Faulkner's structure is particularly suitable for the theme of isolation. The characters exist within their own series of interior monologues; we encounter each character, alone with their secret longings and fears. With many characters, we are struck by their loneliness. Darl's isolation is the most poetic and the most tragic. He is a powerfully intuitive observer, but his sensitivity and brilliance often isolate from others. He views his siblings with a paradoxically mixed attitude swerving from empathy and loyalty to supreme and insensitive detachment. Many characters resent Darl because of how he encroaches on their isolation: Dewey Dell hates Darl for making her feel vulnerable, and Jewel lashes out at Darl for seeing the truth about him.
The novel dwells on the realities of land, nature, and physical processes. One does not feel detached from nature, with all of its power and nastiness. The land and the difficulty of earning a living from it, as well as the power of the flooded river, reveal men as being part of an often hostile environment. Nature's belligerence is seen in our very bodies. The sanitized version of death favored by Whitfield is used only as a foil for the much nastier reality faced by the Bundrens. The stinking corpse and the ever present buzzards present a vision of death at its most repulsive and physical.
Work is a recurring theme of the novel, most often connected to Cash. Cash is a man whose work gives him an identity; we hear the sound of his saw before we see him, and in all of the characters monologues Cash is inseparable from his work as a carpenter. Work plays itself out in another way with Anse, whose laziness and stupidity, along with his whining and self-pity, earn the reader's unqualified contempt.
The Bundrens are among the poorest characters in all of Faulkner's work. This poverty imposes harsh limits on them. It makes them dependent on their neighbors, and resentful of that dependence; often, the Bundrens display a pathetic mixture of dependency and pride. Their poverty also makes life so harsh that little time can be allotted for grief, or healing. Pain is concealed, and the work of everyday life goes on.
Many character muse about God and man throughout the novel. Faulkner tends to be rather critical of simplistic Christianity. The minister Whitfield is revealed as a self-satisfied hypocrite, hiding his transgression with Addie yet maintaining that he has wrestled with the devil and won. Cora's piety also grows increasingly annoying, especially when it becomes clear that she ignores any fact or event that contradicts her pre-established beliefs.
Obligation is an important theme of the novel. The family is bringing Addie's body to Jefferson, to bury her as she wished to be buried. There is much talk about duty. Addie herself speaks of duty regarding her relationship to Anse; to hear her speak of it, duty is a joyless but necessary part of life. Anse, too, constantly speaks of his duty to Addie, and the need to bury the body where she wished it to be buried. But duty seems somewhat fragile. Anse takes up with a new woman less than two weeks after Addie's death. And in terms of duty, the ties within the Bundren family fray rather quickly when it comes time to turn in Darl.
Both Vardaman and Darl are taken by questions of being, consciousness, and identity. His mother's death has only added confusion to these questions; Vardaman cannot understand how something that "is" can become "was." Darl's musings veer between striking eloquence and a kind of elegant crudeness. Darl engages in intense sessions of questioning, in which he examines the foundations of being and consciousness. These questions take on a tragic significance when Darl loses his mind, and his concept of himself is completely undermined.
With the central action being the delivery of Addie Bundren's body to Jefferson, mortality is an inescapable theme. Mortality here is nasty and extremely physical, with a stinking corpse and fat buzzards always following close behind. Death is also rendered more painful in light of the harshness of life. Addie is not allowed 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 indignities.
As I Lay Dying Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for As I Lay Dying is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.