Treasure in the Ground: Getting Mother’s Body’s Dialogue with As I Lay Dying
Terrell Tebbetts, Lyon College
In her single novel to date, her 2003 Getting Mother’s Body, Suzan-Lori Parks engages in dialogue with William Faulkner. She establishes her dialogue by drawing on As I Lay Dying for plot and narrative structure, for characters and situations, and for theme. She borrows Faulkner’s narrative technique in telling her story in individual monologues by twenty narrators whose names head the chapters they narrate, those narrators including the central character Billy Beede, family members, neighbors, an occasional stranger, and the dead mother, Willa Mae Beede. Parks re-creates the plot of As I Lay Dying in sending Billy and her family on a long, interrupted journey not to bury but to disinter her mother, who, rumor has it, was buried with valuable jewelry. In the character and situation of Billy Beede, Parks re-creates the character and situation of Dewey Dell Bundren. Like Dewey Dell, Billy Beede is a motherless, young, pregnant, unmarried woman intent on securing an abortion, paying for which is the motivation for recovering the jewels buried with Willa Mae. Each of these intersections with As I Lay Dying opens up a thematic dialogue with that novel.
It is no surprise to find Parks’ novel in dialogue with Faulkner’s. First of all, Parks writes in an age in which critical understanding of intertextuality has expanded dramatically under Roland Barthes’ argument that all written discourse is “a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture” (148), as well as under Mikhail Bakhtin’s claim that all discourse is a “great dialogue” among speakers and writers (40). Parks recognizes Faulkner’s voice as a great contributor to what Richard Gray calls the “open dialogue” between writers in the “vast sprawl” that constitutes the “literary tradition” (ix). Second, and more pointedly, for two decades critics of theatre and drama have been commenting on Parks’ engagement in “canon critique” in plays like In the Blood and Fucking A (Geis 79). In both plays Parks names her protagonists for Hester Prynne, and in the former she draws further parallels with The Scarlet Letter, separating Hester from the community and providing her with five absent baby daddies, including one who is a clergyman. Thus in Getting Mother’s Body, Parks turns from Hawthorne to Faulkner as another white male forebear with who to engage.
According to Deborah Geis, Parks uses the intertextual dialogues in her plays to critique society’s effort “to contain and devalue attempts at ‘otherness’” (79) and “to resurrect bodies, especially Black bodies, that have been commodified and exploited” (78). In its thematic dialogue with As I Lay Dying, Parks’ Getting Mother’s Body makes use of the literally resurrected black body of Willa Mae Beede to engage with As I Lay Dying in two ways.
First, the resurrection of Willa Mae’s body becomes the turning point in the novel’s re-examination of the gender roles critiqued in As I Lay Dying but lingering in that novel which offers no satisfactory glimpse of the lives women and men might live beyond the boundaries of the roles it sees as destructive. Parks recreates parts of those roles that still linger in the 1960s setting of her novel, and, by implication, in the twenty-first century setting of her novel’s publication. Parks then surpasses Faulkner, offering characters who ignore and thus transgress the outmoded roles the novel calls into question, moving past their lingering and still normative effects. In this case, Parks’ canon critique turns Getting Mother’s Body into a bildungsroman in which Billy Beede returns matured after the ardors of her inverted funeral journey and her literal confrontation with her mother’s body. The matured Billy Beede has shed those parts of the patriarchal order that had lingered unexamined and thus had influenced her decisions and actions as the novel began.
Second, having dealt with the patriarchy, Parks uses Willa Mae’s resurrected body to extend her dialogue with Faulkner into an issue of considerable importance to both novels and to its readers, especially to women but also to men. Through Willa Mae, Parks inscribes her own answer to questions as important to her own age as they were to the age of As I Lay Dying. As Carolyn Porter puts it, the questions central to As I Lay Dying are both “whether Addie Bundren is a bad mother” and, more largely, “what is a Mother?” (“Absalom” 171). Parks, as it turns out, is interested not just in the second question but in the first question as well. She looks back in critique of As I Lay Dying most pointedly in answering the first; she looks forward most fully in answering the second.
Preliminaries: Variations in Narrative Technique and Plot
Parks begins her reconsideration and new critique of the patriarchal order first critiqued in As I Lay Dying by varying the narrative technique borrowed from that novel. Faulkner, of course, makes all of his characters white—the Bundren family, their neighbors, and a few townsmen; he creates no African American characters in As I Lay Dying, an unusual move in his fiction. Parks, on the other hand, makes seventeen of her twenty narrators African American, with the three white characters narrating only one chapter each. In addition, Faulkner uses female narrators sparingly. Dewey Dell narrates only four chapters in As I Lay Dying, compared to Darl’s nineteen, Vardaman’s ten, Tull’s six and Cash’s five. With Cora Tull’s three chapters and Addie’s single chapter added, women narrate only eight of Faulkner’s fifty-nine chapters. By contrast, Parks gives female characters far greater voice. Billy Beede narrates thirteen chapters, and her dead mother Willa Mae narrates twelve, mother and daughter being by far the most frequent narrators among the novel’s twenty voices. Other female characters including Billy’s Aunt June and neighbor Dill Smiles narrate an additional twenty-two chapters, giving female voices a total of forty-seven of the novel’s seventy chapters. This narrative shift toward African American female voices sets up the novel’s engagement with the predominantly white male voices of As I Lay Dying in a way consistent with Parks’ canon critique in the plays preceding this novel. In those plays, according to Yvette Louis, Parks seeks to transform African American women from a “voiceless” condition to a “discursive” one (143). As I will show, by giving voice to Billy Beede, her mother and other female characters, Parks begins the task of examining how the patriarchy has inscribed its values in the very minds of those it still seeks to oppress.
Just as variations in narration facilitate Parks’ re-examination of gender roles critiqued in As I Lay Dying, her variation of the funeral journey borrowed from As I Lay Dying enables her reconsideration of Mother. In As I Lay Dying, Faulkner makes disposing of Mother the object of the journey that moves the plot along with the Bundrens’ wagon. In his dark comedy, the strong Addie Bundren seems a disruptive force, the central element in the dysfunction of the Bundren family, the stench of her decaying body seeming to symbolize the stench of dysfunction emanating from her life. Her son Darl is estranged from her, claiming “I cannot love my mother because I have no mother” (95). Her son Jewel, on the other hand, is fiercely possessive of her, imagining “me and her on a high hill,” the two of them alone together as he drives others away (15). Painfully jealous, presumably, Darl taunts Jewel first with Addie’s death—“Jewel . . . do you know Addie Bundren is going to die?” (40)—and then with her infidelity—“who was your father, Jewel?” (212). The distraught Vardaman’s famous line, “My mother is a fish” (84), aptly captures the dysfunction swirling like Yaknapatawpha flood waters around Mother. Addie’s interment restores an ironic order to the dysfunctional family, their containment of and disconnection from Addie being the price for their “new sense of individual wholeness” and family harmony (Porter, William, 67), that harmony symbolized by the mechanical music of the new Mrs. Bundren’s graphophone. The irony, of course, stems from Addie Bundren’s being the most self-aware, honest, and authentic character in the novel, the only character, as Deborah Clarke puts it, to offer “a serious challenge to patriarchal discourse” (48). The family’s new harmony is a “travesty” and a “mockery” (Porter, William, 67), a violent order that masks the terrible disorder of the patriarchy, its “rule” intact after its “containment” and “silencing” of Addie (Roberts 199).
Although Parks inverts the object of the Bundrens’ funeral journey, making the recovery of Mother the object the Beedes’ journey, the Beede family is nevertheless as alienated from Mother as the Bundren family, viewing her life as dysfunctional. June, for instance, observes that “Willa Mae didn’t never amount to nothing” (19). Billy, in particular, seems alienated from her mother. She claims Willa Mae was “a liar and a cheat” who got “locked up in jail every time she turned around. Always talking big and never amounting to nothing” (9). She claims not to mind if Willa Mae’s grave is “paved over”” (44), declaring that “Willa Mae can stay where she’s at” once she recovers “the treasure she left me” (106). Billy makes clear her alienation from Mother when she insists that “I ain’t no Willa Mae” (18). Neighbor Dill Smiles, once Willa Mae’s lover, believes that “Billy was glad when Willa Mae passed” (22). Indeed, Dill herself was “glad to see her dead” (114). As far as her family and former lover are concerned, that Willa Mae died after attempting a self-administered abortion before abortions were legal and generally available makes her no martyr in the struggle for reproductive rights. Despite the treasure they believe is buried with her, they see Mother herself as little more than buried trash.
As much as they have been alienated from Mother, however, the Beede family sees the treasure buried with Willa Mae’s body not as a disruptive force but as a source of restored harmony. They hope her jewelry will provide an abortion for her daughter Billy, a prosthesis for her sister-in-law June (cf. Anse Bundren’s false teeth), and new dignity for her brother Teddy. With her body lies a restorative treasure. The family must free her body from the containing grave in order to gain access to that treasure.
What the family must come to see is that Willa Mae’s body is not the means to restorative treasure but is itself that treasure. In terms of Parks’ entire canon, such an imperative is not surprising, for her plays contain a similar theme. In The America Play, for instance, Brazil observes that the hole he is digging “is our inheritance of sorts” (185). And in the play In the Blood, Hester calls her children her “5 treasures” (22). For its part, Getting Mother’s Body repeatedly associates family members with treasure—family members in general, that is, not Willa Mae in particular. The otherwise unreliable Clifford/Clifton Snipes, Billy’s lover, calls Billy “my treasure” (6). Billy sings her mother’s song, declaring, “I’m your jewel, Daddy, I’m your most precious jewel” (182). Comanche Joseph, an employee of Cousin Blood Beede, claims that “family is fortune” (195), and Blood Beede repeats the assertion: “Family is fortune” (196). This association of family with treasure leads to the change that makes Getting Mother’s Body into Billy Beede’s bildungsroman and establishes its response to As I Lay Dying. As I shall argue, Billy Beede, at least, does come to see the black body itself as the treasure that liberates and restores her.
Text of Difference, Subtext of Similarity: Dewey Dell and Billy Beede
Though Parks connects her young female protagonist to Faulkner’s through her motherless state, her unwed pregnancy, and her journey to seek an abortion, she differentiates Billy Beede from Faulkner’s Dewey Dell even at the outset of the novel. In making her the only child of her dead mother, Parks takes her new “Dewey Dell” out of the crowded, masculine Bundren household and gives her the central role Faulkner withholds from his Dewey Dell. The character Parks places in that central role is strikingly different from Faulkner’s Dewey Dell in many, though not all, ways. Billy Beede’s lingering similarity to Dewey Dell leads to the heart of Parks’ re-examination of the gender issues critiqued in As I Lay Dying.
Surrounded both physically and psychically by four brothers and a loquacious, manipulative father, Dewey Dell Bundren begins her novel an abject pawn in a patriarchal setting. She answers to her father as a servant to a master. With her mother only just dead, she hears her father order her to the kitchen—“Git up, now, and put supper on” (50)—and she does as she is ordered. The druggist Moseley makes explicit how completely the male members of her family own Dewey Dell: “tell your pa or your brothers,” he advises her “or the first man you come to on the road” (202). They are the ones to ensure that she and Lafe McCallum “take that ten dollars and get married” (203)—that is, that another man takes possession of her and the child she is to birth. Dewey Dell’s annihilation as a subject is most explicit in the dream she reports. In that dream she “couldn’t think what I was I couldn’t think of my name I couldn’t even think I am a girl” (121). Clarke sees Dewey Dell’s pregnancy as the agent of her loss of “control over her own life,” her loss of “identity” and of “her very being” (45), but in fact the patriarchy had effected those losses long before her pregnancy.
By the end of the novel a second man has used her sexually, and her father has taken the money with which she had hoped to secure an abortion. With an ironic order restored as the Bundren family prepares to return to their farm, Dewey Dell sits on the family wagon ready for the return and for whatever fate her father and brothers will bestow on her when her pregnancy becomes apparent—presumably a fate involving a forced marriage to Lafe McCallum. Porter rightly observes that Dewey Dell “embodies the state of alienation between herself and the world” (William, 75), for, as Diane Roberts notes, Dewey Dell has attempted no rebellion against that patriarchal world, no “rebellion against the Law of the Father” (202). She remains as abject at the end as she is at the beginning.
In her more central role, on the other hand, Billy Beede begins her novel with much of her subject status intact: she is an active character who makes decisions and takes actions on her own, even if, as the novel suggests, she is not yet freed from the remnants of the patriarchal order. Billy Beede pays as much or as little attention as she pleases to her family—her foster parents, Roosevelt (Teddy) and June Flowers Beede. June, both foster mother and aunt, observes that she and Billy’s uncle Teddy “thought, if we loved Billy the way our mothers and fathers had loved us . . ., that she would be ours. All ours. But she never was ours no matter what we said or did” (44). Billy is not “ours” because she intends, at least, to be possessed by no one, to belong to no one but herself. Thus she has quit school and quit her job without consulting Teddy and June, and she refuses to discuss her pregnancy with them: June comments that Billy told her that “her monthly weren’t my business” (44). When Billy says, “I ain’t yr child,” she means to assert her independent subjecthood, and she means to guard it.
Dewey Dell and Billy Beede differ as well in their relationships with their lovers. Dewey Dell allows Lafe to determine whether they will have sex, telling him that she will have sex if her cotton “sack is full” at the end of the row she and he are picking and then allowing him to pick into her sack (27). She does as Lafe pleases as surely as she has always done what her father pleases, allowing Lafe to fill her cotton sack to secure his pleasure and thus to fill her uterine sac as well. Her most telling words about that event are her last ones: “I could not help it” (27). She is pregnant, yet she has chosen neither to have sex nor to bear a child. She has no subject status.
Billy Beede is another matter altogether. According to her lover Snipes—whose name Billy’s Uncle Teddy and others confuse with “Snopes” (48)—the affair began in mutual consent: Snipes asked Billy if she wanted to “go for a ride,” Billy agreed, and “we went” (11). Uncle Teddy corroborates Snipes’ version of their affair, observing that he had “seen her run across the road without looking” when Snipes drove up (50), and that other men wish their wives and lovers “would run across the road toward them” as Billy runs to Snipes (49). Billy chooses to have sex and to have it without contraception. She has, in effect, chosen to become pregnant, and she wishes to marry the man who has impregnated her. But she has not taken into account that man’s capacity for manipulative lies, his recognition of what her mother Willa Mae used to call her “Hole,” a soft spot, “a lack and a craving” that opens one up for deception and manipulation (30-31). Though Billy has already begun to recognize that Hole in others, as the novel opens she has not recognized it in herself. Digging the hole to disinter Mother will bring her to see her own Hole, a Hole planted in her heart and inscribed in her mind by the patriarchy.
Billy’s Hole comes clear to readers not in her dissimilarities from Dewey Dell but in one telling similarity: both young women see the fetus they want to abort as belonging to the men who impregnated them, as if women were property available to men to plant in and harvest from, as if children likewise were property belonging to the men who sire them. Both young women fail to claim such “property” as their own. And they further fail to guard the independent subjecthood of any children they birth, to see children as something other than property, as human beings deserving their own subject status. In short, Dewey Dell and Billy Beede are both “trapped in the physical” (Clarke 43), accepting their own and their children’s commodification within the patriarchal order surrounding them. Only Billy Beede will discover and escape from this Hole. Until that happens, however, the similarity between Dewey Dell and Billy Beede is striking.
For her part, Dewey Dell feels that even her uterus is not her own: “I am Lafe’s guts,” she says (60). Billy seems to feel similarly: when she thinks of her pregnancy she thinks of the “baby up inside me” as a “Baby Snipes,” the product of “Little Snipes Seeds” (4), as if the egg provided by her ovaries had nothing to do with the pregnancy, as if she was not carrying a “Baby Beede” as much as a “Baby Snipes.” She declares that “it’s a Snipes” (109) and tells Dill that if she “had the baby, I’d just be greasing Snipes’ ass” (110). She acknowledges, “I think of it with Snipes’ face and that makes it easy to hate” (188).
Parks uses a minor character to make the point explicit—Myrna, the woman Billy meets on the bus. With her five children all named for her husband Dale, even the daughters, Myrna feels they “belong” neither to her nor to themselves but entirely to her husband: “each time we had [a child] it was like this piece of Dale got born” (64). Dale’s name is his claim. Despite the bitterness in her revelations, Myrna has accepted the patriarch’s ownership of her body and of her children. Though she has just subverted the patriarch’s rule in having an abortion, denying Dale his sixth “piece of Dale,” she remains more like a child going behind a parent’s back than a revolutionary attempting to change the social order. She has made no claim for full subject status. That Billy’s decision to seek an abortion stems from Myrna’s suggestion places Billy directly in Myrna’s boots. For all her relative independence, at this point Billy still accepts at least a part of the patriarchal order: despite the advancements from time Dewey Dell sprang to life in Faulkner’s pages, her avatar Billy Beede still sees women and children as belonging to men.
Parks also uses another character, a major one, to make explicit the commodification of women and children in the prevailing patriarchal order. In a move unrelated to plot but central to theme, Parks makes the Beedes’ neighbor Dill Smiles a hog breeder. As a female living as a man, Dill has allowed her breeding sow named Jezebel to farrow in her own bed. The would-be patriarch has unknowingly found the perfect imitation of the patriarchal role: she owns a female, breeds it, owns its offspring, and uses them for her own profit. She even shows Billy her books with “rows of numbers and names of sows . . . prices of things bought and sold” (111). If Myrna is a child-woman resisting but leaving intact the patriarchal system of commodification, Dill is a man-woman participating in it in a manner that reveals its essence. She thus reveals the snare that Billy barely escapes when Snipes turns out to be an already-married man: had Snipes been available and married her, Billy’s acquiescence to the patriarchal order would have made her little different from Dill’s sow Jezebel, the birth of her child little different from a sow’s farrowing. Billy half-consciously realizes this likelihood, observing that if “my baby was gonna get born it would suck like the piglets do” (109).
But half-consciousness is not enough. Half-consciousness leaves Billy’s Hole still open. Through much of the novel, Billy Beede accepts her commodification in the patriarchal order. As a woman, she accepts herself as a production site, a means of producing property for men to own. No doubt that is why she sleeps on a pallet underneath a sales counter so that when she speaks from her bed, the normal site of sexual activity, it seems her voice is “rising up” out of “the cash register” (120). No doubt that is also why she uses the language of commerce to explain her desire to terminate her pregnancy: “I don’t owe him [Snipes],” she explains to her Aunt June (132). If she had been able to marry the man who impregnated her, she would have been as “owned” as her Aunt June feels when she uses her own language of commerce to describe her marriage, which ensued after Teddy and her “father made a deal” (133). And, of course, Billy would have been as “owned” as her Faulknerian forebear is—by Anse and, surely in a matter of weeks, by Lafe.
Billy Beede’s Change
Dewey Dell Bundren seems not to change. At the end of the novel she has failed to secure an abortion and so remains pregnant against her will. Readers must assume that, back on the Bundren farm, she will continue to wish for an abortion and that, when her pregnancy becomes evident and her family demands that she name the father, she will accede and name Lafe McCallum. If she had wanted to marry him, she would already have used her pregnancy to force the issue rather than seek an abortion, so she is unlikely to want a marriage. Yet can readers believe that she will not accede to the shotgun wedding the Bundrens will demand? With her mother now “safely” contained in coffin and grave, Dewey Dell is fated to be contained within a forced marriage. Her sexuality, her decisions, her entire life remain in the hands of her father, brothers, and future husband—in the hands of the patriarchy. As in her dream, she will not be able to think of her name, for a non-person needs no name.
Billy Beede, on the other hand, changes dramatically. Her journey to her mother’s grave and the disinterment bring her new understanding of her mother and new knowledge about both herself and the fetus she chooses to bear and birth as her child. She comes to embody a new answer to Porter’s Faulknerian question, “What is a Mother?”
If “the coffin expresses the womb” in As I Lay Dying (Roberts 197), it does so as well in Getting Mother’s Body. Willa Mae’s disinterment, then, enacts a birth. When her body is again present in the world, Billy can at last confront the mother she has disclaimed for the preceding six years, this time as an adult, an equal. Laz (whose full name “Lazarus” suggests rebirth) describes the ensuing struggle between mother and daughter: as Billy weeps at the opened grave, Laz says, “I ain’t never seen Billy Beede cry. And I ain’t never seen no one cry like she’s crying now. She may as well be fighting someone, the way her arms move around in the air” (253). As Billy mixes her tears with curses, she finally breaks away from her mother and becomes no longer the rebellious daughter-who-is-not-Mother (and thus a daughter who is still, ironically, controlled by Mother) but instead the person she had thought herself to already be, the truly independent daughter-who-is-her-own-being. At that point Billy discovers the ring in the rotten hem of what remains of her mother’s dress, the treasure bequeathed by her reborn mother. Separate at last from Mother, Billy can now value Mother, find the treasure hidden in her existence.
That treasure must be the very independence demonstrated by Willa Mae’s varied and unsettled life, her unwillingness to be captured or contained by a social structure. She speaks of that independence—a hard-won independence—repeatedly in the chapters she narrates. Willa Mae finds her independence hard-won because, as she says twice, she hates to feel “all alone” 185, 218). Yet she is not willing to let her need for relationships and love become her Hole. If a man is “mistreat-treating” her (157), she is ready to pack up and “leave” (30), with “a ticket on the very next train” (66). “Ain’t I gone,” she sings (157). If she doesn’t leave, she fights back: the man who “cripple-crossed” her is “gonna taste some of my hatchet this time” (142). As with individual men, so with whole communities. Willa Mae enters one after another with ready embraces: “This town, it’s all mine,” she exclaims (91). Yet no town can hold her: “I stopped in your town this morning,” she sings. “But tonight, this gal she’s gotta be gone” (255). Willa Mae explicitly bequeaths her independence to Billy: in a song she narrates just before her disinterment, she advises Billy not to follow in her footsteps, not to “walk where I lead” (246). She wishes Billy to have independence not only from all she was independent of, but from herself, as well, for if Billy is to become independent of the patriarchy’s gender roles, she first has to be independent of Mother. To be Mother, then, is to be one who not only bears and nurtures but also frees new life. The rebirth enacted at Willa Mae’s opened grave is certainly Willa Mae’s rebirth, principally in Billy’s rediscovery of her. And that rebirth then generates another, Billy’s, as she rediscovers herself as an independent being.
The resurrection of Willa Mae’s black body generates a third rebirth as well, that of her Faulknerian forebear Addie Bundren, who re-emerges from her Jefferson burial plot to stand behind her African American avatar. In the contrast between these two Mothers, Parks engages in her most serious canon critique. As a model for independence, living it and bequeathing it to her daughter, Parks’ Mother stands starkly apart from Faulkner’s, much to Addie Bundren’s diminution. Addie claims two of her children and consigns the other three to Anse’s tender mercies: “I gave Anse Dewey Dell to negative Jewel. Then I gave him Vardaman to replace the child I had robbed him of. And now he has three children that are his and not mine” (176). In doing so, she uses the language of commodification and ownership—her verbs “gave” and “robbed,” her possessives “his” and “mine.” Clearly she conceives of the Bundren offspring not as independent beings but as products owned by one or the other of their parents. With Willa Mae as foil, Addie emerges as less a rebel against the grinding patriarchy she lives under than as an agent of the very commodification she suffers. The alternative Addie, the independent woman who might have existed had she not acquiesced to the patriarchy, seems to have “stayed dead” for a long time indeed, perhaps through the entire course of what Addie might call her life—or at least to have lain dying through that so-called life. The new Mrs. Bundren at the end of As I Lay Dying, by contrast,may be the inspiration for the Addie avatar Parks creates: the graphophone she brings to the Bundren household brings with it the music of the larger world, and “everytime a new record would come” and the Bundrens sit “listening to it” (261), they hear the music of the 1920s, music of the Jazz Age, of the Harlem Renaissance, of the new woman with a ballot in her hands and a voice at the table.
Billy’s rebirth as a being independent of Willa Mae is what leads to her choice to continue her pregnancy. Billy makes the connection explicit in her narration of the return from LaJunta to Lincoln. The fetus is to Billy as Billy now is to Willa Mae: “My belly sat in front of me. In front of my belly, beyond the hood of the truck, was the back of Laz’s hearse with mother’s body riding inside” (252). The connection suggests that the life within her belly belongs neither to Snipes nor to her. It is no commodity, no human piglet to be possessed and profited from. Billy’s freedom from her ironic tie to Willa Mae, her discovery of Willa Mae as a model of independence rather than a source of alienation, also frees her from the larger patriarchal order that commodifies and trades in human life. It frees her from her own grave, from the Hole that would have swallowed her, from her acceptance, until that point, of the patriarchal order’s commodification of women and children.
On the return trip to Lincoln, Billy expresses her sense of the independent existence of the fetus when she decides to find it a name. Her decisions first to find a name and then to do so uniquely both spring from her recognition of the independent identity of the child she will give birth to, for in finding the name she will not “pick out a name” but instead “just let one come to me. . . . Like it had a name already, and if it had a name already then it already was” (257). The child Billy has decided to bear and birth will never have Dewey Dell Bundren’s nightmare. Billy Beede has moved beyond the limits Minrose Gwin sees circumscribing critical commentary on Faulkner’s feminine characters, the need to be “either creative or destructive” of the “patriarchal universe,” becoming, instead, “the maker, the agent of creation,” building a universe beyond that of the patriarchy (25). Billy’s new maturity, her self-discovery, her independence, promises that her child, whether a son or a daughter, will always have a name and the same agency she now possesses.
If Dewey Dell Bundren seems fated to enter a forced marriage and disappear into the patriarchy as Addie has disappeared into her grave, she also seems fated to endure the same kind of husband her mother endured. In other words, what little the novel reveals about Lafe McCallum suggests he will not differ significantly from Anse Bundren. Lafe has supplied Dewey Dell with $10 to procure an abortion, has instructed her where to do so, and has thereafter made himself scarce. In short, he evades responsibility, shifting a major burden onto the woman he impregnated, even though he has more freedom and probably more contacts that could supply him with the desired remedy. Anse, of course, is the novel’s major evader of responsibility. He uses his neighbors, sons, and daughter to work the farm and his wife to work the household while he sits idle, telling “people that if he ever sweats, he will die” (17). Yet, with his usual hypocrisy, he claims that he “would be beholden to no man” (19). Anse can be counted on to avoid responsibility for the child Dewey Dell will birth, and he is wily enough to see that Lafe will at least initially take that responsibility. But in the patriarchal order restored at the end of the novel, the manipulative and evasive Lafe can be counted on to learn from his father-in-law and master the law of the fathers.
By contrast, Billy Beede’s decision to marry Laz Jackson after establishing both her own and her child’s full independence furthers her step away from the patriarchy. Laz Jackson is as much a new, independent man as Billy is a new, independent woman. Laz has a typical heterosexual male’s sexual desire: the “feeling I got for Billy is strong,” he acknowledges (154).Yet Laz has long ignored much of the gender role his world has assigned to males. Though he is “the best of the three” (226) when he tries target practice, in other ways he performs gender roles expected of mid-century females. At age 20, for example, he remains a virgin and a homebody, dutiful toward his parents. He even enacts a mother’s role, for if, as I have argued, Dill Smiles’ piglets represent her enactment of the patriarchy’s commodification of women and children, Laz performs pregnancy, childbirth, and child rearing in relation to those same piglets. Having once before rescued a runt that Dill would have culled, Laz goes to Dill with a box expecting to rescue the runt of the new litter. When he discovers the litter has no runts, he is disappointed. “It woulda lived in the box” until it “growd out the box,” he imagines, and then he “woulda rode [the] pig around” in the family hearse and nurtured and groomed it until it could win “a ribbon, at least third place,” at the county fair (153). In such a rescue of Dill’s runt, containment in the box enacts pregnancy and release from the box enacts birth, while grooming the piglet to win a ribbon enacts the nurture a parent might give a child. In short, Billy’s husband is a man who has enacted and wishes to re-enact gender roles his world has traditionally assigned to females. He is as independent of the social order of the patriarchy as Billy has become. He can be expected to support the independence of both Billy and their children.
Finally, then, in her dialogue with Faulkner, Parks has accomplished the task Margaret Donovan Bauer sees accomplished by Lee Smith (who, as I have argued elsewhere, is also in dialogue with Faulkner), highlighting how “much of Faulkner’s fiction deals with sexual oppression” (134). Parks then moves forward from that observation in suggesting how subtly the values of the oppressor have been inscribed on the minds of the oppressed, turning one of them, Addie Bundren, into an oppressor herself, and nearly doing so to another, Parks’ own Billy Beede. In addition, she has inscribed her own answer to the Faulknerian question, “What is Mother?” And in doing so, she has also inscribed a 21st-Century remedy to the dysfunction of the Bundren family. If, as Cheryl Lester argues, the family in Faulkner functions “as an ideological apparatus that sustains residual social relations and resists social change” (124), the new African American family Parks portrays at the end of her novel differs radically. Her post-60s African American family is rooted in independence and equality. In it, both Mother and Father will be agents of social change, challenging the residual patriarchal order and its commodifications wherever they find them.
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