As I Lay Dying Themes Essay

Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Impermanence of Existence and Identity

The death of Addie Bundren inspires several characters to wrestle with the rather sizable questions of existence and identity. Vardaman is bewildered and horrified by the transformation of a fish he caught and cleaned into “pieces of not-fish,” and associates that image with the transformation of Addie from a person into an indefinable nonperson. Jewel never really speaks for himself, but his grief is summed up for him by Darl, who says that Jewel’s mother is a horse. For his own part, Darl believes that since the dead Addie is now best described as “was” rather than “is,” it must be the case that she no longer exists. If his mother does not exist, Darl reasons, then Darl has no mother and, by implication, does not exist. These speculations are not mere games of language and logic. Rather, they have tangible, even terrible, consequences for the novel’s characters. Vardaman and Darl, the characters for whom these questions are the most urgent, both find their hold on reality loosened as they pose such inquiries. Vardaman babbles senselessly early in the novel, while Darl is eventually declared insane. The fragility and uncertainty of human existence is further illustrated at the end of the novel, when Anse introduces his new wife as “Mrs. Bundren,” a name that, until recently, has belonged to Addie. If the identity of Mrs. Bundren can be usurped so quickly, the inevitable conclusion is that any individual’s identity is equally unstable.

The Tension Between Words and Thoughts

Addie’s assertion that words are “just words,” perpetually falling short of the ideas and emotions they seek to convey, reflects the distrust with which the novel as a whole treats verbal communication. While the inner monologues that make up the novel demonstrate that the characters have rich inner lives, very little of the content of these inner lives is ever communicated between individuals. Indeed, conversations tend to be terse, halting, and irrelevant to what the characters are thinking at the time. When, for example, Tull and several other local men are talking with Cash about his broken leg during Addie’s funeral, we are presented with two entirely separate conversations. One, printed in normal type, is vague and simple and is presumably the conversation that is actually occurring. The second, in italics, is far richer in content and is presumably the one that the characters would have if they actually spoke their minds. All of the characters are so fiercely protective of their inner thoughts that the rich content of their minds is translated to only the barest, most begrudging scraps of dialogue, which in turn leads to any number of misunderstandings and miscommunications.

The Relationship Between Childbearing and Death

As I Lay Dying is, in its own way, a relentlessly cynical novel, and it robs even childbirth of its usual rehabilitative powers. Instead of functioning as an antidote to death, childbirth seems an introduction to it—for both Addie and Dewey Dell, giving birth is a phenomenon that kills the people closest to it, even if they are still physically alive. For Addie, the birth of her first child seems like a cruel trick, an infringement on her precious solitude, and it is Cash’s birth that first causes Addie to refer to Anse as dead. Birth becomes for Addie a final obligation, and she sees both Dewey Dell and Vardaman as reparations for the affair that led to Jewel’s conception, the last debts she must pay before preparing herself for death. Dewey Dell’s feelings about pregnancy are no more positive: her condition becomes a constant concern, causes her to view all men as potential sexual predators, and transforms her entire world, as she says in an early section, into a “tub full of guts.” Birth seems to spell out a prescribed death for women and, by proxy, the metaphorical deaths of their entire households.

More main ideas from As I Lay Dying

The following paper topics are designed to test your understanding of the novel as a whole and to analyze important themes and literary devices. Following each question is a sample outline to get you started.

Topic #1
Nature plays as vital a part in many stories and poems as the characters do. As I Lay Dying relies a great deal on Nature and her forces to move the story line along. What universal natural symbols does Faulkner rely on and how does he incorporate them into the action of the novel?

Outline
I. Thesis Statement: The forces of Nature and the natural world compete against man in Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying.

II. The Bundren homestead
A. House built on a very steep hill
B. Gravity and angles make house seem warped or mysterious
C. Anse’s view of the road in front of the Bundren house

III. The rainstorm
A. Keeps people away from the house
B. Makes travel from or to the Bundren house difficult
C. Accompanies or announces Addie’s death
D. Causes bridges to be washed out

IV. The flooding river
A. Impedes crossing and slows the family down
B. Drenches Addie’s corpse
C. Drowns mules
D. Causes Cash to break his leg and get kicked by the horse.

V. Hot weather
A. Adds to discomfort and short tempers
B. Causes decomposing body to decay and smell sooner
C. Helps attract cat and buzzards to the wagon

VI. Birth and death
A. Dewey Dell’s view of birth/pregnancy
B. Addie’s view of birth and children
C. Bundren children’s relationship to Addie Bundren
D. Addie Bundren’s view of death
E. Addie’s family’s view of death
VII. Conclusion: The Bundrens, an “unnatural” family, find every aspect of the natural world a challenge—whether it is birth, weather, geography, or death.

Topic #2
Addie Bundren maintains that words are not important; they go straight up and bear no relation to things that happen. Words are important for Faulkner, however. Examine the names and the descriptions of the characters. Paying careful attention to descriptive phrases, imagery, and adjectives, discuss whether or not Faulkner is successful in drawing his characters.

Outline
I. Thesis Statement: Faulkner selects his descriptive words and phrases carefully in order to help the reader create a better picture—both physically and psychologically—of the characters inAs I Lay Dying.

II. Dewey Dell
A. Double meanings in her name
B. Association with earth/land
C. Association with farm animals
D. Words used by MacGowan and Jody
E. Words used by Darl

III. Jewel
A. Why Addie gave him this name
B. Words Darl uses to describe him
C. Words Cora uses to describe him
D. Words Tull and Peabody use to describe him
E. Association with animals

IV. Darl
A. Meanings his name connotes
B. Words Anse uses to describe him
C. Words Cash uses to describe him
D. Words Cora uses to describe him
E. Words Tull and Peabody use to describe him

V. Anse Bundren
A. Meanings his names connote
B. Association with animals
C. Words Addie uses to describe him
D. Words Darl uses to describe him
E. Words Peabody and Tull use to describe him

VI. Addie
A. Meanings her name connotes
B. Self-description and association with the dead/death
C. Words Anse uses to describe her
D. Words Cora uses to describe her
E. Words Darl uses to describe her

VII. Conclusion: A reader can achieve a more complete understanding of characters by examining how they appear to others in a story in addition to studying their own dialogue or narratives.

Topic #3
In As I Lay Dying William Faulkner appears unhappy with how people understand or misunderstand and use or misuse their religion. Through a careful study of their narratives, consider what problems Faulkner might find inherent in religion and how those characters who express religious feeling should actually behave.

Outline
I. Thesis Statement: Though a number of characters in the novel express belief in God, most of their religious feeling is misdirected or self-serving and falls short of being, what Cora Tull calls, “pure religious.”

II. Cora Tull
A. Hymn singing
B. Use of Bible quotes
C. Her relationship/place with God, as she sees it
D. Her view/opinion of others, in terms of her religion
E. Her views on death/Great Unknown
F. Her interpretation of our purpose in life

III. Anse Bundren
A. How he interprets his place in God’s eyes
B. How he understands God’s will
C. His use of the Lord’s name (when and how he uses it)
D. His view of our purpose in life

IV. Whitfield
A. What his role in the community is/has been
B. How Cora Tull views his role
C. How he views his role
D. How Addie views him
E. His sin or hypocrisy

V. Jewel
A. His view of God
B. His use of anti-religious language/terminology

VI. Dewey Dell
A. Her motivation for believing in God
B. Her view of what God does for people
C. How she uses her church-going clothes

VII. Conclusion: Faulkner feels that religion is meaningless if its ultimate purpose is personal gain or it is empty if its teachings become mere words without human understanding.

Topic #4
Darl Bundren is a complex character who can be viewed as mysterious or menacing, sympathetic or deranged. Through a careful examination of Darl’s narratives and those narratives which describe him, try to establish the “true” character of Darl.

Outline
I. Thesis Statement: Though others consider Darl to be...

(The entire section is 2505 words.)

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