Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Impermanence of Existence and Identity
The death of Addie Bundren inspires several characters to wrestle with the rather sizable questions of existence and identity. Vardaman is bewildered and horrified by the transformation of a fish he caught and cleaned into “pieces of not-fish,” and associates that image with the transformation of Addie from a person into an indefinable nonperson. Jewel never really speaks for himself, but his grief is summed up for him by Darl, who says that Jewel’s mother is a horse. For his own part, Darl believes that since the dead Addie is now best described as “was” rather than “is,” it must be the case that she no longer exists. If his mother does not exist, Darl reasons, then Darl has no mother and, by implication, does not exist. These speculations are not mere games of language and logic. Rather, they have tangible, even terrible, consequences for the novel’s characters. Vardaman and Darl, the characters for whom these questions are the most urgent, both find their hold on reality loosened as they pose such inquiries. Vardaman babbles senselessly early in the novel, while Darl is eventually declared insane. The fragility and uncertainty of human existence is further illustrated at the end of the novel, when Anse introduces his new wife as “Mrs. Bundren,” a name that, until recently, has belonged to Addie. If the identity of Mrs. Bundren can be usurped so quickly, the inevitable conclusion is that any individual’s identity is equally unstable.
The Tension Between Words and Thoughts
Addie’s assertion that words are “just words,” perpetually falling short of the ideas and emotions they seek to convey, reflects the distrust with which the novel as a whole treats verbal communication. While the inner monologues that make up the novel demonstrate that the characters have rich inner lives, very little of the content of these inner lives is ever communicated between individuals. Indeed, conversations tend to be terse, halting, and irrelevant to what the characters are thinking at the time. When, for example, Tull and several other local men are talking with Cash about his broken leg during Addie’s funeral, we are presented with two entirely separate conversations. One, printed in normal type, is vague and simple and is presumably the conversation that is actually occurring. The second, in italics, is far richer in content and is presumably the one that the characters would have if they actually spoke their minds. All of the characters are so fiercely protective of their inner thoughts that the rich content of their minds is translated to only the barest, most begrudging scraps of dialogue, which in turn leads to any number of misunderstandings and miscommunications.
The Relationship Between Childbearing and Death
As I Lay Dying is, in its own way, a relentlessly cynical novel, and it robs even childbirth of its usual rehabilitative powers. Instead of functioning as an antidote to death, childbirth seems an introduction to it—for both Addie and Dewey Dell, giving birth is a phenomenon that kills the people closest to it, even if they are still physically alive. For Addie, the birth of her first child seems like a cruel trick, an infringement on her precious solitude, and it is Cash’s birth that first causes Addie to refer to Anse as dead. Birth becomes for Addie a final obligation, and she sees both Dewey Dell and Vardaman as reparations for the affair that led to Jewel’s conception, the last debts she must pay before preparing herself for death. Dewey Dell’s feelings about pregnancy are no more positive: her condition becomes a constant concern, causes her to view all men as potential sexual predators, and transforms her entire world, as she says in an early section, into a “tub full of guts.” Birth seems to spell out a prescribed death for women and, by proxy, the metaphorical deaths of their entire households.