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As I Lay Dying | Themes

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Poverty

In rural Mississippi, for the poorest of farmers, every action is dictated by the desperate need for money or the need to purchase supplies or other items. In the novel, each family member is motivated by extreme financial need and the inability to alleviate it.

This is especially true for Anse, who is not above selling his children's possessions to get money for his needs, which presses more heavily on him than grief over the passing of his wife. For Anse, taking Addie's body to Jefferson becomes an opportunity to obtain new teeth. If his focus were really on burying Addie, he might have remembered to put a shovel in the wagon; instead, he has to borrow spades to dig her grave. In contrast, when Darl and Jewel agree to make a delivery for Tull to earn a bit of cash, Darl is upset because this forces him leave his mother, and he knows she will die while he is gone. Cash's broken leg can be attributed to Anse's cheapness. Cash broke the same leg before, after falling from a roof, but it was never set properly because Anse was unable or unwilling to pay for a doctor. The cement Anse uses to stabilize Cash's leg is a cheap alternative to getting him to the doctor; again, Anse's needs take precedence over his son's needs. Anse also takes Dewey Dell's money so he can get cleaned up and get new teeth. Faulkner uses the family's excruciating poverty to heighten tension and make the characters' conflicts between need and propriety palpable for the reader.

Cruelty

All of the Bundren family members suffer as a result of their poverty and their inability to communicate effectively with one another. The situation forces them to give up their personal dreams, and as a result, they are cruel to each other, intentionally or unintentionally. Examples abound:

  • Cash tries to make a beautiful coffin for his mother, but Jewel yells at him for making it where their mother can see it.
  • Darl harasses Jewel about the identify of his real father and is cruel to Dewey Dell when he learns she is pregnant.
  • Jewel is cruel to his horse, and he ignores Addie while she dies.
  • Addie's misery leads her to cheat on her husband with her minister. She is also cruel to her children and to herself.
  • Anse waits until it is too late to call doctors for Addie's illness and Cash's injury. After Dewey Dell lies to Anse about why she has money, Anse simply takes it from her. Anse also trades Jewel's horse in exchange for another pair of mules and takes money Cash has been saving.

It seems that the only release from all this suffering and cruelty is death.

Grieving

Naturally in a novel about the matriarch of a family dying, there is a focus on the grieving process of each member of the family. But the grieving begins even before Addie Bundren lies down to die. Addie grieves for her lost life in her marriage to Anse, a man who, to her, is dead almost immediately after she has his children. To her, his version of love is not at all love, and she is disillusioned by what her life has become with him. She decides her father, who told her that people are born preparing to die, is right, and as soon as she has given Anse two more children to erase her sin of adultery, she feels she has done enough for him. Addie grieves for the loss of the notion of real love, and her relief is promised by death.

As Addie is dying, the whole family grieves for her, except Anse, who is negligent and loves none of them to the extent they need. Cash is determined to make a beautiful coffin and spends far too much time on it. Darl is reluctant to leave his mother, knowing she will die while he is gone. Jewel seems callous, but once Addie is dead, he protects her coffin at all costs. Dewey Dell participates in Addie's care up until she dies, and helps with the funeral, but she is too worried about her pregnancy to let herself grieve her mother's death. Vardaman is convinced his fish's death is related to his mother's death, and he is desperate to believe she is not really dead.

Each of the characters also has a life to live, however, and the grief for Addie does not impede any of them from living their lives. Anse comforts himself with the thought of new teeth just a few moments after her death. Dewey Dell sees her chance in the family doctor to get the abortion she thinks she needs. Jewel sees the chance for freedom, and Cash wishes to show off his carpentry skills. Only the innocents, Darl and Vardaman, grieve fully for their mother. However, while Vardaman's grief seems to be healing, Darl's is destructive.

Self-Sufficiency

The Bundren family, in large part, strives for extreme self-sufficiency at its own expense. For example, Cash knows his father will not pay for treating his broken leg, so he insists on suffering through the pain and denying he is in need. In addition, it seems Addie sacrificed herself to care for her family. When people hear Addie has died, their first reaction is to say she is finally free of Anse, suggesting that Anse has been nothing but a burden.

However, Anse is anything but self-sufficient. His reputation for letting things go is such that, according to Dr. Peabody, Anse would borrow the hole in the ground to bury Addie if he could. Anse says he is determined to get Addie to Jefferson to bury her because it is her wish, but he forgets everything he needs to be able to do so, including the spades (shovels). The Bundren children all try to save their own money for the things they want or need, but Anse takes it from them or sells their possessions to fulfill his own needs, all the while moaning about the sacrifices he has made to keep them sheltered and fed. Anse's inability to achieve self-sufficiency keeps his children trapped in a cycle of dependency and dysfunction.

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