As I Lay Dying
by William Faulkner
Dewey Dell Bundren
Dewey Dell is Addie’s fourth child and only daughter. She narrates sections 7, 14, 30, and 58. She’s also seventeen and pregnant.
It’s not easy being Dewey Dell. She’s the only girl in a family of boys, now that her mother’s just died, she’s pregnant with a baby she doesn’t want and can’t talk about with anyone, her attempts at getting an abortion have been foiled three times – once by her own father, and the stakes of family obligation are now through the roof (as the surviving female, Dewey Dell has to take on matriarchal duties like cooking and cleaning, and even looking after Vardaman). To put it bluntly, her life sucks.
In fact, the only thing worse than being a pregnant Dewey Dell is being a pregnant Dewey Dell in a novel where babies essentially represent sadness, obligation rather than joy, and even decay and death. Addie certainly felt this way about her children, and Dewey Dell seems to realize this, too. She compares herself to a cow who needs to be milked. She refers to the world as a "tub of guts." She is always described in very visceral, even animalistic terms. Check this out, courtesy of Darl: "Squatting, Dewey Dell’s wet dress shapes for the dead eyes of three blind men those mammalian ludicrosities which are the horizons and the valleys of earth" (37.67). Well that’s just about the least appealing description of breasts we’ve ever heard. Being a woman in this novel isn’t about femininity or beauty – it’s about having babies.
But not when you’re seventeen and unmarried. You have to remember that, in this time and place, being a single mom was NOT OK. This goes a long way in explaining why Dewey Dell resents Darl so much: he knows her secret. When she dreams about killing her brother, it’s because she fears his powers of perception. (Check out "Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory" for more. It’s where we get into her obsession with her brother’s eyes.) The social taboos of the 1920s also explain why Dewey Dell feels so much shame about her pregnancy, and by association, about her body, too. Remember that nightmare she had? Let us refresh your memory:
When I used to sleep with Vardaman I had a nightmare once I thought I was awake but I couldn’t see and couldn’t feel the bed under me and I couldn’t think what I was I couldn’t think of my name I couldn’t even think I am a girl I couldn’t even think I nor even think I want to wake up nor remember what was opposite to awake so I could do that I knew that something was passing but I couldn’t even think of time then all of a sudden I knew that something was it was wind blowing over me it was like the wind came and blew me back from where it was I was not blowing the room and Vardaman asleep and all of them back under me again and going on like a piece of cool silk dragging across my naked legs (30.5).
Goodness! Sounds like a crisis of identity and sexuality. Who are the "all of them" lying under Dewey Dell? It’s very possible that she’s referring to the men in her family. Don’t worry, this is strictly metaphorical. Remember what we said in the "Overview" about Freud being all the rage when this novel was written? Well, that’s what’s going on here. Dewey Dell feels shame and embarrassment at being the only female in this family of men. She’s embarrassed about her sexuality and her body, and these subconscious feelings bubble up via her dreams.