As I Lay Dying
Analysis of Major Characters
Though she is dead for most of the novel, Addie is one of its most important characters, as her unorthodox wish to be buried near her blood relatives rather than with her own family is at the core of the story. Addie, whose voice is expressed through Cora Tull’s memories and through her own brief section in the narrative, appears to be a strong-willed and intelligent woman haunted by a sense of disillusionment. Unable to bring herself to love the coarse, helpless Anse or the children she bears him, Addie sees marital love and motherhood as empty concepts, words that exist solely to fill voids in people’s lives. After she bears a second child to Anse, Addie first expresses her wish to be buried far away, stating her belief that “the reason for living [is] to get ready to stay dead a long time.” The little value she does find in life, from her brief affair with Whitfield and her love for her son Jewel, ends on a morbid note. Jewel treats Addie harshly while she is alive, and only once she is dead does he “save [her] from the water and from the fire,” as she always believed he would. Addie invests her life and energy in a love that finds repayment and comes to fruition only after she is dead.
As a corpse, Addie is equally important to the novel, hindering and dividing her family as much as when she is alive. Many of the incidents after Addie’s death reflect this feeling that some part of Addie is still living. Vardaman drills holes in the coffin so that the dead Addie might have air to breathe, and when Darl and Vardaman listen to the noises of the decomposing body, Darl claims that these sounds are Addie speaking. Even the stench of Addie’s corpse captivates a large audience of strangers. The notion that there is continuity between the articulate human voice of the living Addie and the putrid biological mass that is the dead Addie is among the most emotionally powerful ideas presented in the novel.
Darl, who speaks in nineteen of the novel’s fifty-nine sections, is in many ways its most cerebral character. Darl’s knack for probing analysis and poetic descriptions mean that his voice becomes the closest thing the story offers to a guiding, subjective narrator. Yet it is this same intellectual nature that prevents him from achieving either the flashy heroism of his brother Jewel or the self-sacrificing loyalty of his brother Cash. In fact, it prevents Darl from believing wholeheartedly in the family’s mission. Darl registers his objection to the entire burial outing by apparently abandoning his mother’s coffin during the botched river-crossing, and by setting fire to Gillespie’s barn with the eight-day-old corpse inside.
Another consequence of Darl’s philosophical nature is his alienation from the community around him. According to Cora Tull, people find Darl strange and unsettling. He is also able to understand private things about the lives of the people around him, as he does when he guesses at Dewey Dell’s fling with Lafe or perceives that Anse is not Jewel’s real father. At times, Darl is almost clairvoyant, as evidenced by the scene in which he is able to describe vividly the scene at his mother’s death, even though he and Jewel are far away from the scene when she dies. Other characters alienate Darl for fear that he will get too close to them and their secrets. It is perhaps this fear, more than Darl’s act of arson, that leads his family to have him committed to an insane asylum at the end of the novel—after all, Dewey Dell, who realizes that Darl knows her sordid secret, is the first to restrain him when the officers from the asylum arrive.
Because Jewel speaks very few words of his own throughout the novel, he is defined by his actions, as filtered through the eyes of other characters. Jewel’s uncommunicative nature creates a great distance between him and us, and a great deal of room exists for debating the meaning of Jewel’s actions. Darl’s frequent descriptions of Jewel as “wooden” reinforce the image of Jewel as impenetrable to others, and also establish a relationship between Jewel and the wooden coffin that comes to symbolize his mother. Whether or not Jewel returns his mother’s devotion is also debatable—his behavior toward her while she is alive seems callous. Even as Addie lies on her deathbed, Jewel refuses to say good-bye to her, and harshly asserts his independence from her earlier on with his purchase of a horse. Jewel’s actions after Addie’s death show, however, that Jewel does care deeply about her, as he makes great sacrifices to assure the safe passage of her body to her chosen resting place, agreeing even to the sale of his beloved horse. Similarly, Jewel’s cold, rough-spoken behavior toward the rest of his family contrasts sharply with the heroic devotion he demonstrates in his deeds, such as when he searches valiantly for Cash’s tools after the river-crossing and nearly comes to blows with a stranger whom he believes has insulted the family. In general, Jewel is an independent, solitary man of action, and these traits put him in an antagonistic relationship with the introspective Darl.
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