Dewey Dell Bundren
Dewey Dell Bundren is the fourth youngest child and only daughter of Anse and Addie Bundren in William Faulkner's novel, As I Lay Dying. This novel is a series of first person narratives describing different perspectives of Addie Bundren's death and the aftermath of this event. Lacking a third person voice, the reader gains insight into Dewey Dell's character and her significance to the novel's greater themes through several different perspectives including her own. Dewey Dell is characterized by her preoccupation with an unwanted pregnancy, and linked to the novel's themes regarding the changing female role in America and the concept of soul and body as separate entities.

Dewey Dell's Perception of Self
In spite of her mother's death (the main subject of the other characters' narratives), Dewey Dell's narrations throughout the novel are primarily concerned with her secret pregnancy that occurs out of wedlock. She admits that this preoccupation takes precedent over her mother's death about four days after Addie Bundren dies, thinking to herself: "I heard that my mother is dead. I wish I had time to let her die. I wish I had time to wish I had. It it because in the wild and outraged earth too soon too soon too soon. It's not I wouldn't and will not it's that it is too soon too soon too soon" (Faulkner 120). Dewey Dell does not have time to process her mother's death because she is too worried about how to deal with her "too soon" pregnancy.

Other Characters' Perceptions of Dewey Dell

The other characters in the novel associate Dewey Dell exclusively with her female role according to societal norms, specifically in the context of her mother's death. As the eldest female, Dewey Dell is expected to take on the role of family caregiver, preparing meals and looking after Vardaman when Addie Bundren dies. Dewey Dell's musings about her personal problems are punctuated by characters such as Anse and Dr. Peabody (representative of an old southern mindset) reminding her of household duties: "Vardaman's getting big now, and with you to take good care of them all. I would try not to let it grive me. I expect you'd better go and get some supper ready. It don't have to be much. But they'll need to eat" (Faulkner 51). This conflict between Dewey Dell's obsessive focus on an abortion (both symbolic and literal abandonment of the female role of care-giver/mother-figure) and the refrain of reminders she receives from adult men to uphold her female duties reflects a transition from the family-oriented, domestic female to the more autonomous, self-engaged female in society.

Dewey Dell and Darl
Darl is the only other narrator in the story that knows Dewey Dell is pregnant. This puts a one-sided strain on their relationship, as Dewey Dell feels that keeping her pregnancy a secret is of the utmost importance to her reputation and maintaining life as she knows it. When Darl looks at her, she feels that he can see through her: "The land runs out of Darl's eyes; they swim to pin points. They begin at my feet and rise along my body to my face, and then my dress is gone: I sit naked on the seat" (Faulkner 121). Her sense that Darl can see into her body and mind causes Dewey Dell such distress that she grows to hate Darl and imagines murdering him. Comically, Dewey Dell's distress and dislike is not reciprocated, so while she imagines stabbing Darl with a knife, he pays no special attention to her in his narratives.

A New Generation of Women
In her article “Faulkner on Feminine Hygiene, or, How Margaret Sanger Sold Dewey Dell a Bad Abortion,” Heather E. Holcombe suggests that the female characters in As I Lay Dying are “undertaking a commercially thwarted protest against enforced maternity” (204, 216). This concept of “enforced maternity” applies to the pressure that Anse, Dr. Peabody, Moseley and various other characters put on Dewey Dell when they vocalize their expectations for her to demonstrate a maternal disposition. Dewey Dell tries to break the maternal tradition that was embraced by generations before her (including by her mother and their neighbor Cora Tull – the other female characters in the novel) when she attempts to fight back against “enforced maternity.” Addie Bundren, a product of the late 19th century, admits that her childbearing was an obligation and diminishes the entire act of reproduction and motherhood to a mere commercial exchange with Anse: “I gave Anse Dewey Dell to negative Jewel. Then I gave him Vardaman to replace the child that I robbed him of. And now he has three children that are his and not mine” (Faulkner 176). Dewey Dell is a product of “enforced maternity,” and she seeks to break that cycle by aborting her own child, thus representing a new generation of women with feminist inclinations

Contraceptive Culture of the Early Twentieth Century
While the absence of a husband is motivation to postpone motherhood, Holcombe proffers that Dewey Dell’s desire for an abortion (rather than some other means of dealing with an unwanted child) is a reference to the contraception controversy in the US in the 1930s, when As I Lay Dying was published (204). Dewey Dell is burdened by the culture of the Comstock Act, which “defined contraceptives as obscene and illicit, making it a federal offense to disseminate birth control through the mail or across state lines” ( Margaret Sanger challenged this Act in 1916, and successfully advocated for the right for women to use contraceptives by 1918, but the use of contraceptives was still largely controversial for many years following – especially in Faulkner’s slow-to-advance south. As such, desperate women were not always given the contraceptives to which they were entitled, demonstrated in As I Lay Dying when Dewey Dell is denied birth control by Moseley, the pharmacist in Mottson who tells her: “go on back to Lafe and you and him take that ten dollars and get married with it” (Faulkner 203). Dewey Dell’s story culminates at her second attempt to purchase an abortion drug in town, and is given a faulty medicine and then implicitly raped by MacGowan, the narrator of the chapter. Heather E. Holcombe links this event to a specific Lysol advertisement that came out only a few months before Faulkner began writing As I Lay Dying, suggesting that Dewey Dell’s state of powerlessness and vulnerability that leads to her horrific experience with MacGowan is a symbolic representation of the consumer market taking advantage of a larger social issue (Holcombe 205).

Dewey Dell’s Reflection on Soul/Life versus Body
Faulkner gives much attention to the concept of body versus life, as the main event in the novel involves moving the dead, decaying body of Addie Bundren across Mississippi in order to bury her among her family. Dewey Dell’s character emphasizes this theme as she consistently presents human life and human body as separate entities throughout the novel. This notion is particularly important to Dewey Dell’s state of mind given her intention to have an abortion. One way she implies this dichotomy is by referring to human bodies as “guts” or “tubs of guts,” a label that removes any kind of personality or emotion from the physical form. This expression comes into play when she tries to process the fact that there is a baby growing inside of her body: “He is his guts and I am my guts. And I am Lafe’s guts. That’s it” (Faulkner 60). When thinking on her pregnancy, Dewey Dell only speaks in terms of the physical changes she is experiencing – “the agony and the despair of spreading bones” (Faulkner 121) - conspicuously omitting any reference to an emotional or interpersonal connection with her child apart from the anxiety the unborn baby is causing her. In addition to dehumanizing her baby, Dewey Dell projects this separation of physical form and life on her family members. She compares her apathetic father to a steer that is “no longer alive and don’t yet know that it is dead” (Faulkner 61), and suggests that Darl lives beyond his physical limitations given his uncanny awareness of her thoughts and his ability to communicate without speaking aloud: “It was then, and then I saw Darl and he knew. He said he knew without the words like he told me that ma is going to die without words” (Faulkner 27). Dewey Dell applies this body-versus-soul logic to herself as well, stating “that was when I died that time” as she recalls the half-fabricated story of Vardaman’s bloody fish. Clearly she is still alive and well enough to narrate the story, but figuratively she feels her life is over when she finds out that she is pregnant.

Dewey Dell’s story is left unresolved at the end of the novel, although her prospects appear grim. She does not find a pharmacist or doctor willing to support an abortion, and her failed attempt to do only results in rape. On the positive side (if there is a positive side to be found), Anse Bundren does acquire a “new Mrs. Bundren” by the end of the novel, so Dewey Dell will not be left to care for the entire Bundren family, but she will take on a maternal role nonetheless at the birth of her own illegitimate child.

–Katherine Grau

Works Cited

Holcombe, Heather E. “Faulkner on Feminine Hygiene, or, How Margaret Sanger Sold Dewey Dell a Bad Abortion.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 57.2 (2011): 203-229. Project Muse.
‘People and Events: Anthony Comstock’s “Chastity” Laws.” American Experience: The Pill. PBS, 1999-2001. Web. 29 Sept. 2013.