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What's in a Name? Etymology and As I Lay Dying

Faye Friesen and Charles Peek

Faulkner identifies some 600 inhabitants of Yoknapatawpha by name, often obviously delighting in the play of their names on the ear. Lump Snopes and Temple Drake are more obvious examples, but they alert us to Faulkner's use of names in general. Helen Lang Leath has called attention to the significance of names in As I Lay Dying, suggesting that the names Cash and Jewel represent tangible value while Darl, short for "darling," connotes an intangible attachment (65). The idea that "cash" and "jewel" have the same connotations for us seems unlikely, but, even if we don't accept Leath's interpretation, it is still worth seeing what naming might contribute to understanding As I Lay Dying.

Readers often think of "Bundren" as "burden," perhaps appropriately given Faulkner's remark that he "took this family and subjected them to the two greatest catastrophes which man can suffer--flood and fire, that's all" (Pilkington 87). But the morphemic root of Bundren is "bund," meaning a league, confederacy, or association. The Bundren family is forced to try to function as at least a loose confederacy, and the ironies of the funeral journey and their return home both point to this need and the family failure to achieve it.

There is little point belaboring our obvious associations with "Cash," except to remind ourselves that the name "Cash" is not all that uncommon (Johnny Cash, Cash McCall, J. W. Cash). And Vardaman, too, was a name known in Mississippi history. Even here, however, one interesting feature of the name is that "vard" is the older Scottish form of "ward." It could refer to an under-age orphan, which is pretty much how we see Vardaman, a view reinforced when Addie says of Anse, "And then he died. He did not know he was dead" (160). Hence, when Addie, too, dies, there is a sense in which Vardaman becomes an orphan. "Vard" or "ward" could also suggest, as in "wardhouse" (vardhus) a guard house or prison, emphasizing how trapped Vardaman is within the general family prejudice.

Something similar is found in the name Dewey Dell. Dew could point to youth and how quickly it evaporates, as Dewey Dell's comes to an end with her pregnancy. Moreover, "dell" means a young girl (wench) of a vagrant class. The Bundrens, while not technically vagrant, not only appear close to it, but act much like it, particularly in scenes such as the borrowing of the shovel to dig the grave.

Darl may, of course, mean "darling" as Leath suggests. Even so, it would seem the use of "darling" is to be taken ironically. As Olga Vickery suggests of Addie's relationship to Darl, ". . . she denied him a place in her affections and in her world of consciousness exclusively . . . (58). Thus the name points up the very lacks which perplex Darl and make his "connection with the external world increasingly precarious and insecure" (58).

In this light, then, the origin of "jewel" is telling. While Faulkner may well have been led to this mostly by trying to find some intertextual echo for "Pearl" (Matthews 154), his association with Addie is stressed by the origin of "jewel" in the Old French "jouel," a diminutive form of "jou" meaning delight" (Dictionary of First Names).

Ste. Adelaide, wife of Otto the Great, Holy Roman Emperor, may seem a mighty stretch from Addie Bundren. It is doubtful Addie's children will "rise up to call her blessed," an inscription we know Faulkner knew. So, in some ways, this, too, is perhaps ironic. Still, it is not altogether ironic. However harsh Addie is, it seems hard to read As I Lay Dying without getting a sense that in some ways Faulkner admired this woman. She had much to overcome in her own upbringing and tried to overcome it. Such signs as there are of her Puritanism, she repudiates in her affair. Generally she flaunts convention and seeks to know by doing. However hard it might have been to have been her child, is it altogether farfetched to find in her the basic ingredients of "adal," short for "noble," and "heid," meaning "sort" (Dictionary of First Names)?

It is possibly with Anse that the etymology of names is most revealing. The OED defines "anserous" as goose-like, stupid, and silly. Clearly Faulkner has something of this in mind because he describes Anse as "a tall bird hunched" (156). It is perhaps reaching too far to look at related terms like "anatase." Yet possibly not. Anatase, a mineral of tinanium dioxide, is a crystal which, when heated, pours a yellow brown molasses-colored liquid. What then of Addie's recollection of 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 liquify and flow into it like cold
          molasses flowing out of the darkness into a vessel, until the jar stood full
          and motionless . . . (159).

These associations of the family with their names gain support from the origins of some names of neighbors and lookers on. Cora Tull spends her time pointing to the sins of others. Vickery states that Addie's death "is but another moral lesson to be interpreted by Cora Tull as she elbows her way to heaven" (64). Not surprisingly, "Cor" is defined as a "vulgar corruption of God" (OED). In Greek mythology, Kore (maiden) is the "euphemistic name of the goddess of the underworld Persephone, and would not have been a well-omened name to take" (Dictionary of First Names). Her husband, Vernon, was always coming to help the Bundrens and was there at the river crossing. "Vernal" means coming, appearing, happening.

Lucius Peabody, the doctor, is charcterized by Faulkner positively. "Lucius" is an obsolete form of "luscious," meaning "sweet and highly pleasant to taste or smell" (OED).

Moseley, the druggist in Mottstown, refuses to help Dewey Dell get her abortion. "Moses" is "applied allusively to someone resembling Moses in his character" as the lawgiver or leader (OED). We find Moseley representing himself as a "respectable druggist" and "A church member for fifty-six years in this town" (187). As a lawgiver, he tells Dewey Dell, "The Lord gave you what you have even if he did use the devil to do it; you let Him take it away from you if it's His will to do so" (188). He advises her to "go back to Lafe and you and him take that ten dollars and get married with it" (188).

Finally, Skeeter MacGowan, the drugstore clerk in Jefferson, is yet another of Faulkner's characters who can be tied to the etymology of his name. "Mac" is slang for a pander, and "gowan" is a drug, specifically opium, thus relating him to his job in the drugstore. "Skeet" means to squirt or eject fluid.
          "Are you sure it'll work?" she says.
          "Sure," I says. "When you take the rest of the treatment."
          "Where do I take it?" she says.
          "Down in the cellar," I says (231).


 

Works Cited


References to As I Lay Dying are from the Noel Polk Corrected Text, Vintage Books, 1987. Etymologies of Bundren family names are all from the OED except for Addie and Jewel, some of which are taken from the Dictionary of First Names, as are the etymologies for neighbors and bystanders.

Leath, Helen Lang. "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" An Analysis of Structure in As I Lay Dying," Southwestern American Literature, 1973, 61-68.

Matthews, John T. "Intertextuality and Originality: Hawthorne, Faulkner, Updike," in 
          Michel Gresset and Noel Polk (eds.), Intertextuality in Faulkner. UP Mississippi,
          1985, 144-157.

Pilkington, John. The Heart of Yoknapatawpha. Jackson: UP Mississippi, 1981.

Vickery, Olga. The Novels of William Faulkner. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1964.

 

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