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Teaching the Alienated Maternity of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying

As I Lay Dying presents complicated relationships to maternal identity that make the novel, in some respects, ahead of its time. Here are some suggestions for sparking discussion.

 

William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying is a staple of both the United States' literary canon and its high school classrooms. Motherhood -- in a morbid way -- is at the core of As I Lay Dying, as the Bundren family travels to the homeland of their matriarch Addie to lay her to rest. Addie's coffin is frequently at the center of a narrative that is told through a variety of voices -- including that of a dead Addie -- making her a critical force of the novel, even in her earthly absence. Beyond the mothering questions raised by Addie's role in the story, her daughter Dewey Dell's quest for abortive medication in the Depression-era American South offers another compelling starting point for discussions of motherhood and reproductive justice in the novel. Here are some suggested prompts for those looking to engage in conversations about these themes:


  • The trials and tribulations of the Bundren family in As I Lay Dying surround an attempt to return Addie's body to her hometown, ostensibly at her request. What do you make of this dynamic? Is this an authentic exertion of power on the part of Addie, or does this solely serve as a superficial rationale to obscure the other motives of her family?

  • Later in the novel, Addie has the opportunity to narrate a chapter. Finally able to speak directly to the reader, Addie refers to motherhood as her "duty," stating that “I gave Anse the children. I did not ask for them” and that the children violated her "aloneness." How does the version of maternity that Addie presents differ from the idealized renderings we typically see in literature (particularly literature written by men)?

  • The Bundren family begins to unravel in Addie's absence, positioning her as the family's center. Is this a fair assessment? How do we reconcile this development with the uncomfortable relationship with motherhood that Addie voices?

  • Discuss your interpretation of the following line, offered by Addie: "When [Cash] was born I knew that motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the ones that had the children didn't care whether there was a word for it or not.”

  • While Addie resignedly accepts children as her "duty," Dewey Dell repeatedly seeks to reject the assumption of a maternal identity by attempting to terminate her pregnancy. What was your reaction to this storyline? What might a reading of As I Lay Dying through a feminist, reproductive-justice oriented lens look like?

 

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