As I Lay Dying Themes
by William Faulkner

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Themes

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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 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...

(The entire section is 2,208 words.)