Addie Bundren’s attitude at the time of the birth of each of her children is reflected in the personality and actions of the child. Addie herself was born an isolated and lonely soul, openly unloved by her family and rather strongly affected by the nihilistic philosophy of her father, who had taught her that the reason for living was no more than an extended preparation for death. Addie felt that during her whole life she had been neglected, and when she married Anse, she hoped that through the violence of birth she could achieve an awareness of life and force her presence upon others. She is dreadfully afraid of aloneness and through committing or participating in some type of violence feels less alone. Thus when she knew that she was pregnant, she felt that at last her aloneness had been penetrated, especially through the forthcoming childbirth.
Cash had penetrated into her aloneness and had thereby given meaning to her life. Cash is the firstborn and is at peace with the world and earth as he works on one level of consciousness, performing one task at a time, slow and calculating. He was conceived as an act of violence, and his life reflects this in that he can express himself only through some type of action, such as the building of the coffin. Thus, there was no conflict between Addie and Cash.
But soon after Cash’s birth, Addie realized that words are not connected with violence and are useless. Thus she decides to close herself to Anse, who represents only the ineffectuality of words. Only through violence, and not through words, can Addie feel that she is living. But then, as she came to this conclusion, she discovered that she had Darl. Thus Addie felt that somehow she had been tricked by Anse’s words, and because she had been tricked, she could never accept Darl. The very fact that the words had tricked her was proof enough that Darl could never help violate her aloneness.
And it is ironic that Darl is the one son who continually inquires into the intricacies and awareness of life. Thus in later life, Darl, through his intricate thought-process, was able to sense that he was the unwanted and “motherless” child. In view of Addie’s rejection of words and her subsequent rejection of Darl, it is ironic that Darl became the one character who depended the most on the value of words.
For ten years, Addie closed herself to Anse. She said that Anse was dead even though he did not know that he was dead. But after ten years, Addie met Whitfield, the preacher, and she saw in him the symbol of the violence that she had been seeking because the “garment which he had exchanged for sin was sanctified.” Addie believed that Jewel had been conceived in violence, and he therefore became her natural choice for salvation. But both the love and the salvation have to be products of violence. In Jewel’s life, this violence is displayed through the love and violent treatment of his horse, and the salvation is seen through his rescuing Addie’s body from the river and the burning barn. Thus Jewel, who was born as a result of Addie’s desire for violence, responds to all events with violent and impetuous actions, and he seldom says a word except some violent oath or curse.
After the affair with Whitfield, Addie began to prepare for her own death. She admits that she gave birth to Dewey Dell “to negative Jewel” and to Vardaman to “replace the child I robbed him of.” Thus Dewey Dell, born only as a replacement for, or to negate, Jewel, is the child who most resembles Anse. She moves in an orbit of egoism, seeing each action only as it immediately affects her. And as with Anse, she cares only for herself and uses any amount of deceit to get her own way.
And finally Vardaman, born not from love but to replace another child, reflects this by replacing his dead mother with a dead fish.
Thus the actions surrounding the birth of each child are reflected in his behavior throughout the novel. Faulkner’s purpose was to show how the Bundrens are unable to establish satisfactory relationships within the family. Addie Bundren is egocentric, interested more in forcing an awareness of herself on others than she is in caring for the needs of her children. But Addie possesses the sadistic strength to force her violence upon the lives of her children. Her own egocentricity is, in one way or another, reflected in her children.
Vardaman’s repeated statements that he is not “anything” reflects Addie’s opinion that people are nothing when they are not “violating.” Dewey Dell is nothing because “I am alone.” And Dewey Dell also shows Addie’s egoism as she acts only for her own selfish satisfaction. Addie’s need for violence is reflected in Jewel, and her desire to let the act replace the word is seen in Cash, who speaks only after some act is definitely performed or completed.
Darl, it will be remembered, was born unwanted and at a time when Addie came to the realization that she had been tricked by words. Darl, therefore, has Addie’s awareness of the complexities of life, but as the rejected son, he rejects Addie’s nihilistic philosophy of violence and destruction. Using his awareness, however, he seeks to achieve a sympathy and understanding with the family. This attempt lands him in the insane asylum.
Thus the novel shows the family perishing as a result of a negative philosophy that infects or destroys the whole family as either a meaningful unit or as individuals capable of arriving at some understanding of life. The novel depicts a family in which the mother substituted negative values for love. And all of this can be seen in the epiphany scenes surrounding the birth of each child.