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AMST 246: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner
- Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, Part III
Professor Wai Chee Dimock concludes her discussion of As I Lay Dying with an analysis of its generic form. Using Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter to anchor her discussion of the American literary tradition, she argues that As I Lay Dying continually negotiates the comic and the tragic genres as we shift from one perspective to another: one character’s comic gain is often another’s tragic loss. She traces the losses and gains of Cash, Jewel, and Darl throughout the novel, showing how their new “balances” by the end reconstitute the Bundren family and draw lines of kinship around the “haves” and “have nots” among family members.
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Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner
AMST 246 - Lecture 15 - Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, Part III
Chapter 1: As I Lay Dying and the American Tradition [00:00:00]
Professor Wai Chee Dimock: I just want to go back very briefly to our approach to As I Lay Dying. Last time we talked about the importance of the epic tradition to the modernist novel, especially the way that the voice of the dead and certain boundaries between the human and the non-human are being reactivated and redeployed in As I Lay Dying.
Today, we’re going to move on to a somewhat different approach. This is a different way to contextualize As I Lay Dying. And it’s more of a kind of an American tradition for this novel.
In fact, we already begin to see a little of that in the person who is in one sense a key player but in another sense not– Addie’s partner in the adulterous affair. And Faulkner takes the name of that person from a historic figure, a very well known 18th century preacher, George Whitfield, someone who actually has a large presence in Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.
This is the very dignified looking historical George Whitfield. And this is Faulkner’s Whitfield. When he was on his horse, he was able to cross the river, as we know. And he’s on his way. In fact, he’s approaching us right at the house. So Whitfield has a lot to be thankful for. And he’s expressing his gratitude to God at this moment.
Yes, he truly is a lucky guy. She dies before she is able to give away his name. Maybe she never plans on it. She’s too proud and never wanted to give away his name. He’s lucky in having chosen the right partner. Someone whose lips are sealed when it comes to his name. And he’s also lucky in the sense that this horse is such a good swimmer. The horse is able to cross the river when the mules drown. He’s truly a blessed figure. But of course, I’m making fun of him as indeed I think Faulkner wants us to. The only way I think to take someone like Whitfield is to put him in one particular genre.
This is what I’d like to argue today is the question of genre for As I Lay Dying. The only way to take Whitfield is to put him in the genre of comedy. And he’s just a comic figure. He’s totally serious himself. He’s congratulating himself and he’s praising the Lord. But all the time that he’s doing that, he’s firmly ensconced in the comic tradition.
And it turns out that this self-congratulating, self-dignifying kind of person actually has a precedent in American literature, a very prominent precedent. And it turns out that this predecessor is also a minister who has an affair with a woman.
There’s one novel in American literature that is like that. It’s a novel that we all recognize. The Scarlet Letter. Here is Hawthorne’s comic figure. The Scarlet Letter is not really usually read as a comic novel. Bt do you think Hawthorne might have had more fun when he’s portraying Arthur Dimmesdale?
Exactly the same combination: a woman whose lips are sealed, would never give away the name of her partner. And the same kind of “mercy” – in quotation marks – from God. In this case, Arthur Dimmesdale is lucky. Not in the sense that he has a horse who’s a good swimmer, but in a sense that he dies right at that moment. At the very moment when he’s thanking God and he is forgiven, his sins are forgiven, he dies. So he is very lucky in that way.
And it suggests that from the very beginning, from the nineteenth century on, a story that otherwise would have been taken as tragic actually has a comic dimension to it. It’s hard not to roll our eyes when we listen to someone like Whitfield and when we listen to someone like Arthur Dimmesdale.
Chapter 2: Tragedy in The Scarlett Letter and As I Lay Dying [00:05:49]
But – even as we’re rolling our eyes, I think that there are other things in those two novels that is very hard to roll our eyes over. I want to turn now to this other dimension. And I want to begin with Hawthorne by talking about, honestly, the much more important, tragic dimension in The Scarlet Letter and it’s on Hester Prynne.
Just as Dimmesdale and Whitfield are doubly lucky, Hester Prynne is doubly cursed. She’s cursed both in the most obvious way, because she has to wear the scarlet letter for the rest of her life. And she’s also cursed– well, she’s actually triply cursed. She has to wear the scarlet letter. Her whole being is transformed. So all the physical beauty or the beauty of her mind seemed to have gone away. And she’s just this very harsh, forbidding character. And that other people might have found repulsive, if she had friends to be repelled by.
She’s an absolute have not at this point. Although Hawthorne, as you guys know who’ve read The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne actually qualifies that this isn’t quite the absolute ending of The Scarlet Letter. It’s quite early. This is a kind of low point, absolute low point, the most tragic moment for Hester in The Scarlet Letter.
I want to turn now from Hester to the comparable figure in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Addie. She’s equally tragic in relation to the two men in her life. First of all, her relation to Whitfield.
This is about as joyless a description of any kind of romance. It’s not even a romance. It’s not adultery. There’s almost no love. It is just the whole act itself is coercing “the terrible blood to a forlorn echo of the dead … air.” It’s hard to understand why anyone would even want to do that if that is the nature of the affair. But that’s how Faulkner would like us to think of that affair between Addie and Whitfield. And we can almost sort of see why she would be so forlorn because the fact that he’s congratulating himself and because he’s counting himself lucky at the moment of her death suggests what kind of a lover he has been. Maybe it’s not surprising that she should have been forlorn all the way through.
It is also the case that she’s forlorn for another reason. And maybe that’s why she got into the affair to begin with. Her relation to her husband.
It’s one of the most memorable descriptions of a terrible marriage, unbearable marriage. This says it all. It doesn’t exactly justify Addie’s action if it needs justification. But it does explain a lot. And it’s in contrast to that cold molasses in a jar that all of a sudden, we see another marriage in perspective. So I just want to refresh your memory about what we saw last time about Tull and Cora.
It’s not a spectacular marriage – just good marriage. It’s a marriage that makes Tull feel like a man and probably Cora like a woman. I don’t mean to be sexist. Just the general description of a good marriage – here’s Tull and Cora as a foil really to Addie and Anse. It seems that right now we’ve seen Addie mostly as a tragic figure in relation to her two men and as a kind of a descendant, twentieth century descendant of Hester Prynne.
Chapter 3: The Comic Dimension of the Fish [00:12:32]
But given the precedent of Hawthorne, given that there’s really a comic dimension, even in the most tragic tale, we shouldn’t be surprised that there would also be a comparable comic dimension in As I Lay Dying as well. I like to read the whole novel as, in some sense, a kind of constant negotiation between those two poles, between the comic pole– comedy on the one hand and tragedy on the other.
We can see the comedy coming in Addie’s relation to her son, Vardaman, who’s not quite fully retarded as Benjy is. But Faulkner is really interested in the slightly retarded mind. Vardaman seems to be an instance of that. And it comes out in statements like “my mother is a fish.” I think that along with “Call me Ishmael,” “My mother is a fish ” has got to be one of the most famous lines in American literature.
This brings us back to the human and the non-human. But it also now suggests another dimension, a generic dimension, to Addie being a fish. It turns out that she’s not just any kind of a fish, but a fish out of water – which is, I guess, a comic restatement of the sense of desolation and the forlornness that she feels towards Whitfield and towards Anse. It is exactly the same thing, except that when we say that she’s a fish out of water, there’s a complete different set of connotations. This is Vardaman reporting on this fish that he just picked up, dead fish already dead that he’s chopping up. Oh, sorry. This is actually Darl reporting.
Along with the sense that Addie is a misfit that is completely alone and by herself, even in a marriage and even in an adulterous affair, there’s this additional element that she’s ashamed of all of it. And we can see that shame in her reaction to the horse that Jewel acquires. She’s proud. She is proud, but she’s also crying. And Darl realizes that she’s ashamed of her deceit at that moment.
There’s this terrible shame that’s going to accompany her in her death. In the fish, it comes out as the fish being ashamed of being dead, even though that’s not a condition that we could help. Nonetheless, this fish seems really ashamed of this elemental fact.
Just to stop for a moment. The fish actually would be a great paper topic for your final paper. And it would bring Hemingway and Faulkner together in a really interesting way. Once again, I want to emphasize how interesting it might be to pick something that is peripheral, not a key player, but interesting entry point into novels. In thinking along those lines, we can go back to the fish in In Our Time. And it’s a dead fish, two dead fish. But totally different set of connotations that Hemingway brings to the dead trout.
This is Hemingway’s idea of a good death. It’s the death of human beings being actually prefigured or maybe encoded into this very clean, very dignified death of the fish. There’s no way we can avoid dying. But the least that we can ask for is that we should die in a manner that is fitting for men that is commensurate with the way that we’ve lived. And the trout has lived a very clean life– it’s an important word to Hemingway– has lived a very clean life in the water. So it is fitting that the death should be commensurate with that. And that is really a kind of Utopian moment in Hemingway.
In contrast, this dirty fish out of water being ashamed unto death is a dystopian moment in Faulkner. But it’s also a comic moment as well. So I wish to say that comedy’s obviously a very complicated and packed and in many ways contradictory phenomenon in Faulkner. And it’s with that understanding– comedy in quotation marks– in many ways, that I like to think about the whole structure of As I Lay Dying as negotiation between comedy and tragedy.
Chapter 4: The Comic Economy of As I Lay Dying [00:18:45]
And I like to bring up three sets of terms that we’ve been talking about all through the semester to see how comedy and tragedy get mapped onto these terms. One is the human and non-human that we’ve been talking about last time.
And then I want to bring Hemingway back. In turns out that the two categories, the have and have not, set up by Hemingway will be key actually, in the rest of the novels that we’ll be reading. We’re using “have” and “have not” as key terms within there as a very useful analytic paradigm and related to those.
Since we’ve been talking so much about kinship, beginning with The Sound and the Fury and also now As I Lay Dying, brothers. Who is a kin and who is a non-kin? Last time we saw that Jewel is in danger of being labeled non-kin by his brother Darl and by his sister, Dewey Dell. Who is going to be a non-kin at the end of this novel?
First, let’s start out with the most obvious comic feature of As I Lay Dying, which is the most conventional ending, happy ending in marriage. And if you guys haven’t gotten to that point, I apologize. But there’s no way to talk about it as comedy without talking about the very last thing that we see in As I Lay Dying.
His wife isn’t quite in the ground. But this is a very fast mover, he has already acquired a new wife and other possessions – he now has teeth. There is a new future for Anse.
This is sort of the cliched ending for comedy. You’ve got to have a marriage and Faulkner very obligingly gives us a marriage at the end of As I Lay Dying. But we just know that he’s going to qualify it in some fashion. So – even as we see Anse with his new wife and his new teeth, we see something else:
A lot of information is coming at us at this moment. New teeth, another possession records for a gramophone. And the new phenomenon of records coming by mail order. This is truly the twentieth century. Even though there’s still mules, we’re firmly in the twentieth century.
And there’s the crucial little detail at the end – that Darl won’t be there to enjoy the records. So we know right there– this is the very end, this is 260– so we know already what has happened to Darl. This is reconstituting of the Bundren family. That one person is no longer kin, no longer in that family. How this happens is what we need to find out. and we have to go back a few steps to find out how it is that Darl gets excluded from that family circle.
I just want to give you a couple of images why the gramophone would be such a desirable object, just like the telephone. All this new equipment is just incredibly glamorous when they first appear. This is Columbiagramophone. And I’d like to, since we have all these desirable objects here, As I Lay Dying is Faulkner’s version of To Have and Have Not. And right there we know that Anse has three very prized possessions, teeth, wife and gramophone. And it seems that in contrast, other people have all lost something. They all have been reclassified in some sense as “have nots.”
In many ways, this is a zero sum game in As I Lay Dying that one person gets a lot of stuff at the expense of someone else. It’s a very austere economic model that there’s no pure gain in this world. Someone gains something, someone loses something. And the three people who lose something in the course of Anse acquiring so much are his three sons, Cash, Jewel and Darl.
Chapter 5: Cash as a “Have Not” [00:28:48]
Let’s look at Cash. And this is not really related to anything that I’ve been saying so far. But it’s clearly Cash and Jewel. Cash is the petty cash, and Jewel is the one whose value cannot be reckoned by cash. Faulkner’s really playing with the economic model in a big way. So maybe it’s not surprising that it would also be a kind of economic logic that’s determining the narrative logic in As I Lay Dying as well.
But Cash being named after petty cash, he’s one who would go try to make $3 at the risk of not seeing his mother when she dies, not being with his mother when she dies. So petty cash. But even though his being is measured by petty cash, even in spite of that, he can’t always hold on to what he has– the little he does have initially starting out.
So Cash is momentarily non-human. He’s lost his humanity. He looks like a bundle of old clothes. And we can all do that. If we’re floating the river unconscious, we can look like we’re inanimate matter, which is what Cash is at this moment. He could be inanimate matter, like a bundle of old clothes.
Or we can also think about different kind of a kinship that is snapping in place. Because actually Faulkner makes sure that we have a vivid memory of something else that also floated before lifeless in the water.
The mules are floating belly-up, their legs stiffly extended. That’s a kind of a natural posture for them. And Cash is floating face down where he’s looking at something at the bottom of the river. But either way, the two postures are almost symmetrical in a sense that both the mules and Cash are reduced to inanimate matter in that kind of posture.
We know that the mules are emblems for Tull. And they’re also emblems for– it’s not cow, it’s Cash– it’s for Cash’s kinship, that he too is a creature with feet of clay. This is reaffirming the fact that he’s not capable of lots of things. He’s a very good carpenter, but he’s not capable of surviving in hostile environment, and the water is one of them. Right there is just that kinship has been reaffirmed.
But we can also see Cash as an ironic instance of a have as well. This is something that would actually come into play in a big way in the last Hemingway novel that– in fact, it comes into play in two Hemingway novels. I promise you that this ironic use of the have will be a central moment in For Whom the Bell Tolls. We have that to look forward to. But we can also look back to an earlier moment in To Have and Have Not. When Harry Morgan is dying, he’s unconscious. And he feels there’s rubber hose inside of him. So when we’re talking about that moment, I was suggesting– although I wasn’t pushing very hard on that– that there was a moment of an ironic have. We don’t actually rubber hoses inside our bellies. But it can sometimes feel that way. It’s an ironic possession, a very negative possession ironically invested in us.
And here, it’s the same idea in Faulkner. Cash as having an ironic possession that turns him into a casualty as it did Harry Morgan in To Have and Have Not.
Vardaman is the one who’s speaking here. Vardaman is really rubbing it in that Cash has a broken leg. He has had two in his life. He’s managed to break both his legs in his occupation as a carpenter falling down from some height. In this case, just his leg is broken actually by the horse and the log. That’s what he has. He’s lost his tools at this point. He’s lost his consciousness. He’s lost his leg. But what he has instead of a good leg is a broken leg. That is what is in his possession now. So it’s definitely an ironic instance of a have. And Vardaman is very, very glad he doesn’t have that. I don’t have that. Pa doesn’t have that. Darl doesn’t have that.
The verb to “have” is definitely a liability. This is an instance of ironizing that verb. But there’s also kind of a straightforward instance of Cash as a have not in a fairly simple, quantifiable way. And actually, quantification is kind of interesting in Faulkner as well. If we think of the entire novel, the whole narrative economy is kind of zero sum game. They’re actually quantifying who gets what and measuring that against who loses what. Actually, there’s kind of quantifying logic going on in As I Lay Dying.
Chapter 6: Anse as a “Have” [00:32:09]
This is a quantifying moment in As I Lay Dying. We know that the mules have drowned, they have to get another team of mules. These are very, very poor people. A team of mules would cost $40. And it seems that Anse actually has managed to come up with the $40. Darl is trying to figure out where he got the $40 from.
We know exactly what it takes to reach that $40 mark. He has to get $10 from Dewey Dell. There’s no time to talk about that. It’s just straightforward. She owes $10 from Rafe for the abortion. And he got the $10 from her. And he gets $8 from Cash. Cash was going to use that to buy a telephone. That’s very far from that goal of $40. So one very valuable thing has to be traded in order for him to get the $40. And there’s just one thing left. It’s the most obvious item that is in anyone’s possession. We can turn now to– Jewel’s horse obviously is key from beginning to end.
Chapter 7: Jewel’s Broken Kinship with Animals [00:34:30]
But since we’ve been talking about kinship between humans and animals, I just wanted to stop very briefly and once again, hold up the conjecture that Faulkner here is, in some ways, taking us back to the moment when Jewel is both a horse and a snake. We talked about that last time that he’s caught between two poles. He’s both a horse, but also there’s something snake-like about his movement.
It seems that that association with the snake has been reinvested in Anse. So we have the image of him repeated twice as sliding his eyes towards Jewel. Sliding his eyes toward their feet and up their legs, but no higher. It is that sliding motion that realized the human, non-human configuration in As I Lay Dying, so that it is Anse who is the snake in the family.
It’s as if Jewel has suddenly been freed from his kinship with the snake. Maybe this is also a zero sum game. There’s only one person in the family who could claim kinship with a snake, Anse. Anse right here is claiming kinship with the snake. Jewel is going to relinquish his previous kinship with the snake, and be redefined in a different way.
But just to wrap up with Cash – he’s lost $8. Once again, true to his name. That’s what he loses. It’s still a very petty sum. But this is the big loser. And he has that much in his possession so he can afford to lose big. But let’s start out with an image of Jewel as still a have. Still having that thing. When the emerging situation is becoming clear to everyone, it is Jewel that Anse is looking at. And Jewel has not reacted in any fashion. This is a true turning point or a critical moment when things could have gone either way.
The horse is still in Jewel’s possession. He doesn’t have to give up the horse. It would be impossible for Anse to take control of the horse. He’s the last person to be able to control that wild horse. Only one person can control that horse and it’s Jewel. So this is a critical moment. How is Anse going to be able to get a hold of the horse to sell the horse? And it seems as if Jewel is really tended in one direction. This is a road that he could have taken. But I’m giving it away in the sense that no, it’s the road not taken. But this is moment when it looks like this is the road that he’s about to take. So as soon as Jewel hears that the horse is part of the bargain.
Still true to that original image of incredibly fast movement, almost superhuman in the speed with which the two of them move. And also superhuman, almost mythic, in the sense that man and horse had become one. This is the Hemingway image that is transposed onto Faulkner. This is the closest that Faulkner will ever get to Hemingway is Jewel and the horse becoming one. So it looks like that Anse is never going to be able to get $40, because Jewel and the horse have cleared out. Jewel can still be a “have” if this were the ending of As I Lay Dying. But this is what happens after that.
The team of mules arrives because Mr. Snopes did get the horse. And only one person could have brought the horse to Snopes. Jewel has now become a “have not.” And we can see why he’s losing his kinship to the snake– becoming a have not by voluntarily relinquishing his possession of the horse. He is the most tragic figure in one sense, because he has the most power to refuse to relinquish that possession. And he is the one who actually, out of his power, actually, willfully, deliberately, consciously, gives up that possession.
Chapter 8: The Reconstitution of Kinship [00:39:49]
The time has come for remapping of the whole kinship structure in As I Lay Dying. Jewel has, up to this point, been the outsider to the family. He’s the one that everyone picks out as being a non-kin by Darl and by Dewey Dell. But this is the moment when all of a sudden he’s been admitted for the first time into the family circle. And what’s interesting is that this redrawing of the kinship lines is dramatized by Faulkner as the racialization of both Cash and Jewel. And we can see why they are both racialized at this critical moment. They become kin, because they both become black.
This is really heavy handed on the part of Faulkner. They both look like niggers, and for two different reasons. Cash’s foot is turning black because they put concrete on it to fix the leg. To fix the broken leg, the Bundrens have put concrete on it. That’s the medical practice within the Bundren family. So his foot is turning black at this moment. And Jewel’s back is black because he has just been in the fire. He’s the one who actually saved the coffin, although it’s a dubious thing to do. He’s the one who actually saves the coffin when the barn was set on fire. And as a consequence, he gets this severe burn on his back. And that’s why his back is all black.
Each of them has lost something, and they’ve gained something. They don’t have a normal color, like anyone has normal colored back. They’ve got them. They’ve gained a black leg and a black back. And as a result of being blackened in this manner, then all of a sudden, they become brothers. So this is a new concept of brotherhood and new membership being proposed for that kinship structure. Jewel who has previously been outside of that kinship circle has been admitted. And we’ll see who is going to be excluded once again. It’s a zero sum game. If someone has been let in, who is it and for what reason is he going to be left out?
Chapter 9: Darl as a “Have Not” [00:43:13]
Everything is interlocking in Faulkner. It is that fire that turns Jewel’s back into a black back. And the same fire also has consequences for other people. You don’t set fire to a barn without someone paying for it. And it turns out that it is Darl who’s going to pay for it. And the language that is used here– this is Cash who is speaking, still in the voice of someone who’s used to being helpless and used to not being able to modify the situation that is given. There’s just nothing else to do. One person has to take the blame and to take the consequences of that blame.
One person has to be sent to Jackson. And we know what Jacksonis. It already has been a looming presence in The Sound and the Fury as the ultimate home for Benjy. And it is actually the home for Darl much sooner than it will be for Benjy.
Let’s look at two instances of the reconstituting and narrowing of the kinship circle. And Cash talking now and looking at his brother, Darl, but beginning to see his brother as a non-kin. This is Cash speaking. Actually, he sort of agrees with Darl that maybe it’s a good thing to burn up the coffin. It’s just so humiliating for Addie to be smelling and to have all the buzzards descending on her. They keep counting 10 and then more and more. And everyone– all the towns they go through– wanting to sue them because of the terrible smell that is coming from the coffin. Because of this other humiliation that’s been visited upon Addie, it would have been a good thing to burn up the coffin. And because it wasn’t going to happen and nobody else was going to do, Darl was going to do it. So Cash can see the reason for wanting to burn up the coffin. But he can also see that it maybe is not such a great thing for the person who is doing it.
Cash – giving up his bond with Darl as Darl’s brother. The kinship bond is superseded by a much more clear kind of property relation. Darl really has no relation to Gillespie other than that he is the destroyer of Gillespie’s property. But it is as a destroyer of Gillespie’s property that he will get sent to Jackson. It is that impersonal property relationship that will define Darl in the end and not his kinship with his two brothers. So this is the beginning of the exclusion and the logic for that exclusion of Darl from that family circle. But it is Vardaman who puts the case most strongly and clearly. Vardaman talking about Darl.
This is a child. He’s the cruelest, but he’s also the most honest that the family from now on is going to be Pa and Cash and Jewel and Dewey Dell and me, Vardaman. He’s not going to include Darl anymore. It’s been radically reconstituted. And it is on the basis of that reconstitution that we can think about Darl as a “have not,” as the ultimate “have not.” I think Darl and Jewel as symmetrical in that sense. Jewel has given the thing that is most monetarily valuable. And Darl has given up the thing that is most humanly valuable. This is Darl speaking, referring to himself in the third person, talking about himself in the third person.
He’s lost his mind. That is what there is to lose in the course of this novel. He has lost his family. We know that that’s one of the non-monetary things that can also be lost. He’s lost his brothers. He’s lost everything. He’s lost his freedom. And he also has lost his mind.
There’s no darker ending than this. It says a lot about Faulkner that this darkest of endings is actually stuck in the middle of a story that actually has a comic ending. And that’s what Faulkner does with genres.
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