Faulkner’s and Morrison’s Notions of Parenting

In literature of fictional realism, the difficulty of storytelling often lies in creating a believable atmosphere, in order for the reader to identify with the characters and surroundings. The theme and plot may well be stylish and inspirational, but without plausible characters or a practical setting, the atmosphere of suspended belief the author is striving for can be marred by the simple obscurity of the key elements of character development, functional setting, and writing style appropriate to the story itself.
If an author is skilled enough to successfully employ these crucial elements, and have a solid story to boot, then great writing is created. Such is the case with William Faulkner and Toni Morrison. Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying and Morrison’s Pulitzer- and Nobel-prize winning novel Beloved express the damage that can be caused through either excess of devotion or indifferent neglect of the respective parent. Both writers maintain focus on the development of the characters, create an active and believable setting, and employ appropriate writing styles to successfully convey their social commentaries.
In As I Lay Dying, Faulkner introduces his characters, the Bundren family, as simple country folk faced with grave circumstances. Addie, the mother of the family, is on her deathbed, and not much longer for the world. The household is in a state of despair, performing their perfunctory duties, but with a pronounced lack of enthusiasm. Anse, worrying himself on the front porch, puts it simply after telling his son Vardaman to wash his hands: “But I just cant seem to get no heart in it,” (Faulkner, 38).

Neither Anse nor any other members of the household seem to have any clue as to how to react to the forthcoming tragedy, outside of dispensing their feeble grasp of pathos. Even Tull, the Bundrens’ nearby neighbor, comments on Anse in pity: “…the only burden Anse Bundren’s ever had is himself…I think to myself he aint that less of a man or he couldn’t a bore himself this long. ” (Faulkner, 73). This simple statement by Tull is a testimony to Anse’s burden as a father and husband.
Anse recognizes his failings as both patraiarch and devoted husband; it is that weight that ignites a sudden surge of faithfulness to his wife and urges him upon the journey to respect her last wishes of a burial in Jefferson. Faulkner further establishes the Bundrens as incapable of grasping appropriateness as Cash stands outside of his mother’s window, in her full view, nailing and sawing together the coffin in which she will be laid to rest. The irony is that Addie wants to see it being constructed: “[Addie was] Lying there with her head propped up so she could watch Cash building the coffin,” (Faulkner, 23).
Faulkner is commenting not only on the family’s dim grasp of appropriateness, but on the mother’s part as well, and the reader is left to wonder the reasoning behind Addie’s decision to watch her son build her coffin. In this light, Addie can seem cold towards her children, in that she is looming over Cash’s shoulder as he goes about the grim task of constructing his dying mother’s coffin. In actuality, Addie holds her son in reverence and is transmitting that care using the only method she was taught, by merely paying attention to him.
Looking at the characters individually in order to circumscribe a mediocre upbringing, Faulkner’s careful construction of the characters implies the damage the parents have inflicted by their relative indifference. Vardaman remains in a state of reluctance and confusion, simply because no one in the family, least of all the parents, takes the time to fully explain the circumstances. He cannot grasp death’s finality and begins to panic when his mother is placed into the coffin post-mortem: “Are you going to nail it shut, Cash? Nail it? Nail it? ” (Faulkner, 65).
His incredulity incites him to action, and the episode spins into Vardaman’s notion to drill holes into the coffin so that she might breathe. Unfortunately, Vardaman misjudges the body’s position and “When they taken the lid off they found that two of [the drill-holes] had bored on into her face,” (73). The whole of the scene focuses on the fact that Vardaman was acting out of concern and love for his mother, but with disastrous results. This is a vehicle Faulkner employs throughout the novel, that bad ideas are often accompanied by good intentions, which re-emphasizes the tacit misunderstanding of a sound family dynamic.
There is an abject, obscure devotion, but the family, including Addie, has had an impossible time of setting that devotion in concrete terms. But it is Faulkner’s use of language to skillfully transition into Addie’s sole monologue that explicates his willingness to peg complex irony into an otherwise straightforward novel. Faulkner utilizes the family’s inability to communicate as a launching point for Addie’s monologue, which centers on the idea that words are often lacking in function. Addie represents Faulkner’s commendable language skills by evoking great sorrow in a single stroke.
While previous monologues of other characters create a mosaic of separate sadnesses, it is through Addie that the reader is pulled into pointed and exacted depths of human misery. Moreover, her frank manner of speech serves Faulkner’s purpose of cold accuracy as Addie despairs in her position of responsibility she never wanted nor feel she deserves: “I knew that that word [love] was like the others; just a shape to fill a lack; that when the right time came, you wouldn’t need a word for that anymore than for pride or fear”, (Faulkner, 172).
Devin Mckernan, in his article Conflict of the Feminine in As I Lay Dying, comments on this move by Faulkner: “That this would be Faulkner’s take on language is obviously ironic, as he depends on his words to not only live but perpetuate his own concepts and beliefs,” (9). Addie’s statement of words being insufficient to fill a particular void is Faulkner’s method of projecting his own frustration at the feebleness and insubstantiality of words. Addie summarizes the futility of spoken words in situations where speech is neither necessary nor fulfilling of any definitive purpose.
So automatically her lack of faith in the communication of words is relayed to her children, whom she neglects to communicate effectively with, and Vardaman’s vacancy, Jewel’s bitterness, and Dewey Dell’s airiness reflect Addie’s poor maternal instincts. Too, she is objecting her husband Anse’s reference to ‘love’. For Addie, as for Faulkner, the conveyance of deep-felt emotions or thoughts or ideas or beliefs cannot be hammered down in such abstract terminology; words such as ‘love’ and ‘pride’ are both ambiguous and subjective, hence meaningless.
This outlook proves Addie a failed mother and a bitter wife, which is transmuted upon the family and reflects in their dim sense of family. Faulkner’s tact lies in the brevity of Addie’s monologue to express Addie’s resentment of words of feeling: “…sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who have never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words,” (174).
Clearly, the language is disparaging of the abstract nature of words, but subtly Faulkner is urging the reader to think for himself and what those abstract words mean to each individual, or if they should have a meaning attached to them in the first place. There still remains the implied love that Anse has for his family. After Cash breaks his leg, Anse comes up with the idea of setting the leg into cement as a remedy.
This episode is the most profound example of Anse’s poor fathering yet, and the fact that he does not realize the damage being done until a neighbor points out the worsening injury is further evidence of Faulkner desiring his audience to grasp the absoluteness of parental failing: “Cash’s leg and foot turned black… ‘Didn’t none of you have more sense than that? ’ Mr. Gillespie said,” (Faulkner, 224). Here is the penultimate example of Anse impacting his children out of ignorance, but not for lack of caring.
It must be noted that Faulkner still implies a general air of tenderness warmth as Anse “just aimed to help [Cash],” (ibid), but without the common sense to do anything but the first hare-brained idea he could muster. This scene is also an example of Faulkner’s use of a dynamic setting to deliver the theme of the husband finally finding devotion enough for his wife, but, like Addie, viewing the children as burdensome. For Faulkner, Yoknapatawpha county and its rural Mississippi surroundings provide the requisite set of trials and misfortunes the Bundrens must overcome to deliver Addie safely to Jefferson.
On the way they encounter a fierce river that drowns their mule team, providing the first example of the roughness of the terrain as a force to be reckoned with: “…I see the mules come rolling up slow up out of the water, their legs spraddled stiff like they had balked upside down…,” (Faulkner, 154). This episode still outlines a familial love between the characters, because it was Anse’s bull-headed devotion to Addie’s dying wish of burial in Jefferson that made the sojourn necessary in the first place, and come what may he would deliver her no matter how rough the road gets, and in spite of his bitterness towards his family.
Faulkner weaves the setting further into his tale by making the novel one of necessary travel. As stated earlier, the primary goal of the Bundrens is to deliver Addie to her final resting place in Jefferson. The gathering rain, the swollen, mule-drowning river, and the instance of Cash’s broken leg all provide Faulkner with ample opportunity to make the setting as threatening as Anse’s stubborn devotion.
The risks run by the family are outweighed by Anse’s final attempt to do right by Addie, a fact to which Anse is either oblivious or indifferent. Faulkner succeeds in his goal to incorporate as much of the setting to drive his novel and further express the mishaps of Anse’s bumbling paternal figure. As I Lay Dying is regarded as a giant of literary fiction, encompassing stout and functional characters, a dynamic and threatening setting, and a style of versification as subtle as it is simple to relay the message of parental ignorance and neglect.
And Toni Morrison, in her novel Beloved, is equally successful in her characterizations, her setting, and her expressive language, but to deliver a message of hope from the most down-trodden, the ex-slaves of post-Civil war society. Morrison rides the road opposite Faulkner, ensuring the proper level of complexity in her characters, taming her setting to nurture as well as inflict tragedy, and designing her language on a more intricate level. Morrison’s characters are not permitted the lack of intimacy like the Bundren family.
Sethe, the matriarchal central figure of the story, operates on a far deeper and more complex level than the sum total of the Bundrens combined. She is strong-willed yet vulnerable, fierce yet devoted, at times simple and straightforward in thought, and at other times profound and insightful. In the opening scene, Paul D comments to himself on the nature of Sethe “…the one with iron eyes and backbone to match,” (Morrison, 9). In Sethe, the reader is given a strong character who is also burdened with her charges, Denver and Beloved.
But Sethe differs from Anse in her willingness to accept that burden, accept her children and try to raise them up correctly, insofar as her past and her present will allow her. Morrison takes care to create Sethe as a proper mother figure, weaving into her narrative the harrowing story of Sethe’s escape from Sweet Home, integrating Denver’s birth on a grounded rowboat, and illustrating the automatic response of maternal care for Beloved upon Beloved’s entrance into the novel. These two very human flaws are central for Sethe’s internal struggles.
She holds her head high in pride, as an escaped ex-slave who has (mostly) succeeded in putting her grim past behind her: “No more running-from nothing. I will never run from another thing on this earth,” (Morrison, 15). This early declaration from Sethe provides the context for the reader to understand her position; that as a mother escaping from slavery’s treachery caused her to duck and run, but as a woman having overcome that trial she is in firm refusal to let any further hardships force her to turn tail and bail.
So it is the shame of having to run, as necessary as that escape was, coupled with the pride of having survived the grisly cruelty of slavery that constitutes much of Sethe’s psychological makeup. This past, however, will lead Sethe down a road of what can be viewed as either temporary psychosis or the pinnacle of devoted motherhood. In one of the most crucial scenes of the novel, the slavehunters have discovered Sethe and her children hiding out in a shed at the back of 124. Sethe, well aware of the inhumanity of the men surrounding her, slays her child, cutting its throat.
When the men enter, they find Sethe “holding a blood-soaked child to her chest with one hand and an infant by the heels in the other,” (Morrison, 149). The other infant is Denver, whom Stamp Paid saves from “the arch of its mother’s swing,” (ibid). At first glance, this scenario seems strikingly cruel, but Sethe’s personal history as a slave, and therefore her knowledge of its terrors, drives her to commit the unspeakable infanticide: in Sethe’s mind, she had no choice but to save her children from the horrendous fate of slavery by murdering them.
This episode portrays the duality of Sethe’s unfortunate past as always having an effect on her well-being and that of her children; she is devoted as a mother, but so much so that she assumes her child’s immediate death is preferable to the inhumanities of slavery. For Morrison, Paul D represents an odd secondary paternal figure, that of the bedraggled former slave male willing to sacrifice his own pride and paset at the chance of a content “normal” life with Sethe.
But this life includes Denver, and from the outset Paul D is aware of Denver’s resentment towards him, not necessarily as a father figure, but as a stranger and a threat to the relationship between Denver and Sethe. Paul D is Morrison’s definintion of an aloof father, aware of his conspicuousness to Denver, and Denver believing that he has no intention of attempting the role of father. Midway through the novel, the reader encounters a crucial moment, as Paul D has been seduced and taken by Beloved, but he is willing to tell Sethe the truth.
Paul D finally musters the courage to tell her of his infidelity, and Morrison is sure to highlight Sethe’s courage: “…already ready to accept, release or excuse an in-need-or-trouble man…because she didn’t believe any of them… could measure up,” (Morrison, 128). In this statement, Morrison portrays Sethe as she has been from the outset of the story, iron-willed and accustomed well enough to disappointment than to let some wild man from her distant past ruin her by shucking off and discarding her.
This outlook is due to Morrison’s extensive development of her character, making Sethe that much more plausible, in the sense that her disturbing past bears down so heavily on her present decision. The established mindset of overcoming any difficulty sets her jaw before she even knows what the issue is that Paul D is referring to. Too, there is an expectant despair in the statement, since Sethe’s past is so loaded with tragedy that she is reluctant to believe anything else is possible.
This theme, the inability to completely conquer one’s own past demons, will further define Morrison’s complexity in regard to Sethe and Paul D’s incompatibility as a functional parental pair. Sethe and Paul D are strong central characters but are reluctant to revisit the mutual history that has so bound them, even in the light of a functional and content relationship. As stated by Arlene R. Keizer, “…the knowledge [from Sethe’s and Paul D’s slavery history] that might sustain them spiritually is consigned to the same forbidden area as the knowledge that might destroy them,” (Keizer, 2).
Keizer touches on two main points that prove Sethe and Paul D inaccessible as parental figures: one, their shared history is too violent to revisit, hence any former knowledge of upbringing is null and void; and two, this forbidden area constitutes a large portion of their personalities, so any parenting they might attempt would only be a partial reflection of the whole person. Morrison ensures that the past setting of her characters binds them as strong as the present setting. The p of years passed in degradation and submission still wound and hinder both Sethe’s and Paul D’s further attempts to encompass a functional family life.
Here a key difference arises between Morrison and Faulkner. Faulkner’s setting is present-focused, concentrating on the immediate actions and linear motion of the story to carry his failed parent theme. His characters can’t see but the road ahead of them, and plod along with a dim view of what is and what still might be, with little to no reference to any previous tragedy. The Bundrens’ past is reflected upon briefly, but merely in passing and without the gravity and great triumph intermingled with tragedy that Morrison employs.
Morrison establishes the past as vital to the characters’ growth or retardation, where the strengths and weaknesses are exposed fully in their profound self-reflections, and their past will ultimately haunt them, especially Sethe and Paul D crippling their abilities as parental figures. Often enough, the characters have found methods and means to dissuade the past from surfacing too much, as when Sethe rubs Paul D’s knee, likening the soothing repetitive action to kneading flour into dough: “Working, working dough. Nothing better than that to start the day’s serious work of beating back the past,” (Morrison, 73).
Here, the reader is drawn back to the fact that a collective past such as Sethe’s and Paul D’s must be confronted daily and fiercely, lest the despair it might breed ruin their lives and all that they have worked for. But it is the physical manifestation of Beloved and her move into 124 that wreaks the most havoc, and attempts to crush the semblance of a family Sethe and Paul D were attempting to find. Beloved’s entrance into the novel signifies dual emotions for Sethe, particularly since the longer Beloved lingers, the more willing Sethe is to please and obey her.
Beloved completed Sethe in a way that neither Denver nor Paul D could. Sethe becomes doting, gradually sacrificing herself as Beloved grows fatter while “Sethe pleaded for forgiveness, counting, listing again and again her reasons,” (Morrison, 242). Convinced that Beloved is actually the spirit of her murdered daughter, Sethe is driven to madness by outpouring the devotion she robbed herself of with Beloved’s murder. it is unclear whether or not Beloved is truly the spirit of the child she has slain, but the representation of Sethe’s morbid past is definitely represented.
As Jean Wyatt comments, “Beloved [is] able to articulate infantile feelings that ordinarily remain unspoken,” (Wyatt, 231). Wyatt’s statement encompasses the fullness of the problem. In the literal sense, the reader is drawn to the fact that adult Beloved can speak fully of the murder and articulate her resentment, her bitterness, and demand reasoning from Sethe, which gradually breaks Sethe down into madness. Figuratively, Beloved’s communication serve as a continous reminder of Sethe’s most profound and secret mistake of murdering her daughter.
Beloved is a cruel and vindictive spirit, prying Sethe from the care of Denver without Sethe’s full awareness, and capitalizing on Sethe’s regret to the point of Sethe being driven mad. At this point in the novel, a drastic change occurs in Denver. Sethe now dotes upon Beloved incessantly, to the point that Sethe’s health begins to fail and she is driven further into a harmful obsession for Beloved’s well-being. This incites Denver to action, and through her despairing over her mother, Denver dives headlong into maturity, going about town asking for help in the exorcising of Beloved’s malignant spirit.
The town gathers and amidst Sethe’s mistaking Mr. Bodwin for Schoolteacher and Sethe’s subsequent attempt to kill him, Beloved vanishes. This episode is Morrison’s most profound irony regarding Sethe as the maternal figure; that by neglecting Denver in favor of Beloved, Denver blooms into a fully grown woman, and succeeds in saving her mother from the terrible spirit of Beloved. The metaphor of the past as a force that requires “beating back” is crucial also to understanding Morrison’s method of incorporating figurative speech into her novel; the text is rife with similes, metaphors, and euphemisms: “…when trouble rode bareback among them.. or when Amy refers to the whip scars on Sethe’s back as “ a chokecherry tree” (Morrison, 249, 79). These metaphors are Morrison’s most powerful vehicle in delivering her message of hope, where trouble becomes a beast to be tamed and the cruel scars of Sethe’s past are likened to the pleasing image of a tree. It is this language that separates Morrison from Faulkner the most, since Faulkner maintains simple language for a simple people, while Morrison enriches her characters with complex metaphors to fully grasp the potency of those insubstantial words that ever fail to convey a complete meaning.
Both Beloved and As I Lay Dying incorporate the three elements of character development, realistic setting, and a sound approach to language use in order to convey their separate messages. Faulkner proves Anse’s and Addie’s failed parenting through his simple-minded but plausible country folks, the fierce and dynamic setting they work within, and the unsophisticated language and writing that epitomizes the questionable decisions and motivations of the parents.
Morrison achieves a similar end as her parental characters operate on a more complex thought level, with all the restraints and reassurances of the past. Too, her setting revolves around both the present and the past to create an expansive environment to learn and grow from, and her use of the higher language of metaphor and her final ironic twist implies a mental and spiritual depth that Faulkner’s Bundren family never attains.

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