Darl's Arson in As I Lay Dying:
An Incestuous Desire for His Mother / An Indictment of the Postwar South


     In As I Lay Dying (1930), the fifth novel by William Faulkner, Darl Bundren sets fire to a cabin where his mother's coffin lies on its way to burial.  This "matricide" episode has been explained mainly from the viewpoint of Darl's "madness," but in this essay I will argue that the episode reflects a view of the southern history of defeat since the Civil War.  Considering in particular the historical situation of the South, I will clarify the relationship between Darl's mother Addie Bundren and her father or her husband and elucidate the factors that lie behind Darl's "madness."  Focusing on the problem of his mother, I will reconsider the meaning of his "arson" and show that the "arson" is an expression of his "incestuous desire" for his mother and an "indictment" of southern postwar culture.  One further point is Faulkner's attitude when he described the Bundrens' expulsion of Darl to an asylum.  Faulkner created and exiled his alter ego Darl, but the reason why he had to exile him has not been examined sufficiently.  I aim to demonstrate the relation between this apparent self-exile and Faulkner's attitudes toward writing—Faulkner ostracizes his "persona" in order to survive, as a writer, in the South.

     As many scholars point out, the main cause of Darl's "madness" lies in "the absence of his mother's love."1  However, it should also be emphasized that the absence is derived from "the fall of paternity."  The fall is clearly reflected in the nihilism of Addie's father and in the idleness and languor of her husband.  Addie's father used to say that "the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time" (AILD 169), and she ruminated over these nihilistic words throughout her life.  As her life as an instructor of selfish pupils was the only way to get ready to stay dead, she clearly hated her father.  Her life was a confrontation with her abominable father and in particular with his nihilistic view that life is premised and encroached on by death.

     The background of this nihilistic thought is related with the defeat of the South in the Civil War and the climate of the postbellum South.  Faulkner repeatedly introduces the theme of the fall of paternity after the War in several of his works; for example, there is Mr. Compson's fall in The Sound and the Fury (1929).  He becomes an alcoholic in order to avoid facing his family's decline and fills his son Quentin Compson's mind with his nihilistic aphorisms.  He warns him of the vacuity of the life: even if a man wants to live with hope and desire, he is fated to die, and even if he resists time, he will be defeated by it and learn only his own folly and desire.  His monologue "no battle [with time] is ever won" (SF 76) expresses the melancholy and nihilism that fell upon the father who observes the fall of his family.

     What has to be noticed is that Mr. Compson and Addie's father belong to the same generation.  Probably Addie's father did not belong to the same social class as that of Mr. Compson, but it is obvious that he was as a man of the town, Jefferson, like Mr. Compson and lived in the same spiritual climate of life overshadowed by death.  As Mr. Compson thought that "Man [is] the sum of his climatic experiences" (SF 123-24), Addie's father was also substantively influenced by the postwar climate.  After the Civil War, Addie's father could no longer support the family as a strong father and lost his paternal role in integrating the family.  He could not find any hope in the present, but in order to give some meaning to his vain life, he held the view that the meaning of life is "to get ready to stay dead."

     Turning now to Addie's husband Anse Bundren, his languor is also under the influence of the postwar South.  Anse, a poor white man from Frenchman's Bend, does not cherish the thought of a life overshadowed by death like Addie's father.  However, since Cleanth Brooks evaluated him as "one of Faulkner's most accomplished villains" and a man "like a ferret" (154), many scholars have criticized his selfish and lazy behavior.  Although Daniel Singal, one of a few scholars who praise Anse, sees him as a man "struggling to maintain his human dignity" (147), there is no doubt that the family members regard him as indolent and lethargic and that his wife Addie entertains hatred for him.  It is clear that he loses his paternal role as well.

     The factors that lie behind Anse's languor are twofold.  One is the control of social conventions.  Shin Moonsu maintains that peasants like the Bundrens are circumscribed by social prejudices and conventions and that Anse, who grew up in the "Bible Belt" culture, "is never free from the dark determinism and helplessness," so Anse is deprived of the positive energy to create his own life.  The other is the farmers' economic plight: Anse himself says that "Nowhere in this sinful world can a honest, hardworking man profit.  It takes them that runs the stores in the towns, doing no sweating, living off of them that sweats.  It aint the hardworking man, the farmer" (AILD 110).  The farmers were placed in a predicament after the Civil War because the plantation system continued to exist as a sharecropping system, the exploitation of labor relations dependant upon a cheap labor force and the rule over the land continued, and the economic disparity between town and village grew.  His monologue is, however, self-righteous.  He shuts his eyes to his idleness.  If we consider that in The Hamlet (1940) Flem Snopes harbors the ambition of advancement in the society and rises from the status of a poor white man in Frenchman's Bend to that of a vice-president of the Sartoris Bank in Jefferson, we cannot seek the cause of Anse's torpor in the postwar climate alone.  He lacks both the willingness and resources for social advancement.  Although such a lack is not reduced to innate qualities, we can say that the postwar poverty is at least one of the factors that discourage him from surmounting the status quo.

     When Doctor Peabody blames Anse for not calling him earlier for his wife's medical examination, Anse answers that he does not grudge the money, though he does in his heart and has kept thinking about it.  Hearing these words, Peabody thinks, "That's the one trouble with this country: everything, weather, all, hangs on too long.  Like our rivers, our land: opaque, slow, violent; shaping and creating the life of man in its implacable and brooding image" (AILD 45).  Because industry in the postwar South lagged behind that of the North, and the economy stagnated, the southern farmers were compelled to live poor lives.  The deficiency of changes in their lives caused their indecisive and sluggish behavior and their undeveloped modes of thinking.  Anse's languor results from the economic stagnation and the spiritual quandary in the postwar South. 

     Thus the paternal role fell: Addie's father conceived the idea of life overshadowed by death, and her languid husband stopped working and could not unite his family.  Then why did Addie, by living with such a father and husband, lose affection for her son Darl?  When she conceived the eldest son, Cash Bundren, Addie realized that "living was terrible" and "words are no good" and came to think that her "aloneness had been violated" through deeds (AILD 171-72).  Then when she conceived and gave birth to a second son Darl, she came to believe that "father had been right" (AILD 173).  By losing the confrontation with her father, her life became one of preparing for her death, and Darl became for her a son who was born to prepare for his death.  Moreover, through her second pregnancy she experienced Anse's destruction of a distinction that she made clearly between words and deeds.  She felt fierce anger at her lazy husband as she "believed that [she] would kill Anse" (AILD 172).  As an act of revenge, she made Anse promise to take her body back to her hometown Jefferson after her death.  Mother had to lose "motherhood" for a son who was born in a rage against and vengeance upon her husband.

     Darl, who grew up without maternal affection, is distressed at the sense of his mother's absence: "I cannot love my mother because I have no mother" (AILD 95).  Besides, he feels indignant at her through his relationship with his brother Jewel Bundren.  Darl recollects that Jewel at the age of fifteen bought a horse with money that he earned by cultivating a new field at night (AILD 128-36).  Mother was worried about Jewel who fell asleep in the daytime and got Dewey Dell and Vardaman to do his jobs or did them herself when Anse did not notice it.  At that time Darl first recognized that his mother, who taught her children that deceiving someone was the worst evil, did it herself and felt keenly that "she had to love him so that she had to act the deceit" (AILD 131).  Furthermore, when Jewel came home riding a horse, Darl found his mother sitting beside the sleeping Jewel and crying, and he knew intuitively that Jewel was an illegitimate child: "And then I knew that I knew" (AILD 136).  His craving for his mother's love, his indignation over the deception of his mother, who bore and reared an illegitimate child surreptitiously, and his envy and anger at Jewel were complicated emotions that deeply affected Darl as he grew up.

     After imagining in detail the scenes of his mother's death and the making of her coffin in the rain, he considers "How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home" (AILD 81).  Probably often imagining a "home" outside "home" since childhood, he was bred without finding his own place inside "home."  The imaginary scene of making the coffin is a self-confirmation of loss of maternity, which has now become decisive by his mother's actual death.  Due to his irrecoverable sense of loss, he doubts his own existence and starts to lose his identity: "I dont know what I am.  I dont know if I am or not" (AILD 80).

     Thus his thinking becomes abnormal.  Because he possesses an acute sensibility and even clairvoyance, he perceives the absence of rapport in the family, the love-hate relationships between its members, and each person's egocentric incentives to pursue the burial journey.  The journey looks so foolish and grotesque that he continues to laugh, "setting on the plank seat right above her where she was laying" (AILD 106), despite Anse's attempt to stop him.  After crossing the flooded river through hardships, his madness is heightened, and at night he sets the cabin where his mother's coffin lies on fire.

     The purpose of the "arson" is probably to destroy the smell of his mother's decomposing body, terminate the grotesque funeral journey continued for selfish motives, obstruct Jewel's action, and deprive Jewel of his mother.2  Darl, who does not have any personal motive to make the journey, is always conscious of his mother.  Moreover, the corpse's odor acutely brings back memories of his mother, and she becomes the object of his anguish.  He can no longer endure the anguish, and so he sets the cabin on fire.

     André Bleikasten states that the act can be explained by "his desire to avenge himself on Addie," and he asks, "could his act not be interpreted symbolically, as a last and desperate attempt to take possession of his mother?" (Faulkner's 88)  He also suggests that Darl sets the cabin on fire in order "to take possession of her at last through a second death of which he would be the sole cause" (Ink 188).  If we consider Darl's agony at the lack of maternal love, we may say that his act of arson is an attempt to appropriate his mother and to erase the sense of absence.

     In Darl's unconscious mind, however, there might lurk a more novel and ardent impulse:


When something is new and hard and bright, there ought to be something a little better for it than just being safe, since the safe things are just the things that folks have been doing so long they have worn the edges off and there's nothing to the doing of them that leaves a man to say, That was not done before and it cannot be done again. (AILD 132)


He thinks that when doing "something" "new and hard and bright," it should be something that nobody has done before and nobody will be able to do again.  He cannot do this "something" without an irresistible and compulsive idea.  Does not the act of arson correspond to this "something"?  The idea that drives him is to burn his mother's corpse.  Is it possible to say that his subconscious urge is a desire for "incest" with his mother because of his craving for his mother's love?  If so, it is precisely the ingenious, vehement and blazing act he imagines.

     In The Psychoanalysis of Fire, Gaston Bachelard notes a similarity between producing fire and loving a woman; considering Alchemy, he interprets one's internal drive as a burning fire within oneself, and, connecting the fire with the germ, he identifies it as "sexualized fire" (43).  In short, he examines the "sexualization" of the fire, and explains that the inner fire, the object of the meditation of the alchemist, can "open bodies" (53).  He says that "This eopening' of bodies, the possession of bodies from within, this total possession, is sometimes an obvious sexual act" (53).  In view of the sexual meaning of fire, we can also find sexual energy in Darl's flame.

     The important point to note here is that Quentin's love for his sister Caddy and his fantasy of incest with her in The Sound and the Fury stem from his craving for maternal love and that the place where he wishes to live with his sister and be free of the others is in flames.


If it could just be a hell beyond that: the clean flame the two of us more than dead.  Then you will have only me then only me then the two of us amid the pointing and the horror beyond the clean flame. . . . (SF 116)


Quentin imagines that they will fall into hell because of the horrible sin of incest, be enveloped in a clean flame, and suffer the torments of sin beyond the flame.  This imaginary scene shows the emergence of his desire to isolate her from the others, and interestingly enough, the imagery of flame is used.  As Bachelard argues, the flame is associated with sexual intercourse in the human mind.  Presumably Faulkner also subconsciously sensed the sexual meaning in flame, and in working his literary imagination, he associated incest with flame.  We may, therefore, conclude that when he has Darl set fire to his mother's corpse, Faulkner regards the act as an emergence of the unconscious desire for incest with the mother.

     Quentin is devoted to his sister as a substitute for his craving for his mother's love, and he associates her virginity with the honor of the family.  He cannot admit the fact of the loss of her virginity, so he imagines incest with her and uses the imagery of flame.  On the other hand, although Darl has a sister Dewey Dell, he does not see her as a substitute for his mother.  To put it more precisely, as Robert Dale Parker suggests, he seems to unconsciously feel a slight incestuous love for her, but it is not as clear and strong as Quentin's (55).  He, therefore, has to seek his mother's love directly, and so he sets fire to her corpse.  In other words, because of the lack of a substitute, he desperately attempts to possess her and to commit incest with her through the act of arson.  He develops both a hatred for her because of the absence of his mother's love and an unconscious desire for incest with her, and the ambivalent drive has no way but to emerge as the act of arson.

     The attempt, however, results in failure because Jewel carries his mother's coffin out of the burning cabin.  After that, Darl sheds tears lying on the coffin (AILD 225).  The act of lying on the coffin can be seen as a sexual gesture.  His are not the tears of chagrin at failure but a manifestation of his uncontrollable hatred of and desire for his mother.

     The root cause of Darl's arson is, as we have seen, the absence of his mother's love.  The origin of the absence is the fall of paternity of his mother's father and her husband, and the fall stems from the downfall of the southern society.  In seeing his loveless mother, Darl, possessing an acute sensibility, must have considered the cause of the absence of his mother's love, and he must have understood that it derives from his languid father, his nihilistic grandfather, and the ruin of the postwar South.  Behind the corpse that he sets fire to, he sees an offspring of the postwar southern society: the cultural plight of a climate rife with nihilism, the fall of paternity caused by economic misery, and the lack of maternal love.  For him his mother's corpse becomes "the symbol of the postwar South."  The arson, therefore, is the disclosure of the devastated postbellum southern society behind his mother; namely, a "new and hard and bright" "indictment" against his own country.3

     Faulkner's works include many episodes concerning a fire or flame.  To cite the examples in his works subsequent to The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, there are Popeye's grandmother's arson of a boarding house in Sanctuary (1931), Brown's arson of the Burdens' house in Light in August (1932), Clytie's arson of the Sutpens' house in Absalom, Absalom! (1936), and Abner's repeated arsons of barns in "Barn Burning" (1939) and The Hamlet.  Let us consider the arson of the plantation owners' barns by the sharecropper Abner.  His burning of the barns in which crops exploited from blacks and poor white men are stored is an act of wreaking his resentment against the landlord's exploitation of the underclass: an indictment of the exploitation.  Considering the episodes relating to fire, ranging from Quentin's flame in his imagination to Abner's arson in "Barn Burning," the meaning of fire transforms from "fire as incest" to "fire as indictment."  It seems reasonable to suppose that in this transformation, Darl's arson in As I Lay Dying, which was published between The Sound and the Fury and "Barn Burning," is a transitional phase between the two interpretations.

     Let us now return to the text.  The family catches Darl after the burial of Addie in Jefferson and sends him off to an asylum.  His life of arson and expulsion is painful.  What caused Faulkner to create such a figure and then exile him?  Several scholars see Darl as Faulkner's double because he shares with Faulkner an artistic psyche and Faulkner gives him a special perspective and allows him to imagine specific scenes in detail, even though he is not present, and also to narrate the inner thoughts of other characters with lucidity.  Above all, Bleikasten regards him as Faulkner's "principal narrator" and his "alter ego" and mentions that by making Darl his "scapegoat," he "achieved the immunity of the creator" (Faulkner's 90-91).  Bleikasten, however, does not refer to the reasons why Faulkner had to create his "alter ego" and to banish the created "alter ego" and why he needed his "scapegoat" Darl.

     Faulkner witnessed the plight of poor whites when in January 1929 he "accompanied his uncle John's campaign for a district attorney and saw in his own eyes the miserable living of that social class in the outskirts utterly different from Oxford" (Tanaka 145).  In As I Lay Dying, Faulkner, suggesting the influence of the postwar climate on poor whites through Peabody's monologue, describes the lives of poor whites who were mired in poverty due to the economic impoverishment in the aftermath of the Civil War.  Through Darl's arson he indicts the offspring of the postwar society: the fall of paternity by the collapse of the society, the loss of maternity, and the ruin of the son.  What was Faulkner's state of mind when he did so?

     It should be recalled here that W. J. Cash, who lived in the contemporary South, committed suicide after the publication of The Mind of the South (1941).  Some southerners felt a sense of guilt for criticizing the South and killed themselves, as Fred Hobson points out (8).  Cash is a typical example.  In his book, Cash identified the central theme of southern culture as "the savage ideal" (90): the absolute loyalty to southern traditions and customs, the thorough repudiation of their change, and the refusal of every new idea, regarding it as an invasion from outside.  He insisted that a defense mechanism based on the "ideal" made the southerner who denounced the South the object of ferocious exclusion.  After publishing that book, he left the South and took his life in Mexico.  The cause of his death has not been determined; scholars say that it resulted from guilt at his indictment of the South, fear of abuse from other southerners, feelings of emptiness or depression after the book's completion, and psychotic delirium (Hobson 270-73, Clayton 189-91).  However, we cannot deny at least that one fundamental reason for his leaving the South was related to what he called "the savage ideal."  He could no longer live in the South owing to his own criticism.

     According to Cash, Faulkner as well as other contemporary southern writers hated the South "with the exasperated hate of a lover who cannot persuade the object of his affections to his desire" (377).  Torn between affection and hatred for his homeland, Faulkner indicted it through his alter ego's arson.  In doing so, did he experience the same sense of guilt as that of Cash?

     Captured by his family, Darl ceases laughing and asks his elder brother Cash, "Do you want me to go [to a mental hospital]?"  Cash answers: "It'll be better for you" (AILD 238).  Although Cash shows a certain understanding of Darl's insanity, he banishes him, complying with the logic of the community without ever trying to grasp the true meaning of Darl's laughter.  We have to criticize Cash on this point; however, his character, shown in such behavior as bearing the pain of his broken leg and living on without falling into insanity like Darl, is somewhat similar to that of Faulkner, who did not go mad or commit suicide but lived his entire life in the South.  We can consider that one significant element of Faulkner's ethic, the spirit of "endurance," is projected on Cash.  Then, does not Cash's remarks quoted above start to echo as Faulkner's words of admonition?  Faulkner takes sides with a madman and delivers the indictment; however, he does not sympathize with and remain in the madman's world but exiles his alter ego, saying, "It'll be better for you."  In other words, he makes his alter ego a "scapegoat" and exiles him.  This means, so to speak, to punish himself and to obliterate his sense of guilt for his indictment of the South, and this enables him to go on living in the South.

     After Darl's banishment, Cash ponders the meaning of his act:


It's like there was a fellow in every man that's done a-past the sanity or the insanity, that watches the sane and the insane doings of that man with the same horror and the same astonishment. (AILD 238)


In Faulkner there is a Darl, another self who goes mad, and Faulkner watches the arson by Darl who is his alter ego.  He observes in awe and consternation his double's arson which indicts the problems of the postwar South.  The flames roar up frightfully, furiously, and glaringly and expose the dark irrationality of the South from its roots, and the image burned into Faulkner's eyes.  Being impelled by an irresistible anxiety that he himself might fall into insanity like Darl, he nevertheless stays and dwells in the South.  Darl's banishment and Cash's speech and action express Faulkner's tenacious will to endure living the postbellum South.



1 See, for example, Vickery (58) and Singal (148).

2 See, for example, Kinney (167) and Minter (119).

3 In "An Introduction to The Sound and the Fury" (1933) Faulkner states: "I seem to have tried both of the courses.  I have tried to escape and I have tried to indict.  After five years I look back at The Sound and the Fury and see that that was the turning point . . ." (Mississippi 412).  His writing of As I Lay Dying started in the end of October 1929 right after the publishing of The Sound and the Fury.  We can understand Darl's arson as an attempt of "indictment."


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Copyright (c)2006 TAKEUCHI Masaya