The Psychological Effects of Extreme Poverty

Society uniformly sets what is an appropriate behavior or reaction for someone to have in different types of scenarios and life events. For example, an appropriate behavior would be to shake hands as a greeting gesture when meeting someone new or to add in a please or thank you upon requesting something from another. In the novel, As I Lay Dying, the characters of the Bundren family each show their grief for the loss of their mother in unique ways, that when compared, are proven not appropriate according to current society standards. The Bundren’s held very little to their names with the possession’s they owned and the dignity they held, which could very well be the reason they acted so inappropriately when their mother had passed. The Bundren’s were always left in a position, having to give up whatever little belongings that they had, in order to keep the family going for just a little longer. So many readers of this novel can judge the characters that their actions were selfish and unemotional, but with a closer look, an explanation can be given for their way of thought. When closely analyzing the unusual behaviors of the Bundren Family members in the novel As I Lay Dying, it can be proven that their actions and unusual behavior are results from being raised in an extremely poor society that in turn psychologically affected their well beings.

In this novel, the Bundrens were illustrated as an extremely poor family growing up in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi during the 1920’s. The family’s lack of money drove them to act in the ways that tends to be perceived as inappropriate and insensitive in regards to their mother passing away. In the final moments of Addie’s life, her two sons Darl and Jewl had no choice but to leave due to the reason that they were offered a job opportunity, “”We’ll need that three dollars then, sure”” (Faulkner 17). The scene of Addie’s two sons leaving to work as she lays on her death bed, can be read as though her two sons did not care to be there for the final moments of their mothers life. Although, it needs to be understood just how bad this family’s socio-economic situation was, and that every job opportunity given to them had to be taken advantage of. In addition, their entire focus in life had become blurred and only centered on being able to make money. For the reason that if they were not so driven to make money, nobody else in their poor stricken family would continue living and in result, they would start losing many other family members other than their mother. Therefore, keeping to this mindset would help the Bundren family survive. Another scene that shows the extremity of the Bundren’s poverty is when Anse risks his wife’s life in order to save some money, and did not call for the doctor, Peabody, to come and see her sooner. Anse had explained to Peabody that there was just so many things happening one after the other, and Peabody replied that “”Damn the money,”” I say. “”Did you ever hear of me worrying a fellow before he was ready to pay?””(Faulkner 44). Over here, the automatic reaction would be to call Anse uncaring that he wouldn’t try and find help for his wife as soon as possible, but it also proves to us even clearer how poor they truly were. The smallest amount of money imaginable would be the considering factor between life and death for the Bundren’s. In addition, even though Peabody says he doesn’t care about the money, everyone in that society did. He might have not asked for it right away, but as mentioned in the quote, he wouldn’t bother someone before they were ready to pay. The sad truth was that the Burdens would never get to the point that they would be able to pay Peabody, therefore that is why Anse never called earlier on. It is not because Anse is cold hearted and does not care for his sick wife, but the sad truth is that due to their poverty there was actually nothing more that he could do.

According to Paul R. Amato and Jiping Zuo from Univeristy of Nebraska who conducted a study on the consequences of poverty for the well-being of a person can help understand the Bundren’s mental situation in the novel As I Lay Dying. Poverty has negative standards of living that include many stressful life events such as illness and unemployment, just like expressed in the novel through depicting the life of the Bundren’s. Poverty also tends to lower ones self esteem and take away any sense of self control that one believes they have on their own life. This is proven many times in the novel, when the children mostly act as they are told, if it is being sent to work by their father, and not being there when their mother passes. In another sense, of how each family member has lost any idea of what type of self imagery they had for themselves beforehand, they have completely lost their sense of self through the years of growing up in extreme poverty. They tend to identify themselves by the belongings that they have, which are not much, and it is shown that when those belongings are gone, so is the individual’s character. Also mentioned that poverty is associated with lowered support from immediate family members and general dissatisfaction with family life (Amato and Zuo 230), just like it is shown through the siblings actions and behaviors, and how they all reacted to their mothers death in a different way. Each one of them are totally disconnected as a family, all their own completely different person with completely different reaction to their mothers passing because they all had very different relationships with her. All the family members tend to not hold much in common with one another, except for the fact that they are blood related. Lastly, another study on the psychological effect of poverty mentions that the groups that are extremely poor are the ones that cope with stress in the least direct way. By this statement, the researchers in American Sociological Review, try to emphasize the point that a major psychological effect of poverty is dealing with situations by avoiding them completely. In this novel, that is exactly how each character had acted with any inconveniences that came their way that they did not want to have to deal with, by just simply avoiding them. Overall, these many different outlooks of psychological effects from the influence of extreme poverty, furthermore proves the point of poverty being the reason the Burden family acted the way that they did in the novel.

In one of the scenes narrated by Vardaman as he is admiring the toy train in the store window, his inner thoughts are portrayed on the struggle of being a country and not a town boy. He says, Why do flour and sugar and coffee cost so much when he is a country boy “”Why ain’t I a town boy, pa?”” I said God made me. I did not said to God to made me in the country. If He can make the train, why can’t He make them all in the town because flour and sugar and coffee. (Faulkner 66). This six year old child is admiring a train and outlooking the glorious life a town boy must have, compared to the inglorious life he is growing up in as a country boy. This novel’s setting was in the 1920’s in a rural area of a fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. The research conducted by Paul R. Amato and Jiping Zuo specifically mentions the difference between rural poverty and urban poverty. Even though it is not specific to the time the novel was written, through this study we can learn the psychological downfalls that comes with living in a rural society, and come to a better understanding of the character’s mindsets. The data from the research performed in the Rural Poverty, Urban Poverty, and Psychological Well-Being article states that the rural poor had a significantly lower levels of health, lower level of happiness and also score much higher on the depression scale. Therefore, we can trace it back and come to the conclusion that the members of the Bundren family had all these issues because of the rural society that they were raised in. Faulkner states that exact issue when Vardeman wonders about being a town boy rather than being a country boy. If he were a town boy, he would not have all the problems associated with the rural or country lifestyle and therefore would not act in ways that aren’t socially acceptable.

Another important quote is mentioned by Vardeman in this scene as he admires the train, “”Wouldn’t you rather have some bananas instead?”” Bananas are gone, eaten. Gone. (Faulkner 66) This furthermore explains the psychological impact poverty has on the Bundrens. Their knowledge of possessions, based on their past experiences growing up extremely poor, is that they do not last very long. Just like the banana in the quote, the banana is achieved, devoured and then gone within a matter of minutes. There is nothing that lingers on in their life for a long period of time, and they have learned to not get attached to anything if it does last longer than usual. This is because, due to past experiences, their possessions never tend to last. In addition, when a character will unpack all of their being into an element, and it later gets taken away from them, they will be completely broken as a person, which is portrayed by many of the characters in the novel.

As Addie’s death had brought the whole Bundren family physically together to fulfill their mothers wish of being buried with her family in Jefferson, Mississippi, they all had very different ways of coping with her death. All the Bundrens had was the small amount of possessions that meant the world to each one of them. It was the only hope and happiness they had in the horrible lifestyle they were living through, and their possessions held their whole being. We can see this example of how important of a role the possessions played in the characters lives ideally through Cash, Jewel and Dewey Dell. In Cash’s life, his tools were very important to him and made him who he was as an individual, I have seen him spend a hour trimming out a wedge like it was glass he was working, when he could have reached around and picked up a dozen sticks and drove them into the joint and made it do (Faulkner 87). The only thing he had in his life that was sure and that he could be successful at was his handy work. That is who Cash was as a person and no one would be able to take that away from him. Therefore in the scene where the family crosses the river, and loses balance of the coffin which in turn, leads Cash to drop his tools which scatter all through the river, he becomes a broken man and lost his sense of self. Cash was at a loss of words, because he had lost his sense of self when he had lost his tools. The theme that their possessions was their whole being, and without them they would be nothing, can be seen again with Jewel and his horse, and Dewey Dell and her unwanted pregnancy. The horse was all that Jewel had left and the only thing he loved after his mother had passed away, and even that was taken away on the mission to bury his mother in Jefferson. Lastly, the only thing on Dewey Dell’s mind is achieving an abortion, and can be viewed as her only possession like the rest of the siblings. This unwanted pregnancy is now making her the person that she is, but unlike the other siblings, she is trying to get rid of the one possession she holds. This is because her life in this extreme poverty, living day by day is so terribly appalling in the extreme poverty they live in, that she could not see herself bringing another life into this world and make him or her live through this suffering as well.

Throughout many events in this novel, it is clear that living in this extreme poverty had taken an extreme toll on each of these characters psychologically, emotionally and physically. There everyday life was so draining in every way possible, that any type of way to escape the hardships of this lifestyle would be a gift. In the end of the novel, when Darl gets taken away and admitted into the Psychiatric hospital so that his family would not have to deal with being sued for the barn fire he started, he cannot stop laughing. This action can be perceived that Darl might have started the barn fire purposely, knowing he would be sent to a mental institution, which to him seems like heaven compared to living one more second in this horrible lifestyle of his. He lived in such an extreme poverty, they had no possessions to call their own, and they worked at every moment just to be able to keep breathing. Sometimes I think it aint none of us pure crazy and aint none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way. It’s like it aint so much what a fellow does, but it’s the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it (Faulkner 233). This quote furthermore proves the point that someone might be perceived as abnormal not based on just his or her actions, but it is centered on how others perceive their actions. Overall, just as modernist read As I Lay Dying, perceive the characters as crazy by comparing them to actions that occur in today’s society, is not a fair correlation. Just as stated before, the poverty stricken lifestyle these characters lived through in the 1920’s is something unimaginable to people living in today’s upstanding society in America. Therefore, as the many different psychological impacts that stem from living in a society of such extreme poverty are learned, the characters actions from the novel As I Lay Dying can finally be understood.

Works Cited

Amato, Paul R., and Jiping Zuo. Rural Poverty, Urban Poverty, and Psychological Well-Being. The Sociological Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 2, 1992, pp. 229“240. JSTOR [JSTOR], doi:10.1111/j.1533-8525.1992.tb00373.x.

Lever, Joaquina Palomar, et al. Poverty, Psychological Resources And Subjective Well-Being. Social Indicators Research, vol. 73, no. 3, 2005, pp. 375“408. J-STOR, doi:10.1007/s11205-004-1072-7.

Mcleod, Jane D., and Michael J. Shanahan. Poverty, Parenting, and Children’s Mental Health. American Sociological Review, vol. 58, no. 3, 1 June 1993, pp. 351“366.JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/2095905?refreqid=search-gateway:94b78d680375f17fdde4b554fabaa4da.

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