Mother's Burial, the Daughter's Burden:
Disintegrated and Dismembered Bodies in
Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and Wright's Native Son
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
female body has been eulogized, idealized, and sanctified throughout
history, while being preserved in a state of comfortable muteness,
bearing the stigma of materiality. The roles commonly attributed
to women, as Luce Irigaray has argued, have been those of "virgin,
mother, and prostitute" (186). Unable to write her body,
the woman's body has been scribbled for her by patriarchy,
constructed and manufactured in accordance with the requirements
of dominant cultural standards. This paper re-reads the subversive
and transgressive bodily manifestations of the "woman as
body of the woman" (Wright, Outsider 393) and argues
that the corpse "the utmost of abjection" (Kristeva
4), "the grotesque body" (Bakhtin 316) becomes
the only signifier of the female body and voice, both black
and white. By discussing the works of two male American writers,
William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and Richard Wright's
Native Son, I inquire why the writing of the woman's
body becomes possible after that body has entered the realm
of abjection and has become a meaningful corpse. Both Faulkner
and Wright show a similar propensity towards the representation
of the female body as dead, mute, powerless, in order to revive
it through meaningful deaths from which the subaltern can finally
speak. Faulkner and Wright use such daring signifying corpses
as the sacrificial bodies of their culture. As feminist critics
have repeatedly underlined, the woman"s body is not only
a text of culture, but also a direct site of social control;
however, no longer a "docile body" (Foucault 135),
the female body is re-writtenironicallyin death,
and female discourse emerges after the sacrificial cultural
death has been performed.
The Mother's Burial, The Daughter's Burden: Disintegrated
Bodies in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying
would think: the shape of my body where I used to be a virgin
is in the shape of a and I couldn't think Anse, couldn't
remember Anse. (Faulkner 173)
[Addie] watches me: I can feel her eyes. It's like she
was shoving at me with them. I have seen it before in women,
[. . .] clinging to some trifling animal to whom they were
never more than pack-horses. That's what they mean by the
love that passeth understanding: that pride, that furious desire
to hide that abject nakedness which we bring here with us, carry
with us into operating rooms, carry stubbornly and furiously
with us into the earth again. (45-46)
would be I; I would let him be the shape and echo of his word.
[. . .] My children were of me alone, of the wild blood boiling
along the earth, of me and of all that lived; of none and of
As I Lay Dying has received an overwhelming amount of
critical attention in recent decades, particularly through the
interpretations of Addie Bundren's interior monologue,
the representation of the female characters' subjectivity,
and the writer's challenges of conventional maternal and
patriarchal stereotypes. One of "Faulkner's women"
(Page), Addie Bundren has been repeatedly read as "an inverted
Demeter" (Gladstein 103), "the wicked mother,"
"the Magna mater of archaic religions," or "a
mother in flesh and father in spirit" (Bleikasten 76, 84),
"a revengeful mother" (Fowler 119) who "rejects
her children" (Sass 9), "a metaphorical woman"
(Blaine 419) who manipulates the roles of mother and adulteress
(Wood 100). The centrality of the body in the novel, however,
deserves special scrutiny, in that it is illustrative of both
the historical and social context in which this "body"
was produced, its relationship with the "body" of
Faulkner's works, and the role of gender definition and
ideology in the representation of the (female) body.
particular interest to this analysis is the disintegrated body,
the abject or the grotesque body, whose appearance signals not
only the physical disintegration but also the danger of succumbing
to the absolute grounding of human life in the body. Addie Bundren
is not the only disintegrated body in the novel; the bodies
of the other characters involved in the ritual journey to "bury
the dead" undergo important transformations as well. At
the end of the journey, after Addie's mock-burial, there
is an overwhelming landscape of bodily disintegration and transformation:
Dewey Dells's burden of pregnancy grows; Cash's gangrenous
leg has to be cut off; Jewel's back is burnt; Darl's
sensitive body has to be imprisoned and docilized; Anse gets
false "new teeth," while his "sweatless"
body enters a slow degradation process; Vardaman, the youngest
son, tries to adjust his body to the requirements of the adult
world, after having been violently separated from the mother.
As I Lay Dying, Faulkner gives Addie Bundren, the matriarch
of a poor Southern family, one of the main interior monologues.
He gives her apparent voice and power over both her family and
her own definitions of womanhood, maternity, sexuality, and
death. By placing the mother's literally dead body at the
center of the text, as Deborah Clarke has suggested, Faulkner
"grants greater power to the physical, while at the same
time erasing its boundaries as the decaying corpse disperses
its odor and its influence throughout the novel" (36).
The association of the dead body with the living language of
corpse and voice as Addie is a speaking corps is
uncanny, and the Bundrens' attempts to fill her place with
words and symbols (imagining her as a "horse," a "fish,"
or a "coffin") ultimately fail. Addie's distrust
of language as conventional, imposed, or prescribed is rendered
in a highly post-structuralist utterance: "[Words are]
just a shape to fill a lack" (172). Paradoxically, she
speaks from death a language she despises but which constructs
meanings and establishes roles: "And I would think then
when Cora talked to me, of how the high dead words in
time seemed to lose even the significance of their dead sound"
(175) [my emphasis].
Bundren positions herself beyond words, and speaks from the
realm of the dead to tell a tale she cannot tell otherwise.
She distrusts the ideology that controls these "docile
bodies" in terms of reproduction and work force value.
Cora Tull's literal reading of the biblical Word and conformity
to the roles of motherhood and wifehood represents the norm
in her community. To this "normalcy," Addie replies,
"My children were of me alone" (175). With this remark,
she rethinks the idea of marriage and motherhood on her own
terms, symbolically "killing" Anse Bundren when she
realizes that the gap between her inner reality and the outer
world is too deep: "And then he died. He did not know he
was dead. I would lie by him in the dark, hearing the dark land
talking of God's word and His beauty and His sin"
(174). Addie's mistrust of words and people's hypocrisy
and sense of normalcy is also informed by her religious skepticism
and a direct challenge of the biblical word of "the Father."
In this respect, her own father's words of caution "the
reason for living is getting ready to stay dead" (175) mimic
the biblical predicament and the promise of a better life, reinforcing
the idea that the language/ideology Addie has access to does
not name her own experience, her own subjectivity, her own body.
Addie Bundren dies realizing that her access to language (voice,
power, femininity, sexuality) is impossible because of its rigidity:
knew that [. . .] we had had to use one another by words
like spiders dangling by their mouths from a beam, swinging
and twisting and never touching, and that only through the
blows of the switch could my blood and their blood flow as
one stream. [. . .] But then I realized that I had been tricked
by words older than Anse or love. (172, my emphasis)
mother's body does not give up control over language even
after her death and physical disintegration, thus mimicking
constructions of femininity and finally appropriating the "Language
of the Father." Addie's reversed position in the coffin like
a fetus in the mother's womb, a position imposed by "them
durn women" (80) is also suggestive of Addie's
non-conformist body, and suggests, as Doreen Fowler has noted,
"that the father's law is always on the brink of collapsing
back into the world" (118). According to Luce Irigaray,
femininity is a role, an image imposed on women by male systems
of representation. In this respect, women become commodities,
having value in their worth as exchanges between men. The second
Mrs. Bundren fits this pattern: not only does she substitute
for the dead mother's body but also conforms to the role
of femininity Addie had resisted. "A kind of duck-shaped
woman all dressed up, with them kind of hard looking pop eyes"
(260), the new Mrs. Bundren takes on the role of the mother
in the economy of the farmer family when Anse proudly announces,
"Meet Mrs. Bundren" (261). She has no voice in the
narrative and her episodic appearance attests to the conformity
to the role she embodies. In This Sex Which Is Not One,
Irigaray names three social roles imposed on women: "mother,
virgin, prostitute," and underlines that "neither
as a mother nor as virgin nor as prostitute has woman any right
to her own pleasure" (186-87). Addie Bundren is primarily
defined as mother and, consequently, expected to conform to
this role. In Irigaray's view, motherhood is "politically,
economically, and culturally valorized" (64). However,
if this role grants motherhood a sense of social power, it reduces
her, in Irigaray's view, to sexual impotence, because of
the mythologized role of the virgin mother (30). Viewed through
Irigaray's lens, Addie not only creates a different vision
of motherhood, but mimics patriarchal discourse, and embodies,
simultaneously, the three distinct roles: virgin, mother, and
prostitute. These roles also connote the female body's
sexuality and inscribe the virgin's, mother's, and
prostitute's identity once more onto the body.
Moreover, they establish the prevailing dissociation in Western
culture of motherhood and sexuality.
Bundren's withering body is reconstructed both before and
after her death by the other characters in the novel, who try
to substitute the mourning process with re-imagining the mother.
According to Cora Tull, Addie's "face is wasted
away so that the bones draw just under the skin in white lines.
Her eyes are like two candles when you watch them gutter down
into the sockets of iron candle-sticks" (8). Darl reconstructs
the image of his mother as a "pole-thin body" (97).
Although he recurrently emphasizes that "I have no mother"
(95) and refers to Addie by her full name, Darl is the only
"child" who perceives the death of his mother telepathically.
Although his body is away from her death-bed, "[h]er failing
life appears to drain into her eyes [. . .]; her eyes, the
life in them, rushing suddenly upon them; the two flames glare
up for a steady instant. Then they go out as though someone
had leaned down and blown upon them" (47-48). There is
a sense of decay and disintegration in the living body of Addie
Bundren. Jewel's description focuses on Addie's hands,
"laying on the quilt like two of them roots dug up and
tried to wash and you couldn't get them clean" (15).
His mother dies about the same time he kills the fish to be
cooked for dinner a symbol, possibly, of the archaic totemic
mea and Vardaman is unable to distinguish between the two separate
deaths, concluding, "My mother is a fish" (84). Moreover,
his description of the disintegration of the fish's body
further anticipates the disintegration of his mother's
body, a literal representation of a concept he is (still) unable
to grapple with death, which causes the decay of the body:
"I see him [the fish] dissolve legs, a rolling eye,
a gaudy splotching like cold flames" (56). Later on, after
the fish is cooked, Dewey Dell feeds the family the pieces of
the dismembered fish: "The fish, cut into jagged pieces,
bleeds quietly in the pan" (59). This is the only manifest
mourning of Addie Bundren's death, and the whole family
participates in a symbolic sharing of the mother's/fish's
dead body. The youngest son, still connected to the mother through
invisible blood ties, remembers her "terrible blood"
and mourns her loss through a mixture of tears and blood. Cash,
the eldest son, too busy crafting the coffin, has no time to
imagine his mother. After the burial journey has started, Cash
notices only "the animal magnetism of a dead body"
(84), thus establishing the connection of the mother's
body to her offspring even in death.
Dell's imagining of her mother's body also overlaps
her struggle to understand the transformations of her own body,
marked by accidental pregnancy. She becomes the exponent of
Southern women, forced into motherhood by an ideology that transforms
country girls into victims of ignorance. Addie doesn't
mention her mother's name, and neither is her relationship
with Dewey Dell more enlightening in terms of bequeathing knowledge
of the body along with the burden of compulsory maternity and
muteness. Moreover, the name "Bundren" phonically
resonates "burden," thus anticipating both the physical
and moral heritage of Dewey Dell Bundren. The mother is literally
dead, but motherhood as a burden lives on in the daughter. Hence,
the mother's burial doesn't end the burden of socially-determined
compulsory maternity. The mother's dead body becomes a
warning, a memento mori. Unable to understand her mother's
non-verbal language spoken from death unlike Darl, for
instance, whose double-vision facilitates his simultaneous presence
in two temporal registers Dewey Dell belongs to the literal,
while Darl and Addie both enter the metaphorical level. Dewey
Dell's first reaction to the mother's death is bodily
violence and, in a desperate attempt to bring Addie's body
back to life, "[s]he flings herself across Addie Bundren's
knees, clutching her, shaking her with the furious strength
of the young before sprawling across the handful of rotten
bones that Addie Bundren left" (49, my emphasis).
Dewey Dell's, the doctor's remembrance of Addie's
(still alive) body opens the realm of abjection: "Beneath
the quilt she is no more than a bundle of rotten sticks"
(44), a herald of the corpse which is, in Julia Kristeva's
definition, "the utmost of abjection" (4). Doctor
Peabody examines Addie's disintegrating body and condemns
her husband's belated appeal to the doctor, extending his
sanction of people's ignorance of the care of the body
to a social critique: "That's the trouble with this
country: everything, weather, all, hangs on too long" (45).
Peabody whose suggestive name also alludes to the smallness
of the human body faced with the vastness of science also reflects
on death as a "function of the mind" before being
"a phenomenon of the body" but takes a scientific
approach, seeing Addie's corpse as an integral part of
her body's life cycle (42). Nevertheless, during the corpse's
odyssey to Jefferson, the burial site, it has a polluting effect
and is "abjected" by the people around: "the
folks backed off with handkerchiefs to their faces" (213).
According to Kristeva, the corpse represents "fundamental
pollution. A body without a soul, a non-body, it is to be excluded
from God's territory as from his speech. . . It must not
be displayed but immediately buried so as not to pollute the
divine earth" (109). It is also the doctor who describes
Addie's own horror of abjection, bodily disintegration,
and fear of succumbing to materiality, to corporeality:
watches me: I can feel her eyes. It's like she was shoving
at me with them. I have seen before in women. . . that pride,
that furious desire to hide that abject nakedness which
we bring here with us, carry with us into operating rooms, carry
stubbornly and furiously with us into the earth again. (45-46,
underlines that a woman is never free from this fear, since
maternity reinforces her materiality and motherhood defines
her as abject. In Over Her Dead Body, Elisabeth Bronfen
makes a similar argument, contending that the recurrent appearance
of the feminine corpse in literature is part of long-standing
cultural association of women with alterity and death, as well
as the "materiality-maternity-mortality matrix" (68).
In As I Lay Dying, both the mother and the daughter's
bodies are marked by the stigma of materiality-maternity. Dewey
Dell's name suggests fertility and has been usually associated
by most critics with her main reference to her gestating body:
"I feel like a wet seed in the hot blind earth" (62-63).
Darl's imaginary reconstruction of Dewey Dell's (alive)
body consists of a series of female bodily parts that are both
life-sustaining and abject. Her leg is "that lever which
moves the world; one of that caliper which measures the length
and breadth of life" (104), and her breasts are "those
mammalian ludicrosities which are the horizons and the
valleys of the earth" (164) [my emphasis]. The sister's
nurturing attributes substitute the mother's, and keep
the disintegrated family together during the ten-day journey
to bury Addie in Jefferson, Mississippi. All this time, the
mother's body, which undergoes the tests of fire and water,
controls and "infects" the life of the ones she encounters,
becoming the embodiment of "abjection without purification"
(Kristeva 185), as the corpse is "the utmost of abjection.
It is death infecting life. . . [it] is cesspool, and death
. . . the most sickening of wastes, a border that has encroached
on everything" (3-4).
Addie's disintegrating body fits Kristeva's notion
of the abject, Dewey Dell's body, with her "mammalian
ludicrosities," belongs, rather, to the grotesque. Mikhail
Bakhtin's reading of the grotesque body may help our understanding
of Dewey Dell. According to Bakhtin, the grotesque body is an
in-between state, "in the act of becoming;"
"it is never finished," and is "continually built and
builds and creates another body;" it is "cosmic and
universal" (317-18). In her desperate attempt to have an
abortion, Dewey Dell takes more control over her maternity and
imposed fate than Addie, whose mute acceptance of "materiality-maternity"
gradually kills her; however, Dewey Dell fails to have "the
female trouble" solved and returns home munching on bananas.
In this way, she perpetuates the grotesque image of the Southern
woman. Dewey Dell, trapped in an invisible cage of ironic impotence
and debilitated by a cycle of ignorance, carries Addie Bundren's
burden of compulsory maternity after Addie's disintegrated
body has already been buried.
journey to bury the dead is not only the structural element
in the novel but also serves as the pretext to introduce change
in a world confined to its norms, a change reflected particularly
in the characters' various bodies. Anse, for instance,
hasn't been to Jefferson in twelve years, lest his "sweatless"
body might disintegrate, according to his imagined caution in
the doctor's prediction. His parasitic body takes an opportunity
in Addie's death to get both a new wife and new teeth,
thus weighing them both on the same scale of commodity. As Addie
dies, Anse awkwardly tries to caress her face, but his hand
moves like a "claw." After this ritual is performed,
he concludes: "Now I can get them teeth" (52). Consequently,
Addie's funeral journey becomes an opportunity for all
sorts of enterprises: Dewey Dell needs an abortion; Cash wants
a gramophone, Vardaman, a toy-train. None of these fantasies
are accomplished in the end, after Addie's corpse is buried
with borrowed shovels in a short and anti-climactic procession.
Of all family members, only Anse obtains his material desire,
buying his new teeth with Dewey Dell's abortion money.
The father wins. The father does not experience direct, physical
degradation but moral disintegration. After Darl has tried to
make the coffin disappear in apparently natural catastrophes water
and fire Jewel rescues the coffin, risking his own life.
During this ordeal, Jewel's body burns severely and Cash's
body starts to disintegrate, his "pale rigid eyes"
and "high sullen face" (209) displaying the effects
of his gangrenous leg and predicting his imminent debilitation.
Ultimately, Dewey Dell's pregnancy seems to be the only
hope at the end of the novel, after the family's disintegration
culminates in Darl's madness.
The Daughter's Burial, the Mother's Burden: Dismembered
Bodies in Wright"s
movement of his body is an unconscious protest. Every desire,
every dream, no matter how intimate or personal, is a plot
or conspiracy. (Maxwell 367)
[Mary Dalton] was dead; she was white; she was a woman; he
had to kill her; he was black; he might be caught; he did
not want to be caught; if he were they would kill him... his
body trembled. (NS 88, my emphasis)
felt that there were two Bessies: one, a body that
he had just had and wanted badly again; the other was in Bessie's
face; it asked questions; it bargained and sold the
other Bessie to advantage. (133, my emphasis)
Native Son has created a controversial scholarly reaction
all over the world, both after the publication of the novel
in 1940 and in recent decades. Informed by Wright's "urban-disposed
Chicago school sociology [which] crossed with Communist Party
theoretizations of the Negro question" (Maxwell 159), the
novel has brought African American writing to the forefront
of critical attention, elevating Wright to the arguable position
of "father of Black American literature" (Joyce 1).
A "shocking tale of a black youth who recreates himself
through crime" (Mootry 123), the novel addresses "the
racial question" from challenging perspectives. The roles
that Bessie Mears' (black) and Mary Dalton's (white)
bodies play in the novel are worth investigating for several
reasons. On the one hand, they connect the (male) hero with
the two worlds he inhabits simultaneously as an ironic "native
son," trying to belong, but fearing both. On the other
hand, these female bodies threaten Bigger's own body's
position in a racialized world, in which the myth of the rapist
is (still) pervasive. The annihilation of these bodies seems
imperative in Bigger's attempt to find a voice of his own.
By erasing female agency in an attempt to ensure the survival
of the frightened black male hero through murder and rape Wright
sanctions the racial conflict that motivates such atrocious
crimes and underlines the use-value of female bodies, black
and white, in the late 1940s U.S.
dismembered and rotting female bodies that Bigger's transgression
produces a transgression manifest in Wright's deliberate
sexualization of racism speak from the realm of the abject
in the language of the non-conformist, daring to become signifying
corpses, sacrificial bodies of their culture(s). Mary Dalton's
white female body, symbol of capitalist power, transgresses
its political and racial place committing hubris, in the Aristotelian
sense of the tragic fault and
is "punished" for her physical closeness to Bigger's
body. Bessie Mears' body becomes even more tragic as Wright
represents her as the "sexploited" daughter by her
own racial counterpart; no longer instrumental in the hero's
enterprises, Bessie's body is disposed of, raped, and thrown
away. Thus, Wright amends the sexual victimization of black
women in African American writing. As Sondra Guttman has remarked,
"Bessie is literally frozen out of the story [...] to show
the invisibility of black women's rapes and their continuing
devaluation in American society" (185). By entering the
ream of the abject, dismembered, and disintegrated bodies, Wright
signals in Native Son the precarious status of "the woman
as body of the woman" (Outsider 393) as an in-between,
transgressive, and transitional image in search of its own voice.
At the same time, both the black and the white daughter's
unusual burial dismembered body and rotten corpse reflect
the culture's different ways of "punishing" the
mother. The "blind mother," embodied by Mrs. Dalton,
epitomizes the blindness of the motherland or mother-culture,
unprepared and unable to see the truth beyond these cadavers,
having to live with the burden of racialized bodies. Significantly
enough, Bessie's black mother does not "speak"
in the novel as the subaltern cannot speak becoming the "mute
mother" (DeCosta-Willis 540). Although structurally marginal,
the female characters in Native Son gain voice as dismembered,
decomposed, rotten, and used bodies, becoming more meaningful
pervasiveness of the body in Wright's novel particularly
the dismembered, disintegrated, and rotten female body signals
the writer's concern with the centrality of the body to
human experience. The generic "colored" body is Wright's
main character, and, by using patterns of sight and imagery
of blindness, the writer exposes what Seymour L. Gross has termed
"the agonizing permutations of color in America."
Gross suggests that, "every major figure in the novel,
with the exception of Bigger [. . .] is either blind to or blinded
by color" (75). The "Daltons" encapsulate this
distortion of vision, this "blindness to black humanity"
(Brown 36) from a triple point of view: Mrs. Dalton is literally
blind; Henry Dalton is blind to hiring the "boy" who
belongs to the class that inhabits his over-priced slums; Mary
Dalton is blind to the social relations between the races, manifesting
an unusual closeness to a black body whom she admires for his
humanity, in the light of the communist ideology of "social
equality" to which she subscribes.
color line dividing the two worlds is sanctioned by Bigger Thomas
from the very beginning of the novel, when he still "plays
white" with his buddies (21). He explains to that Gus the
distance between the two worlds is separated by bodily color:
"We live here and they live there. We black and they white.
They got things and we ain't. They do things and we can't.
It's just like living in jail. Half the time I feel like
I'm on the outside of the world peeping through a knot-hole
in the fence. . ." (23). Bigger Thomas' first encounter
with the white female body is occasioned by the manufactured
cinematic, glamorous, desirable body of "The Gay Woman,"
the unattainable, white, uninhibited body: "Yeah, she's
a hot looking number," Bigger exclaims, completely absorbed
by the body on the big screen (33). The references to the sensuous,
tempting female bodies are also abundant in Wright's other
writings. The male characters in "Lawd Today!," Jake,
Slim, and Bob, talk about their "first meat" and thus
subscribe to the racial stereotyping of black women as instinctual.
Nevertheless, the same idolized, untouchable body of the popular
film also covers the walls of Bigger's room, a legacy bequeathed
to him by his predecessor as the black chauffeur of the Dalton
family. This "ideal body," in Susan Bordo's terms,
awakens Bigger's imagination, as well as his senses: "His
entire body hungered for keen sensation, something exciting
and violent to relieve the tautness" (NS 38). With the
"gay woman," Wright makes the transition to the other
"rich chick," Mary Dalton, whose predisposition for
interracial flirtation attracts and scares Bigger at the same
time: "She looked like a doll in a show window: black eyes,
white face, red lips" (63); "The girl was strange"
(64); "Goddamn that woman!" (65); "He felt something
in her over and above the fear she inspired in him" (66).
Thomas' own body undergoes transformations throughout
the novel. Confined to the closed space of the ghetto room,
under the disciplinary gaze of his mother and his sister "We
wouldn't have to live in this garbage dump if you had any
manhood in you," the mother reproaches bitterly (12) Bigger
realizes the double entrapment of his body by both the black
and white disciplinary gazes. As Foucault has suggested, the
aim of punishing is to compare groups of people, to establish
hierarchies of groups, and to homogenize those within a single
group (182). The "normalizing gaze" is "a surveillance
that makes it possible to qualify, to classify, and punish"
(184). The white normalizing gaze of Mr. Dalton, Mary, and Jan
produce in Bigger Thomas an embarrassment of his own body, an
ashamed colored body under the scrutiny of multiple white gazes.
Consequently, Bigger becomes more and more painfully aware of
his body: "He felt naked, transparent; he felt that this
white man, having helped to put him down, having helped to
deform him, held him up now to look at him and be amused"
(68) [my emphasis]. Later on, after he kills Mary Dalton, "his
body tremble[s]" (88), and Bigger remembers "how [he]
was consumed always with a body hunger." After exchanging
alcohol for Bessie Mears' body, fulfilling "the desperate
call of his body" (232), Bigger "felt free and easy"
(142). Confronted with the bones proving Mary's atrocious
murder, Bigger's easiness vanishes: his "sweaty"
and "hot" body launches itself in a desperate flee
for its life. Eventually, after he is captured and imprisoned,
Bigger becomes disembodied gradually, until his weak, docilized
body reaches a complete detachment from its materiality: "He
was not conscious of his body now" (251). Facing the death
penalty, Bigger reaches a state of immateriality that allows
him to "project his body into the world" (Fishburn
207). Finally, he is able to gain a voice by detaching himself
from the burden of his body. By the physical act of killing
Mary, "Bigger makes a statement or an artifact out of the
work of his body. In Hegelian terms, Bigger has written his
body and thus himself into history" (210). As Bigger confesses,
"What I killed for, I am! [. . .] What I killed for must've
been good" (391-92). Thus, Bigger gains an identity and
a voice through the destruction of both white and black female
bodies and the imminent destruction and disintegration of his
Dalton's body is sacrificed in an attempt to save Bigger
Thomas' life, in circumstances that condemn the simple
presence of a black male body in a white girl's room to
the stigma of "rapist," the long-standing stereotype
of black masculinity. Buckley's vituperative depiction
of Bigger Thomas as animal reinforces this pervasive ideology,
by attributing him characteristics such as "the jungle
beast" or "the black ape" (NS 258), "this
worthless ape," or "the cunning beast" (377).
As these harsh epithets suggest, the whites judging Bigger are
indeed concerned with the materiality and bestiality historically
associated with his body and its appearance. Even if there is
no real proof that Bigger raped Mary Dalton, it is assumed that
he is also a rapist by associating his violence over Mary's
body with that over Bessie Mears' black body. The circumstantial
evidence proving Bessie Mears' rape and murder is invoked
against Bigger in an attempt to incriminate him for similar
deeds against Mary's corpse, although a pile of white bones
and a remaining ear ring reconstruct her body. Not only is Bessie
Mears' story used as evidence against Bigger in the trial,
but her dead, rotting body is brought in court as evidence,
as corpus delicti, serving to prove a crime. The lack
of interest in the fate of the dead, female, black body is enhanced
by the court's lack of acknowledgement of Bessie as a person,
even if dead, as her body is attached a name just "for
the record," as "the raped and mutilated body of one
Bessie Mears" (306) [my emphasis]. Bigger himself realizes
the danger of using Bessie's corpse in this way:
offer the dead body of Bessie as evidence and proof that he
had murdered Mary would make him appear a monster. [. . .] Though
he had killed a black girl and a white girl, he knew that
it would be for the death of the white girl that he would
be punished. The black girl was merely "evidence."
[. . .] He knew that Bessie, too, though dead, would resent
her dead body being used in this way. (306-307) [my emphasis]
to facile accusations brought against Wright's novel, the reduction
of the black woman's agency to circumstantial evidence
does not necessarily constitute a brutal stereotyping of African
American women. It may be read as a realistic portrayal of the
defenseless, mindless, and insignificant female characters that
Wright imagines throughout his work. Whether or not Bessie is
"the female suppleant necessary to enhance the tragic mood,"
as Joyce noted, using one of Northrop Frye's formulas to
define the tragic hero (59), the abuse of Bessie Mears'
body is the message the culture she lives in has inscribed on
her body, both dead and alive. Bessie remains, however, Bigger's
only "marginal companion" (Joyce 68). Despite her
bodily-inscribed identity, Bessie Mears also attempts to present
herself as a reasoning person, but Wright "kills"
her immediately after she makes her voice heard, in an episode
when Bessie refuses to submit to Bigger's sexual needs.
In a sense, her rebellion against a predetermined "fate" that
of a silent, "mindless," black prostitute precipitates
her death. Bessie's death likens her destiny, paradoxically,
to that of Mary Dalton, who commits another political transgression
by refusing to conform to the general (political) attitude against
blacks, and who embraces the communist affiliation to escape
the stifling bourgeois home. Just before murdering Bessie, Bigger
realizes that the inquisitive side of Bessie precipitates the
annihilation of both Bessies that Bigger envisions:
were two Bessies: one a body that he had just had and
wanted badly again; the other was in Bessie's face;
it asked questions; it bargained and sold the other Bessie
to advantage. He wished he could clench his first and swing
his arm and blot out, kill, sweep away the Bessie on Bessie's
face and leave the other helpless and yielding before him.
(133) [my emphasis]
ways in which the black and white bodies enter disintegration
in Native Son are somehow similar. After accidentally
suffocating Mary Dalton with a pillow, for fear he might be
"caught" in her room, Bigger Thomas incinerates the
body in the Dalton furnace, first chopping off Mary's head
with a hatchet. By delaying the cleaning of the furnace, Bigger
contributes to his own death, as the bones are discovered and
the white girl's body is easily "reconstructed."
Eliminating Mary's body as evidence of his own crime strengthens
Bigger Thomas' conviction to take control over his destiny.
While Mary's murder may be considered accidental, the murder
of Bessie Mears is deliberate and motivated: "A woman was
a dangerous burden when a man was running away" (135).
After raping Bessie Mears, Bigger batters her face with a brick
and kills her, throwing her down an airshaft. The ways in which
Bigger disposes of the corpses are also racially determined:
he gently pushes Mary Dalton's body into the furnace "Gently
he sawed the blade into the flesh and struck a bone. He gritted
his teeth and cut harder" (90) and he throws Bessie"s
bleeding body down the air shaft, too concerned about his own
body "The body hit and bumped against the narrow sides
of the air-shaft as it went down into blackness. He heard it
strike the bottom" (224). Later on, during the trial, the
visible mark of the "sight, bloody and black" make
Bigger "flinch involuntarily and lift his hands to his
novel thus displays different instances of the corpse: the necessary
one, the vanished one, the abject one, or the corpse-to-be a
reflection on the pervasiveness of death. Its powerful significance
is summed up by Max at the end of the novel; his corpse metaphor
sanctions historical crimes of larger proportions that have
become latent in the social imaginary, but threaten to emerge
with a vengeance, and become reintegrated in a different cultural
with guilt, we have sought to thrust a corpse from before
our eyes. We have marked off a little plot of ground and buried
it. We tell our souls in the deep of the black night that
it is dead and that we have no reason for fear or uneasiness.
But the corpse returns and raids our homes! We find our daughters
murdered and burnt! And we say, "Kill! Kill!" [. . .]
For the corpse is not dead. It still lives! It has
made itself a home in the wild forest of out great cities.
(361-62) [my emphasis]
the end, Wright has to "kill" Mary Dalton in an attempt
to let her dismembered body speak of the "horrors of abjection"
that bodies like Bigger's have been subjected to throughout
history and let Bessie Mears' disintegrated body speak
of a rotting life and blessed death. The white daughter's
impossible burial in Native Son the white bones only
testify to the body's dismemberment and burning opens
a new definition of death in the racist United States of the
1940s. The power of horror such a death elicits from the dominant
audience that condemns the "murderer and rapist" "Kill
that black ape!" (252) gives the racialized body a new
meaning. The final trial in Native Son revolves around a non-existent
white body, while the "bloody and black" body (307)
of "one Bessie Mears" (306) is displayed as mere evidence,
and Bigger's body awaits the death penalty.
Mikhail. "The Grotesque Image of the Body and Its Sources."
Rabelais and His World. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky.
Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1968. 303-67.
Diane York. "The Abjection of Addie and Other Myths of
the Maternal in As I Lay Dying." The Mississippi
Quarterly 47.3 (Summer 1994): 419-39.
André. Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. Trans. Roger
Little. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1973.
Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the
Body. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.
Elisabeth. Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity, and the
Aesthetic. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Lloyd W. "Stereotypes in Black and White. The Nature of
Perception in Wright's Native Son." Black
Academy Review 1 (1970): 35-44.
Deborah. Robbing the Mother: Women in Faulkner. Jackson:
UP of Mississippi, 1994.
Miriam. "Avenging Angels and Mute Mothers: Black Southern
Women in Wright's Fictional World." Callaloo 28
(Summer 1986): 540-51.
William. As I Lay Dying: The Corrected Text. New York:
Vintage, 1990 .
Katherine. "The Delinquent's Sabbath; Or, The Return
of the Repressed: The Matter of Bodies in Native Son."
Studies in the Novel 31.2 (Summer 1999): 202-21.
Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.
Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1979.
Doreen. "Matricide and the Mother's Revenge: As
I Lay Dying." The Faulkner Journal 4. 1-2 (Fall
1998-Spring 1989): 113-25.
Mimi R. "Mothers and Daughters in Endless Procession: Faulkners
Use of the Demeter/Persephone
Myth." Faulkner and Women: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha,
1985. Eds. Doreen Fowler and Ann J. Abadie. Jackson: U P of
Mississippi, 1986. 100-111.
Seymour L. "Dalton" and Color-Blindness in Native
Son." The Mississippi Quarterly 27 (1973-1974):
Sondra. "What Bigger Killed for: Rereading Violence against
Women in Native Son." Texas Studies in Literature
and Language 43.2 (Summer 2001): 169-93.
Harriet. "The Tangled Webs We Weave: Faulkner Scholarship
and the Significance of Addie Bundren"s Monologue."
The Faulkner Journal 12.1 (Fall 1996): 3-21.
Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter and
Carolyn Burke. Ithaca, New York: Cornell UP, 1985.
Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon
S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.
William J. New Negro, Old Left: African American Writing
and Communism between the Wars. New York: Columbia UP, 1999.
Maria K. "Bitches, Whores and Woman Haters: Archetypes
and Typologies in the Art of Wright." Richard Wright:
A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Richard Macksey and
Frank E. Moorer. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1984. 117-27.
Page, Sally. Faulkner's Women: Characterization and
Meaning. DeLand, Florida: Everett/Edwards, 1972.
Amy Louise. "Feminine Rebellion and Mimicry in Faulkner's
As I Lay Dying." The Faulkner Journal 9.1-2 (Fall
1993 - Spring 1994): 99-112.
Bonnie. "The Abject in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying."
Literature and Psychology 40. 3 (1994): 26-42.
Richard. Native Son. New York: Harper Collins, 2001.
---. "Lawd Today!" New York: Walker, 1963.
---. "The Outsider." Later Works: Black
Boy [American Hunger], The Outsider. Ed. Arnold Rampersad.
New York: The Library of America, 1991. 367-843.
a recent review of As I Lay Dying criticism, see
references to As I Lay Dying will use the acronym
AILD. References to Wright's novel, Native Son,
will use the acronym NS.
Desire In Language, qtd. in Woodbery 28.
Sondra Guttman posits, encouraging social relations between
the races was a crucial part of the CPUSA's revolutionary
agenda from the late 1920s to the mid-1930s (174). The unusual
physical closeness of Bigger to Mary may be interpreted
as ideologically motivated but also as experimental.
"How Bigger Was Born," Wright acknowledges that
he was aware of the risks he took in reinforcing rather
than sanctioning and challenging such racial stereotypes
but explains that he "could not write of Bigger convincingly
if [he] did not depict him as he was: that is, resentful
towards whites, sullen, angry, ignorant, emotionally unstable,
depressed and unaccountably elated at times, and unable
even, because of his own lack of inner organization which
American oppression has fostered in him..." (xxi).
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