As I Lay Dying Themes


Alienation and Loneliness
Faulkner's use of multiple narrators underscores one of his primary themes: every character is essentially isolated from the others. Moreover, the characters in the novel do not communicate effectively with one another. Although the reader is privy to the characters' thoughts and emotional responses, none of the characters adequately express their dilemmas or desires to others. Outside of Darl, who knows Addie's and Dewey Dell's secrets through intuition, the characters can only guess at the motivations, beliefs, and feelings of others. When these guesses turn out to be wrong, misunderstandings ensue.

As a result of their communication problems, members of the Bundren family live alienated from each other—whether willfully (like Addie or Jewel), unknowingly (like Anse, Cash, Dewey Dell, or Vardaman), or painfully (like Darl). This alienation extends to neighbors, who misinterpret or simply cannot fathom the family's actions.

The more sensitive characters, especially Addie and Darl, recognize their alienation from others. In particular, Addie is a striking example of someone who both longs to transcend this isolation and stubbornly works to maintain an impenetrable individuality. As a schoolteacher, she would whip her students in order to overcome the barriers between her and others: "I would think with each blow of the switch: Now you are aware of me! Now I am something in your secret and selfish life, who have marked your blood with my own for ever and ever." One can see her selfishness here, however, as she violently imposes herself onto others without opening herself to them. Similarly, she holds back from her children, except for Cash and her favorite, Jewel. Her contradictions highlight the fundamental compulsion to maintain one's private self while yearning to connect with others.

In a novel that features a disastrous journey to bury a decomposing corpse, one would expect death to be a central concern. Indeed, the outraged reactions of other characters to the journey of the Bundren family reveal both social expectations about the treatment of the dead and underlying anxieties over the basic truths of human mortality. Moreover, Vardaman's chapters revolve primarily around defining the nature of death, and his confusion proves both moving and unsettling.

The theme of death also takes other forms in the novel. Through Addie's narrative, Faulkner investigates the possibility of living in a deadened state. On the one hand, Faulkner has her "speak" from the dead. On the other hand, however, is Addie's thwarted desire to live life; the antithesis of her desire is Anse, who, to Addie, is dead and "did not know he was dead." To her, Anse...

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As I Lay Dying Themes Developed

In an early monologue, Cora Tull asks her husband, Vernon, a question: If Addie's lying with relatives after death is so important to her, "Then why didn't she go alive?" Her question is an early statement of one of the major themes in the novel: what constitutes life and death? Addie's monologue, which answers Cora's question, occurs not only long after Addie's death but after the dangerous river crossing, which drowns two mules, nearly drowns her sons, Darl and Cash, and causes a bad break to Cash's previously broken leg. In short, it occurs after her family has already spent a great deal of energy fulfilling her supposedly sacred desire, to be buried with her relatives nearly 40 miles away rather than with Anse's Bundren relatives at New Hope cemetery less than three miles away. Unknown to Anse, Addie's burial plans are the revenge she takes on Anse for her pregnancy with Darl more than twenty years earlier. She is angry at being "tricked" into the pregnancy by Anse, by her unsatisfying life with Anse, by Anse's use of the word love, and by words in general. She sees "words" going "up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth." Out of Addie's revenge comes not only the action of the novel but all its themes as well.

In seeking to get married, Addie looked for someone to violate her sense of being alone, and though her son Cash invades her isolation, as has Anse himself earlier, after Addie's second pregnancy and the birth of Darl, Addie thinks of Anse as "dead." His "death" consists of his devotion to words rather than action. Anse does not work; instead, Anse's neighbors and his family work to support Anse. As Darl remarks, he has never seen sweat stains on any of Anse's shirts, and Vernon Tull, who observes, "Like most folks around here, I done holp [sic] him so much already I cant [sic] quit now." In spite of her distrust of words, Addie, has tried to force her husband into action (her burial in Jefferson) by trapping him with his own words (a promise he made after the birth of Darl). Actually, Addie succeeds only in trapping her neighbors and children. They are the ones who undertake all the work and risks, which Anse compels by using words to make himself a victim in need of assistance. Thus, Anse directs their activities by making others answer his needs.

What constitutes life and death develops from Addie's responses to Anse and his words as opposed to his actions, but other characters help illuminate this theme as well. Vardaman, Addie's youngest child, catches a huge fish at the time of his mothers death, so that for him the actions are causally related; he connects his catching and...

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