As I Lay Dying:
The Coming of Roads and a New Age for the Family and the Community

NAGAO Satoru

As I Lay Dying, which revolves around the burial journey of the Bundren family, is replete with references to roads. The roads the Bundrens take to bury the dead matriarch, Addie, have been recently constructed under a program of social reform and play a key role in bringing about changes in the marginal farming community of Frenchman's Bend. The Bundrens' procession to the distant town of Jefferson, which involves their interaction with neighbors and strangers on the roads, illuminates the family's position in relation to the early twenty century South trending toward modernization. The journey, at first, reveals changes in the arena of human relationships in Frenchman's Bend. The neighbors of the Bundrens gradually lose their foundation of rural conventions such as religious beliefs and mutual cooperation, which used to maintain the unity of the community. As they move from the country to the town of Jefferson, the Bundrens have to negotiate formidable obstacles in the urban atmosphere of town, through which they come to realize the necessity of coping with the modernized conditions of the South. In this sense, the roads in the novel function as the intersection of the family and the new age of the southern rural community. This essay explores the significance of roads and the Bundren's journey in the context of the early twentieth century South, taking into consideration the family's relations to their community in transition

I: Roads and the Community

     The Bundrens live in an isolated farming village in southeastern Yoknapatawpha County. Verson Tull notes that improvements came to the roads in this village and the access to the town of Jefferson has become a little easier than before: "with the roads like they are now, it wont take you no time to get her to town" (AILD 18). Such improvements in the roads enhance traffic flow and encourage the distribution of materials, information, and technologies. In addition, the road construction, which necessitated clearing woods, brings about the new industry of sawmilling in the village. The conversation between Cash and Darl mentions the emergence of sawmills, suggesting that Vernon Tull paid off his mortgage with timber.
     Yet, "the roads like they are now" are, in effect, crudely constructed and poorly maintained with a lot of stumps remaining; they are vulnerable to periodic floods in northern Mississippi, and a day of rain can turn the roads into quagmires. The major reason for delaying the burial journey is that the flooded road along the river requires a lengthy detour for the Bundren family. Observing the impassable road with his brothers, Darl narrates:

He [Cash] looks about quietly, at the position of the trees, leaning this way and that, looking back along the floorless road shaped vaguely high in air by the position of the lopped and felled trees, as if the road too had been soaked free of earth and floated upward, to leave in its spectral tracing a monument to a still more profound desolation than this above which we now sit, talking quietly of old security and old trivial things. (AILD 143)
Darl's description that the road looks "floorless" and "soaked free of earth and floated upward" implies the incompleteness of road maintenance in Frenchman's Bend. The present "desolation" or ruggedness of the road before Darl and Cash reminds them nostalgically of "old security and old trivial things." Whereas the road construction accompanied by deforestation raises the possibility of a new industry, sawmilling, its incompleteness causes huge inconvenience and difficulties to the villagers and makes them think back to "old security." Likewise, Anse tells us "it seems hard that a man in his need could be so flouted by a road" (AILD 38), grieving over the fact that the road construction throws the people into confusion. Hence, "the roads like they are now" take on conflicting meanings: while leading Frenchman's Bend toward modernization and urbanization, the roads leave the people stranded in the middle of nowhere, stuck in the mud.
     Road issues in Frenchman's Bend might be well understood by looking into the case of the "good roads movement," which promoted road improvements in the early twenty century South. According to Howard Lawrence Preston, the focus of the movement was to remedy rural farmers' difficulty of transporting their crops under deplorable road conditions (14-15). Don H. Doyle regards the good roads movement as the promotion of upgrading the communal systems of rural areas and ameliorating farmers' living conditions. Doyle mentions that the goal is "bringing more amenities of town--good roads, good schools, churches, mail delivery, electricity, and telephones--to the country" (345). Furthermore, the movement was regarded "as a way of halting the decline in rural values and, at the same time, of providing farmers with a way of coping with the isolation and cultural backwardness inherent in their way of life" (Preston 16).
     The good roads movement eventually failed to achieve the objective of giving benefits to farming communities for various reasons, one of which is farmers' reluctance to pay road taxes. As for the state of Mississippi, the total budget for road improvements in 1912 was a little over $18,000, and nearly $16,000 came from the road taxes (Doyle 346). Doyle then concludes that this "went against a deeply embedded southern tradition of limited taxation based on individual benefit" (346). In the novel, Anse expresses his resentment toward taxation just as a majority of southern farmers of the time did: "Putting it where every bad luck prowling can find it and come straight to my door, charging me taxes on top of it" (AILD 36). According to Preston, in the 1910s, "the emphasis of the good roads movement shifted to the construction of interstate tourist highways instead of local farm-to-market roads" (40). This shift in the movement lead to wider economic disparities between urban areas within interstate highway networks and rural communities outside them.
     The historical background of the good roads movement helps us understand the communal issues of Frenchman's Bend. Although road improvements came to this village, showing a sign of modernization and urbanization, they do not become a panacea for its longstanding problem of backwardness. The transitional landscape of Frenchman's Bend indeed casts a shadow over the villagers who are wavering between convention and modernization. Some of the narrators from Frenchman's Bend insist on maintaining conventional rural customs and religious beliefs, despite their inner desire to cope with the tide of materialism and to enter the town's market economy. Cora Tull, who is trying to increase the net value of her flock, shows an interest in utilitarian values and in the town's market economy, whereas she makes remarks about her belief in spiritual and heavenly values. With all her interest in practical economics, Cora in her narrative interprets many aspects of her daily life within a conventional religious framework: "Riches is nothing in the face of the Lord, for He can see into the heart" (AILD 7). Similarly, Anse, whose behavior displays his desire to acquire utilitarian goods, uses religious rhetoric to give importance not to worldly gains but to heavenly rewards: "Every man will be equal there and it will be taken from them that have and give to them that have not by the Lord" (AILD 110). Such religious cliches, which Cora and Anse frequently use, reflect the conventional method of understanding hardships of everyday life in their farming community, but it does not correspond with their motives to cope with the trend of commodified economics in town.
     Not only Anse but also the other Bundrens are wavering between the conventional code of manners and the materialistic trend. The ostensible purpose of their burial journey is to follow the family convention of fulfilling the deceased's will, but they secretly consider it a good chance to gain goods available in Jefferson such as set of false teeth, record players, abortion pills, toy trains and bananas. Jewel, who does not regard the journey as a chance to obtain what he wants, occasionally sets the pursuit of his personal profits over family cooperation. Jewel at fifteen, neglecting his task in his family's cotton field, secretly begins to work at Lon Quick's field to earn cash for his own horse. As John T. Matthews points out, the Bundren's family relationship indicates that money "silently constitutes and openly mediates the family in the agricultural South" (76). Since road improvements contribute to the permeation of modern values through the community, the Bundren people gradually lose the traditional agrarian code of family cooperation and lean toward individualism.
     Critical changes in family and community lead Anse to his speculation about roads. His first monologue, beginning with, "Durn the road," explains his antipathy to roads, which he believes the cause of his family problems: "Putting it [the road] where every bad luck prowling can find it and come straight to my door, charging me taxes on top of it. . . . trying to shorthand me with the law" (AILD 36-37). In Anse's view, roads, tempting people to move, are against human nature because human beings are meant to be sedimentary and to spend their life rooted in one place: "He [God] aimed for them to stay put like a tree or a stand of corn" (AILD 36). Anse also complains that roads provide access to the state authority, which invades the family land, levies taxes on poor rural farmers, and drafts Darl into World War I. Anse's complaint about the coming of roads represents his will to maintain stability in his daily life by following preexisting conventions and traditions, but the reality betrays him. As Wesley Morris notes, the Bundrens, "like so many small farmers in the South at the end of the twenties, seem posed unknowingly on the brink of a treacherous transition" (31). Accordingly, the journey to Jefferson reveals the influence of communal changes on the Bundrens and functions to contextualize the family in the early twenty century Mississippi.

II: "Private" Motives on "Public" Roads

     In his discussion with Jewel about the need to transport Addie's body in the family wagon, Anse insists that the burial journey should be treated as a "private" matter: "She'll rest easier for knowing it's a good one, and private" (AILD 18). Indeed, Anse prepares the journey to fulfill his "private" contract with his wife to bury her in the cemetery in Jefferson, but it is inevitably exposed to the public eye on the roads. Once the Bundrens hit the road, their "private" journey falls within the public domain, where their personal motives and behaviors are interpreted on the basis of the conventions and moral code of their community. As they proceed from country to town, the Bundrens will interact with a variety of people such as a marshal, a druggist and a shop clerk, whose interpretations of the journey are based not only on conventions and morals but also on elements such as the state law and commercialism.
     Even though the language creates connection with others in the community, the cliches of the Bundrens' neighbors do not necessarily correspond with their inner reality. In spite of their critical comments on the Bundrens' unconventional treatment of Addie, the neighbors are reluctant to get involved in the matter and just take a detached stance: one of the neighbors, Armstid, says, "I aint much for meddling. Let every man run his own business to suit himself" (AILD 114). As the community is inclined to modernization, the conventions and traditional moral principles function only on the verbal level.
     Throughout their journey, the Bundren people seemingly work together to overcome all the obstacles, although they conceal their antagonism against each other. Darl and Jewel are vying with each other for their mother's affection. Dewey Dell, who is secretive about her pregnancy, is so afraid of her brother Darl that she even imagines stabbing him, because she believes that he has intuited her condition. The father Anse never deals with conflicts among his children, thinking only of his own profits. In spite of insecurity in their family relationship, the Bundrens continue their journey, not only because they follow the convention of executing a deceased person's will but also because they are motivated to get goods available at shops in Jefferson. Passing by on the hilly road to Jefferson, the Bundrens see the commercial district of the town that has "the drug stores, the clothing stores, the patent medicine and the garages and cafes" (AILD 226). Such a scene reflects the influence of the urban material culture and commercialism on the Bundrens who gradually lose a conventional sense of family unity inherent in the traditional farming community.
     At the moment of the Bundrens' arrival in Mottson, Addie's putrefying body begins to emit an offensive odor, which attracts buzzards and makes passersby put their handkerchiefs to their noses. When the Bundrens stop their wagon at the hardware store, the local marshal appears and tells them to leave, because their presence on the public street is offensive to the town of Mottson. Anse attempts to justify their presence by insisting on individual rights on "a public street" where he "can stop to buy something same as airy other man" (AILD 204). Then the marshal argues with him by emphasizing on the individual obligation to comply with laws and social orders: "you get this thing buried soon as you can. Dont you know you are liable to jail for endangering the public health?" (AILD 204). The family's "private" journey, which unfolds on the "public" venue of roads and streets, unavoidably falls under the jurisdiction of the state and necessitates their obedience to the marshal as a representative of the state. The Bundrens' encounter with the marshal who claims the legal invalidity of their behavior demonstrates how the state authority comes to exercise a decisive influence upon the individual and the family.
     The legal control over individual behaviors can be seen in Dewey Dell's failed attempts to obtain abortion pills in Mottson and Jefferson. At the drugstore in Mottson, Moseley refuses to sell pills by claiming himself to be a "respectable druggist" as well as "a church member for fifty-six years" (AILD 202). He goes on to tell Dewey Dell that he will take a legal action against anyone who said he sells abortion pills: "If he did or mentioned my name, I defy him to prove it. I defy him to repeat it or I'll prosecute him to the full extent of the law" (AILD 202). Moseley's anti-abortion rhetoric reflects the legal background of the 1920s that "every state had enacted laws against abortion which forbade distribution of birth control and abortion information" (Henninger 29). In the same way, MacGowan, a clerk at the drugstore in Jefferson, claims that it is "against the law" for a doctor to give abortion information (AILD 246). Dewey Dell's inability as a purchaser suggests that the purchase of goods is the pursuit of individual desires and freedom in a consumer market, but it accompanies with legal restrictions at the same time.
     To be sure, the coming of the roads brings about changes occurring in the Bundren family and their community, and the burial journey elucidates the family's dealings with these changes. As his first monologue suggests, Anse believes before the journey that the road construction brings the law and the military within reach of the family, leading to Darl's being drafted into a war. In fact, Darl's draft status is a pretext for what will happen to him during the journey. Darl, who sets fire to Gillespie's barn where Addie's coffin is kept, is declared to be legally insane and brought over to the state asylum in Jackson; otherwise Gillespie would sue the Bundrens for the arson and appeal for compensation. As Patrick O'Donnell points out, "Darl becomes the necessary sacrifice who will be given over to the State to satisfy the legalities that ensue as a result of the Bundrens' peregrinations" (91).
     Faulkner later attributes Darl's arson to his opposition to the meandering journey of parading his loved mother's corpse around for several days: "that was a violation of some concept, some shape of beauty, to drag that dead putrefying body around any further" (FU 110). What Faulkner calls "some shape of beauty" in Darl's mind might be, as Warwick Wadlington notes, "his desire for a dramatic end, to make death a significant one-time event rather than a wearing repetitive process of social life itself" (68-69). Indeed, Darl laments that the burial journey, which is degraded into a part of daily routine to be followed in a state of conventional inertia, does not make Addie's death a dramatic or significant event: "How do our lives ravel out into the no-wind, no-sound, the weary gestures wearily recapitulant" (AILD 207). As Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury imagines his suicide as a heroic deed, Darl sets fire to his mother's coffin in the barn to make her end a dramatic ritual. Despite his motive for the dramatic ritual, Darl is labeled as insane and then incarcerated in the asylum.
     Cash's last monologue mentions the Bundrens' life after the journey. In Jefferson, Anse introduces to his children his new wife, with whom the family return to their everyday life in Frenchman's Bend. The family get together after work to enjoy listening to mail-order records on the "graphophone" that the new wife has brought, and this new entertainment symbolizes the immersion of material culture in their family life. Lamenting over the absence of Darl who is not able to enjoy music on the record player, Cash justifies the family's decision to give over Darl to the state: "I would think what a shame Dark couldn't be to enjoy it too. But it is better so for him. This world is not his world; this life his life" (AILD 261). The transformation of the family, in particular, Darl's absence and Anse's remarriage, seems indispensable for the family continuance in the community moving toward modernization.
     Ultimately, the roads and the journey in As I Lay Dying elucidate the Bundren family's relations to their community in transition. The coming of the roads signals the influx of modern values such as materialism and legal obligations into the community, where conventions and traditional moral values gradually lose their force, becoming only an ostensible connection among the neighbors. The Bundrens' procession from country to town is indeed parallel to the family's transformation in accordance with the community's modernization. Although they seem to lose their organic family unity, the Bundrens transform their family to accommodate themselves to changes occurring in the community. Twenty-six years after the publication of the novel, Faulkner comments that the "Bundren family pretty well coped with theirs [their fate]" (LIG 254). Contrary to Quentin Compson and Emily Grierson, who are fixated on the southern aristocratic tradition, the Bundrens, minus Darl, represent the power of endurance in a transitional period of the South.


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Copyright (c)2004 NAGAO Satoru