As I Lay Dying


William Faulkner

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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:
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:
8. Tull Quotes

“Her [Addie’s] mind is set on it.”

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