As I Lay Dying: Symbolism In A Novel
“As I lay dying,” is a southern gothic novel written by William Cuthbert Faulkner. It follows a poor southern family, the Bundreds, on their journey to bury their deceased mother, Addie Bundred, where she wished to be buried in her hometown, Jefferson, with “her people.” The family faced an unexpected tragedy when their mother died, and they have more unexpected tragedy to come during their journey to bring them to a peaceful state after their beloved mom’s death. Faulkner uses a stream of consciousness writing style to develop each character and what they face throughout the novel. In this novel, Faulkner uses metaphors and symbolism to convey his major themes such as mortality and family throughout the novel.
One of the most famous metaphors that Faulkner uses in “As I Lay Dying,” is “My mother is a fish.” This five worded line is spoken by Vardaman Bundred, who says this, not meaning to be taken as significant or deep. He is referring to his mother’s death and her coffin floating in the river as they are crossing it during their journey. He has very little understanding of death and he actually thinks that his mother is a fish because of the experience he had prior in his life when he caught and cleaned fish, but he still doesn’t completely understand death nor does he know that his mother isn’t coming back. Even though Vardaman was not meaning to be, the depth of his line shows how everybody in his family has their own understanding of death and how their views can be taken as different aspects of mortality. After the death of his mother, none of the uncaring family bothered to explain to Vardaman what death was or that he would never be able to see his mother again. These five words show details about how nonadaptive the Bundred family is.
Faulkner uses the symbolism of eyes throughout the story to display the character of some of the individuals in the novel. Addie’s eyes are described as being “two flames that glare up for a steady instant. Then they go out as thought someone had leaned down and blown…” This comparison shows how Addie’s life was like a flame. She had an uncontrolled spirit that was shown by the memories of others. The flame burning out was symbolizing her tragic death and the end of her spirit. Jewels personality is seen through the description of his eyes as they were being described as “like pale wooden eyes,” and “pieces of a broken plate.” His dependability and hard work through the tough times are symbolized, but also how his mother’s death impacted him and made him very sorrowful. By describing Dewey Dell’s eyes as “pistols,” Faulkner reveals her selfishness and anger towards anyone because of her secret pregnancy. Faulkner’s use of description of the characters’ eyes gives the readers a better understanding of their personalities and what they were going through.
Addies death forces the family to go on an unwanted journey to Jefferson, Mississippi to bury her. The other secret agendas of the family members merge in the way of putting Addie to rest. Anse, Addies husband, is not portrayed in any favorable outcomes, but as a complainer who does little work. He acts as if he does not care that his wife just died and does not waste any time when it comes to finding a new wife. He holds this heartless nature a secret from the rest of the family. His other agendas for going to town are present, such as getting new teeth and a new wife. If he didn’t have these reasons, he might not have gone and honored his deceased wife in the first place. He tries to convince himself that he “ain’t afraid of work,” but it is very transparent that he is because he told his children that he would die if he sweated even though he got sick when he was a boy working, so he started saying he would die if he sweated. The only daughter, Dewey Dell, also goes to town mainly to do something other than honor her mothers wishes, which the reader knows is to get an abortion. From this, Faulkner connects how little the family cares for one another and how dysfunctional the family relationships are.
Faulkner uses this family’s journey to portray their connection with each other and how Addies death is very difficult for each family member, with Anse as the exception, as well as how life is more difficult without her. The night before they start their journey it rains. This causes the bridges to Jefferson to either collapse or to be standing on their last legs. The family makes it past the bridge, but once they get to Jefferson is when everything started to go bad. Darl Burden is crazy. Jewel Burden’s horse that he was riding on dies. Cash Burden breaks his leg, and Anse puts the cast on wrong. Dewey Dell isn’t allowed to get an abortion when she finally gets there the druggist tells her no. The only person that something bad doesn’t happen to in Jefferson is Anse Burden. He gets a shovel from a lady and ends up marrying her.
The stream of consciousness that Faulkner uses allows readers to see the point of view of the characters in the story and are able to understand why they do some of the insane events they do. It is shown throughout the story how hard it can be to lose a family member and how each person deals with it in different ways. The understanding of this family is enhanced as Faulkner uses metaphors and symbolism to show their ability to deal with death in different ways.