Throughout William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, the significant theme of decay runs through the narrative and impacts the major characters. Several major characters and narrators go through mental and physical decay as the novel progresses, and the decay culminates in confinement of the decayed.
The most obvious example, of course, is Addie Bundren’s rotting corpse. As the Bundren family attempt to move Addie’s body to her hometown of Jefferson, Mississippi, they run into numerous obstacles. It takes a long time to bring Addie to Jefferson, and her body becomes obviously decayed. Various people on the way comment on the smell of her dead body. A group of people exclaim, “Great God […] what have they got in that wagon?” “Buzzards”, scavengers who are after dead flesh, follow the Bundrens all the way to Jefferson. Addie’s death is the catalyst of the novel, the reason for the journey to Jefferson and most all of the characters’ actions and thoughts. Her decaying body is a reminder of this throughout the narrative.
Cash Bundren’s worsening physical condition also marks the Bundrens’ journey to Jefferson. When they first set off, Cash has a broken leg from a “falling off a church”. When they reach a river which has flooded over and washed away the bridges, they must attempt a river-crossing elsewhere. This dangerous undertaking injures Cash further, and rebreaks his already-broken leg. “It was the same leg he broke when he fell offen that church.” A horse doctor then resets Cash’s leg, and he “fainted” from the pain. Later, the Bundrens “stopped to buy some cement” to attempt to set Cash’s leg. Darl creates the cast, which actually causes Cash more pain and deterioration. “He lies on his back, his thin profile in silhouette, ascetic and profound against the sky.” The doctor Peabody tells Cash that he will walk on a hobble all his life, if he even walks at all anymore. He will “have to limp around on one short leg for the balance of [his] life—if [he walks] at all again.” “He has had two broken legs,” and his condition keeps worsening. The decline of Cash’s leg and overall health is threaded throughout the novel
Another character who degenerates throughout the novel is Darl Bundren, Addie’s second son. However, Darl’s decay is mental rather than physical. Darl begins as the narrator with the clearest and seemingly most objective voice, but as the story progresses, his voice descends into madness. Darl desperately sets Gillespie’s barn on fire in attempt to burn up his mother’s coffin. This act is seen as insane, although the Bundrens only commit Darl to the asylum in Jackson so they won’t have to pay reparations for Gillespie’s barn. However, there are indications that Darl’s mental facilities have actually deteriorated. His once rational voice turns into perplexing nonsense. By the end, he is speaking in alternate third person and first person voices, referring to himself as both “I” and “Darl.” This tremendous change from the beginning of the novel highlights the decaying of the Bundrens throughout Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.
At the end of the novel, the decay is confined. Addie is finally buried in Jefferson after numerous trials. The desperation and urgency of the Bundrens’ goal to bury her is enforced by the physically macabre details that follow them. Her body smells horrible, and they are followed by buzzards. Her body also goes through abuse when Vardaman bores holes into her coffin and they go through her face, as well as when her coffin falls into the river. However, all of this is resolved at the end when she is finally buried and supposedly “at peace.” Cash’s leg is finally fixed by Doctor Peabody, and Darl is institutionalized in a Jackson asylum. These events restrain the decay and supposedly resolve the story.