Poverty is one of the novel’s recurring themes. The harshness of the Bundren’s life is emphasized again and again. For the rural, life is hard work with no chance for rest. The Bundrens are particularly poor, and their situation has always been difficult. Because of this poverty, Jewel and Darl end up having to ship lumber, missing their mother’s death for three dollars.
Anse’s laziness is most decidedly a factor in their state. Anse generally comes off as a despicable character; he clearly means to have the boys go off and ship the lumber, missing their mother’s death for three dollars, but he is not man enough to say it directly. Instead he waffles and whines until his decision becomes clear. He is a weak man, always excusing his own behavior and acting with little real feeling for his family. When Addie dies, he thinks that finally he’ll be able to get false teeth. He makes some attempt at tenderness, but it is as if he does so because he knows he should, or he has seen others doing it. He attempts to smooth out the quilt, "as he saw Dewey Dell do" (47), but he only succeeds in wrinkling it. Faulkner’s language is heavy here, emphasizing Anse’s hands as bringing disorder and ugliness to whatever they touch. His gesture lacks real feeling; it is sentiment contrived because sentiment is appropriate, and to drive the point home to us Faulkner has Anse looking forward to his false teeth with his wife’s body not yet cold.
Anse’s neighbors have had to help him constantly throughout the years, so much so that they have become resigned to it. The voices coming from outside of the family are often characterized by a harsh judgment of the Bundrens and of Anse in particular. Faulkner also emphasizes that for those outside of the family, Addie’s death cannot be the sole focus of attention. Life is too demanding. Mortality as a theme is often juxtaposed to the need to keep on living. Peabody, being pulled up the mountain to see Addie, reflects on his old age and the demands of his work. Cora thinks of her cakes. Vernon Tull sends Jewel and Darl to ship lumber for him. The intent is not always to show that a character is petty, but to depict a life that is demanding and unrelenting in its harshness.
Darl’s voice continues to be the most eloquent and relied-upon. Anse’s interior monologue reveals his weak will and dimness. Dewey Dell’s interior monologues are delivered from the throes of powerful fear and emotion. Vardaman’s monologues are similar to Darl’s in many ways. They are, not surprisingly, less mature, but the young boy shares Darl’s taste for bizarre imagery and relentless questioning of the very terms of his own existence.
The Tulls and Peabody provide valuable outsiders’ perspective. They universally condemn Anse, more or less, for his laziness and weakness. Tull notes that one can always tell Anse’s shirts apart: there are no sweat stains, the implication being that Anse never works (27). On the other Bundrens, their opinions vary. Cora is extremely fond of Darl; she sees in him a sensibility finer and gentler than among any other Bundren. So much so that she seems to cling to illusions about him: she believes that he begged to stay with Addie instead of delivering the lumber, and claims in her interior monologue that Vernon told her so. Yet in Vernon Tull’s own interior monologue, we hear the exchange with Darl. As Vernon Tull’s interior monologue depicts it, Darl is hesitant and seems sad about leaving while Addie dies, but he does not beg.
This example highlights the complexity of the portraits that emerge in As I Lay Dying. We listen to the very strong opinions characters have of one another. Usually interior thought is emphasized far more than dialogue. While dialogue as a way to reveal characters would provide more objective evidence, we would lose the psychological complexity of the portraits.
The Tulls talking among themselves as they leave is one of the rare moments when we learn from dialogue. The family, heading home, begins naturally to discuss the Bundrens. Kate and Eula seem preoccupied with Cash, Darl, and Jewel, and the possibility that they’ll get married soon; Kate speaks with some scorn about Jewel’s fiery nature. Kate also speaks with scorn about Anse, predicting that if Addie dies Anse will find a new wife before cotton-picking time (28). Though people help Anse, no one seems to respect him.
The death scene itself is revealed in Darl’s section, although he is not there to witness it. The passage merits close examination, so that readers can reach their own conclusions. Although Darl is not there, the passage seems to be narrated from a more detached version of Darl’s own voice. Anse is referred to as "Pa," for example, suggesting that we are seeing things from Darl’s perspective. But the italicized passages are more strongly in a personal voice: in these italicized passages, we hear about the wagon accident. Also, Darl continues to narrate the death in the italicized passages, although the tense (future: ie "She will go out where Peabody is") suggests that Darl is imagining what is happening. But there is continuity between the italicized passages and the non-italicized. Darl’s voice is the only voice Faulkner seems willing to use for this scene. He and Jewel are among the most affected by Addie’s death. Darl’s sensitivity and eloquence are matched throughout the novel with his strange detachment and isolation. In this light, it makes some sense that Darl’s voice should narrate Addie’s death. The situation mirrors Darl’s own paradoxical relationship to the event. He is more close to it, more moved by the event and its implications, but his mind leads him to be isolated from his own family. He is literally removed from his mother by the errand, just as he is psychologically and spiritually isolated from all around him.
As Faulkner depicts it, and as the structure of the novel suggests, real intimacy and tenderness are close to impossible in the Bundren family. Work and the realities of poverty darken all aspects of life, and hope and longing are always expressed alone. The family lives in squalid, cramped conditions, and yet isolation is one of their trademarks. Remember Darl reflecting on his boyhood, and the first times he masturbated: Cash was sleeping not a few feet away, but Darl does not know if Cash was doing the same thing. Solitary masturbation in complete darkness is the only glimpse we get of Darl’s and Cash’s sexuality. Dialogue between the Bundrens is almost always spare and minimal, and juxtaposed to a torrent of powerful, often violent internal reflections. Darl is the only character who occasional gives voice to his thoughts, and probes into the interior lives of his siblings: with both Jewel and Dewey Dell, this habit of Darl’s earns resentment, even hatred.
In Addie’s death we are reminded again of the harshness of rural poverty. The themes of poverty and work run through the passages. Motherhood, as depicted here, is a life-destroying venture, without joy or tenderness. Peabody says of Addie, and her fierce unspoken insistence that he leave the room: "Seem them [women like Addie] drive from the room them coming with sympathy and pity, with actual help, and clinging to some trifling animal to whom they never were more than pack-horses" (41). Even more striking is the description of Addie’s hands: "the hands alone still with any semblance of life: a curled, gnarled inertness; a spent yet alert quality from which weariness, exhaustion, travail has not departed, as though they doubted even yet the actuality of rest, guarding with horned and penurious alertness the cessation which they know cannot last" (46). Addie’s hands bear the marks of her hard life.
For Dewey Dell, there is not time enough to articulate her own emotions to herself: "I try to but I can’t think long enough to worry" (53). Her thoughts are some of the must muddled in the book: she speaks not with the complicated and eccentric eloquence of Darl but in a voice near-hysterical with worry. Her mother’s death is deeply painful: she throws herself on Addie’s corpse with an unexpected intensity. She has lost her lover, who has abandoned her and left her pregnant. Her isolation is clear. But she is so used to being alone that she resents intrusions. Darl, for example, earns her resentment because of how intimately he understands her. Even more intrusive is the growing presence in her womb: "I feel my body, my bones and flesh beginning to part and open upon the alone, and the process of coming unalone is terrible" (55). Dewey Dell must begin to worry about finding a way to end the pregnancy.