As I Lay Dying

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Mortality and the Nature of Existence Theme Analysis

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.
Mortality and the Nature of Existence Theme Icon

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 of what 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.

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Mortality and the Nature of Existence Quotes in As I Lay Dying

Below you will find the important quotes in As I Lay Dying related to the theme of Mortality and the Nature of Existence.
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. 

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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.

13. Vardaman Quotes

“I will be where the fish was, and it all cut up into not-fish now.”

Related Characters: Vardaman Bundren (speaker), Vardaman Bundren
Related Symbols: Fish
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

In his own way, the six-year-old Vardaman is attempting to come to terms with his mother's death based on the language he can use and the references he can understand. Vardaman has caught a certain amount of fish, but now he looks at what he caught in the basket and notices that it has changed irrevocably: what he sees now is "not-fish," not the living beings that he handled in the water, but objects lacking animation, lacking life. Vardaman draws a connection, even if he cannot explicitly say so, between this mysterious change from "fish" into "not-fish" and the change undergone by his own mother, from life to death.

15. Vardaman Quotes

“It was not here. I was there, looking. I saw. I thought it was her, but it was not. It was not my mother….It was not here because it was laying right yonder in the dirt. And now it’s all chopped up. I chopped it up. It’s laying in the kitchen in the bleeding pan, waiting to be cooked and et.”

Related Characters: Vardaman Bundren (speaker), Addie Bundren
Related Symbols: Fish
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

Vardaman is thinking about having seen the body of his mother, Addie Bundren, in her coffin. Although he is only a young child, Vardaman has a strong intuition in certain ways about what it means to die: he recognizes, for instance, that although his mother's corpse is recognizable as the body of Addie Bundren, the body is not "his mother" - that is, what makes it "his mother" has disappeared. 

Vardaman links this strange disconnect between presence and absence to the first-hand experience that he has with fish, which were once alive, but which become forever something else once he chops them up to be eaten. Although Vardaman's language may seem obscure, this is not because he has advanced theoretical ideas, but because he is attempting, with only the tools available to a six-year-old mind, to grapple with vast questions of life, death, and the border between the two.

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.

19. Vardaman Quotes

“My mother is a fish.”

Related Characters: Vardaman Bundren (speaker), Vardaman Bundren
Related Symbols: Fish
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:

In this famous line of As I Lay Dying, Vardaman uses a situation that he is quite familiar with, that of catching, skinning, and eating fish, to a new, unknown situation in which he finds himself (dealing with his mother's death). As we have seen in earlier quotations, Vardaman has already drawn a connection between the fish that were alive when he caught them, and then are limp and still, ready to be cut up and eaten - and his mother, once alive and now silent and still in her coffin. Fish have this property of at one point being lively, at another point being still, and Vardaman can see that his mother too has that quality. As a result, it is not preposterous to say that his mother is a fish: it simply means that if his mother has certain properties, and a fish has the same properties, it could well mean mathematically that his mother is fish. Vardaman doesn't necessarily mean this judgment literally: instead, he is trying to use the definitions that he has at his disposal in order to make sense of where he finds himself. 

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.

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.

51. Vardaman Quotes

“The barn was still red, but it wasn’t a barn now.”

Related Characters: Vardaman Bundren (speaker)
Page Number: 223
Explanation and Analysis:

Vardaman is watching the barn burn, and in his characteristically youthful and limited language he uses this event to meditate on the same questions of mortality, existence, and action that he has regarding Addie and regarding fish that he's caught. Vardaman knows that he's looking at the place where the barn until quite recently stood. But the fire is consuming the wood making up the barn: does this then mean that the barn no longer exists? How then might one describe and explain what once was present and now is gone - the process of death and disappearance for humans as well as physical objects? As is usual in Faulkner, the simplest language can speak as powerfully as more complex phrasing.