Research Proposal: Effect of Family Structure on Children in as I Lay Dying

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Family Dysfunction, Economic Distress, and Sexual Tension in as I Lay Dying

William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying presents the story of the poor and dysfunctional Bundren family in Mississippi, as they take their deceased wife and mother, Addie, from their home to a town that lays a day's ride away for burial. It is told in a number of narratives from different characters who take part in the story, including family members and townsfolk. The stream of conscious style of storytelling relays an intriguing blend of honesty, brutality, and weirdness that is characteristic of many of Faulkner's tales of the South. Each chapter presents a piece of a puzzle that must be put together in the reader's mind in order to get a clear picture of the action, the motives of the characters, and the universal themes. Once the reading is completed, however, the picture that emerges is distinctly clear. It is one of a deeply disturbing family dynamic in which every member of the Bundren family serves to perpetuate some particular contribution to an overall family sickness. The reasons for this dysfunction are numerous, but sexuality and poverty are perhaps the most important. These factors affect all of the family members in one way or another, but the children are particularly affected negatively.

In this paper, the dynamic of the Bundren family dysfunction will be analyzed in order to show how each person in the family responded to what might be called the life of the family. The characters will be discussed in turn, following a brief plot exposition, and their contributions to the story as narrators and to the action as actors within the story will be summarized in order to show how Faulkner displayed a group of people who were related not only by familial ties, but also by a kind of universal meanness and pettiness that offers little hope for salvation and reward in the midst of their group struggle. Following this summary, social and sexual themes in the novel will be discussed in order to show how Faulkner built the story as a kind of descent into hell for the deceased woman who, due to her station in life and through her past actions and those of her family in the moment, seems to deserve what she gets. These themes play an important role in driving the family dysfunction.

Basic Family Structure

The Bundren family includes seven people. The mother, Addie, is the deceased who serves as the namesake "I" in the novel's title. The father, Anse, is her lifelong partner, but it has been a partnership built on something other than love and trust. Cash is the eldest child, a son, and he is known, as the novel opens, to be a skilled carpenter. Darl is the second eldest child, also a son, and it is he who seems to be the most articulate and sensitive member of the family. Jewel, is the third son in the family, a bastard offspring of Addie and the family's minister, and is thought by most people to be a self-centered hothead. Next in line of age order comes Dewey Dell, the family's only daughter, who turns out to be pregnant as the novel opens. Finally, there is Vardaman, the baby of the family, an innocent and imaginative child who has yet to reach full maturity.

The basic family structure is a critical element in Faulkner's construction of the story's overall meaning. By developing the story so that the family is dominated (in number, at least) by men, Faulkner suggests that there is a patriarchy ordering of the family. By showing the father to be a manipulative, freeloading, selfish man -- called by one of the townsfolk who makes an appearance "a lazy man, who hates moving" (114) -- he suggests that the family's problems are caused largely by the father. Wadlington (1992) argues that in fact this is largely true, as the family's economic problems lie at the center of their trouble, and that the master of the house is an economic incompetent. However, as the tale unfolds, and three older brothers display characteristics of sons who were never shown proper love and acceptance by their mother, a psychological interpretation of the novel also becomes possible which suggests that the dead woman, rejecting her children and her role as mother, is the true source of dysfunction.

Basic Plot Structure

In order to discuss the characters fully, an understanding of the novel's action is required. This is due to the fact that the style of storytelling that Faulkner uses is non-linear and experimental. There is a definite flow of events that occur in the story, but because of the multiple narratives and narrators, it is impossible to describe any one character in detail without outlining what all of the characters in the story, including the townsfolk, have said about the story. The story is told through a kind of rumor mill, with each character adding his or her part, so that an eventual whole becomes clear. The part of the story that is of interest here is only the part that shows how each family member served to move the action forward. Other characters will not be discussed.

As the novel opens Addie is very ill and is about to die. Cash builds her a coffin, right outside her bedroom window. Darl and Jewel leave town to make a delivery for a neighbor. Vardaman, the child catches a fish and kills and cleans it, only later to associate his dead mother with the fish. Cash completes the coffin and they put the dead woman inside. Vardaman, troubled because he can't see his mother inside the box, bores holes in the coffin, which go through the dead woman's face. Dewey Dell barely mourns her mother because she is so worried about her own pregnancy problems. A funeral is held and the men stand on the porch talking rather than going inside to participate. Darl and Jewel return and find buzzards flying overhead, telling them their mother is dead. Darl had already known this because he had a vision of her death. Darl taunts Jewel by telling him not to worry that the buzzards are flying, not because his beloved horse is dead, but because their mother is dead.

Addie had made Anse promise to bury her in the town of Jefferson. This requires the family to tote the coffin across the Mississippi countryside. Anse is willing to do this because he also wants to get a new set of teeth while they are in town. The family loads the coffin on a wagon largely on the effort of Jewel, as Cash has broken his leg at work and the others seem not to care much. Jewel refuses to ride in the wagon, but follows on his horse.

As the Bundrens reach a bridge they are told it is impassible due to flooding. They attempt to cross at a ford, only to have the wagon overturned. The coffin is knocked out and the family's mules drown. Cash breaks his leg again. Jewel saves the coffin and the family searches the banks for Cash's tools.

A brief interlude shows, through a narration by the dead woman, that Jewel is the illegitimate son of Addie and the family's reverend.

A vet sets Cash's leg. In order to buy new mules Anse mortgages his farm equipment, takes money Cash was saving for a record player, and trades Jewel's horse. The journey continues, and in the next town Dewey Dell attempts to get an abortion but is denied by the pharmacist. Darl makes a cast for Cash's leg out of cement which eventually irritates the leg, threatening to make it so diseased that the leg will be lost. The family eventually takes to chipping away at the cement cast to get it off. As the family stops for the night, Darl, attempts to burn down a barn where the wagon was being kept, in an effort to end the journey and incinerate the mother's coffin. Jewel rescues the mules, and then risks his life to get the coffin out.

Finally the family arrives in Jefferson and they bury the mother. They decide to have Darl committed to a mental institution because this will save them from having to pay for the barn that he burned down. Dewey Dell attempts a second time to get an abortion, only to have a pharmacist trick her into sex in exchange for a fake cure. As the novel ends, the family loads into the wagon to begin the journey back home. Anse appears with a new set of teeth and introduces the children to his new wife, a woman he met while borrowing shovels to bury Addie.

Analysis of Family Dysfunction

The action in the novel serves to provide a vehicle for describing the family dysfunction in As I Lay Dying. It shows the disloyalty and lack of motherly care of Addie. It shows the pettiness of… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Effect of Family Structure on Children in as I Lay Dying.  (2009, December 10).  Retrieved December 7, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/effect-family-structure-children-lay/787656

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"Effect of Family Structure on Children in as I Lay Dying."  Essaytown.com.  December 10, 2009.  Accessed December 7, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/effect-family-structure-children-lay/787656.