faulkner sees as overcoming much of the South” (19). Perhaps what readers are supposed to gather from this is that each character’s actions in the novel were mechanized, more about going through the motions than about actually honoring the dead. The Bible could be viewed as a mechanized book, full of rules and regulations that force humans into decisions that they sometimes don’t internally agree with. Perhaps this is where the biblical teachings have brought them, to a place of mechanization, to living a mechanized life.
On the other hand, maybe readers are supposed to see where the lack of religion took the Bundrens, as they weren’t an entirely religious family, and were rather immoral and self-centered. By providing Christian inferences of the pure Noah and the Virgin Mary, it sheds light on just how dark many of the members of the Bundren family were, and that perhaps there darkness had something to do with the low socio-economic status they were part of. While this is an inference I can make as a reader, Blotner fails to draw this conclusion, maintaining a rather broad stance regarding the connection between the Bundren’s social status and the religious overtones of the novel.
In either case, Bundren's article does an excellent job in helping the reader understand the depth of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. As we continue on in this Southern Gothic month, pay special attention to the threads that bind these different forms of art together, to the various elements that they have in common. With Light in August, we saw struggles between varying socioeconomic groups, we dealt with issues of race and a woman being shunned for having a child out of wedlock. Here in As I Lay Dying, religion is at the forefront, as Faulkner grapples tradition, motive, and the battle between good and evil. Focus on these topics and take note of them. By the end of October, you will discover not only how much the genre has challenged you, but how much it has changed you, as well.