Unstained shirt, stained character: Anse Bundren reread.
Each of these critics has made an able case for his or her interpretation of Anse's actions and words. Yet it seems that something is missing from the critical picture, that some vital clue, lying neglected or barely noticed, would convert Anse from Brooks's human buzzard to a fully realized human being. Within the text of the novel stands the symbolic text of Anse's body: deformed, deprived and physiologically afflicted by disease and accident, this body/text is inscribed by poverty. Following the clues provided by Faulkner's physical description will lead to a consistent and believable Anse whose actions, though still incompatible with his proclaimed motives and still less than admirable, are comprehensible to the reader. This Anse is not a generalized stereotype of a poor Southern white male, a shiftless hillbilly, but rather a man whose character, as well as his body, has been distorted by the effects of specific afflictions.
First, it is necessary to observe that As I Lay Dying contains two portrayals of Anse Bundren. Most critical attention has been focused on the Anse of the main action of the novel, who watches his wife die, engages in a paradoxical journey to bury her, and acquires a new wife. This is the Arise who mumbles his mouth and talks of not wishing to be "beholden to ere man" despite relying shamelessly on the goodwill and labor of his neighbors. We are, however, given a glimpse of another Anse, the young Anse whose courtship of Addie is recounted in her section. This Anse is a hard-working young man who shyly courts the village schoolteacher. Nervously aware that she and her kin may look down on him, he nevertheless hopes to win her and bring her as bride to the new house which he has built before coming to court. He is painfully conscious of the disdain of town dwellers for farmers and clearly anticipates rejection by Addie's kin, saying, "I know how town folks are." (6) He takes a psychological risk in courting Addie, the town-bred, educated schoolmarm. The effort this costs him is reflected in his style of courtship. He repeatedly drives out of his way to pass the schoolhouse but turns away when Addie comes to the door. When he finally approaches her, dressed in his best clothes and turning his hat nervously in his hands, she describes him as "driving his eyes at me like two hounds in a strange yard" (p. 171). When they marry, Anse seems well on his way, if not to prosperity, at least to the reasonably comfortable circumstances apparently enjoyed by his neighbors, Vernon and Cora Tull. He owns a new house and a good farm, a wagon and a team, and a suit of Sunday clothes; he possesses a good honest name and has no debts. Since we know from the description of his feet (see below) that he was reared in poverty, we may deduce that he has worked hard to earn the position he now shares with Addie.
But the Anse Bundren we meet some thirty years later, when his wife lies on her death bed, is a different and broken man. The item of physical description most noted by readers and critics is Anse's lack of sweat. According to Darl, "He was sick once from working in the sun when he was twenty-two years old, and he tells people that if he ever sweats, he will die." This information is followed by a dismissive, "I suppose he believes it" (p. 17). Although Darl displays supernormal knowledge of events in the main narrative that occur in his absence, he is unlikely to possess direct knowledge about an event from his father's youth, since he could not have been more than an infant when the incident occurred. Dewey Dell also mentions her father's affliction and seems to take it as a given of his existence. It is an accepted explanation for neighbors helping with normal farm chores: "Pa dassent sweat because he will catch his death from the sickness so everybody that comes to help us" (p. 26). The phrase "sick once from working in the sun" aptly describes heat stroke (also known as sun stroke or heat prostration). Whether the idea that a victim of heat stroke would die if he sweats again was current local folklore, whether it is Anse's misinterpretation of a medical warning that another episode of heat stroke could prove fatal, or whether it is a flimsy excuse for a disinclination to work is impossible to know with certainty. However, it seems that a characteristic which is made so much of by the author should not be neglected as a major clue to his intentions regarding the character.
Most critics see Anse's lack of sweat as a symptom or a symbol of ingrained laziness. Chappel, however, suggests a sociological explanation for Anse's attitude toward sweat. Noting that, for Anse, Tull and Cash, sweat is symbolically equal to a man's labor, she suggests that resentment of an economic system in which the farmer sweats and the people who run stores in town make the profit fits a classic picture of alienated labor (p. 104). Later she concedes that "[i]f Anse has deliberately based his decision not to sweat on a bitterness toward God and the inequality of the economic system, a bitterness he shares with members of his family and community, rather than an irrational fear that sweat will kill him, his character must be reevaluated" (pp. 276-277). Chappel does not, however, follow up on this idea. Mick Gidley suggests that Faulkner's depiction of physically and mentally abnormal characters may have been influenced by Louis Berman, a physiologist who in 1921 wrote The Glands Regulating Personality, a book which was available to Faulkner through his friend Phil Stone. (7) According to Gidley: "In Berman's view of the `subthryoid [sic] type' we have the general qualities which Faulkner particularizes with such verve and credibility in his rendering of Anse Bundren. The `subthyroid type' needs `excess of sleep, sleeps heavily, needs sleep during the day ... feels tired [in the morning] ... Lazy.... [He has bad teeth and] perspires little, even after exertion'" (p. 85). But this personality type is not a clear match to Faulkner's description. Anse may be lethargic and indecisive, and presumably had bad teeth, since they have all been pulled, but he does not fall asleep constantly. Nor does "perspires little" accurately describe Anse's situation. It would seem that we must look elsewhere for a medical explanation of Anse's character.
Faulkner seems set on convincing the reader that Anse does not sweat. Darl tells us: "There is no sweat stain on his shirt. I have never seen a sweat stain on his shirt" (p. 17). Vernon Tull confirms this observation: "Except for the lack of sweat. You could tell they [Anse's shirts] aint been nobody else's but Anse's that way without no mistake" (p. 32). Since neither Darl nor Vernon seems inclined to make excuses for Anse, we may regard their joint testimony as proof that Anse does not sweat in a normal fashion for the climate in which he lives. The usual reading of Anse's lack of sweat as the result of his indolence defies logic. At temperatures above 95[degrees]F evaporation of perspiration accounts for nearly all heat loss in normal individuals, since no loss of heat from radiation or conduction can occur as the environment approaches body temperature. The rate of evaporation is limited by humidity; in a humid climate sweat will begin to drip rather than evaporate at relatively lower temperatures than in a dry climate. (8) Summer weather in northern Mississippi is hot, with normal daily highs ranging from 88-91[degrees]F in August at Tupelo, (9) which, like Faulkner's home in Oxford, lies near 34[degrees]N (latitude) and at less than 600 feet above sea level. Temperatures of 106[degrees] have been recorded. Humidity records for this area are harder to obtain, but Jackson, which lies approximately 150 miles closer to the Gulf of Mexico, records heat index values from 88-115 in the summer months, with an average of 96 for July and August. (10) The heat index combines temperature and humidity for a measure of perceived heat and risk to health. (11) At a temperature of 88[degrees]F, a heat index of 96 would represent relative humidity of approximately 50%. The measurements used in these calculations are taken in the shade and can be increased as much as 15[degrees]F if taken in the direct sunlight in which farmers would spend most of their day. In the absence of a mountain range or other geographical feature that would cause a substantial difference in climate one may infer that the values given for Jackson are approximated in Oxford. Based on this climatological data, one can conclude that, without air conditioning, any normally constituted person, no matter how inactive, will sweat frequently in the course of a lifetime near Oxford, Mississippi. Yet two separate and unrelated witnesses assert that Anse does not sweat enough to stain the material of his shirts.
Suppose we reverse the reasoning that Anse does not sweat because he does not work, and that he does not work because he is lazy. What if the opposite is the case: Anse cannot work because he cannot sweat. Inability to sweat is a medical condition known as anhidrosis. Sweat is necessary to help cool the body and its absence is a symptom worth noting. According to Dr. Gary Cage, in a standard text on dermatology, anhidrosis, if
... sufficiently widespread to interfere with thermoregulation produces characteristic symptomatology of anhidrolic asthenia. Upon exposure to heat the mildest symptoms are malaise, easy fatiguability, headache and an uncomfortable sense of warmth. Nausea, dizziness, palpitations, tachycardia [rapid heartbeat] and substernal tightness may be noted.... These persons rapidly become aware of the association of the symptoms to activity in heat and avoid heat or move very slowly in hot environments. Some develop a morbid fear of heat. Clearly these patients are in a precarious situation with respect to survival in heat. (12)
In lay terms, a person who cannot sweat will suffer from frightening, uncomfortable and dangerous symptoms when exposed to heat, symptoms which will be increased by exertion and which can lead to death.
If Anse had been a lifelong sufferer from anhidrosis, it is unlikely that he would have been able to prepare to court Addie by building a new house. But we have already been informed that Anse's problem dates from the age of twenty-two, when he took sick, i.e. suffered heat stroke. The average person may think of an attack of heat stroke as a temporary inconvenience, uncomfortable and frightening, even temporarily life-threatening, but not disabling. The medical evidence demonstrates otherwise. Dr. Henry K. Mohler, in a standard medical textbook published in 1919, gives the following prognosis for this derangement of the body's normal response to heat.
Although a patient may survive a severe attack of sunstroke, in a large percentage of cases the subject is never [emphasis added] restored to his original health. Intolerance of heat, even a mild degree thereof, is a common after compliant.... Frequently various cerebral conditions are complained of, and physical disturbances, such as loss of memory, irritability, insomnia, mental hebetude [absence of mental alertness and affect], and dementia are not uncommon. (13)
Dr. Mohler also states that preventing future attacks is extremely important, and he advises that physical or mental work during periods of high temperatures should be limited (p. 445). This was the state of medical knowledge about heat-related ailments in the early part of the century when endocrinology, the study of the glands that "integrate the activities of organ systems and help to maintain a constant internal environment" (14) was in its infancy. Even the existence and roles of the major hormones, insulin and cortisone, were not discovered until 1921 and 1935 respectively and the role of the hypothalamus in coordinating the endocrine system was not established. (15) Modern medical texts give a more detailed analysis of the mechanism involved if anhidrosis is triggered by heat stroke. Particularly pertinent to Faulkner's characterization of Anse is the potentiality for heat stroke to cause "destructive lesions of the hypothalamus which ... may produce anhidrosis" (p. 381). In lay terms, an episode of heat stroke can cause cells in the hypothalamus to be killed or damaged so that they cannot carry out their normal functions, among which is to sense the body's internal temperature and signal the necessary changes in metabolism, circulation and other body functions to maintain a consistent temperature. If the body does not know that it is hot, the sweat glands are not activated and the uncontrolled rise in internal temperature causes the symptoms cited above. Confronted with this constellation of alarming symptoms, who would not, as does Anse, conclude that death is an imminent threat? From this evidence it would appear that Anse's morbid fear of sweating cannot be dismissed as the product of a fertile imagination seeking an excuse for ingrained laziness, but can be seen, rather, as a realistic appraisal of a serious and chronic health condition.
Furthermore, this reappraisal of Anse's health gives a reasonable explanation for the transformation of Arise Bundren from the shy, but hard-working, young man who cared enough about Addie to risk rejection of his courtship, into the indecisive, ineffectual and emotionally "dead" man of the novel's main action.
One can also find in this hypothesis a possible explanation for the inconsistencies and apparent hypocrisy of Anse's actions in regard to Addie's burial. The young and ambitious Anse, who was proud of having an honest name, would have shared the distaste of his class for being indebted to anyone else and would have been extremely reluctant to leave a promise unfulfilled. We see his spiritual survival in the Anse (as described by Kirk) who desires to function but is unable to do so. This inability to function is another logical result of the heat stroke. In addition to helping regulate body temperature, the "hypothalamus is a principal centre of emotional expression," (16) controlling fear, rage, aggression and sexual behavior. The postulated damage to this center provides a physiological explanation for the "hebetude" cited by Dr. Mohler as a consequence of heat stroke. This hebetude is an alteration of the personality caused by brain damage. Anse retains his memory of the culture in which he was reared and recalls how he ought to feel and act. He can comprehend events, such as Addie's death, that ought to cause him to feel grief, anger, fear and other emotions, but the translation of these stimuli into emotional reactions and actions has been short-circuited. Shortly after Addie's death Dewey Dell describes her father as looking "like right after the maul hits the steer and it no longer alive and dont yet know that it is dead (p. 61). Anse can express his intention to make decisions and carry them out, but he is incapable of the sustained efforts which were possible for his pre-heat stroke character. As he says of himself after urging Vardaman to wash his hands: "But I just cant seem to get no heart into it" (p. 38).
If Anse's personality did change as a result of the sunstroke the change could account for Addie's assertion that her husband is "dead." "He did not know that he was dead, then" (p. 173). This announcement comes after Addie's account of Darl's birth and would thus seem to indicate a change in Anse rather than an initial appraisal of his character. If Anse had always been "dead," why did it take so long for Addie to notice it? But the lack of affect or appropriate emotional response included in the condition termed "mental hebetude" would be aptly termed a kind of death, especially by someone like Addie, who seems to crave a higher level of emotional intensity than more conventional people such as Cora Tull are able to envision. Anse's very condition of reduced mental abilities would preclude his understanding either the changes in himself or his wife's reaction to these changes.
It may be argued that, if Anse suffered from a genuine physical affliction, Dr. Peabody would have been aware of the cause and would have been more sympathetic than he appears to be when referring to Anse as a "trifling animal" (p. 45). But what kind of doctor is Peabody? Diane Luce suggests that he may never have attended medical school. If As I Lay Dying is set sometime around 1920, and if Dr. Peabody is seventy years old, he would have begun practice before 1880 (assuming that he was no more than thirty when he began to practice). The University of Mississippi did not operate a medical school until 1903. He may have trained in some other state, but Luce feels it is likely that he trained through the common method of apprenticeship, (17) although this theory would seem to be contradicted by Dr. Peabody's mention of the ethics of the Medical College (p. 41). Whatever his training, however, it is possible that in forty years of practice he has never seen a case of heat stroke with the same symptoms as Anse's. Most such victims die before medical attention can be summoned. We can imagine a sequence of events. Anse is working with family or neighbors nearby. He collapses, and some quick-thinking person drags him into the shade, drenches him with water and sends for the doctor. Peabody arrives, makes the obvious diagnosis and observes that Anse is regaining consciousness. Once he seems to be out of immediate danger, Peabody orders him to stay out of the sun for a few days and to be careful in the future of working in the hot sun, adding an emphatic warning that another heat stroke could kill him. Arise, for whom sweat and work in the sun are connected ideas, interprets Peabody's warning as meaning that if he sweats again it will kill him. Once he is back on his feet, he discovers that even mild exertion brings on the painful and alarming symptoms described above and is led to reduce his level of activity to that which is described in the course of the novel. Those around him note that Anse no longer works hard and that he never sweats, but, having never heard of anhidrosis, they confuse the cause with the effect. Over twenty years later few would remember Anse as he had been; his older children would have no memory of a younger, healthier father, and the younger children would never have known a time when it was not the case that "Pa dassent sweat." Dr. Peabody, accustomed to the rough standards of a country practice, in which patients either die or get better unless they are crippled, like Cash, in some visible fashion, would not think of Anse's lassitude and indecision as an indication of a genuine medical condition. Even today changes in character caused by damage to the brain may not be properly diagnosed, especially if the source of the damage is not an obvious one, such as a severe blow to the head. If Anse believed his inability to work in heat was a continued effect of the heat stroke he would have no reason to consult Peabody again. No medical education is needed to understand the connection between Cash's limp and the accident in which he broke his leg, but the connection between Anse's altered character and the episode of heat stroke is not obvious without specialized knowledge unavailable even to well-trained doctors of the time.
Although anhidrosis and the other residual effects of heat stroke may be Anse's most serious health problems, they are not his only afflictions. Anse also suffers the ongoing problem of having had no teeth for fifteen years. The reason for this loss is not given; however, people who cannot afford regular dental care--and the Bundrens certainly fall into this category--usually end up losing to extraction decayed or abscessed teeth, which ache intolerably and which more prosperous people would have had treated before extraction became the only option. Until they are finally extracted, such teeth can also contribute to general ill-health; before antibiotics, abscesses or other local infections could affect the entire body. The extractions themselves, when finally resorted to, would probably have been excruciatingly painful, possibly performed by a local barber and effected without anesthetic (other than, perhaps, a dose of whiskey). If Anse saw a dentist at all (doubtful given his poverty), he is likely to have been forced to economize by having all his teeth, sound as well as rotten, pulled in one or two visits. Crowns, root canals, bridges and other techniques designed to save, rather than sacrifice, the patient's teeth are expensive procedures, luxuries beyond the reach of poor farmers. If the remaining sound teeth were not going to be used as anchors for bridgework, the prevailing practice in the early part of the century was to extract them to make room for full dentures, which could be produced less expensively than fitted bridgework. And dentists, given their greater investment in tools and materials, and the fact that rotten teeth are less likely to be regarded as a matter of life and death, are less willing than physicians such as Peabody to extend credit. However, pulling rotten teeth is not an uncomplicated solution to the problems they cause. In a culture without canned or pureed foods or nutritional supplements a person left without teeth will probably suffer from poor nutrition as well. Or as Anse puts it: "in fifteen years I aint et the victuals He aimed for man to eat to keep his strength up" (p. 191). Critics such as Kirk, who dismisses Anse's desire for false teeth as "selfish" (p. 449), and Chappel, who sees the new wife and teeth as evidence of foolishness (p. 283), seem thereby to underestimate the importance of teeth for health, comfort and self-confidence. And, while Bleikasten may be astute in interpreting Anse's lack of teeth as symbolic of his lack of manhood in relation to a domineering wife, to deny the literal meaning of Anse's toothlessness as an emblem of poverty is to deny the importance of socio-economic setting for Faulkner's work.
The loss of his teeth is not the only other major health problem Anse has suffered. In Jewel's section we find a brief reference to Anse "laid sick with that load of wood fell on him" (p. 15). Since this accident to Anse is mentioned in the same sentence as Cash's crippling fall from the church roof, one may deduce that it was fairly serious. If it involved broken bones, as seems likely, the period of convalescence could have been considerable. Jewel appears to have personal recall of this accident, which must, therefore, have occurred fairly recently. The first of Anse's afflictions to which our attention is called is the condition of his feet. Darl tells us, "Pa's feet are badly splayed, his toes cramped and bent and warped, with no toenail at all on his little toes, from working so hard in the wet in homemade shoes when he was a boy" (p. 11). This seems a masterstroke of characterization on Faulkner's part, an apt symbol of the ability of relentless poverty to literally wear away its victims. It is difficult to believe that Faulkner invented these details. As Malcolm Cowley explains in the introduction to The Portable Faulkner:
The pattern was based on what he saw in Oxford or remembered from his childhood; ... on kitchen dialogues between the black cook and her amiable husband; on Saturday-afternoon gossip in Courthouse Square; on stories told by men in overalls squatting on their heels while they passed around a fruit jar full of white corn liquor. (18)
How many men did Faulkner meet in the Square, the hunting camps, or on the country-store galleries who were visibly marked by hard work and poverty: men who limped from a leg that never healed properly after a fall, men who could not afford store-bought teeth to replace those ruined by a diet of corn pone and salt pork, boys forced to work with torn and bleeding feet, men who could no longer earn their living in the manual labor that was their only resource because they once "took sick" in the sun? These were the inhabitants of a rural South so poor that, as my Arkansas-born grandmother once told me, "we did not know it when the Depression started; we were already so poor it made no difference to us." (19) Cleanth Brooks comments that the South was wretchedly poor until World War II, as a consequence of manipulation of its "colonial" economy by outside forces (p. 19).
Anse is not a well man by any reasonable standard. The chronic invalidism resulting from the after-effects of heat stroke, a possible temporarily incapacitating back injury, years without teeth, feet deformed by childhood poverty: these clearly mark him as a "misfortunate" man whose misfortunes explain his deficiencies of character. Anse is not a man one would wish for as a husband, father or neighbor, but he is neither the bundle of inexplicable contradictions described by Bleikasten nor the calculating villain condemned by Brooks and Chappel. Poverty and hard work have cruelly marked Anse's toothless mouth and his toenailess feet. But the most enduring of his afflictions is the anhidrosis, which ironically reveals itself by lack of a mark, the shirts left unstained by sweat, the anhidrosis which deprives him of the ability to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow, as his society tells him he is destined to do. Seen in the light of this medical hypothesis, Anse's least decision or action becomes a Sisyphus-like struggle against a passivity foreign to the youthful character that we glimpse only in Addie's memory.
(1) Irving Howe, William Faulkner: a Critical Study. 2nd ed. (New York: Vintage, 1952), p. 185.
(2) Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country. rev. ed. (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1966), pp. 154-155.
(3) Robert W. Kirk, "Faulkner's Anse Bundren," Georgia Review, 19 (1965), 446.
(4) Andre Bleikasten, Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying" (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978), pp. 74-75.
(5) Deborah K. Chappel, "Pa Says: The Rhetoric of Faulkner's Anse Bundren," Mississippi Quarterly, 44 (Summer 1991), 283.
(6) William Faulkner. As I Lay Dying: The Corrected Text (New York: Vintage, 1990), p. 171.
(7) Mick Gidley, "Another Psychologist, a Physiologist and William Faulkner," Ariel, 2 (October 1971), 79.
(8) John B. West, M.D., ed. Best and Taylor's Physiological Basis of Medical Practice. 12th ed. (Baltimore, Maryland: Williams Wilkins, 1991), p. 1064.
(9) AccuWeather, <http://www.accuweather.com/> (May 27, 2001).
(10) Zunis Foundation, "Jackson, Mississippi." <http://www.zunis.org/> (May 27, 2001).
(11) USA Today Weather, <http://www.usatoday.com/weather/wheat3.html> (May 27, 2001).
(12) Gary W. Cage, M.D., "Diseases of Eccrine Sweat Glands," in Dermatology in General Medicine, ed. Thomas B. Fitzpatrick, M.D., et al. (New York: McGraw Hill, 1971), p. 380.
(13) Henry K. Mohler, M.D., "The Intoxications: Sunstroke (Thermic Fever), Insolation, Heat Exhaustion," in Handbook of Medical Treatment, ed. John C. Da Costa, Jr., M.D. (Philadelphia: FA Davis, 1919), p. 446.
(14) "Endocrine System, Human," Encyclopaedia Britannica: Micropaedia, 15th ed., 1984.
(15) Robert G. Richardson, "History of Medicine," Encyclopaedia Britannica: Macropaedia, 15th ed., 1984.
(16) Thomas L. Lentz, M.D., "Nerves and Nervous Systems," Encyclopaedia Britannica: Macropaedia, 15th ed., 1984.
(17) Dianne Luce, Annotations to Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying" (New York: Garland, 1990).
(18) Malcolm Cowley, ed., "Introduction" The Portable Faulkner (1946; rpt. New York: Penguin, 1985), p. viii.
(19) Mabel Robins, Personal interview, 1990.
RITA RIPPETOE University of Nevada, Reno
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|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2001|
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