In an average family the death of a loved one usually serves to bring people together through mourning and grief, however, readers learn early on in As I Lay Dying that the Bundrens are not an average family and Addie Bundrens’ death serves to do the exact opposite, it tears the already fragmented family apart. This ripping apart of familial bonds is attributed to a number of things, such as Addie’s abuse of her loved ones, her adulterous affair resulting in Jewel, the fragments the knowledge of that can create in children, and the resentment it can cause between siblings.
Addie’s death sends her family on a journey to fulfill her dying wish, this journey goes wrong in almost every conceivable way and these wrongs rip this family to shreds, these wrongs arise from their inability to mourn together, and in the case of some characters their inability to mourn at all. Faulkner used the large family he created to exhibit in each member a different method of coping, he uses his characters to show the readers vastly different expressions of grief.
These differences in mourning are what serves to fragment the family further and ultimately cause the hoards of mishaps they face on their journey.
Anse Bundren is a toothless, wife-less shell of a man, he intends to use the death of his wife to fix at least one of these issues. Anse is selfish, painfully so, and he uses the death of Addie to mask that selfishness, he trades Jewels horse for a team to pull the wagon to ‘fulfill his wife’s dying wish’, but in actuality he trades that horse to get a team to pull him to his new teeth and to prowl the town for a replacement wife.
Despite this selfishness he still chastises his children for similar disrespects, scolding Dewey-Dell for bringing ‘a box of cakes’ into town for the Tulls, and scolding Cash for bringing his toolbox to do a job for the Tulls, calling both, “flouting of the dead.” (102). He blinds himself to his own selfish actions perhaps out of denial. Anse never mourns the death of his wife in a healthy way, he immediately begins thinking about finding a replacement wife, he starts shaving and of course fussing about his new teeth. “But now I can get them teeth. That will be a comfort. It will.” (Faulkner, 111). His teeth always seemed to take precedence over his the death of his wife. His new teeth will be a comfort, perhaps they’ll help him find a new wife, then he’ll be a whole man, and that would be a comfort.
Unfortunately, teeth and courtship aren’t the only ulterior motives that have plagued the mourning of Addie Bundren. Dewey Dell’s self-serving motives, though more sympathetic than Anse’s, still block her ability to mourn for her mother in a healthy way. She needs an abortion and the only place she could hope to get one is in town. However she, unlike Anse, does not get what she came for. Readers watch her desperately try to clear her frantic and time-constrained hurdle, and when it becomes apparent that this hurdle is one she will not clear, readers have something new to mourn, something far different from the death of Addie Bundren, and so does Dewey-Dell. This again impedes her mourning of Addie. She’s faced with problem after problem on her journey, like her brother Cash, these problems stop them each from properly grieving. Cash is the oldest sibling, he’s seen as the calmest and most reliable of the Bundrens, when he breaks his leg he insists its fine, even if he may not be inherently intelligent, though it could be argued that none of the Bundrens are, he is an incredibly hard worker. He faces one task after the next, he builds Addie’s coffin, which may be a way of coping with her illness for him, but then she dies, and perhaps before her death can sink in for him his leg is broken on their journey. This injury makes him unable to mourn for his mother as he is now faced with the prospect of no longer being able to work, he, like Dewey-Dell, is mourning a loss in ability over the loss of Addie.
The two characters that do mourn Addie do so in vastly different ways, Darl and Jewel Bundren, and though they are both mourning their mother this does nothing to bring them together or mend the mean-spirited relationship they share. Darl is resentful that Jewel was Addie’s favorite, he got affection from her that Darl felt he deserved. Darl is probing and observant, he knows Jewel isn’t Anse’s son, he knows that may be why Addie always loved him more. This resentment makes him cruel toward Jewel, taking him out to work with him knowing that Addie will die, denying Jewel a goodbye. Jewel cares about Addie, but because he is emotionally locked-down he is unable to put this into words, he is unable to communicate his grief to anyone, he internalizes his emotions and lashes out at people, especially Darl. Darl mourns in his meanness towards Jewel, he takes the anger he felt towards Addie out on him. He constantly asks him, “Jewel..do you know that Addie Bundren is going to die? Addie Bundren is going to die?” (Faulkner, 40) or “Jewel….whose son are you?” His aggression towards Jewel is his coping, trying to remind himself that even if Jewel was favored, he was still the bastard son. This coping mechanism isolates them both. Darl is unable to be insanely self-sacrificing like Cash, working himself to death or injury, or favored by Addie like Jewel. He’s an outsider in his family, he does not believe in the mission they are on. In some ways, his abandonment of the coffin in the river, and the burning of the farm are his extreme coping mechanisms. Darl loved his mother, even if he resented her for her affections to Jewel. He loved her a lot, enough to carry a grudge past her death, it can be assumed by the reader that watching his mother’s body be mishandled, placed upside down in her coffin, having holes bored into her face, being dragged across town, out to decay in the heat, for buzzards to circle, must be somewhat traumatizing, or at least angering. Perhaps the river and the fire were his own albeit extreme ways of attempting to put his beloved mother to rest for good, to end her perceived suffering.
Although Faulkner is never outright about this it can be inferred that Anse’s lack of healthy mechanisms of coping has nothing but negative impact on his children, especially his youngest son Vardaman. Vardaman never has death explained to him, all he has to guide himself through the loss of his mother is his observations of the people around him. When the only parent he has left to look up to is self-serving and unthinking it doesn’t bode too well for Vardaman. He does all he can and retreats into a fantasy world, a futile attempt to make sense of the death that is never explained to him. His brothers are unhealthy in their grief and Dewey-Dell, despite her circumstance making her seem older, isn’t even 18 yet. Vardaman continually confuses himself and no one does anything to help him when he asks Darl to explain things to him .Darl says Jewel’s mother is a horse he, like any young child, is perplexed. If his mother is a fish, how can he and Jewel have different mothers? “‘Then what is your ma, Darl?’ I said. ‘I haven’t got ere one,’ Darl said. ‘Because if I had one, it is was. And if it is was, it cant be is. Can it?’” (101). When all a child has to look up to in a time of mourning is selfish, angry, and lost family members it can be assumed that Vardaman will grow up to be a picturesque Bundren.
It is arguable that all the Bundren children grew into their problematic mourning because of their parents. Addie was callous and unloving, she was repugnant to her children, she beat and neglected them, even the child she favored doesn’t actively recall fond memories of her throughout his journey, and even after her death, Addie continued to take from and harm her children. Had it not been for her wish to be buried in Jefferson, Cash would have never broken his leg, Darl would never have set fire to the barn, its even possible Dewey-Dell never would have gone to the second drug store to be taken advantage of. Readers can infer that the Bundren household wasn’t very loving or emotionally vulnerable. The Bundren children never got to learn how to handle what they felt in a healthy way, and certainly never learned to ask their parents for help, most likely due to the obvious incompetency of those parents.The Bundrens never learned to be a functional family, with a lack of both paternal and maternal figures in the lives the children grew into unhealthy habits and unspoken grudges. The family doesn’t seem to love each other in a healthy way, they neglect to mourn their mother together because of their habits and grudges which created a heavy strain between them. The Bundrens were always a hollow, broken family, barely tied together, the strain that the death of Addie and the ensuing journey it sent them on created irreparable damage in the weak bonds scarcely holding them together.