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.
Death 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 symbolizes restriction, blindness, and emptiness. Faulkner explores the implications of such an existence by exploring its potential in all of his characters, particularly those who use platitudes to avoid genuine feeling and self-examination.
Identity Questions about the nature and strength of self-identity recur throughout the novel. Some characters, like Anse, Cash, Jewel, and the Tulls, possess a defined senses of self. Yet it is through the characters of Darl and Vardaman that Faulkner explores the fragile nature of identity. Vardaman almost compulsively defines his relationships with others, repeating "Darl is my brother" and, more famously, "My mother is a fish." Through these repetitions, Faulkner articulates the development of identity as Vardaman relates to others.
For Vardaman, the process is incomplete but progressing. For Darl, the process will never reach completion. The absence of his mother's love leads Darl to isolation not only from others but also from himself. He expresses the differences between himself and Jewel when he says, "I don't know what I am. I don't know if I am...
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or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not." In such passages, Darl's insights prove both compelling and disturbing since it calls into question the very essence of human consciousness.
Language and Meaning One of Faulkner's central themes in the novel is the limitation of language. From the inability of the characters to communicate with one another, to Addie's singular distrust of words, to the unlikely vocabulary the characters employ in their narration, Faulkner explores the inadequacy of language to express thought and emotion. Many characters communicate only through platitudes. As a result, they create misunderstanding rather than understanding between people. These instances of ineffective communication are not as comprehensive as Addie's rejection of language, however. For Addie, words cannot express human experience because they are so distant from human experience. Only action matters for her (and for the inarticulate Jewel).
Faulkner also reveals the limitations of language by contrasting the thoughts of his characters with their actual words. In their narratives, the characters often employ vocabulary far beyond their educational level or speech customs. These passages underscore Faulkner's attempts to verbalize his characters' groping for meaning and adequate expression, In this way, Faulkner comments on the tenuousness of language itself.
Love and Passion Love and passion are major themes of the novel. The relationships and destinies of the characters rely heavily on love and intense emotions. In particular, Addie is defined by passion. Her affair with Whitfield results from genuine feeling, and the rejection of her husband and three of her children is equally intense. Her commitment to Cash and Jewel is fierce and loving. This love helps them to nurture a strong self-identity, which Darl, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman often lack.
Sanity and Insanity By chronicling both the Bundrens' journey and Darl's descent into madness, Faulkner explores the themes of sanity and insanity. The fact that the Bundrens would undertake such an arduous journey strikes both the reader and other characters as deranged folly. For most of the Bundrens, however, the trip is perfectly sensible considering their ultimate goals: Anse's new teeth, Dewey Dell's abortion, and Jewel's loyalty to his beloved mother. They may be selfish and blind to social convention, but their desires are understandable, even if they seem misplaced in the current context. Since all of the narrators hold views that others may consider senseless, evaluations of people's sanity prove arbitrary in the novel.
Darl's case is different, however. He exhibits signs of telepathy, burns Gillespie's barn, is eventually committed to an insane asylum, and ends his final narration in a rant. Yet Darl is reacting to circumstances beyond his control. He cannot help feeling the lack of his mother's love, nor can he contain his hypersensitivity to the world. The other characters may remain "sane" simply because they work to maintain their isolation from the world. Because Darl cannot, or will not, be blind, he may be overwhelmed by knowledge. Perhaps, as André Bleikasten suggests in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, "From the depths of his own madness, Darl discovers—and makes us discover—the madness of the universe."
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 cleaning of the fish with his mother's dying. Hoping to reverse the process of death, trying to undo it, Vardaman drills holes in her coffin for her to breathe, and he imagines her swimming in the river when the wagon carrying her corpse is overturned by the flood.
Like Vardaman and his fish, Jewel treats his horse with the same passionate anger and love that he feels for Addie. When Darl cryptically says that Jewel's mother is a horse, he means just that.
Addie's daughter, Dewey Dell, who Darl alone knows is pregnant by Lafe, seeks to end her pregnancy with the help of Lafe's ten dollars and a pharmacist she plans to visit on the burial journey. Throughout Addie's illness, her death, and the journey to Jefferson, Dewey Dell contemplates the pregnancy, her fractured identity, perceiving herself "a wet seed wild in the hot blind earth."
For Darl, Addie's death leads to another theme, sanity and insanity. From Addie's monologue, the reader knows that Addie has loved Cash, her first born child, and Jewel, her child with Whitfield. Addie never wanted to be pregnant with Darl and never accepted Darl after his birth. Darl is conscious of both her attitude and his missing figural birthright. He knows that Jewel and Cash, who have that birthright, are confident in their lives because of it, and because he does not, he questions his own identity. With Addie's death, any possibility of getting the validation that he needs from her is also gone. He not only questions his own existence, but his own sanity and the sanity of the journey itself. More effort is made for a dead Addie than was ever taken for the living one. Like strangers and neighbors, such as the lulls, Samson, and the Armstids, Darl wonders about the necessity of the burial journey and the craziness of keeping Addie unburied for ten days. The stench of her corpse, the dizzying flight of the accompanying buzzards, and the desperate crossing of the flood swollen river, in addition to Darl's own anger and emotional defeat at his mother's hands, lead him to deliberately separate Jewel from Addie at her death. Eventually these events and emotions lead Darl to set fire to Gillespie's barn to destroy Addie's rotting corpse and coffin.
When Darl burns the barn, his sanity becomes an issue. During Darl's last monologue, in which he refers to himself in the third person as he is taken to the insane asylum in Jackson, Faulkner establishes Darl's insanity; however, Faulkner also leaves Darl's insanity open to question. Three members of Darl's family want him gone. Calling Darl insane is Anse's way to avoid repaying Gillespie for the destroyed barn. If Darl is sane, the debt must be paid; if he is insane, the debt must be forgiven. Dewey Dell wishes to kill Darl because he knows about her pregnancy, and Jewel is angry at Darl for trying to burn Addie's corpse; thus, it is no surprise that both hold him down so that Darl can be carried to the asylum. Only Cash and Vardaman grieve at what happens to Darl, and even then Cash does not grieve long.
Once Addie is in the ground, the Bundren family seems to forget about her. Thanks to Dewey Dell's ten dollars, Anse buys his new teeth; he also marries a new wife. Vardaman has hopes of seeing an electric train he fancies, Cash looks forward to listening to his new stepmother's victrola, and all seem to be content, or as Cash says, like monkeys, eating bananas. Addie's death also benefits Whitfield since his hypocritical affair with her is safely hidden in the past.