The Mock-Epic Journey
As I Lay Dying is a form of mock-epic that takes as its epic journey the forty-mile funeral procession of Addie Bundren to Jefferson, Mississippi. As in all epics, the Bundrens encounter obstacles such as storms, floods and fires in their epic quest. The wagon is their chariot. Cash's tools are their weapons, Addie the oracle who foretells to Cora Tull that Jewel will rescue her from the water and the fire after her death. Darl, all-knowing as a wise god, also acts as a sort of preternatural fortune teller. The vultures are the monsters to conquer and Jewel, who rides a wild horse like a knight in shining armor, is the hero, or perhaps the term anti-hero would be more appropriate. It falls to him for most of the novel to carry out adventures of epic proportion single-handedly. He also rescues the farmer's mules and horses from the burning barn and sacrifices his horse. Or perhaps Darl is the real hero who burns down the barn to honor his mother by burying her body as quickly as possible with dignity, which was one of the primary precepts of the ancient Greeks.
On their epic journey, the Bundrens encounter boon companions, or helpers, like Tull, Samson and Peabody. In addition, many epics such as the classic Greek Iliad involve rescuing a helpless princess or queen who is oftentimes locked up. But while all of the Bundrens, with the exception of Darl, might believe they are rescuing a queen-their mother-they are in reality only looking out to satisfy their own selfish desires.
Words vs. Actions
The idea that "actions speak louder than words" plays a thematic role in As I Lay Dying and characterizes two characters in particular, the brothers Darl and Jewel. Darl is a man of words. Insightful and provocative, he is a wordmeister, so to speak, linking his own words with the words inside others' minds. This concern with words in part reflects his mother's animosity towards him. She did not appreciate words very much and preferred action instead. Her nihilist father was a man of words, as was her husband, Anse, whom she despised. Soon after she married Anse she realized he was not a man of action. Actually, Anse will let anyone around him carry out the actions he should be performing himself, like chores. As the coffin of his wife Addie falls into the river, he stands bemused looking on while his sons, including his mentally impeded child, dive in after it. And he makes excuses for his state of constant inactivity by hiding behind nonsensical words.
Jewel, on the other hand, unlike Darl is a man of action. We first meet him walking non-stop through a house. He is never at rest, constantly in motion-riding horses, throwing rocks, diving under the water, running like lightning into the burning barn. A man of few words-he only has one monologue-his mother loved him best.