As I Lay Dying

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Themes and Colors
Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty Theme Icon
Mortality and the Nature of Existence Theme Icon
Family, Birth, and Death Theme Icon
Religion and Faith Theme Icon
Language versus Action Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in As I Lay Dying, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Family, Birth, and Death Theme Icon

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.

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Family, Birth, and Death Quotes in As I Lay Dying

Below you will find the important quotes in As I Lay Dying related to the theme of Family, Birth, and Death.
1. Darl Quotes

“Jewel, fifteen feet behind me, looking straight ahead, steps in a single stride through the window. Still staring straight ahead, his pale eyes like wood set into his wooden face, he crosses the floor in four strides with the rigid gravity of a cigar store Indian dressed in patched overalls and endued with life from the hips down, and steps in a single stride through the opposite window and into the path again just as I come around the corner.”

Related Characters: Darl Bundren (speaker), Jewel
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

Darl and his brother Jewel are walking through a field on their way home, and here they come across an old cottonhouse. Darl watches as Jewel steps right through it as Darl goes around it. These two motions, straight versus curved, direct versus indirect, can be understood as metaphoric descriptions of the two brothers' quite distinct characters. Jewel is focused on actions and results. If something is in his way, he will plow right through it, never stopping to consider the challenge or to question himself or his actions.

Darl, in turn, takes a more circuitous route. He is inclined to think deeply about the world around him and about his place within it. Even this passage, which comes to us through his perspective, shows a strong sense of the beauty of language on its own, not for what it can do or enact but for the charm of comparisons like Jewel to a cigar store Indian, his eyes to wood. The ability to observe and notice one's lived experience is implied, here, to be individual and even random - the fact that the brothers don't share it suggests that there is little "natural" glue of character or experience holding a family together.

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4. Jewel Quotes

“It would just be me and her on a high hill and me rolling the rocks down the hill at their faces, picking them up and throwing them down the hill, faces and teeth and all by God until she was quiet and not that goddamn adze going One lick less. One lick less and we could be quiet.”

Related Characters: Jewel (speaker), Addie Bundren
Related Symbols: The Coffin
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

Jewel is angry about Cash's incessant hammering and sawing that can be heard from within the house - Cash is preparing the coffin for the dying Addie. Here, he may not employ the kind of rich, complex language that his brother Darl can make use of, but that certainly doesn't mean that he's incapable of feeling or powerfully describing his feelings. Jewel feels alienated and alone within the Bundren family: the only person he feels a connection with is Addie, and she is now dying. 

While Cash may think he is honoring his mother by making a coffin for her, this has nothing to do with familial duty in Jewel's eyes. In this passage he imagines a heroic final battle involving him and his mother against the rest of the family before Addie dies. This image seems to be derived in some part from mythical or Biblical stories, but Jewel is vague on the specifics: for him, it is enough to imagine a violent fantasy that would allow him to escape from the noise and selfishness that he believes characterizes the other Bundrens.

7. Dewey Dell Quotes

“And so it was because I could not help it. It was then, and then I saw Darl and he knew. He said he knew without the words like he told me that ma is going to die without words…And that’s why I can talk to him with knowing with hating because he knows.”

Related Characters: Dewey Dell Bundren (speaker), Darl Bundren
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

Dewey Dell is remembering the difficult moments leading up to sleeping with Lafe, including her attempts to get out of it, and now her current worry is that she may be pregnant. Now she has recognized that Darl somehow knows this, even without her telling anyone. The rest of the family also recognizes this ability of Darl's, a kind of omniscience that suggests that Darl is more like an author, one who knows his character's actions because he writes them, rather than like other characters subject to laws beyond their control.

For Dewey Dell, Darl's near-mystical knowledge is a relief, as she is spared the shame and indignity of having to tell him or others what she has gone through. Instead, she can take some solace in simply sharing knowing gazes with him, in search of familial connection that so often is not fulfilled in other ways in this family.

10. Darl Quotes

“It takes two people to make you, and one people to die. That’s how the world is going to end.”

Related Characters: Darl Bundren (speaker)
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

Darl and Jewel are discussing the impending death of Addie, and Darl, as usual, takes the opportunity to ponder more profound questions about mortality as such. In general, reproduction tends to be considered as a crucial element of family life, as a means to continue one's family line and as a mysterious but joyful cycle of birth that makes up for death. Darl, however, doesn't see things this way. For him, the fact that birth requires two people, while death requires only one (the very person dying) means that the world tilts inevitably towards death. Death is not redeemed by birth, in his scheme, nor does it have some kind of ultimate meaning that makes it more bearable. Darl retains rather a deeply pessimistic outlook on death, prompted by his own particular family situation but with broader, even metaphysical resonance. 

12. Darl Quotes

“Jewel’s hat droops limp about his neck…Jewel, I say, she is dead, Jewel. Addie Bundren is dead.”

Related Characters: Darl Bundren (speaker), Jewel, Addie Bundren
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

Darl's thoughts are shifting forwards and backwards between past and present scenes, between memories and the realities of the present moment, as Addie has just died. One of Darl's tasks is to tell his brother Jewel that their mother has died. This task is significant in part because of just how negligent Anse has been: while his children grapple with the fact of their mother's death, they must simultaneously figure out how to manage things and direct what needs to be done. 

At the same time, Darl's repetitive language to Jewel is a somber reminder of how even for someone as eloquent as Darl, certain events (like death) can sometimes exceed language, which can prove ultimately insufficient in encapsulating what has taken place.

17. Darl Quotes

“In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you….I don’t know what I am. I don’t know if I am or am not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not.”

Related Characters: Darl Bundren (speaker), Jewel
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:

Darl contrasts his own experience preparing for sleep "in a strange room" with the experience that he assumes Jewel and those like him have - an experience that, for Darl, is simpler and more straightforward than his own. Here, Darl reveals his openness to the great questions of mortality and existence - questions that can often recur as one prepares to sleep. At that border between wakefulness and sleeping (a border that in some ways seems a good deal like the border between life and death) identity and meaning become unclear. At least, they become a source of anxiety for Darl, who not only does not know who he is, but also begins to wonder whether he "is" or "is not" - and what it means to "be" at all (probably an allusion to Hamlet's famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy).

While Darl is able to make use of a more nuanced and complex (albeit confusing) language than Vardaman, he, like his brother, is preoccupied with such monumental questions. In some ways, Darl seems to envy Jewel, who (to Darl at least) seems not even to concern himself with such questions. This, too, is a way that Darl's character shares so little with Jewel's, in that Jewel prefers to act out his meaning rather than parse out what his life means from afar.

21. Darl Quotes

“It’s not your horse that’s dead, Jewel…Jewel’s mother is a horse.”

Related Characters: Darl Bundren (speaker), Jewel, Addie Bundren
Related Symbols: Jewel's Horse
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

Darl continues his rivalry with Jewel, contrasting his way of understanding the world to his brother’s, even as they both attempt to grapple with Addie’s death in different ways. Darl views Jewel’s attachment to his horse critically, both because Jewel’s attachment to it sets him off from the rest of the family, and because Jewel’s focus on the horse embodies such a different, more visceral way of grappling with Addie’s death than Darl’s language-based, symbolically complex attitude.

Here, Darl connects Jewel’s love for Addie to his love for horses, and, using the same transitive property as Vardaman did earlier, links Addie to a horse ("my mother is a fish" becomes "Jewel's mother is a horse"). This potentially pejorative statement has more to do, however, with Darl’s own frustrations in trying to assign meaning to his mother’s life and death within the context of a family that is so internally different and inconsistent.

22. Cash Quotes

“It won’t balance. If they want it to tote and ride on a balance, they will have …”

Related Characters: Cash Bundren (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Coffin
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

Cash has spent a great deal of time and care hammering and sawing the coffin that will hold Addie’s body. Now, in a short but intense exchange with someone who remains unnamed (but who we will later learn is Jewel), Cash fixates on the coffin’s lack of balance, which will make it more difficult for the family to carry it to Jefferson. Cash’s intense attention to this lack of balance might seem relatively unimportant in the scheme of his mother’s death. Nonetheless, this passage underlines Cash’s own way of coming to terms with his mother’s death, by using all his technical skill in the creation of a physical object that might honor Addie. This material activity may lack verbal explanation or justification, but it is another way of responding to death – even if it is one that other characters, including Jewel, cannot understand.

26. Anse Quotes

“I told him not to bring that horse out of respect for his dead ma, because it wouldn’t look right, him prancing along on a durn circus animal and her wanting us all to be in the wagon….”

Related Characters: Anse Bundren (speaker), Jewel, Addie Bundren
Related Symbols: Jewel's Horse
Page Number: 105
Explanation and Analysis:

Anse is angry that Jewel wants to bring his horse along as the family travels to Jefferson. Here, Anse claims that Jewel is acting out of self-interest, wanting to ride his horse just to show off, and failing to be somber and serious enough in a way that would honor Addie’s life and death. Anse also argues that Addie would have wanted the entire family to be in the wagon together, making Jewel’s choice even more disrespectful.

Nonetheless, Anse’s arguments are weak at best, disingenuous at worst. We have already seen how Jewel is perhaps the member of the family who was closest to Addie and who feels her loss most profoundly. Anse, meanwhile, has been more preoccupied with himself than with anyone else. His understanding of family duty seems to have much more to do with empty actions, gestures devoid of substance, which look right but fail to mean anything. Anse’s fixation on what Jewel’s horse will look like – a “circus animal” – further underlines his interest in appearances more than in actual family obligations and duties, not to mention sincere love and connection.

28. Anse Quotes

“But now I can get them teeth. That will be a comfort. It will.”

Related Characters: Anse Bundren (speaker)
Page Number: 111
Explanation and Analysis:

Anse has reassured himself, after learning that floods and a downed bridge will impede the family’s trip to Jefferson, that he is after all a chosen man of God – and that this means that he’ll be able to do what he really wants to in Jefferson after all. We learn, here, that what Anse’s thoughts really turn to regarding Jefferson is not Addie’s burial but rather the opportunity to get a new set of false teeth. Once again we see that his apparent embrace of heroic sacrifice and duty on the part of the family consists of no more than empty gestures. Indeed, his true desire to go to Jefferson is not only more self-interested than what he claims, but the opposite of heroic. The example of false teeth could not stress more strongly how petty and even silly Anse’s own self-avowedly “heroic” goals and motivations are.

30. Dewey Dell Quotes

“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.”

Related Characters: Dewey Dell Bundren (speaker), Addie Bundren
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:

As the family approaches the (potentially) aptly named New Hope, Dewey Dell clings to the possibility of a new leaf even as she continues to grapple with her own problems. Here, she admits to herself that Addie has died while Dewey Dell herself was preoccupied with other matters – not necessarily with petty desires like Anse, but with her pregnancy and chances for an abortion, all of which she must hide from her family and from those around her. Dewey Dell expresses regret that she didn’t have the “time” to let her mother die, suggesting that death is something that snuck up on her while she wasn’t paying attention, something that she hasn’t had time to come to terms with or seek to understand. Immediately, however, Dewey Dell acknowledges that she hasn’t even had the time to fully have these regrets, busy as she’s been with everything else going on her life. Dewey Dell’s acknowledgement of the distance between her mother’s death and her own feelings and experiences suggests just how disjointed and apart the various experiences of the characters in the novel can be – a lack of unity underlined by the multiple perspectives and voices that make up the narrative.

34. Darl Quotes

“Jewel shouts at the horse…He is just above the top of the ford and the horse has a purchase of some sort for it surges forward, shining wetly half out of water…Cash is half turned, the reins running taut from his hand and disappearing into the water, the other hand reached back upon Addie, holding her jammed over against the high side of the wagon.”

Related Characters: Darl Bundren (speaker), Jewel, Cash Bundren, Addie Bundren
Related Symbols: Jewel's Horse
Page Number: 148-149
Explanation and Analysis:

Darl describes a scene of chaos and desperation when the family attempts to cross a river, and the wagon pitches as the horse rears up and through the water. The way Darl describes the scene imbues it with an almost mythical beauty and significance. The family’s trip to Jefferson, described skeptically by a number of the characters, becomes more than a pointless journey and suddenly takes on life-and-death implications. Cash’s insistence on keeping Addie’s coffin afloat reminds us that members of the family do have real feelings for Addie, even as they sometimes coexist with pettier, more self-interested motivations. Still, this one brief surge of heroism as the brothers strive to keep the family together and cross the river contrasts to such an extent with the rest of the voyage as to challenge the idea that the journey is really heroic and significant at all.

40. Addie Quotes

“So I took Anse. And when I knew that I had Cash, I knew that living was terrible and that this was the answer to it. That was when I learned that words are no good; that words don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say at.”

Related Characters: Addie Bundren (speaker), Cash Bundren, Anse Bundren
Page Number: 171
Explanation and Analysis:

Speaking either from the grave or in a flashback to the time before her death, Addie reflects on the trajectory of her life since she decided to marry Anse. Here, Addie portrays the act of starting a family, of having children, not as an exciting step or meaningful action but rather as devoid of any greater significance. Indeed, for Addie "motherhood" or "family" are no more than words, words that people think mean something, but in fact only mask the suffering involved in living. 

Addie is thus on the side of Jewel in terms of a skepticism towards language: unlike Jewel, however, she does not simply embrace action over language, but critiques one while refusing to align with the other. Addie's pessimism may be intense, but it is rooted in her direct experience of living and in her understanding of the meaninglessness of categories and events by which other people ascribe significance to their lives.

49. Vardaman Quotes

“And I saw something Dewey Dell told me not to tell nobody. It is not about pa and it is not about Cash and it is not about Jewel and it is not about Dewey Dell and it is not about me.”

Related Characters: Vardaman Bundren (speaker), Darl Bundren, Dewey Dell Bundren
Related Symbols: The Coffin
Page Number: 215
Explanation and Analysis:

Darl has assured Vardaman, as they walk outside, that he has heard Addie speaking to them from within her coffin: she has told them to remove her from the sight of man. Darl's language seems to be derived from the Bible, and is another reminder of how differently and creatively the characters use faith and religion in pursuit of their own interests and in following their own particular beliefs.

This passage in particular underlines the specific perspective of Vardaman in the family, as the youngest and the child who must rely the most on the knowledge and protection of the others. As if in an example of rote learning from school, Vardaman goes through the list of people not involved in what Dewey Dell told him. By doing so he believes that he's still obeying Dewey Dell, but he also reveals his limited understanding as he clings to the words available to him in a confusing and constantly changing context.

50. Darl Quotes

“Then it topples forward, gaining momentum, revealing Jewel and the sparks raining on him too in engendering gusts, so that he appears to be closed in a thin nimbus of fire.”

Related Characters: Darl Bundren (speaker), Jewel
Related Symbols: The Coffin
Page Number: 222
Explanation and Analysis:

In a show of attempted heroism and faithfulness to Addie, Jewel is emerging from the fire with her coffin, firmly positioning himself as Addie's most beloved son once again. Darl, of course, has put this entire series of events into action. And yet even he cannot help but admire Jewel's actions, describing them in his typically lush and powerfully descriptive language. Darl describes Jewel as a kind of Christ figure, sacrificing himself for the good of another - even though his own carefully reasoned judgment has made him conclude that the best thing for everyone would be for the fire to consume everything, and for the coffin to be swallowed up as well. Even while remaining in opposition to his brother, then, Darl is drawn to him, fascinated by the strange familial connections that keep them together despite their differences.

59. Cash Quotes

“It’s Cash and Jewel and Vardaman and Dewey Dell…Meet Mrs. Bundren.”

Related Characters: Anse Bundren (speaker), Jewel, Cash Bundren, Dewey Dell Bundren, Vardaman Bundren
Page Number: 261
Explanation and Analysis:

These, the last lines of As I Lay Dying, return to the profoundly somber and pessimistic tone present throughout the novel, as well as its biting irony. Anse has married the woman whose shovels he had borrowed just the day before in order to bury Addie. The supposedly "heroic" journey of the family to Jefferson is therefore definitively revealed to be, at least on Anse's part, no more than a chance for him to fulfill his own selfish interests. 

At the same time, however, by ending with suggestions of the Bundrens' future with a new family (without Darl, and with a new stepmother), the novel suggests that families can shift, expand, contract, and still survive - even, or especially, when these changes are cause for skepticism and pessimism more than cause for joy. As we've seen throughout the book, different characters have had different interpretations regarding the meaning of Addie's death and the meaning of their voyage to bury her. While the novel does give Anse the last word literally regarding this meaning, it's not at all clear that his is the last word on the subject in the more metaphorical sense - suggesting instead that ideas such as heroism and the meaning of death and life are fluid, expansive, and open to interpretation.