Discussion Topic

Grotesque characteristics and prominent social issues in As I Lay Dying

Summary:

In As I Lay Dying, grotesque characteristics include the decaying corpse of Addie Bundren and the physical and mental deformities of various characters. Prominent social issues addressed are poverty, the struggles of rural life, and familial dysfunction, highlighting the harsh realities of life in the American South during the early 20th century.

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What grotesque characteristics in As I Lay Dying reflect society at that time?

The bulk of the novel concerns the journey the Bundrens take to Jefferson to bury their dead matriarch Addie. The family is ignorant and grotesque. However, the term "grotesque" in literature primarily refers to distortions in what is normal social behavior or distortions in the appearance or treatment of the human body, dead or alive.

Addie, while dying, wants to see her coffin built, which some might find a grotesque wish. As the family is transporting her body the forty miles to Jefferson in a wagon, the rough coffin falls into a river. Later, the decomposing body, which has not been embalmed, begins to stink. This attracts vultures, which follow the family into Jefferson.

The daughter Dewey Dell wants to get to Jefferson to have an abortion. Cash injures his leg on the journey and the family, not wanting to stop to get him medical attention, set it themselves. It gangrenes by the time they get to Jefferson. Darl goes mad. Finally Anse, the shiftless father, remarries in Jefferson, perhaps a tad insensitive an act given how recently his first wife has died.

This is definitely not a family you would want to invite over for your polite dinner party as they certainly don't look or behave within social norms. However, the grotesque elements make the point that some in the rural south of that period lived lives of intense ignorance and deprivation, alienated from the rest of the society, and unable to cope adequately with their problems. Perhaps, Faullkner suggests this is what we all are when you strip away the veneer of civilized society.

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What grotesque characteristics in As I Lay Dying reflect society at that time?

The first thing to understand about Faulkner's work is that he was not writing about "society" in As I Lay Dying. He was writing about a rural sector of Southern society. There is no expectation that significant parallels might be drawn to a universal society. Faulkner's aim is to exemplify select segments of Southern society. It is true that there is the expectation that universal truths about human nature might be drawn from Southern narratives, but this expectation does not necessarily extend to the universalization of Southern society as revealed by Faulkner. Thus the question to ask is: "What do the grotesque characteristics say about rural Southern society at that time?"

One example of a grotesque characteristics to work with is the image of Addie, laying covered up to her neck, looking like a "nail" under the covers, being fanned by Eula and silently--in a silence foretelling the silence of death--watching Cash use the adze to shape her coffin. What this says about the rural Southern society that Faulkner was exemplifying is that niceties and refinements reflecting protected sensibilities of emotion were not a luxury accessible in that community for their dying community members.

In other words, the delicate protections of dying people from the harsh realities about to surround them are not given to dying people in the rural South that Faulkner depicts in As I Lay Dying. The dying are, on the contrary, face to face with the grotesque realities of death as they lay dying. In addition, Eula's fanning, which is uninterrupted by her flirtation with Darl as he walks through the hall passing the room where Addie lays dying, is another grotesque characteristic showing that not even respect is given the dying in that segment of the South.

It is Darl. He does not look in as he passes the door, Eula watches him as he goes on and passes from sight again toward the back. Her hand rises and touches her beads lightly, and then her hair. When she finds me watching her, her eyes go blank.

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What are the prominent social issues in As I Lay Dying?

Although race is an overwhelmingly important theme on William Faulkner's work, it is more of a background issue in As I Lay Dying than in his other novels. However, racial inequality for Faulkner was one of the defining issues of the South and was central to his characters' sense of identity.

Gender roles were also important for Faulkner. While Faulkner was not as deeply concerned about gender inequality as about race, he still movingly portrayed the effects of patriarchy in limiting the choices of female characters. Even women who are the victims of violence or spousal abuse stay in toxic situations due to lack of alternatives. Addie was trapped in a marriage in which she was unhappy and served almost as an unpaid servant.

Dewey Dell Bundren is a rape survivor seeking an illegal abortion. Poverty and laws both prevent her from having access to safe abortion despite being a teenage rape survivor. She also illustrates the problem of teen pregnancy and the way it can trap girls in a cycle of poverty and abuse.

Extreme poverty affects all the characters in the novel, limiting their choices and their ability to get adequate medical care, food, shelter, and other basics of life.

Mental health issues are prominent in the story of Darl Bundren and the way he is stigmatized by his family, although, as is true with other Faulkner characters, his apparent feeblemindedness belies a distinctive level of insight and empathy.

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What are the prominent social issues in As I Lay Dying?

The main social issues highlighted in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying are poverty and the oppression of women.

Poverty is a social issue that is explored by virtue of the fact that all of the characters are very poor. Their lack of money and resources drives much of their action in the novel. For example, in Cora Tull's first point-of-view chapter, she obsesses over cakes she has made for someone who then changed her mind and no longer wanted to buy the cakes. Her narrative repeats her concern for "cost" and "saving," indicating that even a seemingly minor event like this is a major problem in people's lives when they are living in poverty and barely surviving. As her daughter Kate tells Cora, "'But those rich town ladies can change their minds. Poor folks can't'" (7).

The Bundren family is also poor, perhaps in an even worse state than the Tulls. Only some of the Bundrens can work and earn money. The patriarch, Anse, is useless and claims to be injured so that he cannot contribute to the family finances. Darl and Jewel must leave their dying mother's side for the opportunity to make "three dollars," which is a sum the family cannot pass on. When they family gets to town to bury Addie, the townsfolk can easily take advantage of them due to their lack of education. The way the characters speak also indicates their probable illiteracy due to their low status.

Speaking of Bundren characters being taken advantage of, Dewey Dell illustrates how easily women can be manipulated, especially women who are poor, uneducated, and desperate. She has become pregnant and wants an abortion; however, MacGowan takes advantage of her ignorance and, it is presumed, rapes her. Dewey Dell is now the only woman in the family; as soon as Addie dies, Dewey Dell is expected to take over all the "female" responsibilities. She is to go cook dinner only moments after witnessing her mother's death. She has no female relative to go to for advice about her pregnancy. She is going to be expected to basically raise Vardaman, her younger brother, in addition to her own child.

In Addie's point-of-view chapter, we also learn how incompatible she was with the expectations for women in her time and society. She has no real interest in marrying Anse and after having Cash, she doesn't have much interest in having other children. She says she felt Anse "had tricked [her]" through marrying her, claiming to love her, and impregnating her with Darl. Clearly, Addie is uncomfortable with expectations placed upon women to be wives and mothers in the early-twentieth-century American South.

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What are the prominent social issues in As I Lay Dying?

Faulkner's As I Lay Dying does not rank high on the social issues pecking order, but here are a few:

Lack of education: Sex education is non-existent; Dewey Dell doesn't know how she got pregnant.  Anse puts Cash's leg in a cement cast.  Addie beats her students.  Peabody is an obese doctor who has to be pulled up the hill.  The family carts around a decaying body for eight days.  Needless to say, the Deep South needs education reform.

Mental illness: Vardaman does not understand death and thinks his mother is a fish.  Darl is committed to a mental hospital mainly because of his actions (barn burning), not based on a thorough psychiatric exam.  So, no one knows who's crazy or sane.  It's all based on social expectation, which--in an illegitimate society--is a recipe for disaster.  They're all probably nuts.  Or, in that society, they're all sane.  As Cash says:

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.

Social Class: the Bundrens are dirt poor and lazy.  Even their backwoods neighbors thumb their noses at them.  The Bundrens' idea of high society is Jefferson, where they get false teeth, a train, and a back-alley abortion.  They make the Beverly Hillbillies look sophisticated.

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