- Disinterring Daddy:Family Linen's Reply to As I Lay Dying
Novelist Lee Smith has often acknowledged Faulkner's importance to her writing, alluding to him in her fiction and discussing him in her interviews. In particular, she mentions Faulkner's use of multiple points of view, his use of many characters with different voices to tell his stories (Arnold 14). It is not surprising, then, to see critics beginning to explore how Smith has used Faulkner, specifically how her work responds not only to his techniques but also to his characters and plots. On technique, for instance, Jeanne McDonald writes that it "was from novels like The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying that Smith got the idea of multiple narrators" (180). On plot and character, one critic in particular, Susie Paul Johnson, has explored the striking connections between As I Lay Dying and Smith's 1985 novel Family Linen. She is especially compelling as she discusses the similarities in plot, with both novels set into motion by "the death of the mother" (45), and in character types, with Smith's Sybill Rife, for example, sharing traits with Faulkner's Darl Bundren (46).
With such helpful groundwork accomplished, it is time to consider how Smith uses Faulknerian narration, plot, and character to re-explore Faulknerian themes. Not much has been done yet. Even Johnson's important exploration of plot and character, in fact, is marred by a major [End Page 97] misreading of the novel's plot that leads to a further misreading when she does discuss its theme. Repeatedly Johnson wrongly asserts that Elizabeth Hess, the mother who dies and whose children's points of view develop most of the story, committed the murder uncovered in the novel. Johnson refers to "Elizabeth's slaying of Jewell" (46), for example, and to "Elizabeth's "driv[ing] the axe again and again into her husband's body" (47). Both Smith's stated intentions and the novel itself, on the other hand, make it clear that the killer of Jewell Rife is Elizabeth's sister Fay, who was born with a form of mental retardation and who was repeatedly abused by Rife. The confusion is understandable: early in the novel when Sybill recovers her memory of the event, she assumes the shadowy figure she saw wielding the axe on that dark and stormy night in her childhood was her mother, and she repeats her dream and her assumption to her siblings. The novel itself, however, makes Sybill an unreliable narrator, and it undercuts her assumption by explicitly stating that Fay killed Jewell. She had been repeatedly raped by him and then silenced by his promises to take her away to Florida. She then killed Jewell when she believed him about to leave for Florida without her.
The novel's indictment of Fay is not difficult to follow. First, in an early monologue, Fay dwells on how a television character "dug up her first husband" (83) and repeatedly thinks, "don't worry I'll take care of it" (85), as if "digging up" her sister Elizabeth's first husband is on her mind. Later Fay remembers Jewell's promises: "I'm getting out of this one-horse town he said honey I'll take you too. We'll take us a big long trip, we'll go to Florida you'll like it there you can get a suntan, honey, there's flowers blooming all the time" (125).Then, when Fay slips into the closed car where she dies of hyperthermia, her agency becomes perfectly clear. She recalls:
He meant to go without me, I saw him trying to leave. He tried to sneak out in the storm in the night with Elizabeth sound asleep. He meant to take that journey by himself, he meant to leave me, after all he'd said. Some men are just so mean. He said honey oh honey oh honey you'll like it there. But then he meant to leave me in the end. The investigation will continue as detailed by Dr. Don Dotson. Nettie says they will dig up Elizabeth's yard they will put in a pool...