At the most basic level, As I Lay Dying is a novel about the Bundrens and their family quest to fulfill the wish of their deceased wife and mother Addie Bundren to be buried beside her family members in Jefferson, Mississippi. The Bundrens successfully lug Addie’s foul-smelling corpse countless miles in the Mississippi heat, and even battle flood and fire along the way. Seen in this way, their journey appears heroic, recalling motifs of traditional “quest” literature – such as Odysseus’ journey home to Ithaca in The Odyssey. While heroism is prized by all as a value unto itself in a Classical work like The Odyssey, Faulkner’s novel explores and calls into question the meaning of heroic action.
lmost all of the Bundren family members have secret, self-interested desires for wanting to go to Jefferson, indicating that the stated goal of familial duty to Addie isn’t the goal of their journey at all. Anse Bundren may rationalize the journey to others by declaring that Addie’s “mind is set on it,” but his real reason is that he wants to buy a new set of false teeth in town and to pick up a new wife, a replacement for Addie. The potentially pregnant and abortion-seeking Dewey Dell anticipates going to Jefferson’s pharmacy. Vardaman dreams of a train set in the Jefferson toy-store window. Even the saintly Cash discusses his desire to purchase a gramophone in town.
Yet still, the Bundrens fulfill Addie’s desire to be buried in Jefferson under the guise of heroic and familial duty, ultimately rendering the very idea of heroism pointless or self-defeating. This pointlessness is shown most overtly by Darl in his apparently “heroic” gesture of burning Gillepsie’s barn down to stop what he perceives as the family’s ridiculous journey, an act that is countered by Jewel in his competing heroic act of saving Addie’s coffin from the fire. As I Lay Dying calls into question the value of heroism by showing how the Bundrens’ “heroic” journey is actually committed in service of the family’s competing self-interests, suggesting that all such heroic actions are evident as heroic only from the outside.
As I Lay Dying is not only about mortality insofar as it concerns Addie Bundren’s death. More deeply, the novel explores the theme of mortality by showing each of Addie’s family members, loved ones, and other acquaintances offer unique responses to her death, attempting to make sense of the nature of existence. In doing so, these characters realize deeper and more universal things about existence and the transience of human experience. Reflecting on his mother’s death, the cynical Darl remarks, “It takes two people to make you, one people to die. That’s how the world is going to end.” The guilt-ridden Dewey Dell more sentimentally reflects on the fact that she was distracted by personal issues during the time in which her mother died: “I heard that my mother is dead. I wish I had time to let her die. I wish I had time to wish I had.” Vardaman’s initial reaction to his mother’s death is to drill holes in her coffin so she can breathe. As a six-year-old, not yet fully aware ofwhat death means, Vardaman is initially in denial: he thinks that because Addie’s physical body still exists, she must still exist and therefore need air in order to keep existing.
These questions – relating to the meaning of life and death – appear most important to Darl and Vardaman. Both characters are less concerned with the pragmatic aspects of life and are focused more on these philosophical questions. This is the case for Vardaman because he is only six. By contrast, Darl is the novel’s most cerebral character—in some ways he is the most sane member of the family, seeing their quest for the idiotic and destructive undertaking that it is. At the same time, he seems unstable, and may or may not be insane.
Just as As I Lay Dying calls into question traditional ideas about the meaning of heroism, the novel also complicates the idea of family. In the beginning of the novel, it appears perhaps that the Bundren famly is a united front, together facing the tragic death of their beloved wife and mother. However, as the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that what is driving the Bundren journey to deliver Addie to Jefferson is not pure dedication to the wishes of Addie, but to a sense of familial obligation. Furthermore, this sense of familial obligation is inextricably tied up with rivalries among siblings, competing self-interests, and out-and-out deceptive dynamics between family members. The novel’s interest in destabilizing the romantic notion of family is most palpable in the Addie section, in which the Bundrens’ “beloved mother” explains both her own feelings of resentment toward her family and her infidelity. Addie reveals that her favorite son is the product of an affair, and it is for this reason that he is her favorite – he is only part-Bundren.
The novel does not stop with complicating the idea of family in general, but also works to complicate even the origin of family – birth –which is traditionally depicted as a moment of pure joy and creation. Addie admits that the birth of her first son, Darl, felt like an intrusion of her solitude, and each of her other children seemed the product of some sin (an affair) or obligation (making up for said affair). Addie’s lack of excitement about childbirth is then echoed by Dewey Dell, who focuses on the fact that while birth may be the product of the same action shared between men and women, only women are stuck with the obligation. In this way, the novel connects the idea of birth to the idea of death – the birth of a baby is the death of a woman's independent life.
Finally, the last sentence of the novel, when Anse invites his children to “Meet Mrs. Bundren,” functions as a strange post-script to the novel. At the end of the novel, Anse reveals that the trip to Jefferson was not about fulfilling Addie’s desire, but perhaps about his own desire to replace her. This shocking final scene suggests that family is just a bunch of roles – and that the roles are more important than the actual people who fill them.
The theme of religion and faith appears in As I Lay Dying in various contexts – from plot points and the thing characters do and say, to the way Biblical imagery and motifs are invoked in order to compare events in the novel to religious events. Given that the novel calls into question the traditional ideals of heroism and familial duty, these comparisons often make ironic the religious theme in question. For instance, Darl defends his attempt to burn down Gillepsie’s barn (and Addie’s coffin) as a religiously motivated decision to cremate Addie’s body according to the will of God, yet he really just wants to put the journey to a stop. When thinking about Cora Tull, Addie directly reflects on her neighbor’s blind faith in God, dismissing the naivety of Cora’s religious practices: “I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless…sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words.”
Cash is perhaps the novel’s most Christ-like figure: a carpenter, Cash also embodies the virtues of kindness and charity, and positions himself as a martyr in the context of the family. Yet his stoicism reaches a ridiculous degree when he never once complains about the fact that his broken leg is treated with a cast made of sand and cement. The absurdity of Cash’s stoicism calls into question why he chooses to embody Christian virtues so whole-heartedly, given that his selflessness does not lead to a sacrifice that is dedicated to a substantive end. While Christ gets resurrected, Cash is not redeemed in any way. His dedication to bringing Addie to Jefferson concludes with the revelation that the family delivered their wife and mother to Jefferson so that they could replace her, not so they could dutifully carry out her wish. In this way, Cash’s sacrifice can be seen as a sacrifice to an untrue idea, a promise that is betrayed. The religious motifs throughout As I Lay Dying primarily emphasize the disparity between a character’s action that is apparently motivated by faith and the more cynical truth, or misunderstanding, underlying the action in question.
Faulkner’s interest in the disconnect between language and action is clear from the way the novel is told in and of itself: there is a disconnect between the action of the novel – the Bundren’s journey to Jefferson – and the way such action unfolds – through individual narrations of the characters involved in and around the journey. As I Lay Dying does not tell an objective tale, but is a series of subjective experiences, showing in the very way the novel is told that there is an inherent disconnect between language, how it can tell a story, and action, the story itself.
Almost every character in the novel possesses a different and unique perspective toward the question of language versus action. Most clear, however, is the dichotomy between Darl and Jewel, especially when seen in context of their relationship to Addie Bundren. Out of all the characters in the book, Darl has the greatest gift for using language, made clear by the fact that his chapters are the most poetic. Darl also happens to be the most rejected son of Addie Bundren. Jewel, by contrast, is Addie’s favorite son, and can be seen as a man of action rather than words. For instance, Jewel saves Addie’s coffin from the river and also saves Cash’s precious box of tools. When Darl sets fire to Gillepsie’s barn, Jewel saves Gillepsie’s animals and then saves Addie’s coffin. In Addie’s single chapter, narrated posthumously, she expresses her disgust and distrust for words, explaining why she favored Jewel, her only non-Bundren child and, unlike Darl, her child that prized action over language. Words are “just words,” in Addie’s conception.