As I Lay Dying

by: William Faulkner

Darl Bundren

Between the shadow spaces they are yellow as gold, like soft gold, bearing on their flanks in smooth undulations he marks of the adze blade: a good carpenter, Cash is. He holds the two planks on the trestle, fitted along the edges in a quarter of the finished box . . . Addie Bundren could not want a better one, a better box to lie in.

The story’s first narrator, Darl, immediately presents himself as an observant character who excels at description and seems to carry a deep understanding of other characters. In this quote, not only does Darl describe Cash as a good carpenter, but he introduces the main event driving the story: Addie Bundren’s pending death. At this point in the novel, Darl provides the most detailed and real narration.

It was the sweetest thing I ever saw. It was like he knew he would never see her again, that Anse Bundren was driving him from his mother’s death bed, never to see her in this world again. I always said that Darl was different from those others. I always said he was the only one of them that had his mother’s nature, had any natural affection.

In this early section of the novel, Cora describes watching Darl say goodbye to his mother with genuine emotion. She contrasts his caring nature with that of Jewel’s and Anse’s heartless ways. Cora seems to see a sensitive soul in Darl when others only view his emotional behavior as strange. Darl’s ability to describe the motives and thoughts of other characters validates Cora’s perception of Darl.

In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I dont know what I am. I dont know if I am or not.

While Darl and Jewel are out on delivery, Darl seems to be aware of Addie’s death at home and begins to contemplate existence and mortality. Here, Darl not only questions his own existence, but his switching between present and past tense reveals a deeper mental struggle. While Darl reaches to understand life, he begins to lose touch with his own existence and reality.

High above the house, against the quick thick sky, they hang in narrowing circles. From here they are no more than specks, implacable, patient, portentous . . . I cannot love my mother because I have no mother. Jewel’s mother is a horse. Motionless, the tall buzzards hang in soaring circles, the clouds giving them an illusion of retrograde.

Again, Darl reveals his contemplating character as he describes the buzzards flying above their home upon Jewel and Darl’s delayed arrival. He hints that the buzzards symbolize Addie’s death and how the family waits for her to die. These lines demonstrate not only Darl’s descriptive observations but also show how he questions existence after his mother’s death while mocking Jewel’s relationship with a horse.

[W]e hadn’t no more than passed Tull’s lane when Darl begun to laugh. Setting back there on the plank seat with Cash, with his dead ma laying in her coffin at his feet, laughing. How many times I told him it’s doing such things as that that makes folks talk about him, I dont know.

As the Bundren family sets out to fulfill Addie’s request, Anse describes Darl’s strange reaction to the situation as he begins to laugh with his mother’s coffin right below his feet. Perhaps Darl’s response demonstrates a deterioration of his mental state or he’s simply reacting to his mother’s death in the only way he knows how. Either way, Anse specifically mentions how these strange reactions make “folks talk about him.”

He is looking at me. He dont say nothing; just looks at me with them queer eyes of hisn that makes folks talk. I always say it aint never been what he done so much or said or anything so much as how he looks at you. It’s like he got into the inside of you, someway. Like somehow you was looking at yourself and your doings outen his eyes.

In Section 5, each character gives his or her version of the river crossing. In this quote, Tull describes Darl’s peculiar character as he shares his observations of the Bundren family. Tull explains how Darl reveals his strangeness in how he looks at people rather than through his actions or words. Tull details the oddities of Darl’s character, in particular how Darl seems to look right through and within people.

When I told Cora how Darl jumped out of the wagon and left Cash sitting there trying to save it and the wagon turning over, and Jewel that was almost to the bank fighting that horse back where it had more sense than to go, she says, “And you’re one of the folks that says Darl is the queer one, the one that aint bright, and him the only one of them that had sense enough to get off that wagon.[”]

After Tull describes the river crossing to Cora, she responds by defending Darl again, making a valid argument in Darl’s favor. While Darl’s actions at the river may reflect his selfishness, Cora points out that perhaps his behavior, while sometimes strange, might indicate that Darl is the one member of the Bundren family who has any logical sense.

But I thought more than once before we crossed the river and after, how it would be God’s blessing if He did take her outen our hands and get shut of her in some clean way, and it seemed to me that when Jewel worked so to get her outen the river, he was going against God in a way, and then when Darl seen that it looked like one of us would have to do something, I can almost believe he done right in a way.

Toward the end of the novel, Cash begins to take over more of the narration as Darl grows more erratic. In these lines, Cash reveals his logical thinking as he contemplates the good intentions behind Darl’s actions in setting fire to Gillespie’s barn. For the first time, a member of the Bundren family recognizes that while Darl’s actions can seem irrational, his intentions and reasoning may have some merit.

“Better,” he said. He begun to laugh again. “Better,” he said. He couldn’t hardly say it for laughing. He sat on the ground and us watching him, laughing and laughing. It was bad. It was bad so. I be durn if I could see anything to laugh at. Because there just aint nothing justifies the deliberate destruction of what a man has built . . . But I aint so sho ere a man has the right to say what is crazy and what aint.

As the Bundren family sends Darl to a mental institution, Cash explains to Darl that this choice seems to be what’s best. Here, Darl responds to Cash’s statement with excessive laughter as he considers the idea of a mental institution being “better” than dealing with his family. While Darl’s reaction shows his insanity, his laughter also reveals how Cash’s statement might be more true than they realize. Perhaps, in a family full of dysfunction, Darl does possess the most sanity of all the Bundrens.

Darl has gone to Jackson. They put him on the train, laughing, down the long car laughing, the heads turning like the heads of owls when he passed. “What are you laughing at?” I said. “Yes yes yes yes yes.”

At the end of the novel, Darl narrates between first and third person, demonstrating a final break in his sanity. As he heads to a mental institution in Jackson, he talks about himself in third person as if he hovers outside his body, watching his behavior like a stranger. The progression of Darl’s mental break seems to coincide with the events surrounding his mother’s death and the dysfunctional actions of his family.