Where Addie Bundren’s bitter statement in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying that “words are no good” has often been read as concerning the universal shortcomings of language, this article turns to the philosophy of Faulkner’s contemporary Ludwig Wittgenstein for a more context-specific understanding of how words convey meaning. Drawing on Stanley Cavell’s distinction between knowledge and acknowledgment, this article proposes that Addie’s social position as a poor housewife in the modernizing US South prompts her to focus on language’s epistemological limits, at the expense of its empathetic possibilities. The particular words Addie repudiates—words like “motherhood” and “sin”—attest to the connection between her philosophical views and her deepest lived frustrations. In turn, Addie’s linguistic philosophy informs those of her children—particularly Dewey Dell, Darl, and Vardaman—all of whom feel alienated from their society and struggle to gain acknowledgment through language.
Acknowledging Addie’s Pain: Language, Wittgenstein, and As I Lay Dying
Greg Chase is a doctoral candidate in English and American literature at Boston University. His dissertation, provisionally titled “‘The Silent Soliloquy of Others’: Language and Acknowledgment in Modernist Fiction, 1910–1952,” examines novels by Woolf, Faulkner, Wright, and others through the philosophies of Wittgenstein and Cavell. His work has previously appeared in Arizona Quarterly.