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The Mother's Burial, the Daughter's Burden:
Disintegrated and Dismembered Bodies in
Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and Wright's Native Son

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Christina Stanciu
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

The 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-written—ironically—in death, and female discourse emerges after the sacrificial cultural death has been performed.

I. The Mother's Burial, The Daughter's Burden: Disintegrated Bodies in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying

I 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)

She [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)

I 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 all. (174-75)

Faulkner's 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.

Of 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.

In 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].

Addie 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:

I 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)

The 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.

Addie 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.

Dewey 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).

Like 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:

She 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, my emphasis)

Kristeva 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).

While 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.

The 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.

II. The Daughter's Burial, the Mother's Burden: Dismembered Bodies in Wright"s Native Son

Every 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)

She [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)

He 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)

Wright's 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.

The 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 in death.

The 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.

The 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).

Bigger 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 own body.

Mary 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:

To 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]

Contrary 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:

[T]here 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]

The 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 eyes" (307).

The 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 imaginary:

Obsessed 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]

In 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.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. "The Grotesque Image of the Body and Its Sources." Rabelais and His World. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1968. 303-67.

Blaine, 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.

Bleikasten, André. Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. Trans. Roger Little. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1973.

Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.

Bronfen, Elisabeth. Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity, and the Aesthetic. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Brown, Lloyd W. "Stereotypes in Black and White. The Nature of Perception in Wright's Native Son." Black Academy Review 1 (1970): 35-44.

Clarke, Deborah. Robbing the Mother: Women in Faulkner. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1994.

DeCosta-Willis, Miriam. "Avenging Angels and Mute Mothers: Black Southern Women in Wright's Fictional World." Callaloo 28 (Summer 1986): 540-51.

Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying: The Corrected Text. New York: Vintage, 1990 [1930].

Fishburn, 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.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1979.

Fowler, Doreen. "Matricide and the Mother's Revenge: As I Lay Dying." The Faulkner Journal 4. 1-2 (Fall 1998-Spring 1989): 113-25.

Gladstein, 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.

Gross, Seymour L. "‘Dalton" and Color-Blindness in Native Son." The Mississippi Quarterly 27 (1973-1974): 75-77.

Guttman, Sondra. "What Bigger Killed for: Rereading Violence against Women in Native Son." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 43.2 (Summer 2001): 169-93.

Hustis, 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.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter and Carolyn Burke. Ithaca, New York: Cornell UP, 1985.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.

Maxwell, William J. New Negro, Old Left: African American Writing and Communism between the Wars. New York: Columbia UP, 1999.

Mootry, 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.

Wood, 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.

Woodbery, Bonnie. "The Abject in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying." Literature and Psychology 40. 3 (1994): 26-42.

Wright, 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.


i For a recent review of As I Lay Dying criticism, see Harriet Hustis.
ii Subsequent references to As I Lay Dying will use the acronym AILD. References to Wright's novel, Native Son, will use the acronym NS.
iii Kristeva, Desire In Language, qtd. in Woodbery 28.
iv As 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.
v In "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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