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As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner Online Book Summary

 

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AS I LAY DYING - THEMES - THEME ANALYSIS

In As I Lay Dying , the theme of sanity’s tenuousness is expressed by contrasting Darl, the one everyone considers insane, with those characters whom society deems sane but whose actions are difficult to comprehend or to accept. Darl is the narrator with whom the reader might be likely to associate based upon reasons of intelligence, experience, or sophistication, but he is "insane" and cruel at times. The "sane" characters participate in a trek, which is macabre and self-destructive. It is finally Cash who states that these terms, "sane" and "insane," are not exclusive and that each person expresses both.


DEATH SHAPES LIFE

Addie, in death, motivates the living. She causes her family to bear the struggle of the Journey to Jefferson. Her different attitudes toward her children dictate their different responses to her death and prompt one-Jewel-to perform feats of heroism. The rivalry between Jewel and Darl continues long after Addie's death. Even her decaying corpse motivates the living-to flee.


LIFE IS ABSURD-A JOURNEY WITH NO MEANING

The purpose of the journey, from Addie's point of view, is revenge. But Anse isn't allowed to understand that. Nor is he perceptive enough to understand that the journey is senseless. He could have buried Addie at New Hope and bought false teeth another day. This interpretation was popular in the 1950s, especially among French Existentialists, members of a philosophical movement that holds the universe to be absurd.


HUMANS HAVE AN OBLIGATION TO BE INVOLVED WITH OTHERS

Some readers interpret Addie's longing for intense personal contact-her "duty to the alive, to the terrible blood"- as support for this theme. Such involvement with others gives meaning to existence. The help the Bundrens are given by their neighbors and the help they give each other demonstrate the importance of involvement.



ALL HUMANS LIVE IN SOLITUDE AND SOLIDARITY AT THE SAME TIME

We live in our own cells even while acting in unison with others to achieve a common goal-a goal as simple as moving a body about 40 miles to a cemetery. The 59 interior monologues that make up the novel are clear demonstrations of the cells in which individuals live. "Man is free and he is responsible, terribly responsible," Faulkner told an interviewer in 1959. "His tragedy is the impossibility-or at least the tremendous difficulty-of communication. But man keeps on trying endlessly to express himself and make contact with other human beings."


LANGUAGE IS VANITY WHILE ACTION-EVEN "SINFUL" ACTION-IS THE TEST OF LIFE

This is a theme of great importance to Addie, for whom words are "just a shape to fill a lack." "Words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless," she says, while "doing goes along the earth, clinging to it...." In various ways,
Anse, Cora, and Whitfield exemplify the emptiness of words when compared with action. On the other hand, the most inarticulate character in the novel, Jewel, is all motion. He expresses himself through action, not words.


TRUTH IS ELUSIVE, SINCE FACTS ARE SUBJECTIVE

Each of the novel's 15 narrators has a perspective on reality that may or may not be accurate. Is Darl sane or insane? Is Vardaman's mother a fish? Is Addie's sin, as Cora says, the sin of pride, and the log that struck the wagon "the hand of God"? Does Anse have some feeling, a lot of feeling, or no feeling toward Addie? Since Faulkner provides no narrator to help you sift through the various characters' perceptions, you are left to draw your own conclusions.

Readers have also identified several secondary themes in As I Lay Dying. Among them are the following.


THE CONFLICT BETWEEN THE POOR WHITE FARMERS AND THE TOWNSPEOPLE

These two groups are at odds throughout the novel, from the "rich town" lady's rejection of Cora's cakes to Dewey Dell's seduction by the slick druggist's assistant in Jefferson.


DARL'S PREOCCUPATION WITH JEWEL

Darl, the unwanted son, is obsessed with Jewel, the favorite son, from the first sentence of the novel almost to the end.


THE POWER TO ACT

Some characters have this power, some don't. After reading As I Lay Dying, you might want to rank the characters according to their ability to act. Most readers would place Jewel at the head of the list, Anse at the bottom.


THE POWER TO LOVE

Some of the characters have this ability, some can only talk about it. Perhaps more than anyone, Addie and Jewel have this power-one which Jewel, by saving his mother twice, merges with his power to act. As the Bible would have it, he does "not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth" (1 John 3:18).


THE ROLE OF SEX

It is a source of tension between men and women, an antidote to loneliness, and a method of achieving immortality. Addie lives on through her children and through children who, like Dewey Dell's, are yet unborn.

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