In William Faulkners novel As I Lay Dying, the Bundren family embarks on a dangerous journey to bury their deceased wife and mother. On the surface Faulkners novel resembles a tragic tale of the struggles during an excursion to bury a beloved family member; however, the personal motivation for Anse and Dewey Dell as well as the mock heroism of Jewel turns the novel into an ironically comical critique of the absurdity of life. Even though Jewel and Cash were completely selfless with themselves and their personal belongings, they ended up with nothing by the end; but Anse, who sacrificed nothing for the success of the journey, was rewarded with everything he had ever wanted.
Throughout the journey the Bundrens act as if their only concern is fulfilling Addies wishes of being buried in Jefferson. However, the trip becomes a personal vendetta for both Anse and Dewey Dell. For Anse, the journey becomes a way to finally get a new set of teeth. By passing through town he is able to fulfill his wishes. Throughout the excursion Anse claimed that [he] tried to do as [Addie] would wish it, (106); however, during his internal monologue Anse states many times, now I can get them teeth. That will be a comfort, (111). While speaking to his children or to his peers, Anse strongly pushes the continuance of the journey solely to fulfill his deceased wifes wishes; however, from his perspective he never states that as a motive for the journey, instead he talks about his desire for a new set of teeth. The irony of the situation reaches a climax in the last section of the novel in which Anse presents his new set of teeth and introduces his new wife. This proves Anses lack of concern for Addie and therefore increases the ridiculousness of the entire journey.
Just as Anse selfishly urged the family to Jefferson, Dewey Dell had her own personal reasons for going to town. After discovering she was pregnant, Dewey Dell was determined to get to a pharmacy in order to acquire an abortion. Immediately she formed plans for manipulating her father stating hell do as I say. He always does. I can persuade him to do anything (121). Without Addies coffin as an excuse for going to a pharmacy, Dewey Dell would have been forced to reveal her illegitimate pregnancy to her family. Since both Dewey Dell and Anse were consumed by their own selfish incentives for the journey to Jefferson the danger that was encountered and the work the Bundrens and their neighbors endured by transporting the coffin was completely absurd.
On the other hand, family members such as Cash and Jewel were completely self sacrificing to the point of absurdity. Throughout the journey Faulkners characters are faced with several tough situations. In response to these hardships, selflessness was required in order to continue the journey. Instead of glorifying these sacrifices and acts of selflessness, Faulkner depicts them as mock heroic and almost comical, adding more emphasis to the absurdity of the entire journey. When Darl set the barn on fire in an effort to take her outen [their] hands (233), Jewel bravely risked his life to remove the coffin from the enflamed building. However, Jewels bravery is strongly undermined by Darls despair that the coffin survived the fire. In addition, Darls description of the rescue makes it sound as if the event had been featured in a corny adventure film. Darl says,
It topples forward, gaining momentum, revealing Jewel and the sparks raining on him too in engendering gusts, so that he appears to be enclosed in a thin nimbus of firethis time Jewel is riding upon it, clinging to it, until it crashes down and flings him forward and clear(222)
The fact that Jewel was willing to risk his own life for a dead body in a coffin epitomizes the absurdity of the entire journey to Jefferson.
The Bundrens journey to Jefferson was a juxtaposition of selfishness and selflessness. Ironically, by the end only the most selfish person, Anse, succeeded in achieving everything he wanted while the characters that sacrificed their personal belongings and risked their lives were left with nothing but a new step mother. Through this juxtaposition during the journey Faulkner epitomizes the fact that life is never fair and the actions people take to preserve the things they care about are often completely absurd.