Toni Morrison’s Home versus William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying
What being, with only one voice, has sometimes two feet, sometimes three, sometimes four, and is weakest when it has the most?
Man, Oedipus answered, because he crawls on all fours as an infant, stands firmly on his two feet in his youth, and leans upon a staff in his old age.
Robert Graves, The Greek Myths: 2 (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1955) 10.
In William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying, it is Addie Bundren who lies dying while her son Cash, a carpenter, saws and smooths the boards that will make her casket. The whole family (Addie’s husband Anse and the children Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman) is dying, each one in his or her own way. Standing—for the most part a stagnant and static standing—is novel’s dominant metaphor.
In Toni Morrison’s novel Home, it is Frank Money who lies immobilized by drugs and cuffs in the “crazy ward” of a northwestern hospital while his sister Cee lies dying in Georgia: “’Come fast. She be dead if you tarry.’” Frank thinks about a chair while plotting his escape: “If hand-crafted, who was the carpenter and where did he get his lumber?”
Toni Morrison got the lumber for her novel from William Faulkner’s novel. Instead of a coffin, instead of a coffin of a novel that depicts an interminable and excruciating attempt to get Addie Bundren to where she will be buried, Morrison builds a novel of achieved resurrection, of anastasis, of Auferstehung, of standing up.
“They rose up like men. We saw them. Like men they stood.”
The opening lines and the dominant metaphor of Home are echoed at the novel’s end by words painted on a sanded piece of wood Frank Money nails to a sweet bay tree: “Here Stands A Man” and then by Frank’s thoughts:
I stood there a long while, staring at that tree.
It looked so strong
Hurt right down the middle
But alive and well.
Cee touched my shoulder
Come on, brother. Let’s go home. 147
To get to this state, to this home, Frank’s journey includes the following (italicized sections are Frank’s own account, which sometimes contradicts the other narrator’s account):
We shouldn’t have been anywhere near that place. . . . The reward was worth the harm grass juice and clouds of gnats did to our eyes, because there right in front of us, about fifty yards off, they stood like men. Their raised hooves crashing and striking, their manes tossing back from wild white eyes. They bit each other like dogs but when they stood, reared up on their hind legs, their forelegs around the withers of the other, we held our breath in wonder. . . . Then it stopped. The rust-colored one dropped his head and pawed the ground while the winner loped off in an arc, nudging the mares before him.
. . . we saw them pull a body from a wheelbarrow and throw it into a hole already waiting. One foot stuck up over the edge and quivered, as though it could get out, as though with a little effort it could break through the dirt being shoveled in. We could not see the faces of the men doing the burying, only their trousers; but we saw the edge of a spade drive the jerking foot down to join the rest of itself. When she saw that black foot with its creamy pink and mud-streaked sole being whacked into the grave, her whole body began to shake. . . .
Since you’re set on telling my story, whatever you think and whatever you write down, know this: I really forgot about the burial. I only remembered the horses. They were so beautiful. So brutal. And they stood like men. 3-5
In Faulkner’s novel animals stand like men as well, but the comparison works backwards in most cases, with men and women standing docilely like the animals (italicized passages are the thoughts of whichever narrator is speaking at the time):
It was Darl. He come to the door and stood there, looking at his dying mother. . . . “What you want, Darl?” Dewey Dell said, not stopping the fan, speaking up quick, keeping even him from her. He didn’t answer. He just stood and looked at his dying mother, his heart too full for words. 15
Pa stands beside the bed. . . . Then she raises herself, who has not moved in ten days. . . . She lies back and turns her head without so much as glancing at pa. . . . Cash comes to the door, carrying the saw. Pa stands beside the bed, humped, his arms dangling. She will go out where Peabody is, where she can stand in the twilight and look at his back with such an expression. . . . Pa stands over the bed, dangle-armed, humped, motionless. 30-33
The cow is standing in the barn door, chewing. . . . I stoop my hand to the ground and run at her. She jumps back and whirls away and stops, watching me. She moans. She goes on to the path and standins there looking up the path. It is dark in the barn, warm, smelling, silent. I can cry quietly, watching the top of the hill. Cash comes to the hill, limping where he fell off of the church. 35-36
The cow stands at the foot of the path, lowing. . . . his [pa’s] head bowed a little, his awry hair standing into the lamplight. He looks like right after the maul hits the steer and it no longer alive and dont yet know that it is dead. . . . “Ay,” pa says. He rouses up, like a steer that’s been kneeling in a pond and you run at it. “She would not begrudge me it. 38-39
. . . and still see Cash going up and down with that saw, and Anse standing there like a scarecrow, like he was a steer standing knee-deep in a pond and somebody come by and set the pond up on edge and he aint missed it yet. 46-47
We stand holding the rope. . . . He comes opposite us and stands there. . . . eye to eye they stand in their close wet clothes. . . . they stand there, watching Jewel’s still hands. . . . When we pass the wagon pa is standing beside it, scrubbing at the two mud smears with a handful of leaves. . . . Cash has not moved. We standin above him, holding the plane, the saw, the hammer, the square, the rule, the chalk-line. . . . 108-109
. . . fury in itself quiet with stagnation 110
Jewel was stopped, halfway back, waiting to go on to the horse. “I give other things,” Anse said. He begun to mumble his mouth again, standing there like he was waiting for somebody to hit him and him with his mind already made up not to do nothing about it. . . . Jewel had come back now, standing there. . . . Anse stood there, mumbling his mouth. . . . Anse stands there, dangle-armed. “For fifteen years I aint had a tooth in my head,” he says. . . . Jewel stands with his hands on his hips, looking at Anse. 129
I happened to look up, and saw her outside the window, looking in. Not close to the glass, and not looking at anything in particular; just standing there with her head turned this way and her eyes full on me and kind of blank too, like she was waiting for a sign. . . . So I went around the counter. I saw that she was barefooted, standing with her feet flat and easy on the floor, like she was used to it. . . . She stood there, not looking at me. . . . But she just stood there, not looking at me. 135-137
Faulkner’s characters stand like the dumb animals they are. Morrison’s characters Frank and Cee come to stand like the magnificent horses that stand fighting like men to determine which will protect and service the herd. But before they can do that they have difficulties to overcome.
Frank, for instance, has been suffering from incapacitating, immobilizing depression that keeps him from standing:
She had begun to feel annoyance rather than alarm when she came home from work and saw him sitting on the sofa staring at the floor. One sock on, the other in his hand. . . . She regretted the loss of ecstasy but assumed its heights would at some point return. 75
The multiple times when she came home to find him idle again, just sitting on the sofa staring at the rug, were unnerving. 78
After leaving Lily, after a breakdown, Frank must break out of the hospital and make his way without shoes (and then with torn galoshes and only later with work shoes):
Still, before escape, he would have to get shoes somehow, some way. Walking anywhere in winter without shoes would guarantee his being arrested and back in the ward until he could be sentenced for vagrancy. Interesting law, vagrancy, meaning standing outside or walking without clear purpose anywhere. Carrying a book would help, but being barefoot would contradict “purposefulness” and standing still could prompt a complaint of “loitering.” . . . Twenty years ago, as a four-year-old, he had a pair, though the sole of one flapped with every step.
Although shoes were vital for this escape, the patient had none. . . . 10
Jean Locke returned with a basin of cold water. “Put your feet in here, son. It’s cold but you don’t want them to heat up too fast.” 14
“He needs shoes too, John.” There were none to spare, so they put four pair of socks and some ripped galoshes next to the sofa. 16
“Okay,” said Billy. “Now for some grown man’s shoes. Thom McAn or do you want Florsheim?” “Neither. I ain’t going to a dance. Work shoes.” 36
The sole of my shoe flapped until Pap tied it up with his own shoelace. 40
Anse Bundren likewise has a shoe (and thus standing) problem:
Pa’s feet are badly splayed, his toes cramped and bent and warped, with no toenail at all on his little toes, from working so hard in the wet in homemade shoes when he was a boy. Beside his chair his brogans sit. They look as though they had been hacked with a blunt axe out of pig-iron. 7
When we go up the hall we can hear them clumping on the floor like they was iron shoes. . . . He stands there, like he dont aim to move again nor nothing else. 21
And although it’s not exactly a shoe problem, Cash Bundren limps from a broken leg and then, after the leg is rebroken, suffers a crude attempt to immobilize it with cement:
“’And dont tell me it aint going to bother you to have to limp around on one short leg for the balance of your life—if you walk at all again. Concrete,’ I said. ‘God Amighty, why didn’t Anse carry you to the nearest sawmill and stick your leg in the saw? That would have cured it. Then you all could have stuck his head into the saw and cured a whole family. . . .’” 165
Like Frank in his early going, Cee too is troubled by bad shoes:
The walk from the bus stop was a long one, hampered by Cee’s new white high-heeled shoes. Without stockings, her feet were chafing. . . . Thank you, ma’am. Can I take off these shoes first?” Sarah chuckled. “Whoever invented high heels won’t be happy till they cripple us.” 59
Repeatedly, when Morrison’s characters threaten to fall into the stasis of Faulkner’s Bundrens, they stand up and act. Cee, for instance:
Cee stood up in the zinc tub and took a few dripping steps to the sink. 43
She was all alone now, sitting in a zinc tub on a Sunday defying the heat of Georgia’s version of spring with cool water while Prince was cruising around with his thin-soled shoes pressing the gas pedal in California or New York, for all she knew. . . . 50
Standing at the window, wrapped in the scratchy towel, Cee felt her heart breaking. . . . Now she stood, alone. . . . 53
While Cee feels trapped, unable to travel like her faithless lover, she stands up out of the tub and arranges to find a better job. Anse Bundren, however, hates the idea of movement alltogether:
Durn that road. And it fixing to rain, too. I can stand here and same as see it with second-sight, a-shutting down behind them like a wall, shutting down betwixt them and my given promise. . . . A-laying there, right up to my door, where every bad luck that comes and goes is bound to find it. I told Addie it want any luck living on a road when it come by here, and she said, for the world like a woman, “get up and move, then.” But I told her it want no luck in it, because the Lord puts roads for travelling: why He laid them down flat on the earth. When He aims for something to be always a-moving, He makes it longways, like a road or a horse or a wagon, but when He aims for something to stay put, He makes up-and-down ways, like a tree or a man. . . . keeping the folks restless and wanting to get up and go somewheres else when He aimed for them to stay put like a tree or a stand of corn. Because if He’d a aimed for man to be always a-moving and going somewheres else, wouldn’t He a put him longways on his belly, like a snake? It stands to reason He would. . . . I says to them, he was all right at first, with his eyes full of the land, because the land laid up-and-down ways then; it wasn’t till that ere road come and switched the around longways and his eyes still full of the land, that they begun to threaten me out of him, trying to short-hand me with the law 22-23
Jewel Bundren (not his father’s child, but the offspring of an affair his mother Addie had and for which she paid for the rest of her life) is unlike the rest in many ways, including having the ability to take actions like this one:
“Come here, sir,” Jewel says. He moves. . . . Save for Jewel’s legs they are like two figures carved for a tableau savage in the sun. When Jewel can almost touch him, the horse stands on his hind legs and slashes down at Jewel. Then Jewel is enclosed by a glittering maze of hooves as by an illusion of wings; among them, beneath the upreared chest, he moves with the flashing limberness of a snake. For an instant before the jerk comes onto his arms he sees his whole body earth-free, horizontal, whipping snake-limber, until he finds the horse’s nostrils and touches earth again. . . . They stand in rigid terrific hiatus, the horse trembling and groaning. Then Jewel is on the horse’s back. . . . For another moment the horse stands spraddled with lowered head, before it bursts into motion. . . . The horse enters the stall, Jewel following. 7-8
Traveling east, after a young black couple riding in the same car had been brutalized by a crowd in Elko, Nevada, Frank knocks down a pimp who has no right to stand:
The young sun was blazing and there was little standing to cast a shadow or provide shade, only the feed store, the shop, and one shambling broke-down house across the road. A brand-new Caddilac, gilded in sunlight, was parked in front. Frank crossed the road to admire the car. . . . He walked down the side toward the squeals, expecting to see some male aggressor showing off. But there on the ground were two women fighting. Rolling around, punching, kicking the air, they beat each other in the dirt. Their hair and clothes were in disarray. The surprise to Frank was a man standing near them, picking his teeth and watching. He turned when Frank approached. He was a big man with flat, bored eyes.
“What the fuck you looking’ at?” He didn’t remove the toothpick.
Frank froze. The big man came right up to him and shoved his chest. Twice. Frank dropped his Dr Pepper and swung hard at the man, who, lacking agility like so many really big men, fell immediately. Frank leaped on the prone body and began to punch his face, eager to ram that toothpick into his throat. The thrill that came with each blow was wonderfully familiar. Unable to stop and unwilling to, Frank kept going even though the big man was unconscious. The women stopped clawing each other and pulled at Frank’s collar. . . . Then she dropped to her knees and tried to revive her pimp. Her blouse was torn down the back. It was a bright yellow.
Frank stood and, massaging his knuckles, moved quickly, half running, half loping back to the train. . . . This violence was personal in its delight. Good, he thought. He might need that thrill to claim his sister. 100-102
Cee remembers a similar incident in which Frank protected her from a man unworthy of standing by attacking a pervert’s legs:
Suddenly he was behind the tree she was leaning against, swinging his bat twice into the legs of a man she had not even noticed standing behind her. . . . Hours later, Frank explained. The man wasn’t from Lotus, he told her, and had been hiding behind the tree, flashing her. 51
And Frank reflects on how his protective relationship with his sister is a key to who he is:
She was the first person I ever took responsibility for. Down deep inside her lived my secret picture of myself—a strong good me tied to the memory of those horses and burial of a stranger. Guarding her, finding a way through tall grass and out of that place, not being afraid of anything—snakes or wild old men. I wonder if succeeding at that was the buried seed of all the rest. In my little-boy heart I felt heroic and I knew that if they found us or touched her I would kill. 104
After a mugging in Atlanta that brings him low, Frank finds his sister who is about to die of prolonged blood loss as a result of experiments done on her by her employer, a eugenicist doctor trying to invent a new speculum. As he carries her off the doctor screams for help but finds that his other employee, Sarah (who had written Frank the letter telling him to come quickly) is willing to stand up against him:
“Call the police, woman! Did you let him in here?” Dr. Beau then ran down the hallway, to where another telephone sat on a small table. Standing next to it was Sarah, her hand pressed firmly on the cradle. There was no mistaking her purpose. . . . Sarah and the doctor stood locked in an undecipherable stare. 111-112
Once Frank had fumbled and eased his way through the front door and reached the sidewalk, he turned to glance back at the house and saw Sarah standing in the door, shadowed by the dogwood blossoms. She waved. Good-bye—to him and Cee or perhaps to her job. Sarah stood from a moment watching the pair disappear down the walkway.” 112
Cee needs nursing, a course of healing undertaken by a group of women in their hometown. And the final treatment that will stand Cee back on her own feet requires that she lay down:
She was to be sun-smacked, which meant spending at least one hour a day with her legs spread open to the blazing sun. . . . What followed the final sun-smacking hour, when she was allowed to sit modestly in a rocking chair, was the demanding love of Ethel Fordham, which soothed and strengthened her the most. 124-125
The treatments work (in the meantime Frank has dealt with his own troubled mind, admitting an atrocity he committed in Korea, one which he has been denying and which has thus been haunting him):
Weeks later Cee stood at the stove pressing young cabbage leaves into a pot of simmering water seasoned with two ham hocks. When Frank got off work and opened the door, he noticed again how healthy she looked—glowing skin, back straight, not hunched in discomfort. 126
Together, Frank and Cee dig up the bones of the man they saw buried while watching the standing, fighting horses (the man was killed when forced to participate in the human equivalent of a dogfight while a crowd bet on who would win), take him to a place where they often found refuge as children, and rebury him in a quilt Cee has made:
Quickly they found the sweet bay tree—split down the middle, beheaded, undead—spreading its arms, one to the right, one to the left. There at its base Frank placed the bone-filled quilt that was first a shroud, now a coffin. Brother and sister slid the crayon-colored coffin into the perpendicular grave. Once it was heaped over with soil, Frank took two nails and the sanded piece of wood from his pocket. With a rock he pounded it into the tree trunk. One nail bent uselessly, but the other held well enough to expose the words he had painted on the wooden marker.
Here Stands A Man.
Wishful thinking, perhaps, but he could have sworn the sweet bay was pleased to agree. Its olive-green leaves went wild in the glow of a fat cherry-red sun. 144-145
Where Morrison’s characters rise to this hopeful, if not final stance, Faulkner’s are brought low by natural forces (in their superstitious minds, unnatural forces):
Before us the thick dark current runs. . . . Above the ceaseless surface they stand—trees, cane, vines—rootless, severed from the earth, spectral above a scene of immense yet circumscribed desolation filled with the voice of the waste and mournful water. 95
I felt the current take us and I knew we were on the ford by that reason, since it was only by means of that slipping contact that we could tell that we were in motion at all. What had once been a flat surface was now a succession of troughs and hillocks lifting and falling about us, shoving at us, teasing at us with light lazy touches in the vain instants of solidity underfoot. Cash looked back at me, and then I knew that we were gone. But I did not realise the reason for the rope until I saw the log. It surged up out of the water and stood for an instant upright upon that surging and heaving desolation like Christ. Get out and let the current take you down to the bend, Cash said. 97-98
I see the bearded head of the rearing log strike up again, and beyond it Jewel holding the horse upreared, its head wrenched around, hammering its head with his fist. I jump from the wagon on the downstream side. Between two hills I see the mules once more. They roll up out of the water in succession, turning completely over, their legs stiffly extended as when they had lost contact with the earth. 98-99
Morrison’s characters find themselves as a man and a woman when they return home after having left home to escape its stultifying influences. They find themselves by the grace of generous creators of community. They find their place as standing human beings who have fought and stood like the magnificent stallions they watched and not like the man brought low and buried in the same field by vicious men.
Faulkner’s characters, with the partial exception of Addie, continued to be bullied by their lazy and manipulative father who will do anything (he turns his son Darl over to the police, he steals from Dewey Dell, he trades Jewel’s horse) to get what he wants (teeth and a new Mrs. Burden):
Then we see it wasn’t the grip that made him look different; it was his face, and Jewel says, “He got them teeth.” It was a fact. It made him look a foot taller, kind of holding his head up, hangdog and proud too, and then we see her behind him, carrying the other grip. . . . 181
In her turn as narrator, Addie describes thinking about Anse and his empty, lifeless, incapable version of standing:
Why are you Anse. I would think about his name until after a while I could see the word as a shape, a vessel, and I would watch him liquefy and flow into it like cold molasses flowing out of the darkness into the vessel, until the jar stood full and motionless: a significant shape profoundly without life like an empty door frame; and then I would find that I had forgotten the name of the jar. . . . And so when Cora Tull would tell me I was not a true mother, I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle from one to the other; and that sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words. Like Cora, who could never even cook. 116-117
Where mentally disturbed and mistreated Darl Bundren is left to muse: “How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home” 52, Frank and Cee Money fight their ways home, family, brother and sister.