Anse Bundren is the patriarch of the Bundren family portrayed in As I Lay Dying. He is the husband of Addie Bundren, and the father of Cash, Darl, and Vardaman Bundren. Although Anse only narrates three sections (9, 26, and 28) of the novel, he plays a pivotal role in coercing the family to honor Addie's wishes to be buried in Jefferson.

Anse's physical appearance functions within the Southern Gothic trope of the grotesque. In an article linking Faulkner’s grotesque to the comedy of Don Quixote, Brittany Powell quotes Mikhail Bahktin’s definition of “grotesque realism”. Bahktin calls the grotesque “a phenomenon in transformation, an as yet unfinished metamorphosis, of death and birth, growth and becoming” that utilizes the battered grotesque body to represent the constant human state of metamorphosis (483). Anse Bundren’s body illustrates the grotesque themes of the novel. He is worn down by time and certain characteristics of his body correspond to events in his life. He is described more in terms of the use of his body, rather than simple old age. He is toothless (he repeatedly characterizes himself as "without a tooth in my head"), his "feet are badly splayed, his toes cramped and bent and warped, with no toenail at all on his little toes, from working so hard in the wet homemade shoes when he was a boy" (11), and he has a hunchback. Vernon Tull offers a physical description of Anse on page 32:

"Anse's wrists dangle out of his sleeves: I never see him with a shirt on that looked like it was his in all my life. They all looked like Jewel might have give him his old ones. Not Jewel, though. He's long armed, even if he is spindling. Except for the lack of sweat. You could tell they ain't been nobody else's but Anse's that way without no mistake. His eyes look like pieces of burnt-out cinder fixed in his face, looking out over the land."

Tull alludes to Anse's conviction that he will die if he ever sweats, due to an occasion of sunstroke early in his life. Anse's face is described by Darl as "a face carved by a savage caricaturist" (78).

Powell contends that the “degradation” of Faulkner’s characters “by use of the grotesque body” reveal[s] an ambivalent view of history, [and] time” (483). While many characters in As I Lay Dying decompose over time-- Darl’s mental state, Cash’s leg, Addie’s body-- Anse represents the body used by time and work, the ‘natural’ decomposition of rural poverty.

The grotesque poverty of the Bundren family is primarily represented in the body and actions of Anse. As poor farmer, a position which logically seems to imply a lifetime of hard work, Anse is primarily characterized by his laziness, although he perceives himself as unlucky. His first appearance in the novel is in section 3, narrated by Darl. He is described as "sitting on the back porch" and "tilting snuff from the lid of his snuff box into his lower lip" (10). Cora alludes to Anse's miserliness in her first section, acknowledging that "nobody that knows Anse could have expected different" than for him to send his sons on an errand to earn three dollars despite their mother’s imminent death (22). His laziness is frequently noted by his neighbors and family members, although he responds to the criticism in his first narrative section: "It aint that I am afraid of work; I always fed me and mine and kept a roof above us..." (36) The counterintuitive laziness of Anse clarifies the novel’s theme of the interdependence of the rural family and community, and the implications of encroaching modernity.

In Flannery O’Connor’s classic reflection on “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction”, she describes a grotesque realism where “we find that the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life” and subsequently the reader may “find that connections which we would expect in the customary kind of realism have been ignored, that there are strange skips and gaps which anyone trying to describe manners and customs would certainly not have left.” For O’Connor, the essential quality of the grotesque “leans away from typical social patterns… toward mystery and the unexpected.” Anse Bundren, from his physical appearance to his peculiar ability to motivate those around him to do his bidding, and especially in his final “twist” in the novel, enacts O’Connor’s grotesque requirement of the unexpected.

The first section that Anse narrates, Chapter 9, begins with a meditation on roads. Anse expresses frustration with roads, which carry bad luck to his home. He sees the road as a barrier against his "given promise" to transport Addie's body to Jefferson. Further, the road comes "right up to [his] door" where "every bad luck that comes and goes is bound to find it" (35). In a section that corresponds to the novel's theme of animal magnetism, and also corresponds to Cash's reflections on the purpose of the shape of beds (82), Anse reflects that human beings were built vertically, and thus are meant to "stay put". In contrast, "a road or a horse or a wagon" has been made "long ways" and are subsequently intended for travel. "Because if He'd a aimed for man to be always a-moving and going somewheres else, wouldn't He a put him longways on his belly, like a snake? It stands to reason he would." The opening of the chapter corresponds to the novel's themes of folklore, totemism, and stasis. This focus on the purpose of physical bodies and shapes highlights Anse’s own peculiar shape, and his lack of use-value on the farm. If the shape an object corresponds the the manner in which it is to be used, Anse becomes a puzzle. It is unclear how Anse motivates his family and neighbors, but it is suggested that Anse’s particularly grotesque body, and the grotesque situation which he motivates, generate pity which he manages to use to his advantage.

Anse then gives examples of his bad luck in Cash's injury from falling off the church roof, and Darl's ambiguous mental disabilities. He gives his account of Addie's sickness, describing an argument in which she insists that she is not sick. He reflects further on his bad luck, and notes that it is not "right" because he is not a "sinful man" while he has "peace in his heart" although he is "not religious". (38). His first chapter concludes with the Vardaman rounding the corner of the house covered in fish blood, and Anse telling him to go wash up, although he "just cant seem to get no heart into it." (38)

The second section that Anse narrates, Chapter 26, relates Anse's frustration with Jewel for riding his horse instead of riding in the wagon with the rest of the Bundren family. The horse later comes to represent Jewel's individuality, and is symbolically linked to his illegitimate birth. Anse ironically notes that he has "got some regard for what folks says about my flesh and blood even if you haven't" (105). The conclusion of the section section foreshadows Darl's descent into madness, and provides contextual support for the reading that Darl's "insanity" is in fact a normative perspective in a "backwards" community. As Jewel rounds the bend in the road Anse looks back at Darl, who is "sitting on the plank seat right above her where she was laying, laughing." (106)

Anse's final section, Chapter 28, is a non narrative reflection on the unfair distribution of wealth between the town folk and the hardworking country farmers. The section utilizes irony as Anse criticizes "them that runs stores in the towns, doing no sweating, living off them that sweat," From the descriptions that have been given by other narrators in the novel, this critique could apply to Anse. The section is precipitated by his frustration upon arriving at Samson's and finding the bridge out. Anse once again describes himself as unlucky, with a unique relationship to God: "I am the chosen of the Lord, for who he loveth, so doeth He chastiseth. But I be durn if he dont take some curious ways to show it, seems like." (110) Anse's religious reflections evoke Job, while also demonstrating misuse of logic and folklore. The final sentences of his chapter foreshadow the conclusion of the novel: " But now I can get them teeth. That will be a comfort. It will."

Faulkner's larger body of work provides evidence for a keen interest in patriarchal figureheads. Anse is a unique comedic and grotesque exploration of the patriarch. While the decay of his family is exaggerated to a nearly vaudevillian level, it does not have the mythic implications of Sutpen's lost Hundred, or the tragedy of the disintegration of the Compson family. Instead, Anse corresponds to a rural family structure reliant upon bartering, slyness, and a sort of grotesque utility of the body.

Anse's final twist in the novel is the most succinct enactment of O'Connor's grotesque. His stubborn refusal to abandon the journey to Jefferson drives the family to extremes as misfortune continues to plague them. After a disastrous crossing of the river, which Anse observes safely from the opposite side, Anse decides to sell Jewels horse to Snopes in exchange for a new team. He advocates the use of cement on Cash's rebroken leg, and defends his right to carry his wife's body to Jefferson despite her rapid decay. Once the family arrives in Jefferson, Anse allows Dewey Dell and Jewel to commit Darl to a mental institution. He then takes the family to "Mrs. Bundrens" house to borrow spades, spending an unexpectedly long time in her house as gramophone music plays. After Addies's burial, Anse goes to the barbershop for a shave, and tells Cash that "he has some business to tend to" that night. (259) The final image of the novel is Anse returning to the family "with that daresome and hangdog look all at once like when he has been up to something he knows ma aint going to like" (260). He has purchased new teeth which "made him look a foot taller". He presents a woman "carrying one of them little gramophones". The novel concludes as Anse says "Meet Mrs Bundren" (261).

This final moment, as unexpected and darkly humorous as it is, corresponds to Flannery O'Connor's injunction that grotesque realism ultimately ought to generate characters that have an "inner coherence" if not always "a coherence to their social framework". As I Lay Dying is a novel concerned with the stasis and decay of the rural south; Anse Bundren provides the unexpected impetus for motion, despite his sedentary lifestyle.This fundamentally grotesque paradox renders him one of the most compelling and central characters of the novel.

–Zach Fruit

Works Cited

O'Connor, Flannery. "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction." 1960. University of Texas, Web.
Powell, Brittany. “Don Quixote de Yoknapatawpha: Cervantine Comedy and the Bakhtinian Grotesque in William Faulkner’s Snopes Trilogy” Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 43. No. 4 (2006) pp. 482-497
White, Christopher. “The Modern Magnetic Animal: “As I Lay Dying” and the Uncanny Zoology of Modernism” Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Spring, 2008) pp. 81-101