Morality of Actions in As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is a novel about a family that travels to Jefferson, a town in Mississippi, to fulfill the wish of their deceased mother to be buried there. The long journey reveals the true character and motives of each family member. Along the way, several members commit selfless acts and reveal their altruistic side, while others carry out selfish acts triggered by their purely personal motives. Faulkner’s style and storytelling are quite insightful and often makes the reader contemplate the true character of each family member.
In William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, he portrays characters guided by actions to benefit themselves, to benefit others, and actions with unknown causes or justifications. Arguably the most selfish character in the novel is Anse, the father of the Bundren family and wife of Addie. Anse comes off as an unintelligent, greedy, and uncaring character throughout the journey. Anse is more concerned with bothering his kids and what they are doing rather than spending time comforting his wife during her last minutes. Anse utilizes Addie’s wish to travel to Jefferson to fulfill a motive of his own: to purchase a new set of teeth. During the journey, Anse mentions his new teeth several times, and shows indifference that his wife just died and they are going to bury her. “But I durn if He dont take some curious ways to show it, seems like. But now I can get them teeth. That will be a comfort. It will.” (Faulker 111) When Cash, one of Anse’s sons, breaks his leg, Anse is too cheap to hire a doctor so he pours cement on his leg to form a cast. Anse also steals Cash’s money when he was unconscious from the pain of his injury. Furthermore, he forces another one of his sons, Jewel, to sell his beloved horse to pay for the families’ travel,because Anse is too broke and stubborn to get a job.
Along with Anse, Dewey Dell, the only female child, commits several actions to benefit only herself. Dewey’s motive is to buy “something” to fix her abortion down in Jefferson. She also fails to show love towards her mother and family, focusing her efforts on this motive. Dewey hates taking blame for her actions, and does not even recognize her own pregnancy as her own fault. When she encounters the druggist in Jefferson, he tells her that if she has sex with him he will give her something to stop her abortion. She willingly accepts the deal, while her younger brother Vardaman waits outside for her. At the very end of the novel, when her brother Darl is the only person to know of her pregnancy, she attacks him in order to ultimately send him to a mental institution. “Dewey Dell preoccupies herself once again with thoughts of her potential pregnancy, referring to herself as a “little tub of guts.” (Slaughter)
Addie Bundren, the mother and figure whom the novel is centered around, also comes off as a self-centered character. Addie’s life is filled with sorrow and loneliness, and she feels that having kids is basically going to give meaning to her. However, Jewel and Dewey Dell are the only two of her children that she cares about and have given her happiness. “She looks at pa; all her failing life appears to drain into her eyes, urgent, irremediable. It’s Jewel she wants.” (Faulkner 47) The rest she considers to be failures and meaningless births. “And I knew that I had Cash, I knew that living was terrible and that this was the answer to it.” (Faulker 171) Although Addie dies, she narrates several chapters and even admits that Anse was “dead to her” even though they were still married for ten years. Through both her actions and statements, we see that Addie is a completely egocentric and depressed mother, and also a bad wife.
Despite the selfish characters and actions in the novel, there are several who also exhibit selfless devotion to their family. Firstly, Cash can unquestionably be considered the most virtuous character in the entire book. (Padgett) At the beginning of As I Lay Dying, he is building a coffin for his mother out in the rain while the rest of his family is inside. Along the trip, he shows compassion for his mother and his family, especially little brother Vardaman. He is constantly comforting and explaining the families’ situation to him, particularly what Addie’s death means. When the family is crossing a river, the wagon falls and the coffin floats away. Cash manages to rescue it while re-breaking his leg in the process. He suffers tremendous pain and his family makes him a makeshift cast out of cement as an attempt to help, although later he has to get the leg amputated due to infection. During the entire journey, even in the most difficult and painful times, he remains silent and never complains. His main focus is always on his mother’s wish and the good of the family. Cash is an extremely selfless character, as demonstrated by his actions and attitude in the novel.
Another character who display selflessness is Darl. Darl comes off as something of a misfit in the family, and tends to have a completely different attitude and thought process. He is intelligent and gets along well with others for the most part, but at times his odd way of thinking and interacting ultimately decides his fate. (Faulker’s) He is very loyal along the journey and shows his dedication to his family and mother. While the family is staying at a barn, Darl decides to burn it down in an attempt to bury his mother there. Darl believes that is the best for her at the time, and is actually doing it out of his love for her. The coffin is rescued and his plan fails. Later on, the town’s police arrest him and his sister attacks him for his knowledge of her pregnancy. Darl knew about her pregnancy all along and told no one, yet his sister still attacked him at the end.
Along with Cash and Darl, Jewel also shows his love and selflessness throughout the novel. Jewel remains quiet throughout much of the novel, much unlike his brother Darl. We see Jewel’s true character when he sells his beloved horse for his mother’s burial. His father is too cheap to work or get the money, and Jewel sacrifices a large part of himself for his mother. He also protects Addie’s coffin along the way and ensures its safety to Jefferson. Jewel furthermore searches out of love and respect for Cash’s tools that had fallen in the river. (Dudek) There was no real need to, but Jewel knew they were valuable to Cash and wanted to make his brother happy. Later on, Jewel believes that a man has insulted his family, and he almost starts a fight to stand up for them. Jewel’s actions of bravery and selflessness show his true good character throughout the journey. In addition to the many self-centered or selfless actions in the story, there are several characters whose real motives are unknown or hard to find. A great example of this is Vardaman. Vardaman is a confused and misguided young boy whose exact age is not given. Vardaman’s inability to comprehend is proved in two main actions during the journey. First, he drills holes in his mother’s coffin to try to allow her to breathe. Vardaman does not understand the principle of death. Next, he catches a fish and imagines that his dying mother is the fish. (Padgett) He chops the fish up the next day, and thinks that is his dead mother. “It is cut up into pieces of not-fish now, not-blood on my hands and overalls. Then it wasn’t so. It hadn’t happened then. And now she is getting so far ahead I cannot catch her.” (Faulkner 53) Along the journey, Vardaman is a confused and misguided boy with unknown reasons behind his logic and actions.
Other members of the family also have unknown reasons for their actions. Jewel is the most quiet of the family, and for the first half of the novel he barely talks at all. We know that he adores his horse, but besides that we know little at all. “It’s because I am alone. If I could just feel it, it would be different, because I would not be alone. But if I were alone, everybody would know it.” (Faulkner 59) Darl comes off as a very mysterious and different character. He tends to think differently from the rest of the family, and they don’t quite understand why he does what he does. (Fargnoli) For example, his burning of the burn was completely unjustified and his family thought he was insane. In addition to the family, other members in the novel also commit actions for unknown reasons. Cora Tull, a neighbor, helps Addie during her final days and comforts her instead of her family at times, despite the fact that she disapproves of Addie’s life and the way she acts. (Bloom) While Addie is dying, Whitfield frantically ran to her bed and asked Anse to be forgiven. He wanted to explain to Anse about his and Addie’s affair and pray to God in front of him. He does this for a completely unnecessary and unexplained reason, and hopes that Addie hasn’t already told Anse their secret. There are several characters in the novel, besides the main family, that commit actions for unknown or secret reasons.
In conclusion, William Faulkner displays selfish actions, selfless actions, and actions committed for unknown reasons to explain the true motives and nature of individual characters in the novel. The novel revolves around Addie’s death wish, however even she lived a life full of lies and loneliness. Cash, Jewel, and Darl are among those who show their love for others through their actions. Other characters, such as the greedy Anse, display the selfish side of their personality through their motives for the journey. Several supporting characters also commit actions for unknown and unnecessary reasons such as Cora Tull and Whitfield. As I Lay Dying provides a fantastic overview of the principles of greediness and unselfishness, while showing how these principles can truly affect peoples’ lives.
“As I Lay Dying”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 09 May. 2016
“As I Lay Dying: Essay Q&A.” Novelguide. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 May 2016. Bloom, Harold. ed. William Faulkner: Modern Critical View. New York: Chelsea Street, 1986.
Dudek, HanaRae. “Family in As I Lay Dying.” McClinton-Temple, Jennifer ed. Encyclopedia of Themes in Literature. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2011. Bloom’s Literature. Facts On File, Inc. Web. 11 Apr. 2016
Fargnoli, Nicholas A., Michael Golay, and Robert W. Hamblin. “As I Lay Dying.” Critical Companion to William Faulkner: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work, Critical Companion. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2008. Bloom’s Literature. Facts On File, Inc. Web. 11 Apr. 2016
Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. Guernsey, UK: Vintage, 1996.
“Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying: Form of a Funeral | EDSITEment.” Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying: Form of a Funeral | EDSITEment. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 May 2016.
Padgett, John B. “As I Lay Dying.” In Anderson, George P., Judith S. Baughman, Matthew J. Bruccoli, and Carl Rollyson, eds. Encyclopedia of American Literature: Into the Modern: 1896–1945, Revised Edition, vol. 3. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2008. Bloom’s Literature. Facts On File, Inc. Web. 11 Apr. 2016
Slaughter, Carolyn Norman. “As I Lay Dying: Demise of Vision.” American Literature 61.1 (1989): 16. Web.
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William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is a novel about a family that travels to Jefferson, a town in Mississippi, to fulfill the wish of their deceased mother to be […]