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Faulkner’s Biological and Social Definition of a Mother

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For human beings, life inherently exists with a void, which people look to fill through indulging in various constructs set up and measured by society. Some invest themselves in money, some absolve themselves with religion, and still others utilize vanity as an impetus for survival. In William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, the central character of Addie Bundren is consumed by her void, the story of her struggle acting as the primary plot line of the novel, despite the fact that most of what is revealed about her is done so posthumously, as she is dead for most of the novel. Addie’s vice is not of dollars, deities, or demeanor, but rather, people. She repeatedly attempts to establish connections with others throughout her lifetime, most notably seen through her children. Yet, while she gives birth to them and acts as their caretaker throughout their formative years, she fails to create meaningful relationships in a way that brings her any sense of long term gratification. Faulkner’s work highlights the differences between the biological and social definitions of what is means to be a mother. Addie realizes one, but does not fully understand the other, heightening her feelings of depression and isolation to the eleventh hour of her passing.

While linguistic aspects of language would typically be the most apparent, throughout the novel, the emotional weight of language holds much more importance than its logical or face value characteristics. Words, to Addie, were not words. They were associations, a “shape to fill the lack” (Faulkner 40) for people who failed to comprehend the term through experience. There exists a “split between words and deeds (Mississippi State University); these experiences that connected to words had no standard or commonality, the way a definition for a word is unwavering and unchanging over time. These experience were based on her own knowledge, therefore limiting Addie’s perspective of the meaning of a word to the events in her own life.

Such an occurrence is not uncommon, and even holds scientific basis for psychological studies and activities. The issue lies not in the fact that she interprets vocabulary this way, but rather in the specific words Addie misunderstands, this “difficulty with language [serving] to mask meaning… and [illustrate] her message” (Mississippi State University). The word “love” is one that even the youngest children and most incompetent of minds can comprehend, used to express desire or affection, intended to represent something endearing or adored. However, Addie’s interpretation of “love” is completely warped. While she provides no explicit definition for the word, in her sole chapter, she explains it with great apathy, simply stating, “It didn’t matter” (Faulkner 40). Love for one’s offspring exists in even the most primal of beings, yet Addie claims that her first child, Cash, “did not need [it]” (40). Love is supposed to be the foundation for marriage, and, in Addie’s case, it holds true, but in a way that is far from the traditional sense. The only person Addie associates with the word “love” is her husband Anse, who she despises and blames for being the source of her discontent. The use of “love” within Addie’s crooked lexicon is a prime example of irony, as she only identifies it in conjunction with someone she hates.

Despite these misinterpretations, it is clearly evident that Addie understands what it means to mother a child in the physical sense. She viewed the birth of Cash as “a ‘natural’ result of her sexual expression” (Mississippi State University), and, as one can presume based upon themany children in the Bundren family, Addie was also no stranger to recurrent sex. She also had a strong understanding of the primitive biological idea of motherhood, which coincided with the role of women within rural Southern families. In conversations with Cora Tull, the Bundren’s wealthy, religious neighbor, Addie defends herself against Cora’s argument that she is “not a true mother” (Faulkner 40) by retorting within the contents of her personal chapter, that Cora “could never even cook” (40). In these subtleties are revealed what Addie defines as a mother: someone who cooks, cleans, and provides for the husband, so that he can provide for her.

Addie inability to satisfy both biological and social standards of a mother did not come unrecognized. In fact, she mentions that with the conception of Cash, she saw motherhood as a way to end her misery—“living was terrible and [this] was the answer to it” (40). Yet, as someone so use to isolation, she was completely exhausted at the responsibility of having to be by someone’s side at all waking hours of the day. This lack of contentment within her emotional void lead her completely astray from identifying with her child, claiming the child “belonged to Anse” (40).

Was Addie the mother of the Bundren children? Biologically, yes. However, bearing children does not always make you a mother. She sought emotional fulfillment in her children, when the reality was, she should have been providing emotionally for them. Addie failed to comprehend that a child’s needs do not lie solely in the bottom two layers of Maslow’s hierarchical pyramid. It takes emotional nurturing in addition to physical care to lead them on a brighter path than the one their predecessors might know. Without putting this initial action forward, there could be no equal or greater reaction to revive Addie Bundren’s faith in life in return.

Works Cited

  1. Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying: The Corrected Text. New York: Vintage, 1990. Web. 29 Apr.
  2. 2016. <http://genius.com/albums/William-faulkner/As-i-lay-dying>.
    “‘This was the answer to it’: Sexuality and Maternity in As I Lay Dying…” The Free Library.
  3. 1996 Mississippi State University 29 Apr. 2016. <http://www.thefreelibrary.com/%22this +was+the+answer+to+it%22%3a+Sexuality+and+Maternity+in+As+I+Lay…- a057535131>.

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