Dying is a unique novel in that there is no discernable protagonist. In lieu of the protagonist is a corpse, Addie, who is dead for most of the book. The novel is written in the first person, from the perspective of Addie and her family, although the perspective shifts for most of the chapters between Addie's self-interested family members with Addie herself only contributing one chapter. Addie's dying wish is to be buried in Jackson, and the story is about how she makes it there. Although Addie is not alive for much of the novel, her son Jewell reflects her interests after she's dead and acts as her legacy.
That the novel is the story of a dead person whose ends will not be met until she reaches her grave is typically thematic of voodoo cultures that existed in Mississippi's colorful history. Another theme is that of the oral tradition in the old South. This tradition was not only kept alive in African circles but also in folk tales. As with oral traditions, the story maintains distance from the perspective of any given individual by maintaining so many first-person voices. By using this practice, Faulkner attempts distance himself for his own emotions. To a certain extent, the Faulknerian de-emphasis on the perspective of one individual lends to nature and naturalistic themes. When the coffin is nearly lost while traversing the stream, we see that nature still plays a certain role.
One of the themes in the novel is that 'white trash' people that we think of as being irrational and illogical have their own dramas and intrigues. Darl, who is the most well spoken narrator of the book, is also the antagonist: he sets the fire and criticizes the journey at several points. Whereas most novels have a perceptive if not rational protagonist, in this the protagonist is a corpse. A corpse, at most, is the echo of a protagonist and 'nature' is often an antagonist. In Moby Dick, Queequeg 'rescues' the protagonist in that his coffin is used by Ismael as a floatation device. In the flood scene in "As I lay dying," we see the opposite: Jewell saves his mother's corpse. Jewell, who never narrates a chapter of the novel, is an extension of his mother's will.
It must be remembered that Jewell is his mother's love child. For this reason, we associate him exclusively his mother and not Anse. Typically, the children of single mothers take their mothers' last names. In that the father does not play an active role in Jewell's life, he is her legacy. The other children can be seen as the legacy of the union between Anse and Addie, and Anse only wants to go to Jefferson to get a new set of teeth and a new wife. To an extent, his selfishness precludes him from truly reflecting her interest.
In the single chapter attributed to Jewell, his interests seem to be those of the corpse. Although this is thought to be mostly empathetic, it also points to Jewell's use as a vehicle for the spirit of his mother. We see this in the one chapter he narrates: rather than thinking of himself as the other character do, Jewell is concerned that something might relalize how smart he is. "I said if you'd just let her alone. Sawing and knocking, and keeping the air always moving so fast on her face that when you're tired you can't breathe it, and that goddamn adze going One lick less." (Faulkner 347) Here Faulkner lets the reader know that the corpse is disturbed, but the agency of that corpse's thought and energy takes the form of the boy. Here we see that the racket near Addie's face angers her spirit: no other party is as concerned with Addie's lot as is Jewell. In the beginning, we see Jewell's eyes being described as 'like wood.' This becomes more significant when two holes are drilled into the coffin: his eyes become the eyes of the corpse that he is entrusted to protect. In the beginning when Cora is watching Addie, Cora remarks that Cora says, "When she finds me watching her, her eyes go blank." This reflects the nature between Addie and most of the narrators.
Jewel's inter-relation with non-human forces are established when we see him communicate with the horse. This relationship is at the same time both violent and loving. Although of the children have associations with animals, Jewel's relationship with the horse seems nurturing and caring. His resentments are superficial, reflecting his relationship with his mother, which has always been characterized by squabbling. His bitterness reflects that of his mother, and his relationship with her after she is dead reflects her feigned indifference toward him in life: his love for his mother is unrequited so her transition to death is just another manifestation of her ignorance of his needs. It is later demonstrated that one reason for Jewel's jealousy is that his mother intentionally spurns him abuses him; this is usualy attributed to the fact she that She is guilty and afraid that Anse might discover that he is not Jewel's father. Jewel's narrative is one of strong passions, jealousy and anger, provides a nice counter to Darl's narrative, which is much more tightly organized.
An analogy can be drawn to the birth of the Centaur of Greek Legend, who was created from the union of an Earthly king and a cloud formed into the likeness of the goddess Hera. Although his mother lacked form or substance, he was born of her, nonetheless, and continued to represent the interests of his false mother and his father even as he created the race of centaurs.
Cora contends that Darl was always Addie's favorite, and that others despised him as being "queer, lazy, and pottering." She believes that although Addie liked Jewel the most, but that this was a ruse and that she really loved Carl. All of the characters maintain their own feelings and reservations about Addie's love, although Darl's is the most straightforward and honest. In many respects Darl is an anti-hero - he is the smartest of the group despite his faults. Faulkner uses Cora's monologue to assert dubious relationships between the various characters and differences of opinion: Darl's narrative shows Jewel and Anse are the ones most concerned about Addie, whereas Cora's narrative suggests that Darl is most concerned. Darl's actions later prove this not to be the case when he burns down the barn.
Another theme in the novel is that of eye-imagery. Addie's eyes truly are a window to her soul; we are alternately presented with them as being glassy, like candles, reflecting her death, and finally being put out by Vardman. By having wooden eyes it is shown that Jewell will keep him close to his wood-encased mother until she is buried. A unifying characteristic of Jewell and Vardman is that they are both in denial about their mother's death. Vineman tries to drill a hole for the coffin so that his mother can breathe, but he instead puts out her eyes. We see her eyes as the definitive link between her and Jewell.
Another theme of this novel is that death has a different effect on different individuals. Some, like Jewel and Vardaman, dwell in denial. Others, like Darl, are pragmatists, but are too quick in their pragmatism and are thwarted by the forces at work in the novel. Cash and Jewel try to "honor" the dead through acts of heroism. Dewey Dell reacts the most passionately to her mother's death, but as personal matters become more pressing, she is compelled to attend to her own affairs. Some, like Anse, are quickly able to get past Addie's death; his trip to bury her becomes a pragmatic venture undertaken for the sake of finding a new wife.
The idea that Addie's will reaches beyond her grave features prominently in the book. This is ironic, given that her desire is basically a curse designed to get her husband to commit himself to a difficult yet completely meaningless undertaking. She claims, "words are no good; that words don't ever fit even what they are trying to say at" (171). Apparently, she doesn't see the power of her words. She says, "I knew that that word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack; that when the right time came, you wouldn't need a word for that anymore than for pride and fear" (172). She feels cheated by words after the discovery of her second pregnancy. In her revenge, she makes her husband promise to bury her in Jefferson. This he does despite having refused her a doctor before her death.
All of the children except Jewell seem to have sprung from their father's laziness, and each are given to his selfishness in a way that compromises their actions. At 22, Anse had hurt his back and refused to keep working, hence the need for all the children.…