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.
Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty ThemeTracker
Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty Quotes in As I Lay Dying
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”