Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
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.
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.