As I Lay Dying
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Impermanence of Existence and Identity
The death of Addie Bundren inspires several characters to wrestle with the rather sizable questions of existence and identity. Vardaman is bewildered and horrified by the transformation of a fish he caught and cleaned into “pieces of not-fish,” and associates that image with the transformation of Addie from a person into an indefinable nonperson. Jewel never really speaks for himself, but his grief is summed up for him by Darl, who says that Jewel’s mother is a horse. For his own part, Darl believes that since the dead Addie is now best described as “was” rather than “is,” it must be the case that she no longer exists. If his mother does not exist, Darl reasons, then Darl has no mother and, by implication, does not exist. These speculations are not mere games of language and logic. Rather, they have tangible, even terrible, consequences for the novel’s characters. Vardaman and Darl, the characters for whom these questions are the most urgent, both find their hold on reality loosened as they pose such inquiries. Vardaman babbles senselessly early in the novel, while Darl is eventually declared insane. The fragility and uncertainty of human existence is further illustrated at the end of the novel, when Anse introduces his new wife as “Mrs. Bundren,” a name that, until recently, has belonged to Addie. If the identity of Mrs. Bundren can be usurped so quickly, the inevitable conclusion is that any individual’s identity is equally unstable.
The Tension Between Words and Thoughts
Addie’s assertion that words are “just words,” perpetually falling short of the ideas and emotions they seek to convey, reflects the distrust with which the novel as a whole treats verbal communication. While the inner monologues that make up the novel demonstrate that the characters have rich inner lives, very little of the content of these inner lives is ever communicated between individuals. Indeed, conversations tend to be terse, halting, and irrelevant to what the characters are thinking at the time. When, for example, Tull and several other local men are talking with Cash about his broken leg during Addie’s funeral, we are presented with two entirely separate conversations. One, printed in normal type, is vague and simple and is presumably the conversation that is actually occurring. The second, in italics, is far richer in content and is presumably the one that the characters would have if they actually spoke their minds. All of the characters are so fiercely protective of their inner thoughts that the rich content of their minds is translated to only the barest, most begrudging scraps of dialogue, which in turn leads to any number of misunderstandings and miscommunications.
The Relationship Between Childbearing and Death
As I Lay Dying is, in its own way, a relentlessly cynical novel, and it robs even childbirth of its usual rehabilitative powers. Instead of functioning as an antidote to death, childbirth seems an introduction to it—for both Addie and Dewey Dell, giving birth is a phenomenon that kills the people closest to it, even if they are still physically alive. For Addie, the birth of her first child seems like a cruel trick, an infringement on her precious solitude, and it is Cash’s birth that first causes Addie to refer to Anse as dead. Birth becomes for Addie a final obligation, and she sees both Dewey Dell and Vardaman as reparations for the affair that led to Jewel’s conception, the last debts she must pay before preparing herself for death. Dewey Dell’s feelings about pregnancy are no more positive: her condition becomes a constant concern, causes her to view all men as potential sexual predators, and transforms her entire world, as she says in an early section, into a “tub full of guts.” Birth seems to spell out a prescribed death for women and, by proxy, the metaphorical deaths of their entire households.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Pointless Acts of Heroism
As I Lay Dying is filled with moments of great heroism and with struggles that are almost epic, but the novel’s take on such battles is ironic at best, and at times it even makes them seem downright absurd or mundane. The Bundrens’ effort to get their wagon across the flooded river is a struggle that could have been pulled from a more conventional adventure novel, but is undermined by the fact that it occurs for a questionable purpose. One can argue that the mission of burying Addie in Jefferson is as much about Anse’s false teeth as about Addie’s dying wishes. Cash’s martyrdom seems noble, but his uncomplaining tolerance of the pain from his injuries eventually becomes more ridiculous than heroic. Jewel’s rescuing of the livestock is daring, but it also nullifies Darl’s burning of the barn, which, while criminal, could be seen as the most daring and noble act of all. Every act of heroism, if not ridiculous on its own, counteracts an equally epic act, a vicious cycle that lends an absurdity that is both comic and tragic to the novel.
As Faulkner was embarking on his literary career in the early twentieth century, a number of Modernist writers were experimenting with narrative techniques that depended more on explorations of individual consciousness than on a string of events to create a story. James Joyce’s Ulysses and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time are among the most famous and successful of these experiments, but Faulkner also made a substantial contribution to this movement.
As I Lay Dying is written as a series of stream-of-consciousness monologues, in which the characters’ thoughts are presented in all their uncensored chaos, without the organizing presence of an objective narrator. This technique turns character psychology into a dominant concern and is able to present that psychology with much more complexity and authority than a more traditional narrative style. At the same time, it forces us to work hard to understand the text. Instead of being presented with an objective framework of events, somewhere in the jumble of images, memories, and unexplained allusions, we are forced to take the pieces each character gives and make something of them ourselves.
Issues of Social Class
In the American South, where Faulkner lived and wrote, social class was more hierarchical and loomed larger as a concern than elsewhere in the United States, and it is clearly engrained in the fabric of As I Lay Dying. Faulkner proved to be unusual in his ability to depict poor rural folk with grace, dignity, and poetic grandeur, without whitewashing or ignoring their circumstances. The Bundrens find willing, even gracious hosts at neighboring rural farms, but their welcome in the more affluent towns is cold at best: a marshal tells them their corpse smells too rancid for them to stay, a town man pulls a knife on Jewel, and an unscrupulous shop attendant takes advantage of Dewey Dell. On the other hand, despite their poor grammar and limited vocabularies, Faulkner’s characters express their thoughts with a sort of pared-down poeticism. Exactly what Faulkner’s intentions were for his family of rural southerners is unclear—As I Lay Dying has been read as both a poignant tribute to and a scathing send-up of rural southern values—but the Bundrens’ background unmistakably shapes their journey and the interactions they have along the way.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Shortly after Addie’s death, the Bundren children seize on animals as symbols of their deceased mother. Vardaman declares that his mother is the fish he caught. Darl asserts that Jewel’s mother is his horse. Dewey Dell calls the family cow a woman as she mulls over her pregnancy only minutes after she has lost Addie, her only female relative. For very different reasons, the grief-stricken characters seize on animals as emblems of their own situations. Vardaman sees Addie in his fish because, like the fish, she has been transformed to a different state than when she was alive. The cow, swollen with milk, signifies to Dewey Dell the unpleasantness of being stuck with an unwanted burden. Jewel and his horse add a new wrinkle to the use of animals as symbols. To us, based on Darl’s word, the horse is a symbol of Jewel’s love for his mother. For Jewel, however, the horse, based on his riding of it, apparently symbolizes a hard-won freedom from the Bundren family. That we can draw such different conclusions from the novel’s characters makes the horse in many ways representative of the unpredictable and subjective nature of symbols in As I Lay Dying.
Addie’s coffin comes to stand literally for the enormous burden of dysfunction that Addie’s death, and circumstances in general, place on the Bundren family. Cash, always calm and levelheaded, manufactures the coffin with great craft and care, but the absurdities pile up almost immediately—Addie is placed in the coffin upside down, and Vardaman drills holes in her face. Like the Bundrens’ lives, the coffin is thrown off balance by Addie’s corpse. The coffin becomes the gathering point for all of the family’s dysfunction, and putting it to rest is also crucial to the family’s ability to return to some sort of normalcy.
Tools, in the form of Cash’s carpentry tools and Anse’s farm equipment, become symbols of respectable living and stability thrown into jeopardy by the recklessness of the Bundrens’ journey. Cash’s tools seem as though they should have significance for Cash alone, but when these tools are scattered by the rushing river and the oncoming log, the whole family, as well as Tull, scrambles to recover them. Anse’s farm equipment is barely mentioned, but ends up playing a crucial role in the Bundrens’ journey when Anse mortgages the most expensive parts of it to buy a new team of mules. This trade is significant, as the money from Anse’s pilfering of Cash’s gramophone fund and the sale of Jewel’s horse represents the sacrifice of these characters’ greatest dreams. But the fact that Anse throws in his farm equipment should not be overlooked, as this equipment guarantees the family’s livelihood. In an effort to salvage the burial trip, Anse jeopardizes the very tools the family requires to till its land and survive.
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