Addie Bundren is the mother of the Bundren family; Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell and Vardaman. She is unhappily married to
Anse Bundren and wants to be buried away from him in her own family plot in Jefferson, Mississippi. Addie is arguably the main character of the novel and she is in fact dying physically and metaphorically throughout the entire plot line. Her death is “the central event of the book…with respect to which each character defines his own identity” (Sundquist 288). Addie becomes a symbolic figure whose death rocks the family to its foundation because they refuse to let go of her identity just as they refuse to let go of her physical body. Her death occurs rather early on in the novel, on the first day of a timeline in which action occurs over a mere ten days (Volpe 378). Although she dies on page 48 of the novel she is very much a living entity in the way that her family is coping with their grief over their loss throughout the remainder of the novel. Her one monologue occurs way after her death on the fifth day and reestablishes the concept of her presence lingering throughout the story.
The reader only meets and learns about Addie through the narratives of her neighbors and family members until her single narrative is heard post- mortem on the second day of the funereal march to Jefferson for her burial. Each character makes small references to her that reveal the impact she has on their current mentality and the impact her death has on their lives as a whole. Cora’s chapter nods to Addie’s lasting presence in the community during her chatter about baking cakes. The reader doesn’t realize where the cake discussion is taking place until Cora sidetracks into a description of the dying woman lying before her. This first look at the dying matriarch supports the grotesque tones set throughout the novel. She is propped up in the bed with only her face and hands visible watching her son Cash through the window. “Her face is wasted away so that the bones draw just under the skin in white lines. Her eyes are like two candles when you watch them gutter down into the sockets of iron candle- sticks” (8). After sharing this description which one can guess has been repeated by the chatty Cora she begins to compliment Addie’s baking skills and how “not a woman in this section could ever bake with Addie Bundren”(8). Addie’s wasted figure is left lying there with no response to the happenings of daily life, her focus remains on her coffin being built as she faces death.

Favoring Jewel:


Jewel can be argued to be Addie’s favorite child and the favoritism can be seen in Jewel’s narration which expresses his anger and inability to let go of his beloved mother. He is agitated that Cash is building a coffin for her, that Dewey Dell is constantly fanning her and that the Tull ladies’ are visiting constantly. He desires to be alone with her and away from everyone, fantasizing, “It would just be [he] and her on a high hill and [he] rolling the rocks down the hill at their faces… until she was quiet” (15). Jewel wishes to be the only one there at the time of her death and maintain the close bond they assumingly shared in life until the very end. His denial of her dying is seen in his argument over their trip to make the $3 for the family. When Darl and Anse are discussing the need to rush and return for her passing, Jewel responds angrily, “Ma aint that sick. Shut up, Darl” (17). He lashes out at anyone who claims any knowledge over the fate of his mother and refuses to face the facts of her looming expiration.
Darl interrupts the narration with a revealing tangent on how Jewel was taller than any of the other children. Darl claims “ma always whipped and petted [Jewel] more. Because he was peakling around the house more. That’s why she named him Jewel” (18). Jewel’s anger over the attention being paid to his mother’s sickness and the seriousness with which they are treating her condition is expressed in these pages and reflect his inability to let go or admit the reality of losing his mother. Their close bond and her favoritism is first witnessed in these lines that set the tone for the reader to see how Addie reacted with her children, especially Jewel.
Cora also refers to the favoritism Addie practiced with Jewel. Cora describes him as “the one [Addie] labored so to bear and coddled and petted so” (21). She argues how she knew Addie was “partial to him” (22). Dewey Dell’s chapter also supports the bond between Addie and Jewel, when Darl tells her that Addie is going to die before they return home, Dewey Dell’s immediate response is “then why are you taking Jewel?” (28).
Darl recollects in a longer monologue back to their teenage years when he realized the reasons for the strong bond and favoritism between Addie and Jewel. In his chapter that begins on page 128 he tells how at age 15, Jewel was struck with a sickness that made him inexplicably tired and constantly unable to stay awake to complete his chores. Addie wanted to get the doctor to help Jewel who was wasting away due to his inability to stay awake to work or even finish a meal but Anse refused to spend money unnecessarily. To keep Jewel from being in constant trouble with Anse, Addie would secretly find ways to cover for him by delegating his chores out to the other children and completing them herself if possible. Darl acknowledges that these actions are what led him to first realize that, “Addie Bundren should be hiding anything she did, who had tried to teach us that deceit was such that, in a world where it was, nothing else could be very bad or very important, not even poverty” (130). Darl recognizes the morals and values that his mother had attempted to instill in her children and how she is ignoring them to protect and care for her son. Darl recalls how he “knew that she was hating herself for that deceit and hating Jewel because she had to love him so that she had to act the deceit” (131). The fact that Addie is willing to put her morals aside for Jewel speaks to the bond between them. She resents the fact that she loves him so but she still is unable to avoid the fact that she is willing to put herself second for him. The scene in which the truth is revealed that Jewel had been working nights to purchase a horse for himself also reveals Addie as an emotional and sentimental woman. She realizes how he had to put himself through such hard work because she was unable to provide for him and she breaks down crying. Addie Bundren and her love for Jewel is exposed in the lines where, “She cried hard, not hiding her face, standing there in her faded wrapper, looking at him on the horse” (135). Darl theorizes that “she felt the same way about tears she did about deceit, hating herself for doing it, hating him because she had to” (136). This unwanted yet unavoidable love that Addie bears for her son Jewel is not repeated in her relationships with any of her other children. Darl clairvoyantly understands the reasons for her favoritism but the reader is left to speculate until her exclusive chapter truly introduces the reader to Addie Bundren.

Addie’s slow death:

The country doctor, Peabody visits the home in attempts to help Addie although he says “at first [he] would not go because their might be something he could do and [he] would have to haul her back, by God” (41). He resolves to go help on the basis that if Anse has realized to call him she must be beyond the point of return. Upon entering her room and seeing her he states, “She has been dead these ten days. I suppose it’s having been a part of Anse for so long that she cannot even make that change, if change it be ”(43). This static state of dying describes Addie’s condition throughout the majority of the novel. She is not officially dead or released until the family is able to let her go. Literary critic, Eric Sundquist theorizes how “Addie dies not within a single, temporally bounded moment, but rather lies dying throughout the book, in that her death is not complete until the book ends” (292). The scene of Addie’s death is the site in which the novel’s concept of death is addressed most clearly by Doctor Peabody. He reflects how, “when [he] was young [he believed] death to be a phenomenon of the body; now [he knows] it to be merely a function of the mind – and that of the minds of the ones who suffer the bereavement” (Faulkner 44). He claims that death is “no more than a single tenant or family moving out of a tenement or a town” (44). Doctor Peabody’s theory of death and its focus on the grief felt by the bereaved encapsulates the novel’s concerns with death and the effect it has on those left living. The slow and grueling nature of her passing is also theorized by Doctor Peabody. He associates it with the landscape and their country surroundings in which, “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” (45). The doctor compares and associates Addie’s slow decline and the devastating effect it has with the slow moving and harsh lifestyle they live in the country.
Addie’s actual death occurs on page 48 of the novel. Darl and Jewel are still away on their journey and yet Darl is still able to narrate the events as though he were a witness. Addie looks at her husband and “all her failing life appears to drain into her eyes, urgent irremediable” and Dewey Dell tells him that, “It’s Jewel she wants” (47). She stares at Anse who informs her that her sons are not there and then lifts herself although she has not moved in days and calls out her final words, “You, Cash!” with a voice that is “harsh, strong and unimpaired” (48). He shows her his work on her coffin and she stares possibly accepting it and seeing how her coffin is “nigh” ready for her. Finally, she looks at her youngest son Vardaman, “her eyes, the life in them, rushing suddenly upon them; the two flames glare up for a steady instant. Then they go out as though someone had leaned down and blown upon them.” (48).

Addies Chapter: page 169

In Addie’s chapter the reader is able to hear her voice and narration for the first and only time. Her views of the world and her role in it are shocking to a reader who expects a more stereotypical mother character type. She reflects on her unsatisfied life as a school teacher where she felt a hatred and disconnection from her students with their “secret and selfish thought, and blood strange to each other blood and strange to [hers]” (170). She would look forward to whipping the children because it would create a strange connection between them. She needed to feel as though she was “something in [their] secret and selfish life”, and thought how having “marked [their] blood with her own for ever and ever” (170) was a way to reach them. The detachment that she feels from her societal role mirrors the way her death can “function as an act of temporal and spatial disembodiment” with her post mortem speech being an extreme example of the way the narrations in the novel should be seen as “ partially or wholly detached from the bodily selves that appear to utter them” (Sundquist 288). Every conscious identity, or each character, is experiencing a form of detachment in their own way. The boundaries of identity are pushed as Addie pushes her societal bounds and as her identity influences those of her children.
Addie resolves to marry Anse perhaps in attempts to fulfill the traditional roles of feminine duty and family life from her time. She finds no happiness in her marriage and hates him, deciding to be buried in Jackson as a way to vengefully escape him in the afterlife. Addie shares her theory on the futility of words as she describes her experience with marriage. When she becomes pregnant she realizes that “life is terrible” and that “words are no good; that words don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say at” (Faulkner 171). She says the words “motherhood, fear, pride, and love” were all “just a shape to fill a lack; that when the right time came, you wouldn’t need a word for that” (172). Addie sees these words as futile and simply incapable of expressing anything that they are trying to express. Considering words to be useless she is associated much more with action and instinctual nature and she states how she would lie at night listening to “the dark voicelessness in which the words are the deeds, and the other words that are not deeds, that are just the gaps in people’s lacks”(174). The whipping of the children and the affair that is revealed in this chapter support her violent and sexual nature that separates her from the usual role of the southern woman and mother at this time. Addie decides that the reason for living was “the duty to the alive” (174) and she remained married to Anse and a mother to her children although she did not feel love for them. She finds the connection she wanted in her son Jewel who was a product of her affair with the clergyman Whitfield. She states how her “children were of [her] alone, of the wild blood boiling along with the earth, of [her] and of all that lived” (175). Sundquist discusses the issues of identity in the novel in a way that sheds light onto the connection between Addie and her son Jewel. The “I” or self is not “solitary but communal; or, one should say, its integrity depends upon being integrated” (292). Addie has achieved this communal identity and relationship with her son Jewel who she considers her own while she allows Anse to have the remaining children as a part of her duty. She is satisfied with Jewel and finally settles, deciding to “clean her house”, “let the wild blood boiled away and the sound of it ceased. Then there was only the milk, warm and calm, and lying calm in the slow silence, getting ready to clean [her] house” (176). Addie Bundren’s past defies the expectations of the traditional southern mother. She feels no connection to her family or role in society until she has Jewel, a product of her wild and sinful affair. She settles into her duty and resolves to face her life once she is able to identify herself with this feeling of connection that possibly fulfills the meaning of all the empty words she once found useless.

Other noteworthy quotes about Addie Bundren:

“If he was to come tomorrow and tell her that the time was nigh, she wouldn’t wait. I know her. Wagon or no wagon, she wouldn’t wait.” (18-19) --Anse

“She was ever one to clean up after herself.” (19) --Anse

“But couldn’t no woman strove harder than Addie to make them right, man and boy; I’ll say that for her.” (38) -- Anse


Works Cited:

Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. New York: Vintage International, 1985. Print.

Sundquist, Eric. "Death, Grief, Analogous Form: As I Lay Dying." William Faulkner: As I Lay Dying. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 286-304. Print.

Volpe, Edmund L. A Reader’s Guide to William Faulkner. New York: The Noon Day Press, 2003. Print.