William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying is about a family's trek across the Mississippi countryside in an effort to bury the matriarch of the family, Addie Bundren. The character Vardaman illustrates the confusion that may occur when using words to define feelings as he struggles with the idea of the fish versus the "not-fish." Cora Tull uses many words but fails to give them meaning: she is not a better baker just because she says she is. Addie has realized that words are useless and uses violence as a means of expressing her identity. Faulkner implies through these characters that words cannot define existence and are meaningless. Existence, however, is not meaningless, but defined by actions and not words, for example, Vardaman's and Addie's violence and Cora's lack of action.
Vardaman is the youngest of the Bundren's children and, accordingly, the most juvenile. While everyone else is working he is catching fish. The fish he catches is cut up and to Vardaman it becomes "not-fish." - p. 52 This is significant because it shows the uselessness of words; if it's not a fish it is "not-fish." This doesn't help to define the fish's existence, it is simply a different name. Another example of Faulkner's rendering words useless is when Vardaman, unable to use words to explain his feelings of remorse for his dead mother, takes action in the only way he knows how, by beating the doctor's horses. The action has significance where words fail. Later in the same chapter, he explains that as Dewey Dell calls for him he is silent and so is nothing. The lack of words apparently makes him nothing, yet physically, one knows he still exists, so words must be worthless. Confusion ensues when he tries to discover how his mother could be a fish if his brother's mother is a horse. Wordplay becomes Faulkner's method of making words useless, proving his point about their lack of importance, especially in defining existence or experience.
Cora's human experience throughout the novel revolves around her boasting. In Cora's first chapter she repeats four times that the cakes she made are good, and then says twice that even if she cannot sell them it did not cost her anything to make them. She tries to convince herself that she is right in baking the cakes and that she is a good baker. Much later in the book, as Addie expresses the fact that words are meaningless, she talks about "Cora, who could never even cook." - p. 166 Faulkner further emphasizes the unimportance of words here by having Addie's statement come in the midst of a chapter that revolves around the idea that words are meaningless. Cora is never shown to take action, even in religious matters in which she seems so immersed. Addie again refers to Cora when she says that "people to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too." - p. 176 It is Cora's lack of action that defines her human experience.
Addie's chapter is centered around words and more specifically the need for action as definition. She states that words are only sounds people invented, used when feelings are lacking, and that one could never gain the authentic feeling until they forgot the word. She uses action to define herself instead of the words she has come to loathe: "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." - p. 162 She looks forward to having to beat her school children because it is the one way she knows they will know her. Knowing her name isn't truly understanding she exists; for Addie, it is the switch of discipline that reinforces her existence.
Throughout the novel, words are shown to be unimportant, especially when contrasted with the actions of the characters. Vardaman, unable to describe his feelings using words, resorts to beating the horses as his only outlet for his sadness. Cora takes no action which defines her character as one who is only involved on the surface. Though Addie may hate the children, her hate is truly shown when she beats them. Just as in the title, As I Lay Dying, words cannot describe the emotions surrounding a momentous event, in this case, death, in someone's life. Faulkner emphasizes throughout the novel the ineffectual use of words that often obstructs reality, rather than reflect it.