What are the most prominent social issues in As I Lay Dying?

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Although race is an overwhelmingly important theme on William Faulkner's work, it is more of a background issue in As I Lay Dying than in his other novels. However, racial inequality for Faulkner was one of the defining issues of the South and was central to his characters' sense...

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Although race is an overwhelmingly important theme on William Faulkner's work, it is more of a background issue in As I Lay Dying than in his other novels. However, racial inequality for Faulkner was one of the defining issues of the South and was central to his characters' sense of identity.

Gender roles were also important for Faulkner. While Faulkner was not as deeply concerned about gender inequality as about race, he still movingly portrayed the effects of patriarchy in limiting the choices of female characters. Even women who are the victims of violence or spousal abuse stay in toxic situations due to lack of alternatives. Addie was trapped in a marriage in which she was unhappy and served almost as an unpaid servant.

Dewey Dell Bundren is a rape survivor seeking an illegal abortion. Poverty and laws both prevent her from having access to safe abortion despite being a teenage rape survivor. She also illustrates the problem of teen pregnancy and the way it can trap girls in a cycle of poverty and abuse.

Extreme poverty affects all the characters in the novel, limiting their choices and their ability to get adequate medical care, food, shelter, and other basics of life.

Mental health issues are prominent in the story of Darl Bundren and the way he is stigmatized by his family, although, as is true with other Faulkner characters, his apparent feeblemindedness belies a distinctive level of insight and empathy.

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The main social issues highlighted in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying are poverty and the oppression of women.

Poverty is a social issue that is explored by virtue of the fact that all of the characters are very poor. Their lack of money and resources drives much of their action in the novel. For example, in Cora Tull's first point-of-view chapter, she obsesses over cakes she has made for someone who then changed her mind and no longer wanted to buy the cakes. Her narrative repeats her concern for "cost" and "saving," indicating that even a seemingly minor event like this is a major problem in people's lives when they are living in poverty and barely surviving. As her daughter Kate tells Cora, "'But those rich town ladies can change their minds. Poor folks can't'" (7).

The Bundren family is also poor, perhaps in an even worse state than the Tulls. Only some of the Bundrens can work and earn money. The patriarch, Anse, is useless and claims to be injured so that he cannot contribute to the family finances. Darl and Jewel must leave their dying mother's side for the opportunity to make "three dollars," which is a sum the family cannot pass on. When they family gets to town to bury Addie, the townsfolk can easily take advantage of them due to their lack of education. The way the characters speak also indicates their probable illiteracy due to their low status.

Speaking of Bundren characters being taken advantage of, Dewey Dell illustrates how easily women can be manipulated, especially women who are poor, uneducated, and desperate. She has become pregnant and wants an abortion; however, MacGowan takes advantage of her ignorance and, it is presumed, rapes her. Dewey Dell is now the only woman in the family; as soon as Addie dies, Dewey Dell is expected to take over all the "female" responsibilities. She is to go cook dinner only moments after witnessing her mother's death. She has no female relative to go to for advice about her pregnancy. She is going to be expected to basically raise Vardaman, her younger brother, in addition to her own child.

In Addie's point-of-view chapter, we also learn how incompatible she was with the expectations for women in her time and society. She has no real interest in marrying Anse and after having Cash, she doesn't have much interest in having other children. She says she felt Anse "had tricked [her]" through marrying her, claiming to love her, and impregnating her with Darl. Clearly, Addie is uncomfortable with expectations placed upon women to be wives and mothers in the early-twentieth-century American South.

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Faulkner's As I Lay Dying does not rank high on the social issues pecking order, but here are a few:

Lack of education: Sex education is non-existent; Dewey Dell doesn't know how she got pregnant.  Anse puts Cash's leg in a cement cast.  Addie beats her students.  Peabody is an obese doctor who has to be pulled up the hill.  The family carts around a decaying body for eight days.  Needless to say, the Deep South needs education reform.

Mental illness: Vardaman does not understand death and thinks his mother is a fish.  Darl is committed to a mental hospital mainly because of his actions (barn burning), not based on a thorough psychiatric exam.  So, no one knows who's crazy or sane.  It's all based on social expectation, which--in an illegitimate society--is a recipe for disaster.  They're all probably nuts.  Or, in that society, they're all sane.  As Cash says:

Sometimes I think it aint none of us pure crazy and aint none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way. It’s like it aint so much what a fellow does, but it’s the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it.

Social Class: the Bundrens are dirt poor and lazy.  Even their backwoods neighbors thumb their noses at them.  The Bundrens' idea of high society is Jefferson, where they get false teeth, a train, and a back-alley abortion.  They make the Beverly Hillbillies look sophisticated.

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