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, Cash, 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.
Family, Birth, and Death ThemeTracker
Family, Birth, and Death Quotes in As I Lay Dying
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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….”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”