As I Lay Dying

by: William Faulkner

Sections 40–45

Analysis

The sudden introduction of Addie’s voice into the narrative is puzzling, and, like Darl’s uncanny ability early in the novel to know what is happening at home even though he is nowhere nearby, Addie’s monologue defies logical explanation. It is, however, quite well placed, and provides us with more perspective on the characters. Addie’s description of Anse as a disheveled bachelor, and of their courtship as brief and matter-of-fact, accounts for his seeming lack of concern for Addie’s death and his various failures as a father. Once we learn that Jewel is an illegitimate son, the mystery behind Addie’s intense attachment to him is solved. For all the value we place on Addie’s commentary, however, she herself has little faith in words, and understands their limits. After giving birth to Cash, she expresses her disillusionment by proclaiming that “[w]ords were no good.” The words “marriage” and “motherhood” have been robbed of their expressiveness, and no longer have anything to do with Addie’s experience. Just as linguistic representations of the abstract concepts of marriage and motherhood have become meaningless for Addie, so have the actual institutions been stripped of their positive qualities.

Addie’s disillusionment with religion points to a deeper preoccupation in the novel with the extent to which religion, sin, and morality determine the actions of the characters. Although these elements factor heavily into the events of the novel, Faulkner is rarely moralistic or judgmental: although some characters know what is right and wrong, they often feel free to disregard that awareness, while other characters, such as Addie, are confused about what is morally correct in the first place.

Addie’s spiritual crisis stands in stark contrast with that of Whitfield, whose spiritual integrity remains untarnished in spite of all his failings. Whitfield’s strong and pronounced resolution to confess all to Anse dissipates as soon as Whitfield learns of Addie’s death, and he lamely justifies himself by claiming that God will accept his intention to confess in place of the actual confession. This weakness, however, does not cost Whitfield any of his esteem, and Faulkner shows a rather undisguised contempt for the clergy in this passage. Perhaps the greatest irony occurs with Cora’s condemnation of Addie for her pride and her statement that not even Whitfield’s prayers can save Addie from her vanity. Soon after the words are out of Cora’s mouth, however, we learn about the affair, and Whitfield’s whole character is unveiled to us as a sham. In fact, Whitfield’s spiritual hypocrisy is similar to Anse’s shameless exploitation of religious faith to justify his own interests. Whitfield, however, retains the admiration of the community, whereas Anse seems to be more or less despised. The contrast between the difficulty that the Bundrens face in crossing the river and Whitfield’s relatively easy passage to apparent absolution strongly hints that divine justice is unfair.