- The Casket in the Corpse:The Wooden (Wo)man and Corporeal Impermanence in As I Lay Dying
The phonetic link between Bundren and burden is unmistakable. A reading of As I Lay Dying as a novel of physical and spiritual encumbrances is bolstered not only by the surname of the family literally burdened by the weighty, custom-made coffin containing their deceased matriarch; it is predisposed by the title. As Eric Sundquist observes of the title in his seminal text Faulkner: The House Divided, “its adverb capable of being construed as while, how, or even as if—endorses the fact that Addie’s death as it is experienced … occurs over the course of the book and in relation to each character” (30). Sundquist continues by noting the title contains the possibility of a distinction between literal and figurative death that is “both necessary and hazardous … by playing on the colloquial use of lay as an intransitive verb, so as to blur further the distinction between past and present events, a blurring sanctioned and exaggerated by the mixing narrative tenses among the book’s fifty-nine chapters” (30). The decision to use lay in place of lie contributes to a burdened reading in that the verb lay requires the use of a direct object when referring to a person. As I Lay Dying, then, becomes a text in which action is happening to the Bundrens rather than a narrative of what the family chooses to do. Such a title sets a path for a story in which people, like the planks of wood used to construct Addie Bundren’s casket, are pawns of a larger structure, rather than independent decision-making entities.
The reference connecting the Bundrens to wood is intentional. A pattern wherein living characters are repeatedly described as “wooden” or generally inanimate, while objects or human features—identified as detached from [End Page 13] the person to whom they belong (such as a chin or eyes)—are repeatedly anthropomorphized is established early in the novel. In the third paragraph, for example, Darl describes Jewel’s “pale eyes like wood cut into his wooden face” as “he crosses the floor … with the rigid gravity of a cigar store Indian … endued with life from the hips down” (Faulkner 4). While, as Erin Edwards notes in “Extremities of the Body: The Anoptic Corporeality of As I Lay Dying,” that “Several critics have remarked on the relation between reified bodies and personified objects in the novel,” few scholars have commented on the implications of wood metaphors, particularly as they relate to the significance of physicality, spirituality, and the feminine (752). Just as trees are the source of life and are essential to a functioning society (even in death, as wood is used for nearly all types of construction in the early twentieth century), so is woman, whether her role is cherished or devalued. This paper will examine how Faulkner allegorizes wood to augment representations of mortality and selfhood, particularly as they relate to issues of class and gender.
Sourced by the tree, a common symbol of the “cyclical character of cosmic development in death and regeneration,” Faulkner employs wood imagery to link man to the universal “state of perpetual regeneration” (Chevalier and Gheerbrant 1026). This is a particularly important consideration given that As I Lay Dying “is markedly a book in which characters exist on the basis of the briefest and most fragmentary physical descriptions” (Sundquist 34), thus saturating each corporeal sketch with particular import. Returning to wooden Jewel as “cigar store Indian,” Faulkner’s choice of “endue” is significant, given that to “endue” is to invest with a spiritual gift, such that could result in the rebirth of a once living tree, converted to (dead) wood, then imbued with the life force required for movement. The language Faulkner selects for his “Yale Preface” to As I Lay Dying lends even more weight to the wood metaphor (Kaufmann 99). He asserts the author can only present “a kernel or a leaf, to indicate a lost forest, at least to keep the evocative skeleton of the desiccated [sic] leaf” (qtd. in Matthews 88). The cigar store Indian/Jewel analogy not only...