Experiencing Salvation in As I Lay Dying ENGLISH 215 October 31, 2011 William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying centers on the absurd journey that the Bundren family takes to Jefferson to bury their dead mother, Addie. Faulkner frames this journey through the lens of various narrators with a specific focus on the characters’ innermost thoughts and deep interior monologues. Although the novel’s plot revolves around the Bundren family, characters outside of the family are essential to provide an objective view. Without these outside characters, much of Faulkner’s commentary would be lost.
One of the most important characters outside of the Bundren family is Cora Tull. It is through her character that Faulkner makes his most potent commentary on the ideas of sin, salvation, and hypocrisy. With the strong irony that is employed throughout the novel, Faulkner twists Cora’s seemingly ideal moral character and uses her instead as an example of what not to be. Through the juxtaposition of Addie and Cora, Faulkner seeks to highlight religious hypocrisy and show that Cora’s idea of religious salvation is faulty.
Instead, Faulkner believes (as demonstrated through Addie) that true salvation consists of an enlightened state of self-awareness and concrete understanding of one’s own sin. Religion is echoed in every facet of Cora’s life. On the surface, she appears to be a warm-hearted Christian spirit, but it becomes quickly evident that Cora’s perception of religion is skewed. Cora is always seen serving her neighbors but Cora’s charity is not genuine. She serves not out of love, but to keep up a Christian appearance and receive a promised heavenly reward (23, 93).
When Cora attempts to serve, even her husband (Vernon Tull) comments that she tries to “crowd the other folks away and get in closer than anybody else (71). ”She is very concerned with the eternal state of others around her, but again, her concern is not out of love. Cora states that only God can see into the heart (167), but in her piety Cora criticizes others and believes that they will only be saved if they adopt her works based religion.
Cora’s life experiences have only increased her desire to serve more dutifully because she has earned the respect of others in the community. In this ironic way, Cora’s hypocrisy has served her well on this earth. In contrast, Addie’s life experiences have molded her into a defiant, unfulfilled and bitter woman. Through Cora’s eyes, Addie is a bad mother and is in desperate need of repentance. Cora believes that Addie is blind to her own sin and that it is sacrilegious to trust in Jewel instead of turning to God for salvation.
However, it is Cora that cannot see and passes judgment blindly. Cora does not know the implications behind Addie’s favoritism to Jewel and that the man Cora has placed on such a holy pedestal (Minister Whitfield) is in fact a source of Addie’s sin. Cora does not know that it was Minister Whitfield that wanted to cover up the affair and that Addie’s consent to remain quiet were out of love for the brief satisfaction she had found in him – Addie has always remained genuine; she had no desire to be deceitful.
Cora’s misinformed judgments are full of words that “go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless (173). ” In Addie’s section in the novel, she describes the scene where Cora wants Addie to pray with her to receive a salvation (168, 174). The reason Cora thought that Addie could receive salvation by saying a prayer is because Cora’s religion is empty, full of mindless words and “people to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too (176). Cora’s word-oriented religious hypocrisy is a direct manifestation of Addie’s idea that words lack meaning and are just “shape(s) to fill a lack (172). ” In distinguishing the differences between Addie and Cora, it is made clear who can ultimately experience salvation. Even though pious Cora may have experienced some worldly success, Faulkner is suggesting that she will never obtain salvation because she is blinded in her hypocrisy and is consumed with duty and a works-based religion. Cora knows sin as it can be expressed in words but not in practice.
Addie knows the extent of sin because (unlike Cora) she has truly experienced it. Even though Addie expresses discontent, she is at least aware of her sin and its relationship to the nature of her being. Faulkner criticizes Cora’s judgmental, insincere, and pious character and instead presents Addie’s self-aware, authentic, and pragmatic understanding as the way to experience sanctification in this life. It is Addie, not Cora, who will receive the reward of true enlightenment and salvation.