William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in 1930, around the time when the theories of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, were gaining popularity. In his story about the death of a mother, Addie, and her family’s reaction and grieving process, Faulkner adheres to many of Freud’s theories on defense mechanisms. According to Freud, “Challenges from the outer environment and from our inner urges threaten us with anxiety… The process that the ego (subconscious mind) uses to distort reality to protect itself are called defense mechanisms” (Friedman 39).
The family’s lack of a mourning process, obsession over burying Addie in Jefferson, and desire to acquire materialistic items all exemplify Freud’s defense mechanisms. Faulkner demonstrates Freud’s theories of reaction formation, rationalization, displacement, and sublimation through the reaction to Addie’s death and her family’s grieving process. Whitfield is the town minister who has an affair with Addie, which results in his bastard child, Jewel. Whitfield exemplifies Freud’s idea of reaction formation, a “defense mechanism that pushes away threatening impulses by overemphasizing the opposite in one’s thoughts and actions” (Friedman 41).
Whitfield knew he was committing a sin by having an affair, as adultery is clearly scorned in the bible, but he kept it secret and continued to preach the bible. When Whitfield hears that Addie is ill he confesses that he “woke to the enormity of my sin; I saw the true light at last, and I fell on my knees and confessed to God and asked His guidance and received it” (Faulkner 177). Whitfield explains that God told him to “repair to that home in which you have put a living lie…confess your sin aloud. However, by the time Whitfield reached the Bundrens’ home Addie had already passed away and Whitfield made the decision to keep his secret, which is another act against the bible because the bible teaches that one must confess his sins. In his final act of reaction formation Whitfield says a prayer as he leaves the Bundren home “God’s grace upon this house” (Faulkner 179). The act of continuing to preach even though Whitfield himself has sinned suggests a defense mechanism according to Freudian theory. Another facet of Freud’s defense mechanisms that Faulkner employs in his novel is the use of rationalization.
There are several instances throughout the Bundrens’ journey where they act irrationally to fulfill Addie’s wish of being buried in Jefferson. According to Freud “rationalization is a mechanism involving post hoc logical explanations for behaviors that were actually driven by internal unconscious motives” (Friedman 49). The Bundrens did not even begin their journey to Jefferson until ten days after Addie had died. The journey to Jefferson itself was unreasonable for the Bundrens to complete. Jefferson is far away, the bridge to get there was flooded, and they are a poor family who must rely on others to help them along their journey.
While Anse, Addie’s husband, does not appear to be grieving and does not mention Addie’s death, we learn that “his mind is set on taking her to Jefferson,” despite warnings of rain and a flooded bridge (Faulkner 86). After waiting ten days to begin the treacherous journey, the Bundrens still rationalized going to Jefferson to bury Addie. Tull explains that Anse “promised her” that she could be buried there and that “she wanted it. She come from there. Her mind was set on it” (Faulkner 89). While it seems logical that a man would want to fulfill his wife’s dying wish, the conditions of reaching Jefferson are beyond unreasonable.
Once they finally reach Jefferson it becomes clear that Anse was rationalizing the trip to Jefferson as a means to get new teeth and a wife. He even reveals “now I can get them teeth. That will be a comfort” as a defense mechanism toward coping with the loss Addie. Anse is using Addie’s death as an excuse to go to Jefferson and get new teeth. Rather than mourn Addie’s death and bury her at her home, the Bundrens internally struggle with the loss of their mother and focus their attention on getting her to Jefferson so they can visit Jefferson themselves.
In Addie’s final dying days her son Cash spent his time building her coffin right outside her window. According to Freudian concepts Cash was displacing his emotions about his mother dying. Displacement is “a defense mechanism in which the target of one’s unconscious fears or desires is shifted away from the true cause” (Friedman 47). In this case Cash’s unconscious fears are of his mothers illness and approaching death and he is shifting his focus towards building her coffin instead of spending time with her or comforting her. Cash’s obsession with building the coffin continues even after Addie ies. Cash’s first chapter of the novel meticulously lists his reasoning over the construction of the coffin. He explains “the animal magnetism of a dead body makes the stress come slanting, so the seams and joints of a coffin are made on the bevel. ” While the construction of the coffin may be an important contribution to Addie’s burial, Cash completely consumes himself with thoughts of the coffin rather than mourning his mother. Another one of Addie’s sons also exemplifies displacement in reaction to his mother’s death. Vardaman reasons that the doctor, Peabody, caused his mother’s death.
Vardaman cries “he kilt her. He kilt her” yet he displaces his anger towards Peabody’s horses exclaiming “you kilt my maw! ” (Faulkner 54). Vardaman strikes the horses with a stick, harshly beating them. Freud would classify this behavior as displacement because Vardaman releases his emotions on innocent horses that could not have caused his mother’s death. One of the most prominent defense mechanisms that Faulkner demonstrates is the idea of sublimation. Many characters translate Addie’s death into other preoccupations such as buying new material goods or fulfilling personal gains.
The Bundrens as a family focus on bringing her body to Jefferson, Anse wants new teeth, Cash wants a gramophone, Dewey Dell wants an abortion, and Jewel’s affection for his horse. According to Freudian theory “sublimation is the transforming of unacceptable urges into positive, socially acceptable motivations” (Friedman 48). Faulkner uses sublimation in his character’s lack of mourning their loss and translation of the fear of their loss toward something less meaningful but concrete. Throughout the novel Dewey Dell conveys her anxiety over her pregnancy.
She even admits “when mother died I had to go beyond and outside of me and Lafe and Darl to grieve because he could do so much for me and he don’t know it” (Faulkner 59). Dewey Dell is unable to focus on anything, including her mother’s death, because of her pregnancy and obsession over finding a way to abort her baby. In this passage she questions Peabody’s ability to help her with the abortion. When they finally reach Jefferson Dewey Dell quickly finds a doctor to perform her abortion. She desperately explains to the drugstore clerk “it’s the female trouble…I got the money” (Faulkner 243).
The Bundren family sublimates the loss of Addie by completing a dangerous and exhausting journey to grant Addie’s wish of being buried in Jefferson. However, when the Bundrens reach Jefferson it becomes clear that they had ulterior, and selfish personal motives for getting to Jefferson. When the treacherous journey to bury Addie is finally completed Anse sublimates his relationship with Addie and her loss by buying new teeth and getting a new wife. Cash tells his new wife, “it’s Cash and Jewel and Vardaman and Dewey Dell,’ pa says, kind of hangdog and proud too, with his teeth and all, even if he wouldn’t look at us. Meet Mrs Bundren,’ he says,” (Faulkner 261). Anse quickly replaces his wife and continues his life as if unaffected by the loss of Addie. He sublimates his loss with new teeth and a new wife. Freudian studies of the unconscious mind became popular in the 1920s and 1930s when Faulkner was also gaining popularity as a writer. It is possible that Faulkner’s stream of consciousness writing was also influenced by Freud’s theories of the subconscious mind. While Faulkner provides detailed insight into all of the character’s thoughts and emotions, none of the characters seem to be truly mourning the loss of Addie.
Instead, the Bundrens focus their attention toward moving her body to Jefferson, a daunting and unrealistic task that takes them around twenty days to finally bury her. The characters express many themes of defense mechanisms in coping with their loss. They do not show real signs of missing Addie or mourning her. Rather they focus their attention on what to do with her body and other seemingly important matters. Faulkner was influenced by Freud’s ideas of reaction formation, rationalization, displacement, and sublimation as a means for his characters to manage the loss of their wife and mother.
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As I Lay Dying: Freudian Theories of the Bundren Family. (2017, Jan 20). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/as-i-lay-dying-freudian-theories-of-the-bundren-family/