As I Lay Dying

As I Lay Dying

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Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty 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.
Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty Theme Icon

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.

Almost 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.

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Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty Quotes in As I Lay Dying

Below you will find the important quotes in As I Lay Dying related to the theme of Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty.
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.

8. Tull Quotes

“Her [Addie’s] mind is set on it.”

Related Characters: Anse Bundren (speaker), Addie Bundren
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

As Tull continues to show patience and generosity in his relationship with the Bundren family, Anse explains their need to leave for Jefferson immediately. "Her mind is set on it" will be repeated several times: it is a kind of mantra by which Anse excuses and justifies the family's actions. The phrase suggests that Anse is acting selflessly and kindly, only following exactly what his wife wants. He suggests that Addie would not stand for things being any other way - making the journey something undertaken out of duty rather than out of desire. This claim of heroic familial duty will characterize many of the characters' attitudes towards their journey to Jefferson, even as it is questioned by others.

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.

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.

46. Darl Quotes

“It feels fine…It’s cold. It feels fine…It feels fine”

Related Characters: Cash Bundren (speaker)
Page Number: 208
Explanation and Analysis:

Darl is beginning to mix the cement necessary to make a cast for Cash's leg, even though Cash should really be going to the doctor instead. Cash is and has been in great pain, but here as elsewhere, he refuses to show it. His repetition of "it feels fine" only makes us question how fine he really is - Cash seems to be repeating a mantra both to give himself courage and, to a certain extent, to fulfill a heroic narrative towards which he continues to strive. Nonetheless, the basic, unglamorous, and ultimately meaningless suffering of Cash's broken leg jars uncomfortably with Cash's notion of heroic duty, challenging the idea that there is heroism in the family's journey at all.

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.