That’s what they mean by the love that passeth understanding: that pride, that furious desire to hide that abject nakedness which we bring here with us, . . . carry stubbornly and furiously with us into the earth again.
Peabody has these thoughts about the dying Addie Bundren at the end of Section 11. A seasoned doctor, Peabody approaches Addie’s situation with an objective, hard-nosed realism. Here, Peabody comments on Addie’s love for her favorite son, Jewel, who has refused to come to her and bid her farewell before setting out on a short trip, even though there is a good chance she will be dead when he returns. In Peabody’s mind, Addie’s love for Jewel is unrequited, and her determination to continue loving him with such force is a sign of stubbornness, irrationality, and pride. From our perspective, there is some irony in Peabody’s statement. Peabody does not know, for example, that Jewel is the product of Addie’s illicit, passionate affair with Whitfield and thus that her devotion to Jewel may not be as irrational as it seems. Additionally, Peabody says that Addie is no more than a “pack-horse” to Jewel, unaware that the living creature to which Jewel shows more devotion than any other happens to be a horse.
In making reference to the “love that passeth understanding,” Peabody invokes a reference to the biblical book Ephesians, in which the same phrase is used to describe the love of Christ (Ephesians 3:19). Peabody’s use of a biblical reference to describe a very human relationship demonstrates the degree to which the characters in the novel understand their experiences along religious lines. As I Lay Dying is not itself didactic or moralistic, and Faulkner’s aim is not to suggest that God is exercising judgment upon the Bundrens. However, this passage reveals the extent to which the characters themselves consciously and unconsciously interpret their lives using the values and explanations provided by the Bible.
“Jewel’s mother is a horse,” Darl said.
“Then mine can be a fish, can’t it, Darl?” I said.
. . .
“Then what is your ma, Darl?” I said.
“I haven’t got ere one,” Darl said. “Because if I had one, it is was. And if it was, it cant be is. Can it?”
Vardaman’s equation, in Section 24, of his mother’s death with the fish’s death at first seems a childish, illogical connection. This association, however, along with Darl’s linking of the question of existence to a matter of “was” versus “is,” allows these two uneducated characters to tackle the highly complex matters of death and existence. The bizarre nature of this exchange epitomizes the Bundrens’ inability to deal with Addie’s death in a rational way. For Darl, language has a peculiar control over Addie’s existence: he believes that she cannot be an “is,” or a thing that continues to exist, because she is a “was,” or a thing that no longer exists. For Vardaman, objects that are similar to each other become interchangeable: he assigns the role of his mother to the fish, for example, because the fish is dead like Addie. These somewhat systematic responses to Addie’s death demonstrate that Darl and Vardaman, like the rest of their family, are unable to have a healthy emotional response to death.
[W]ords dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at. . . . [M]otherhood 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.
The novel again turns a critical eye on language in this quotation, which is drawn from Section 40, the only section in the novel narrated by Addie Bundren. Addie describes her discovery that life is miserable as a sort of trick on the part of language, which promises fulfilling things but can deliver only empty words. To speak of something, this passage infers, is far easier, and leads to far more pleasant conclusions, than to experience it. This philosophy may partially explain the laconic nature of most of the novel’s characters, and their unwillingness to communicate with words, relying more heavily upon visual communication and action. One of the remarkable achievements of As I Lay Dying—a novel composed, of course, of nothing but words—is to show how a world in which verbal communication is ineffective or unreliable can be as rich with emotion and experience as one that is highly verbal.
Sometimes I think it aint none of us pure crazy and aint none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way. It’s like it aint so much what a fellow does, but it’s the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it.
Cash relates these thoughts in Section 53, as he discusses his family’s decision to commit his brother Darl to a mental institution after Darl burns down Gillespie’s barn in an attempt to destroy Addie’s corpse. Cash’s conclusion—that sanity is a relative term and that Darl’s apparent insanity is nothing more than his failure to conform to social norms—reflects an understanding of the radical subjectivity that the novel’s various narrative perspectives create. In light of the injury, property loss, and stench that the Bundrens’ attempt to bury Addie has created, Cash does appear to have a point with his suggestion that Darl is not insane. The reason that Darl, and not the rest of his family, is declared insane may be simply that the perspectives of the rest of the Bundren family outnumber his.
“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.
This passage, also narrated by Cash, ends the novel. Anse Bundren’s children have braved fire, flood, and humiliation to deliver their mother’s corpse to the gravesite she had chosen, and now, the day after she is buried, Anse appears sporting a set of false teeth and a new wife. There have been a number of ironic moments in the novel up to this point, but this last scene is the most ironic of all. As the final moment of the novel, it casts a shadow over the entire work—all of the events preceding it now appear either farcical or tragic. The image of the sheepish but proud Anse standing in front of his astonished brood with his new wife and false teeth certainly has its comic elements, but is especially cynical in light of the fact that this woman must certainly be the one who has loaned Anse the shovels with which to bury Addie. That the title of “Mrs. Bundren” can pass so easily from one woman to another makes us wonder if, in fact, Darl isn’t right to question whether any of us exist at all.
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