As I Lay Dying
by William Faulkner
Addie is Anse’s wife and mother to Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman (in that order). She narrates section 40, though she dies in Section 12.
Before we start a character analysis here, we recommend going back and sloooowly reading Section 40 again. Most of the interesting stuff regarding Addie is revealed in those 10-ish pages.
Back already? Great. Then, first off, you know that Addie hated Anse; that’s why she wants to be buried in Jefferson, with her own family, rather than with Anse’s (to which she feels no connection). You also know that Addie wasn’t exactly an ideal candidate for motherhood to begin with. She worked as a schoolteacher and enjoyed whipping her students, whom she secretly hated. Oddly enough, what appealed to Addie most about this corporal punishment was the fact that it made her a part of the students’ lives. "Now you are aware of me!" she used to think. But when she finally had her own children, what she resented most was that her "aloneness had been violated." What gives? Remember that this is the 1920s and Addie is a woman. She doesn’t really have much purpose to her life other than having babies. Her anger at her students probably has a lot to do with the hollowness she feels as a single woman. She wants to be noticed; she wants to be a real person. Having kids doesn’t solve the problem; it just presents a new one. Now she’s noticed, but defined by her motherhood. She will never be anything but a vessel for these babies. She hasn’t become her own person – she’s become part of a family. Now she resents that attachment, which is why she feels her "aloneness has been violated." This is, of course, the reason for Addie’s affair with Whitfield – to rebel against her role in the family. Or, as she calls it, "revenge" against Anse. The product, of course, was Jewel.
Just what IS Addie’s special connection to this middle child? The way she explains it, Darl and Cash belonged to Anse. She never really wanted them, and having them in the first place was really just about her duty as a wife. But since Anse isn’t Jewel’s father, he has no ownership over him. Jewel is Addie’s and Addie’s alone. He’s also living proof, at least to her, that she was able to break out of her position as Anse’s wife and act as a real, independent person. It gets a little more confusing when Addie refers to Jewel as her "salvation," as he who will "save [her] from the water and from the fire […] though [she has] laid down [her] life" (39.5). As you’ve probably noticed by now, Jewel does indeed save Addie – the dead Addie in her coffin – from the water and from the fire. So, in one sense, Addie’s prophecy comes true. But Jewel saves her rotting corpse from the water and the fire; is this really tantamount to being her salvation? Wait a minute…this sounds like more…ironic inversion! (Are you tired of us talking about ironic inversion yet? If not, make sure you’ve read "Genre" for a full explanation.) The novel has unfolded in such a way so as to make a farce out of Addie’s prediction. Jewel didn’t save her or her soul; he just hauled a heavy, awkward, backwards coffin out of a river and out of a burning barn. What a mockery.
Still, when you realize that Addie essentially predicted events after her own death, you might wonder for a moment if she isn’t the narrator of all the novel, because 1) she’s got weird prophetic abilities, 2) the title refers to an "I" which very well could be her, and 3) this would explain why Darl knew what was happening at her death: because she’s getting into everyone’s head from her all-seeing post-mortem vantage point in the sky. But this is unlikely. The point isn’t that Addie might be the narrator; the point is to question what it means to be a narrator, to have a point of view, to be limited by one’s perceptions. This segues right into one of Addie’s important realizations: words are absolutely useless. On a scale of 1 to 10, the communication skills of this cast rate about a -2. No one ever says what they’re really thinking, and everyone is always misinterpreting everyone else. The very concept of the narration itself – different narrators providing different perspectives – suggests that words are never accurate descriptions of reality anyway, because they are inherently subjective and interpretive.