Themes in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying

Death is one inescapable theme of As I Lay Dying, which Faulkner has put in the center of the novel. The overall story moves around the death of Addie Bundren. The plot opens with the scene of ill Addie who soon dies and paves the way to Jefferson and she is buried there and the story ends. But during their journey, her death invokes and provokes much thought in the interiors of the characters.

William Faulkner (1897-1962)

Different people take her death in various ways. Though Addie is not presented alive in the novel, it is she who moves all the living characters here and there. In this way, death is depicted as a powerful force. The fuming reactions of other characters in the Bundren's journey up to Jefferson reveal the social beliefs on the death and the hidden worries over the fundamental truth of human life. Verdaman's narrative shows his understanding on the death and his confusions about the transformation of his mother into an indefinable nonperson.  Death is also taken as a painful process in light of the harshness of life. Addie is not permitted real rest. Her dead hands are described as still unresting, as if they could not believe that their work was done. And even after death, her body is made to suffer a number of new humiliations. Another view on the theme of death is also skillfully showing the novel. Through Addie’s narrative, Faulkner explores the possibility of living in a deadened state. Faulkner makes her narrate from the dead. Addie has a frustrated desire to live life, however, the antithesis of her desire is Anse. Who, to Addie, is dead and ''did not know he was dead.'' To her, Anse is a replica of restriction, blindness, and emptiness. Faulkner explores the implications of such an existence by exploring its potential in all of his characters.

Alienation and Loneliness

Alienation is another important theme of this novel. To intensify the theme of alienation, the author uses multiple narrators. The use of multiple narrator means basically all are isolated from each other and none agrees with the other's viewpoint. The lack of effective communication with one another keeps them locked inside themselves.  The members of the Bundren family are indifferent from each other-whether intentionally (like Addie or Jewel), innocently (like Anse, Cash, Dewey Dell, or Vardaman), or painfully (like Darl).  Though the reader is acquainted with the characters' thoughts and emotive responses, none of them sufficiently expresses his or her problems or wishes to others. Addie is a prominent instance of someone who both longs to surpass her isolation and at the same time stubbornly works to maintain a solid individuality. She violently imposes herself onto others without opening herself to them. Likewise, she hates her children, except Cash and her favorite, Jewel. Her flaws highlight the fundamental force to maintain one's private self while longing to connect with others. The isolation of Darl is the most poetic and the most tragic one. He has a powerful innate quality to see other's secrets, but his sensitivity and brilliance isolate him from others. Many characters like Dewey, Jewel and Addie hate Darl because he intrudes on their isolation and their secrets are known to him.

Meaning of Being and Identity of Self

In the novel the meaning of Being and self is raised time and again by Darl and Verdaman. Through Darl and Verdaman Faulkner explains the fluctuating nature of identity. When Addie dies, Verdaman cannot understand the difference between being 'is' and being 'was'. Verdaman goes on repeating his relationship with Darl and mother. He says, ''Darl is my brother,'' and ''My mother is a fish.'' Through this process, Verdaman identifies his relationship with others. For him, the process of being and identity is incomplete but progressing. But for Darl, the process of being and identity will never reach to the completion. The question of 'being' is so rooted in Darl's mind that he constantly mediate upon the difference between being and not being. Due to lack of his mother's love, he is alienated from not only 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.'' This type of interrogating within self leads him to the situation of madness and at last he is sent to the Asylum.

The Tension between Words and Thoughts

Language and its limitation are another significant theme in the novel As I Lay Dying. Faulkner is of the opinion that language is insufficient to express what we really feel and what we real meant to communicate. So, his most characters find it a great difficulty in communicating and they cannot employ right words in their narration. Many of his characters uses cliché to communicate which further brings chaos in their understanding instead of vividness in understanding. For Addie words are nothing, they are useless and they cannot be used in expressing one's emotions and ideas. So for her just actions count as words are detached from human emotions. The inner monologues of the novel exhibit that the characters have rich internal lives, but the exact rich content of these inner lives is not communicated between individuals. The conversations tend to be brief, hesitant, and unrelated to what the characters are thinking at the time. For example, when Tull and several other local men talk with Cash about his broken leg during Addie's funeral, two entirely separate conversations are presented in the novel. The one printed in normal type is vague and simple which is apparently the ongoing conversation. The second, in italics, is richer in content and is the one that the characters would have if they actually spoke their minds. All of the characters are so sternly defensive of their inner thoughts that their minds are translated to only the plainest, most resenting scraps of discourse, which in turn leads to a number of misinterpretations and miscommunications.


The poverty projected in the novel is another vital theme of Faulkner. The Bundrens are the poorest characters he has ever created in his novels. The poverty empowers the Bundrens in such a way that they forget to enjoy life. They often depend upon their neighbors which results into the hatred and insults from the neighbors. The condition of poorness makes their life miserable and they don't have time even for remorse over the death of Addie. They have to hide the pain and have to live the life accordingly. It is their poverty which is shown throughout the novel, which have become the main manipulating force in the novel. Poverty is the cause of physical pain. Bundren family is so poor that even the death of a mother cannot prevent her sons from going to earning. And while on the way to the graveyard, too, they cannot free themselves from their lowly 'business': buying false teeth by Anse through trickery, and so on.         


Faulkner inclines to be rather serious about simplistic Christianity. The religion of the people is put aside by the characters in terms of showing it in behaviors. Not only one individual is alienated from the other, but they are also alienated from God, or from the sense of religion. They seem to believe in the announcement of the death of God. A preacher named Whitfield, committing adultery, presents himself as a model of disbelief in religion. Likewise, Cora Tull, a former preacher, keeps on talking about gods, but for herself gods are nowhere but ''in pocket.'' Religion is mocked at by the so called servants of the god themselves.