As I Lay Dying

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.
Religion and Faith Theme Icon

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.

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Religion and Faith Quotes in As I Lay Dying

Below you will find the important quotes in As I Lay Dying related to the theme of Religion and Faith.
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.


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6. Cora Quotes

“Why, for the last three weeks I have been coming over every time I could…Not that I deserve credit for it: I will expect the same for myself. But thank God it will be the faces of my loved kin, for my blood and flesh, for in my husband and children I have been more blessed than most, trials though they have been at times.”

Related Characters: Cora Tull (speaker)
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

Cora is expressing skepticism about the forty-mile journey that the rest of the Bundren family is about to undertake in order to bury Addie. Here, though, her thoughts turn to how blessed her own death will be, since she will be surrounded by her beloved family. Yet Cora seems to consider these blessings as something she deserves because of how good and faithful a Christian she has been - even if she quickly claims, if disingenuously, that she doesn't deserve credit for her actions (as doing good without expecting rewards is also a part of the Christian faith she espouses). 

Cora is the first to express doubts about the supposed heroics of the Bundren family's odyssey to Jefferson. Ironically, her own humdrum self-interest in congratulating herself for her helpfulness contrasts with the heroic way she imagines her own death - a reminder that the themes explored in the book are not meant to apply to one family or to a certain set of characters alone, but rather are more broadly relevant.

9. Anse Quotes

“I have heard men cuss their luck, and right, for they were sinful men. But I do not say it’s a curse on me, because I have done no wrong to be cussed by.”

Related Characters: Anse Bundren (speaker)
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

As Anse sits on the porch, he meditates on his bad fortune and curses whatever he can think of, from the rain to his own sons. Here, Anse distinguishes himself from other people, who may also curse their luck, but shouldn't, since they are "sinful" and deserve the bad fortune that they have. Anse, rather, claims that he hasn't done anything wrong, so he doesn't deserve his own misfortune: indeed, the fact that he carries on regardless is a sign of his heroic commitment in the face of evil. Anse's notions of his own heroism clash, of course, with the self-interested way in which he evaluates his own life, and with his lack of self-awareness on his limited judgment.

41. Whitfield Quotes

“It was already as though it were done. My soul felt freer, quieter than it had in years….To either side I saw His hand; in my heart I could hear His voice:

‘Courage. I am with thee.’”

Related Characters: Whitfield (speaker)
Page Number: 178
Explanation and Analysis:

Before Addie's death, Whitfield was going to go to the Bundrens' home and confess that he had had an affair with her, hoping that by doing so he would be absolved for his sins before she died. Nonetheless, once Addie dies Whitfield decides that, since no one knew about the affair, there was no need to confess. Here, the book implicitly stresses Whitfield's incredible hypocrisy in assuming that he is absolved anyway, since it's "as though" he had confessed.  

Although Whitfield had claimed to want to confess, even if he had he clearly feels no genuine sorrow or shame for his actions - he thinks of sin as something that can be done away with without any struggle or real change of heart. Whitfield seems to think that he is chosen by God, enjoying a privileged relationship to him despite his morally dubious choices. The book thus shows a potential emptiness at the heart of religious faith in the way that a number of its characters practice religion - viewing it as a set of codes that are no more than ritual and social masquerade rather than really engaging with ethical questions.