Death bed wishes and “As I Lay Dying”

 

When I first read As I Lay Dying, I fell in love with its unusual structure and semiotics, which made the novel puzzling in the best possible way. The story is told by fifteen different voices, an agonistics of expression that creates some characters as reprehensible, some as sympathetic, others as enigmas or pitiable, some as pious, some as hard-hearted, and all of them as self-serving.

The plot itself is simple enough: Addie Bundren is dying and wants to be buried in her hometown, Jefferson. Each family member has a motive for honoring or resisting the request; ultimately, the journey is made, though not without extravagant hardship and suffering.

Anse Bundren, Addie’s husband, is one of the more reprehensible characters in the novel, maybe in all of literature. Addie’s death bed wish is honored by her husband, Anse, because he wants new false teeth and a new wife, and he knows he can acquire them in Jefferson. He appears without grief at his wife’s passing. Her death seems mere currency for Anse to trade for sympathy in his WASP agrarian community, one that indulges in funeral gatherings and ritual mourning.

I wonder if Addie’s loss ever catches up to Anse. Is there a moment in the future, beyond the novel, when he will remember Addie and miss her with a pang of grief so sharp he cries out or drops to his knees? What if Anse feels compelled to visit her grave? How often will he make the journey to Jefferson?

In Love Lets Us Down, the character of Horace Benford has honored his wife’s death bed request to be buried near Indianapolis in her extended family’s plot, which is two hundred miles away from where he lives outside Chicago. Horace is eighty-two years old. Due to his own health issues, he has previously been unable to make the drive to Indianapolis to visit his wife’s grave with flowers. He finally makes the trip as he reflects on their marriage. He believes he was a good husband even though he was a serial cheater, that he couldn’t have “loved Dorothy more.” But was he a good husband, the best he could be in all possible worlds? Dorothy stayed with him until the end, just like Addie stayed with Anse.