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There is no doubt that William Faulkner is one of the most outstanding and complicated authors of the twentieth century. The characters created by him are multidimensional as they work both as portraits and symbols, as the potential and the realization. The character of Anse Bundren from the novel As I Lay Dying is likewise controversial and meaningful, tragic and comic. Although on the surface he might appear a pure villain, he has more layers and sides about him. Presenting him as a lazy, manipulative and yet flexible personality, the author observes that he wears a social mask which became his own face. The author reveals the idea that Anse’s attempt to play the role of the family’s head fails because he does not have sincere affection for them but instead is trying to make use of them in his own interests.
The main focus of the book is the death of the mother, Addie Bundren, whose last wish is to be buried in Jefferson, a long way from her native Minessota. The journey of the family to the place, their interaction with each other and the world and their moral choices make up the plot of the novel. Anse Bundren is a character who plays an important role in the whole process as he directs the rest of family members. However, as he has his own private interests which are not allied with his close people, his purpose is to make the best of this journey to please his own ambitions which look shallow and comical in fact. As one of the researchers points out,
Thus the failure of Anse Bundren to live up to his superficial role of family patriarch establishes the atmosphere of the entire novel. In spite of his pride, Anse is content to let others, whether family or neighbors, do his work and thinking for him. Yet he is the only Bundren who manages to fulfill all of his secret expectations upon reaching Jefferson. (Swiggart 111)
It is surprising to know that his first thought when his wife is dead is that he can finally get his new teeth done. In fact, this makes a touch of absurd that prevents the readers from considering him a villain. He is too miserable to be villainous, and his deeds rather look like a moral illness than intended plan to harm other people. His selfishness even seems a bit naïve because he does not really suspect that anything can be wrong with it. He does not cope with the status of patriarch indeed, as was mentioned before, and even when he tries to be solemn and authoritative, this looks comical. Anse’s attempts to make use of the situation and the unexpected ways in which his character is revealed, makes him similar to a classical type of a trickster.
However, it is worth saying that his character is not as simple and flat as it might seem at first sight. Because the readers can hear voices of five characters and their stream of consciousness, it is possible to have a flashback into the past, about thirty years before, when Anse met Addie first. “We are…given a glimpse of another Anse, the young Anse whose courtship of Addie is recounted in her section. This Anse is a hard-working young man who shyly courts the village schoolteacher. Nervously aware that she and her kin may look down on him, he nevertheless hopes to win her and bring her as bride to the new house which he has built before coming to court”( Rippetoe). We find out that Anse used to be more decisive and was ready to face the challenges that he was facing. He understood that the woman that he liked was of a different origin, more educated, having other interests. He realized that he should expect oppression on behalf of her family, that it would be hard for them to accept him. However, step by step he wins Addie’s affection and finally marries her.
It is obvious that approaching women is a challenge for him, especially the women like Addie. It takes him days of indecisiveness to get acquainted with her, however day by day he passes by the school where she works without approaching her. Finally, he overcomes his fear and timidity and steps on the insecure territory risking his self-image of a confident man. He puts on his best outfit and approaches Addie, and does it in simple and straight-forward way that only men born in the country are capable of. He is a man of few words but the right actions, and this is what seems to attract the woman to him. As we can see, this personality looks quite opposite to the one that we can see thirty years after. The new Anse has lost his will and has become a parasite that lives at the expense of his relatives. He gives no affection to either his wife or children, and is capable only of sucking out energy from them.
While he used to choose action, he prefers to avoid any action if possible. In fact, the reason why Addie got an illness that caused her death is Anse’s neglection of her interests and her feeling. Her dissatisfaction seems to gnaw her soul from inside that leads to her fading away. Besides, it is Anse’s fault that he does not call the doctor on time and prefers to wait for the events to avoid in their own way. So, as can be seen, Anse’s behavior is a kind of escapism, he avoids all situations where his active interference is necessary. Moreover, he has a good justification for his behavior claiming that God does not mean a person to be active.
It is worth considering the fact that when Anse and Addie start their family life, he is a successful man who relied on his own efforts and was eager to create his own home and stable income. “He owns a new house and a good farm, a wagon and a team, and a suit of Sunday clothes; he possesses a good honest name and has no debts. But the Anse Bundren we meet some thirty years later, when his wife lies on her death bed, is a different and broken man”( Rippetoe). As the researcher points out, Anse seems to have physical illness that symbolizes his transformation from the man that he used to be to the one that he is now. This illness is mysterious in some way that gives an idea that this reflects the author’s intention to make Anse’s character more layered and controversial. For instance, Anse never sweats, which is abnormal for a human. He got some mystic illness because of staying outdoors in hot weather and he is afraid that he will die. This becomes his justification for avoiding any kind of activities and responsibility. In the course of time his life becomes shallow and confined to small selfish desires like having new faux teeth. Life of other family members does not look interesting from his small world, and he starts looking at others merely as instruments for keeping him alive and satisfying his needs.
Faulkner uses the approach of juxtaposing physical and moral abnormality of the character. Indeed, he explores human perversions step by step so that the reader is not certain what is real and what is not. The mixture of comic, sad and disgusting about Anse is provocative, and makes it hard for the reader to decide whether to despise him or be sorry for him. There are numerous examples in the novel that confirm the weird and selfish behavior of Anse. On his way to Jefferson he manages to make use of his family to solve all the issues he faces. He does not care much to find out that the bridge is broken and lets his children save their mother’s coffin. At this moment he is able to think only about his new teeth, so the situation looks so absurd that it stops being tragic but looks comical. He does not take responsibility and tends to accuse either bad luck or other people of all the misfortunes. The author demonstrates how reality is transformed when values and priorities are changed for a person.
It is interesting to observe that unlike for other characters, Faulkner intends to give a more detailed physical description for Anse’s appearance: “his unkempt hair, his slack, snuff-stained mouth, his humped back, his dangling arms, his gaunt body, his ill-fitting, sweatfree shirts, his patched overalls, his tortured feet with their "pig-iron” (11) shoes. His face is expressive of outrage, astonishment, theatrical dignity, mournfulness, defensiveness, evasiveness, annoyance, shame and pride”(Yamaguchi 131). Focus on the material expression rather than on his inner world and emotions make Anse a truly theatrical character.
There are several signs that speak in favor of the opinion that his character is symbolic and schematic,and that he stands for a certain type or social phenomenon. First of all, it is worth saying that the gestures and mimics are exaggerated to stress a whole range of feelings that were mentioned above. He seems to be a medieval actor whose task is to play each emotion on the town square, so that they could be easily understandable and recognizable by ordinary people. He symbolizes a number of human vices that are underlined by the author through the effect of absurdity. Besides, his speech is another point that reveals the idea that he is rather a clichéd personage than a real personality with complex motives. His permanent reference to God and scriptures demonstrates that he has no real thoughts of his own, that he borrows everything he can from other places and people. His feelings for Addie do not look deep as well because he marries quickly at the end of the journey without having any grief for his late wife.
Another view that researchers have of Anse is that he is a trickster personage:
Like the assessments of Anse as a genially manipulative comic hero or a trickster who embodies "human" principles of survival and regeneration, these interpretive strategies seek to make sympathy a nonissue-- particularly since questions of sympathy frequently entail moral judgments. By shifting focus away from the way in which laughter and the comic marks a bond, an acquiescence between reader and text, such strategies allow the underlying assumptions that give rise to this laughter to go unexamined. (Hustis)
So, this approach reveals the idea that there is no sense in treating Anse as an in-depth dramatic character of modern literature but rather as an archetype that is more typical of fairy-tales and myths. This opinion looks debatable because the character of Anse undergoes some transformation, that is we have two opposite portraits of him: the one of the young Anse thirty years ago and the current one. So, it is made clear that the character does not look totally flat but has some dynamic and dimensions as well. On the other hand, this approach is close to reality because of several aspects mentioned above. Anse acts in a straight-forward way and cannot go beyond his standard way of thinking and behavior. It might be true to agree with the researchers who say that the character’s motives are not related to selfishness only: “Anse is not motivated by loyalty to his dead wife, as demonstrated by his quick marriage at the end of the novel. He is not driven by pure selfishness either. He is a predominantly comic figure because his inertia or hesitation to change an original plan is even stronger than his love of self” (Yamaguchi 131).
Overall, the character of Anse is worth close attention and studying, and he cannot be called a simple character. This controversy about him is proved by the fact that researchers treat this hero in a different way. Some claim that he is purely comical character that is close to an archetypical trickster. Others believe that the author reveals the moral corruption theme and embodies a range of sins and vices in his personality. Finally, an approach can be found when the gap between his past and present self is explored through the prism of his illness that reveals his degradation. The diversity of opinion demonstrates that there is more than one dimension about him and that Faulkner makes use of layered characters as it is typical for most of his prose. Anse is a character who is both miserable and making other people miserable, and the solution is not seen. Thus, it is up to the reader to either perceive his as a villain or as a comic hero but anyway his personality is worth consideration.