Discuss the theme of decay in As I Lay Dying.

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Faulkner's As I Lay Dying features both literal and figurative forms of decay. The most literal decay we see in the novel is the decay of Addie's body over the course of the journey to Jefferson. The Bundrens run into many problems along the way, and Addie's coffin is dropped in the river and then later rescued from a burning barn. Because of all the obstacles (some of which are created by the family themselves), it takes longer than it really should to travel to Jefferson and bury Addie. Characters remark about the smell coming from Addie's coffin, and buzzards begin to follow the family's wagon as they travel into the city. In many of Faulkner's works, we see commentary on the decay of old Southern values, so this literal decay could reflect that larger concern of Faulkner's work.

In the more figurative sense, we see the decay of the family over the course of the novel, as well as the demise of Darl's mental health. Ironically, even though the family is forced to spend time close together on this journey, it seems to drive them further apart. They cannot communicate effectively with one another, and the patriarch, Anse, is selfish and takes advantage of his children for his own gain.

Darl, who seems to be the most perceptive and sensitive character in the Bundren family, is gradually driven insane by the events of the journey. He attempts to burn Addie's casket, sensing the absurdity of the family's efforts to get her body to Jefferson. Although his actions could be seen as sane in the context of a family whose actions make little logical sense, Darl is deemed insane and sent to an asylum. Part of this is practical: the family would have to pay for the damage to the barn otherwise. The demise of Darl's sanity allows Faulkner to comment on social attitudes towards sanity and insanity. The author seems to view these ideas as social constructs: if someone is different, he will be labeled "mad."

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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 Bundrens 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 rebreakin "the same leg he broke when he fell offen that church.” A horse doctor then resets Cash’s leg, and he faints 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. 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 an 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 alternates between speaking in 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. 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.

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