A Alienation and Loneliness
Faulkner’s use of multiple narrators underscores one of his primary themes: every character is essentially isolated from the others. Moreover, the characters in the novel do not communicate effectively with one another. Although the reader is privy to the characters’ thoughts and emotional responses, none of the characters adequately expresses his or her dilemmas or desires to others. Outside of Darl, who knows Addie’s and Dewey Dell’s secrets through intuition, the characters can only guess at the motivations, beliefs, and feelings of others. When these guesses turn out to be wrong, misunderstandings ensue.
As a result of their communication problems, members of the Bundren family live alienated from each other-whether willfully (like Addie or Jewel), unknowingly (like Anse, Cash, Dewey Dell, or Vardaman), or painfully (like Darl). This alienation extends to neighbors, who misinterpret or simply cannot fathom the family’s actions.
The more sensitive characters, especially Addie and Darl, recognize their alienation from others. In particular, Addie is a striking example of someone who both longs to transcend this isolation and stubbornly works to maintain an impenetrable individuality. As a schoolteacher, she would whip her students in order to overcome the barriers between her and others: “I would think with each blow of the switch: Now you are aware of me! Now I am something in your secret and selfish life, who have marked your blood with my own for ever and ever.” One can see her selfishness here, however, as she violently imposes herself onto others without opening herself to them. Similarly, she holds back from her children, except for Cash and her favorite, Jewel. Her contradictions highlight the fundamental compulsion to maintain one’s private self while yearning to connect with others.
In a novel that features a disastrous journey to bury a decomposing corpse, one would expect death to be a central concern. Indeed, the outraged reactions of other characters to the journey of the Bundren family reveal both social expectations about the treatment of the dead and underlying anxieties over the basic truths of human mortality. Moreover, Vardaman’s chapters revolve primarily around defining the nature of death, and his confusion proves both moving and unsettling.
The theme of death also takes other forms in the novel. Through Addie’s narrative, Faulkner investigates the possibility of living in a deadened state. On the one hand, Faulkner has her “speak” from the dead. On the other hand, however, is Addie’s thwarted desire to live life; the antithesis of her desire is Anse, who, to Addie, is dead and “did not know he was dead.” To her, Anse symbolizes restriction, blindness, and emptiness. Faulkner explores the implications of such an existence by exploring its potential in all of his characters, particularly those who use platitudes to avoid genuine feeling and self-examination.
Questions about the nature and strength of self-identity recur throughout the novel. Some characters, like Anse, Cash, Jewel, and the Tulls, possess defined senses of self. Yet it is through the characters of Darl and Vardaman that Faulkner explores the fragile nature of identity. Vardaman almost compulsively defines his relationships with others, repeating, “Darl is my brother,” and, more famously, “My mother is a fish.” Through these repetitions, Faulkner articulates the development of identity as Vardaman relates to others.
For Vardaman, the process is incomplete but progressing. For Darl, the process will never reach completion. The absence of his mother’s love leads Darl to isolation not only from others but also from himself. He expresses the differences between himself and Jewel when he says, “I don’t know what I am. I don’t know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not.” In such passages, Darl’s insight proves both compelling and disturbing since it calls into question the very essence of human consciousness.
D Language and Meaning
One of Faulkner’s central themes in the novel is the limitation of language. From the inability of the characters to communicate with one another, to Addie’s singular distrust of words, to the unlikely vocabulary the characters employ in their narration, Faulkner explores the inadequacy of language to express thought and emotion. Many characters communicate only through platitudes. As a result, they create misunderstanding rather than understanding between people. These instances of ineffective communication are not as comprehensive as Addie’s rejection of language, however. For Addie, words cannot express human experience because they are so distant from human experience. Only action matters for her (and for the inarticulate Jewel).
Faulkner also reveals the limitations of language by contrasting the thoughts of his characters with their actual words. In their narratives, the characters often employ vocabulary far beyond their educational level or speech customs. These passages underscore Faulkner’s attempts to verbalize his characters’ groping for meaning and adequate expression, In this way, Faulkner comments on the tenuousness of language itself.
E Love and Passion
Love and passion are major themes of the novel. The relationships and destinies of the characters rely heavily on love and intense emotions. In particular, Addie is defined by passion. Her affair with Whitfield results from genuine feeling, and the rejection of her husband and three of her children is equally intense. Her commitment to Cash and Jewel is fierce and loving. This love helps them to nurture a strong self-identity, which Darl, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman often lack.
F Sanity and Insanity
By chronicling both the Bundrens’ journey and Darl’s descent into madness, Faulkner explores the themes of sanity and insanity. The fact that the Bundrens would undertake such an arduous journey strikes both the reader and other characters as deranged folly. For most of the Bundrens, however, the trip is perfectly sensible considering their ultimate goals: Anse’s new teeth, Dewey Dell’s abortion, and Jewel’s loyalty to his beloved mother. They may be selfish and blind to social convention, but their desires are understandable, even if they seem misplaced in the current context. Since all of the narrators hold views that others may consider senseless, evaluations of people’s sanity prove arbitrary in the novel.
Darl’s case is different, however. He exhibits signs of telepathy, burns Gillespie’s barn, is eventually committed to an insane asylum, and ends his final narration in a rant. Yet Darl is reacting to circumstances beyond his control. He cannot help feeling the lack of his mother’s love, nor can he contain his hypersensitivity to the world. The other characters may remain “sane” simply because they work to maintain their isolation from the world. Because Darl cannot, or will not, be blind, he may be overwhelmed by knowledge. Perhaps, as Andre Bleikasten suggests in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, “From the depths of his own madness, Darl discovers-and makes us discover-the madness of the universe.”