For Faulkner, meaning and the reality of each person is "mutable." In this regard, the novel deals with the themes of identity and existence and the intentions and motivations behind each individual's reasons for undertaking the journey to bury Addie from many different points-of-view.
The images of death and dying tend to add to this search for meaning and identity; for example, Addie's slowly decaying corpse. The death of the mother motivates the family to begin the journey to not only bury her but also as a personal search for meaning. The theme of death also tends to stress that view that we are all in the process of dying and this emphasizes the importance of finding meaning and significance in life.
The novel uses symbols and image to convey its deeper intentions with regard to life, death and identity. We see this aspect in Vardaman's attempt to understand his mother's death. From his subjective point-of-view, he cannot understand her death rationally and sees her as a "Fish" which he has eaten. The image of the Fish is also a symbol that has connotations of resurrection and rebirth.
One insightful view of the novel is to see it as a story with mock-heroic overtones. From this perspective, the 'heroic journey" in search of truth is undermined and mocked by the emptiness and selfish intentions of the characters. This view that is suggested by Swiggart (1962). Swiggart states that the novel has the outward appearance of a heroic journey to bury the mother. Certainly, some heroic characteristics are revealed in the characters as they face dangers like floods and fires. But these heroic factors are mocked by the family's selfishness.
In portraying the sacrifices and ordeals of an entire family carrying out the wishes of the dead mother, Faulkner creates the paraphernalia of a folk epic. But Faulkner undermines the heroic atmosphere by revealing hidden personal motives and by depriving the trip of any intrinsic value beyond the fulfillment of the immediate group aim. The supposed idealism which underlies the trip, the devotion to Addie Bundren's memory, is transformed into a joke played upon the reader -- or upon the Bundrens.
Selfish and self-centered motives become obvious in many of the characters. Dewey Dell's reason for undertaking the trip has nothing to do with honoring her mother but is rather because she is pregnant and needs to find someone in Jefferson who will undertake an abortion. Anse is more concerned with acquiring a set of false teeth. Vardaman is keen on an electric train and Cash wants a phonograph "graphophone."
Through this reduction of the potentially heroic to the level of the mundane and selfish, Faulkner is in fact suggesting that the modern world has lots its meaning and significance and that the individual is isolated in a subjective world of meaningless subjectivity.
Darl possibly represents a small glimmer of hope in the novel. He seems to be more aware of the larger issues and designs in life that his mother's death symbolizes. He is obsessed with time and is like the others, confused by the circumstances of his life. He is however the one character who is more aware of the search fro identity. However, the suggestion of insanity in his character also means that he too is unable to understand any deeper "truth."
As I Lay Dying is a profound work of literature which paints a disturbing and pessimistic picture of the modern world. The central theme of the search for individual meaning in the face of death ends in emptiness and mundanity. This tends to suggest not only the lack of individual vision in the characters, but is also a reflection of the meaningless cycle of contemporary existence.
Allen, Sharon Lubkemann. "Dispossessed Sons and Displaced Meaning in Faulkner's Modern Cosmos." The Mississippi Quarterly 50.3 (1997): 427+.
Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury & as I Lay Dying. New York: Modern
Holland-Toll, Linda J. "Absence Absolute: The Recurring Pattern of Faulknerian
Mellard, James M. "Something New and Hard and Bright: Faulkner, Ideology and the Construction of Modernism." The Mississippi Quarterly 48.3 (1995): 459+. Questia. 10 December 2007. http://www.questia.com/.
Merrill, Robert. "Faulknerian Tragedy: The Example of 'As I Lay Dying." The Mississippi Quarterly 47.3 (1994): 403+.…