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Analysis of character names in As I Lay Dying certainly can lead to interesting new understandings of the novel. Names like Jewel and Cash indicate their bearers’ value within the family. Bundren certainly has echoes of burden, which the family is to many members of the community. However, an interpretation of Anse seems incomplete without mention of the significance of anse in French.
According to several sources, Faulkner was conversant in French, having traveled through France. He spent a bit of time in Paris especially, mixing with people in the salons of the city and “beginning a lifelong love affair with that country”, according to The Heath Anthology of American Literature. As well, some people have put forth the idea that Jewel’s name comes from the French jou, a toy, indicating Addie’s special feelings for her favorite son. It seems legitimate to explore this lingual tangent in looking at Anse’s name, especially when reflection proves that the possibilities are quite relevant.
In French, anse means a handle, a curved piece for grasping an object. This is rather meaningful as one examines Faulkner’s characterization of Anse throughout the novel as a vessel or container, especially in Addie’s chapter. She describes him as “a significant shape profoundly without life like an empty doorframe” (173 ). This doorframe is also compared immediately to a jar “full and motionless” (173). Anse is repeatedly described as being motionless, as being inert. His constant rubbing of his knees as Addie lies dying is an incessant prelude to an action that he can never convince himself to take. Faulkner depicts him as a steer either standing struck and not even cognizant that he is dead (61) or else in a field and unaware of his surroundings and how they have elementally changed (72). Again and again, he is merely a body without a consciousness, an empty vessel. Addie herself states that he is dead but “(h)e did not know he was dead” (174). We can see then that Faulkner presents Anse as a still container into which has been poured “cold molasses” (173), while his name is “just a word to fill a lack” (172 ). He is a pitcher containing some essence that makes him who he is. This idea of a jar underlines some of the most essential ideas of the novel: what creates a person and how does that person understand her life and world? Is it the exterior or the interior? Both? In the case of Anse, he is, like his eyes, “burnt-out” (32), emptied and still and yet, through the actions of others, still vital and useful.
Other characters wrestle with this question of existence, too, as shown by their relationships with other types of containers. Addie, most obviously, is placed in her ultimate container, the coffin, but she also wonders about her former form, as a virgin, and how her “lack” of maidenhead has redefined her (173). Tull wonders about how to contain Cora and decides that she should be housed in a “tight, well-made” jar (139), even if she is sour. And of course, Darl muses poetically while sleeping under a strange roof during a rain and ponders what is in the wagon where he and Jewel have put the wood that isn’t theirs, that “is not yet theirs that bought it” (80), and that exists in some sort of existential limbo, yet still exists. So, these ideas of containers help to define the beings they house.
Finally, an interesting idea about Anse’s name is the role others must play. A handle is no good to itself; it requires external actions to create its own utility. As such, Anse requires others to act for him in order for him to proceed. He cannot build a coffin and relies on Cash for that. He does not go for the load of wood; that’s for Jewel and Darl to do. Samson points out that Anse “hates moving” (114), while Armstid says Anse makes “a man have to help him” (192). So, Anse requires others to carry him to his destination, to enable his actions, while he moves forward seemingly without independent motion towards Jefferson and his ultimate goal of false teeth. Tull acknowledges this passivity when he states that “(t)he only burden Anse has ever had is himself. And when folks talks him low, I think he ain’t that less of a man, or he couldn’t of bore himself this long” (73). Anse must be borne as by a handle; his intents are fulfilled by others.
All in all, thinking of handles and burdens in regards to Anse, Faulkner’s idea of our contrasting and converging definitions of reality (the voices “speaking out of the air about” our heads ) creating our selves is epitomized in the father of the family. Anse is, and he exists through his family and neighbors; like Jewel, he doesn’t think about his existence and doesn’t know that he is or isn’t. Unlike Jewel, he is not a character of action, but of words, and he is able to “conjure” (193) others to do his bidding using his words. His existence is dependant on others, who carry his burden as well. While Addie, fiercely independent and profoundly set against the power of words, sees him as dead, he is the sole character to come out of the epic voyage to Jefferson with anything. Addie is gone; Darl has lost his mind; Cash has sacrificed his leg, or nearly so; Jewel’s horse has been stolen; Vardaman loses Darl, with whom he discussed his evolving understanding of existence; and Dewey Dell has certainly lost her innocence and self-consciousness (as well as $10), as shown through both her changed relationship with Darl and the metamorphosis of her narration from nearly indecipherable stream of consciousness to essentially pure recording of dialogue. Anse has been carried through the flood and emerges victorious and whole on the other side.
(All page references are for the Vintage International edition of the novel published in 1985.)