I recently reread and taught Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, sharing with my class the timeworn themes of the book, the strange family dynamism of the Bundren family, the narrative Rashoman-like structure of the work, the social and economic situations of the family in relation to the financially depressed South (As I Lay Dying was originally published in October 1930, the same month as the stock market crash), and the mythic journey of the family from their home to Jefferson to bury Addie, where they endure nearly unbearable trials of earth, air, water, wind, and fire.
But as I began teaching the book this time around, particularly during the discussion of their tribulations, I was forced to admit that while in most classical works these trials generally resulted in redemption and/or transformation, in Faulkner’s novel only Anse, the father, receives any benefit: a set of new teeth and a wife to replace the one whom he has just buried. Cash nearly loses his leg, and, if the doctor is to be believed, will be partially crippled for the rest of his life; Darl loses his mind and is taken away to the Mississippi State Hospital in Jackson; Jewel loses his horse and any possibility of mythic potentiality that lay in his centaur-like being (early on, his body is described as “in midair shaped to the horse” [p. 13]); Dewey Dell is stripped of the money Lafe has given her for an abortion (and stripped of any remaining respectability by the salesman MacGowan), dooming her to the kind of servitude to family-life that Addie has had to endure; and even the young boy Vardaman loses, if nothing else, his innocence, perhaps even his future sanity. In his desperation to get Addie to her own “flesh and blood” in the Jefferson burial ground, Anse has sucked the very life out of his sons and daughters, one by one, so that he might obtain the set of teeth and, almost magically, be able to remarry.
I saw something. It kind of hunkered up when I come in and I
thought at first it was one of them [the Bundrens] got left, then
I saw what it was. It was a buzzard. It looked around and saw me
and went on down the hall, spraddle-legged, with its wings kind
of hunkered out, watching me first over one shoulder and then
over the other, like an old baldheaded man. When it got outdoors
it began to fly. It had to fly a long time before it ever got up into the
air, with it thick and heavy and full of rain like it was.
By novel’s end, accordingly, we understand how Anse has “worn out” his wife, sucking the blood from her body—just as he almost crucifies Cash upon the coffin of his own making by embedding his leg in concrete; transforms Darl into a maddened Renfield-like figure (and in this context we can also better understand Addie’s statement that her family “uses one another by words like spiders dangling by their mouths from a beam” [p. 172]); robs Jewel of any transformative potential by selling his horse, the beast that is described almost as being part of Jewel’s body; and dooms Dewey Dell to a life of patriarchal servitude. And Vardaman? Perhaps he is destined to commit suicide, his blood already having been drained by the suck of his own teeth:
From behind pa’s leg Vardaman peers, his mouth open and all color
draining from his face into his mouth, as though he has by some means
fleshed his own teeth in himself, sucking. (p. 49)
At work’s end only Anse, the original vampire, remains intact, with a new set of teeth and a new bride into which he can sink them.
When I first read As I Lay Dying as an M.A. student in Lewis Lawson’s 1973 Faulkner seminar at the University of Maryland, a woman in the class suddenly burst into tears one day as we were discussing this novel. “I’m sorry,” she whimpered, “but you are all speaking of this work from an objective position which I simply cannot share, having just gone through the death of my mother.” For years I have described this incident as being one the earliest indicators to me that the New Critical perspective of literature was about to crumble. The woman in our class, I now perceive, was correct in her assessment; by enfolding the popular vampire myth within this modernist masterpiece, perhaps Faulkner himself knew that he had created—as Darl describes Anse’s face upon the death of Addie—“a monstrous burlesque of all bereavement.”
As I began research on this short essay, I came upon a brief piece from 2006 in the Los Angeles Times reporting that among the manuscripts found in Faulkner’s papers by his daughter Jill was a full-length, unpublished screenplay about vampires titled, unsurprisingly, Dreadful Hollow!
Los Angeles, October 9, 2008