The Awareness of Death in As I Lay Dying―Addie and Darl

Honda Ryohei

     As I Lay Dying (1930) is an amalgamation of various elements such as oddness, grotesqueness, dynamism, pathos, and so on. But among them, the sense of the uncertainty of human existence persistently reappears in Darl’s and Vardaman’s soliloquies, and it is found to be one of the most decisive factors making up the tone of the novel. Especially, Darl’s lack of confidence in his own existence due to his knowing his mother did not love him is profound, and it deepens into the awareness of death which effaces human existence to nothingness.
Focusing on the context of the novel described above, this essay compares Addie, whose only soliloquy is the structural center of the novel, with Darl. Admittedly, there have already been many studies discussing the novel in the light of the sense of the uncertainty of human existence or the awareness of death. Calvin Bedient, for example, regards Darl whose identity, because of its fragile boundary, suffers the invasion of others and ends up in dissolution as the embodiment of human “nakedness” (the exposed emptiness of the human existence vulnerable to death) and Cash who, through his carpentry, constructs the materialization of his being as the embodiment of human “pride” (the stubbornness of human existence resisting the nothingness of death). Fred Miller Robinson finds in the novel a confrontation between human beings struggling to preserve “forms” through various deeds in life and the “reality,” that is, the gigantic fluidity of the universe threatening to wash such “forms” away. And William Rossky, while regarding Darl as doomed because he can see clearly the vastness of the universe eternally in flux and is fatally aware of the trivialness of human existence, finds in the other members of the Bundren family the potential for enduring, for their limited perception enables them to carry on the farce of their living by letting them cling to the illusory objects of their desires. Sharing the same standpoint with the studies referred to above, this essay attempts to highlight in the Addie section her sense of the uncertainty of existence which is really stronger than previous studies have found it to be and to reveal fully her awareness of death. It also discusses not only the kinship between Addie and Darl, repeatedly pointed out in earlier studies, but also their contrastive relationship, by taking some other works of William Faulkner into consideration.
     In order to discuss Addie’s ontological problem, the starting point would be the recognition of the drastic change in the way she represents the image of human existence after her conception of Darl. It is just after she gives birth to Cash that we see for the first time the image of human existence in her soliloquy. It is the image of her own identity (her own self). After having been frustrated for long in her desperate attempts to have an intense engagement with others and to fuse her being with those of others, Addie, through being pregnant with Cash and giving birth to him, has an intimate relatedness to him. For the first time in her life, she has felt the “violation” of another’s being into her inside and, just because of that, she for the first time has keenly recognized her own self (her “aloneness”) which has been “violated” (172).1 And fortifying the sense of her self as a loving subject with the mutual love beyond words between herself and Cash, she increasingly makes her identity substantial and dense. Meanwhile, the outside world full of words―like the word “Love” (172) which her husband Anse uses―which are mere empty sounds, has lost its reality to her. At last, in the mind of Addie who has solidified her individuality which the invasion of the other enabled her to discover, her identity is imagined as “the circle” with a firm boundary against the empty world outside: “time, Anse, love, what you will, outside the circle” (172).
     However, after the conception of Darl, the human identity as she imagines it, suddenly deprived of its former density and fullness, changes into something vague or void. The image of it does not hold an inner substantiality in relation to the outer world anymore, and when she asks at night in bed, “Anse. Why Anse. Why are you Anse,” his identity in her mind takes on fluidity “like cold molasses” (173). The image of Anse’s identity, when it flows into the “vessel” (the name “Anse”), can never vitalize it: “a significant shape profoundly without life like an empty door frame” (173). And it is not only the self of Anse who, as a man of vain words, has lost reality in Addie’s mind that reveals its emptiness here. After musing over the vagueness of Anse’s identity, she meditates upon herself when she was a virgin. Then a blank space suddenly appears in the text and she is caught in such a panic that “[she can’t] think Anse, [can’t] remember Anse,” and the reason for the panic, as she explains it, is that she, having given birth to two children, is “three now” (173). My interpretation of her panic here is as follows: here, after thinking of the uncertainty of Anse’s identity, Addie broods over what she was in the past in order to find some immutable element which she has had all her life, something which would ensure the ever-sustained identity of herself. Nevertheless, to her, herself in the present having, as it were, three bodies seems absolutely different from what she was. Therefore, here she is confronted with the horrifying void of her identity. And the blank space in the text is not only the expression of her stalled thinking due to horror, but the image of human existence in her mind which at last she has come to after her conception of Darl: the image of human existence as a sheer blankness.
     Also, as to the problem of how the conception of Darl has affected Addie, the arguments of Constance Pierce and Karen R. Sass are suggestive. Pierce contends that, by the conception of Darl which she never intended, Addie entertains a suspicion that her “Being” does not reside in her consciousness by which she thinks and perceives but in her “biology” (299-300). And Sass argues that, after giving birth to Cash, Addie asserts herself as “the subject of her own desire” by loving him and refuses to be “the object of the child’s desire” by rejecting the word “motherhood,” the word of patriarchal discourse (10). Nevertheless, Sass further argues, her second conception (the conception of Darl) confirms Addie “as her children’s mother” (10), and so in the context of Sass’s argument here, we can say that the conception of Darl confirms Addie’s “motherhood,” denies her position as “the subject of her own desire” and thrusts her into the role of “the object” of the children’s desire. These two arguments are significant, in that they regard Addie’s conception of Darl as a threat to her position as a subject.
     Considering all these points, what happened to Addie’s perception of human identity when she realized she had Darl is clear. Although her conception of Cash enabled her to discover her individuality, her sense of which was reinforced by the mutual love beyond words between them, her conception of Darl threatens her confidence of her identity: after giving birth to Cash, Addie was smugly peaceful in the “circle” of her established self, that is, her identity as the loving subject. Then, the unexpected conception of Darl which she never intended is a surprise attack upon her from the world of words which she has rejected as fake and Anse who is its representative for her (“It was as though he had [. . .] struck me in the back [. . .]” [172]), and so, to her, it is an outrage upon her self by him. The catastrophic awareness that her identity, which she confidently believed to be solid and real, has been undermined by the empty outside world must have compelled her to doubt the certainty of her selfhood.
     Read from this point of view, the cryptic passage, “But then I realised that I had been tricked by words older than Anse or love, and that the same word had tricked Anse too, and that my revenge would be that he would never know I was taking revenge” (172-73), yields its meaning. “[W]ords older than Anse or love” are words such as “Addie,” “aloneness,” “self,” or, more simply, the word “I” (note the convergence of “words older than Anse or love” into “the same word”). They are “older” than “Anse” or “love,” for “Anse” and “love” are words concerning the existence of other beings (“Anse” is the name of another person and “love” is the name of a feeling based on the existence of another person) and therefore they―the words denoting her own being which she learned at a very early stage of her life―have been with her longer than “Anse” or “love” or other such words have been. Having realized the fragility of her own self, she has to admit that her identity, the word “I,” is also an illusion as other words are. On the other hand, Anse, a man of words, has never even dreamed of the uncertainty of “I” and never will. Addie looks down on Anse who lives contentedly in his illusory “I” and never knows this. So, she has decided to repay the insult she thinks Anse flung at her by shattering her peaceful conceit in her supposed identity by keeping him ignorant of the falsehood of his “I” and, because of this very ignorance, unable to suspect her revenge upon him (“my revenge would be that he would never know I was taking revenge” [173]). That is, she has decided to make Anse keep on playing the empty “I” as a husband and father by putting on the disguise of “I”― the mocked identity of what the local society regards as a perfect wife and mother ― without loving him.
     As we have seen, Addie’s recognition of the falsehood of words is not merely the proof of her romantic aspect as one who yearns for furious deeds, but it should be seen in relation to her sense of the uncertainty of existence. Having realized the emptiness of words, she has become sensitive to the difference between the real and the illusory, which is the germ of her ontological realization. And the trigger was Darl. As Addie made his existence unstable by refusing to love him, so he shook her identity by invading her self, that is, her “aloneness” (172). But what I want to emphasize here is that the ontological problem for Addie is not something abstract, for, in the last analysis, it is the problem of mortality that directly and fundamentally concerns all human beings. This is shown in her approval of his father’s saying that “the reason for living” is “to get ready to stay dead a long time” (169): “I knew that father had been right, even when he couldn’t have known he was right anymore than I could have known I was wrong” (173). As we have seen, before the conception of Darl, Addie attributed substantiality to human identity, and this means she believed that human existence was something special. In other words, she thought that human life was of importance. But losing faith in the certainty of human selfhood inevitably leads to giving up the illusion that life is important. The human self is not a firm and condensed mass as Addie believed, and so it has turned out to be more vulnerable to the outside chaos. Now that she has seen through the fantasy about the preciousness of human existence, the underlying nothingness looms up. “I” is helpless against the eroding void, that is, death, and life is a mere transition in which all we can do is “to get ready to stay dead a long time.” Thus, Addie was wrong in assuming that human life was of significance, while her father was right, although he cannot have reached the ontological truth of Addie. Indeed, her awareness of human mortality is striking. In her consciousness, her identity has lost its outline so completely that it is of a piece with the nothingness surrounding it which will soon drown and assimilate her fragile “I”: for her, “the land,” the territory of death which will accept her when she is dead, is “now of [her] blood and flesh” (173).
     In terms of ontological perception, therefore, Addie can be recognized as among the sensitive characters such as Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury (1929) and Darl, who are conscious of the pressure of death. But what distinguishes her from them is her attitude in facing it. While Darl is stupefied by the awareness of death (as we shall see later), Addie acts and asserts her existence. And what is important is that Addie takes action not because she tries to defy death but because she is fully aware of the absolute nothingness of it. It is in the passage depicting her restless nights after she met Whitfield, the minister with whom she is to commit adultery, that we see her as such a character (174).2 Here, her consciousness in the restless nights is occupied with the words and the deeds bound to the earth which they denote and the words high up in the air―the words that, lacking the deeds which would fulfill the furiousness or nobleness they imply, are flying up in the air as mere echoes. Here, the words up in the air that are mere echoes, mirroring the desire of Addie (who has met Whitfield) to achieve some furious deeds with him, swoop down upon the deeds on the earth, and Addie describes them as “coming down like the cries of the geese out of the wild darkness in the old terrible nights, fumbling at the deeds like orphans to whom are pointed out in a crowd two faces and told, That is your father, your mother” (174). The natural interpretation of this scene would be as follows: among the words coming down to the deeds, here, “love” and “sin” are of importance to her and in her imagination, the ones who should be the father and the mother of them are Whitfield and herself.
     But the superficial meaning of this scene described above is shaken by the image of the words as orphans, and the depiction of her inner world here takes on a different aspect. That is, given the underlying tone of Addie’s awareness of human mortality in her soliloquy, this orphan image begins to take on a deeper resonance: it vibrates in tune with the image of her own vulnerable and uncertain existence belonging to “the land” (173), the territory of death; moreover, it is resonant with the self of Darl, the existential orphan, who said as follows: “It takes two people to make you, and one people to die” (39). In short, in the orphan image of Addie’s memory of her restless nights, we catch a glimpse of the theme of this novel, the essential orphanage of a human existence that is forced to face death alone with nothing to protect its temporary “I.” So, Addie’s exasperation depicted here is not only the expression of her romantic nature longing for the heroic deeds. Superimposed on the image of orphan words coming down eagerly to the deeds on the earth is that of Addie herself ― the ontological orphan ― whose awareness of death violently drives her to the assertion of her existence through desperate deeds. And her yearning here is so intense that, to her, “the terrible blood” seems “boiling through the land” (174). By projecting her inner burning onto the outer world, she has reddened the land that, before she met Whitfield, had been the field of the dark death which would some day swallow her up.
     So far, Addie’s awareness of death and her suffocating desire to leave the mark of her being which is produced by it have been discussed, and beneath her way of facing death, the important theme of the recognition of existence through the awareness of nothingness (the loss of existence) in the writings of Faulkner is underlying. This is the decisive point concerning the difference between Addie and Darl, both of whom are aware of the uncertainty of human existence and forced to confront the nothingness of death. In order to discuss this point, I want to quote a passage from “Beyond” (1933) in order to relate Addie’s attitude in facing death to the wider context, the problem of how to face loss in the literature of Faulkner.
     The protagonist of “Beyond” is Judge Allison, whose spirit, just after his death, wanders through the world of the afterlife. In the world which seems to be heaven, he tries to meet again his son who died young, but his search is in vain and he decides to return to his own dead body and rest in eternal sleep. Just before stealing into his body again, he visits the cemetery where his son’s body was buried, and brooding over the epitaph of his son, he speaks in his mind to Ingersoll, the agnostic whom he met in heaven:

 “You see, if I could believe that I shall see and touch him again, I shall not have lost him. And if I have not lost him, I shall never have had a son. Because I am I through bereavement and because of it. I do not know what I was nor what I shall be. But because of death, I know that I am. And that is all the immortality of which intellect is capable and flesh should desire. Anything else is for peasants, clods, who could never have loved a son well enough to have lost him.” (796)

In this passage, Judge Allison’s use of the phrase “I am” sounds odd at first, for he is already dead. Then presently, we understand that, through the voice of Judge Allison who has just died but has not yet completely left behind the territory of life, we are also hearing the voice of Faulkner who can naturally use the phrase “I am.” Here, for Judge Allison, the irrevocableness of the loss of his son proves the preciousness of the lost existence of his son and of the love he once lavished upon him. And just as the absolute irretrievableness of his lost son asserts the significance of his lost being, the sheer nothingness of death awaiting Judge Allison asserts that of his own being, his “I am.” It is at this point that the voice of Faulkner is audible on the side of life―on the side of “I am”: when a man is aware of what he has lost irrevocably by the passing of time and of the death awaiting him, the inevitable loss of his existence, he is keenly aware that he “is” in the present. To borrow the Faulknerian way of expressing the states of existence by conjugating the verb “be” which we can find also in As I Lay Dying, just because the existence must be “was” in the future, it can be “is” in the present. In other words, because of the absolute darkness of nothingness that is death, the existence is brightness. This recognition that “because of death, I know that I am” is the foundation of Addie’s yearning for the furious deeds. Just because she has clearly recognized the awaiting death which will inevitably efface her “I,” she is acutely aware that in the present she “is.” The furious deeds which she longs for and accomplishes in order to assert her existence are the concentration of her being into the point of the present, the point of “I am.” Therefore, the image of the orphan yearning for the deeds in the memory of her restless nights is a symbolization of the Faulknerian way of confronting death. And surely, “Addie believes that man must assert himself through some unique gesture to indicate that he has lived” (Brooks 153).
     Through the furious deeds, Addie made an affirmation of her self existing in the face of the nothingness of death and gained the product of the deeds, Jewel. For her, he is the “salvation” (168) that will be the proof outlasting her death that once her being existed. So, contented, she begins “cleaning up the house” (176). However, after the life of Addie who was satisfied by leaving behind the evidence of her existence and then died, one more existential orphan is left: Darl, who fatally lacks a foothold for his existence because his mother did not love him. They are very much alike, each the cause of the other’s sense of the uncertainty of existence and both of them keenly aware of death. But because of this, the contrast between Addie who tempered her being by confronting death and Darl who is paralyzed by the darkness of death and finally goes insane is all the more remarkable. The crucial difference between them is in how they, with the oppressive awareness of death, regard their “is” in the present.
     Darl spends a restless night obsessed with his sense of the uncertainty of existence as his mother did. That is in the scene where he broods over his being before it is dissolved into the nothingness of sleep, hearing the sound of rain in the wagon (80-81). Certainly, Darl in this scene is rather like Addie, in that here he recognizes his being in the present by the awareness of the state of non-being. 3 But as the passage “And Jewel is, so Addie Bundren must be. And then I must be [. . .]” shows, in struggling to reach the conclusion that “I am is,” he cannot but turn to the being of his mother who is already dead (80-81). Unsure of his existence, he perceives it as nothing but a weak reflection of the being of Addie who gave birth to him and whose existence was forceful. Darl’s “is” in the present, recognized through the juxtaposition with the nothingness of sleep, is pathetically precarious. And the world envisioned in Darl’s soliloquies is amorphous and fantastically distorted. It is a projection of his self with an obscure contour (Bleikasten 184-88). Through this bizarre world conjured up in his soliloquies, his inner anxiety is intimately tangible to the readers.
     And it is in the twilight scene where Darl fears that Cash who was injured in the river crossing might die that he is strongly characterized as a person unable to focus on his “is” in the present (206-09). Here, keenly aware of death, Darl imagines human beings as dolls destined to fall into the silence of death: “How do our lives ravel out into the no-wind, no-sound, the weary gestures wearily recapitulant: echoes of old compulsions with no-hand on no-strings: in sunset we fall into furious attitudes, dead gestures of dolls” (207). The description of living of human existence as a repetition of futile gestures is to be remarked. For Darl, the life of a human being which will be assimilated into the darkness of death can never be something special. The gestures which compose the life of each man are nothing more than reiterations of vain actions a myriad of men have taken in the face of nothingness, and all human beings are anonymously reduced to nothing and into silence.4 For Darl, because the being of a man will be lost (that is, it will become “was”), “is” in the present is meaningless. This nihilistic vision of life deprives him of action. He cannot recognize the present as the field for asserting “a capacity to become” (Garrison 60). Numbed by the darkness of death, Darl says to himself: “If you could just ravel out into time. That would be nice. It would be nice if you could just ravel out into time” (208). When aware of death, Addie focalized her existence into the point of the present where she “is,” as is epitomized in the image of the orphan aspiring to perform furious deeds. But Darl, when aware of death, yearns for dissolution into the flowing of time, that is, ubiquity in time. This desire of his reminds us of that vain desire of Quentin who grieved over the transience of human existence against the erosion of passing time and longed for the state of “an apotheosis” (The Sound and the Fury 177) to achieve eternal being in time. When Darl is overwhelmed with the awareness of absolute nothingness, that is, the inevitable end of time’s elapsing, and of the triviality of human life in contrast with it, it is impossible for him to recognize the “is” of his self as being endorsed by the very fact that it will be lost in the future and then hurl himself into the current of time to create action. Like Quentin, Darl, because of his keen awareness of death, could not find any meaning in his existence in the present and therefore could not remain in the world of the living.
     At the center of the novel, somewhere between life and death, Addie bemusedly speaks of her life in which she, driven by the awareness of death, concentrated herself into her “is,” left behind the evidence of her existence and died. And only in the self-contained light of her sole soliloquy do the soliloquies of Darl loom up with full significance and pathos: he disappears, agonized by the sense of the uncertainty of his existence and unable to recognize his “is,” leaving his fragmentary soliloquies scattered all through the novel.

1 As Koichi Suwabe points out, the meaning of “aloneness” after the birth of Cash is different from that before his birth (59-60). This essay regards this as being a change from “being lonely” to “being unique and special.”
2 Considering Addie’s obsession with “God’s love and His beauty and His sin” (174), this scene comes chronologically after “that summer at the camp meeting when Brother Whitfield wrestled with [Addie’s] spirit” (166) referred to in Cora Tull’s soliloquy just preceding that of Addie.
3 Here, Darl thinks of himself before falling asleep, himself at the instant of falling asleep which is the instant of his vanishing, and the absolute non-being after that in which he seems never to have existed at all (80). He reminds us of the Faulknerian characters―Quentin Compson, Judge Allison and Harry Wilbourne―who think of the changing of the human being in this process: “I was not” or “Non fui” (the state of non-being before birth), then “I am” or “Sum” (the state of living), then “I was” or “Fui” (the state at the instant of falling into death (non-being) which is the instant of the being’s vanishing), and then “I am not” or “Non sum” (the state of absolute non-being in which the being has been completely wiped out). They recognize human existence as surrounded by nothingness. See The Sound and the Fury 174, “Beyond” 792 and The Wild Palms (1939) 116-17.
4 See Palliser 137-38 and Swiggart 124.

Works Cited:
Bedient, Calvin. “Pride and Nakedness: As I Lay Dying.” Modern Language Quarterly 29 (1968): 61-76. Rpt. in Cox 95-110.
Bleikasten, André. The Ink of Melancholy: Faulkner’s Novels from The Sound and the Fury to Light in August. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990.
Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country. New Haven: Yale UP, 1966.
Cox, Dianne L., ed. William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying: A Critical Casebook. New York: Garland, 1985.
Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. New York: Vintage-Random, 1990.
---. “Beyond.” Collected Stories of William Faulkner. New York: Vintage-Random, 1995. 781-98.
---. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Vintage-Random, 1990.
---. The Wild Palms. New York: Vintage-Random, 1995.
Garrison, Joseph M., Jr. “Perception, Language, and Reality in As I Lay Dying.” Arizona Quarterly 32 (1976): 16-30. Rpt. in Cox 49-62.
Palliser, Charles. “Fate and Madness: The Determinist Vision of Darl Bundren.” American Literature 49 (1978): 619-33. Rpt. in Cox 131-43.
Pierce, Constance. “Being, Knowing, and Saying in the ‘Addie’ Section of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.” Twentieth Century Literature 26 (1980): 294-305.
Robinson, Fred Miller. “Faulkner: As I Lay Dying.” The Comedy of Language: Studies in Modern Comic Literature. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1980. 51-88.
Rossky, William. “As I Lay Dying: The Insane World.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 4 (1962): 87-95. Rpt. in Cox 179-88.
Sass, Karen R. “At a Loss for Words: Addie and Language in As I Lay Dying.” Faulkner Journal 6.2 (1991): 9-21.
Suwabe, Koichi. “Minikusa no Shigaku: Shi-no-Toko ni Yokotawarite no Addie Sekusyon.” [“William Faulkner’s Poetics of Ugliness: Addie’s Section in As I Lay Dying.”] America Bungaku Kenkyuu [Studies in American Literature] 42 (2005): 51-65.
Swiggart, Peter. The Art of Faulkner’s Novels. Austin: U of Texas P, 1962.

Copyright (c) 2007 Ryohei Honda