As I Lay Dying
From Darl and Jewel’s arrival at home to Darl’s departure
Darl Bundren describes walking with his brother Jewel across a field toward their house. They pass a dilapidated cotton house, which Darl walks around but Jewel walks straight through, entering and leaving through the building’s large, open windows. They then reach the foot of a bluff, where Vernon Tull, the Bundrens’ wealthier neighbor, has stacked two chairs on his wagon. At the top of the bluff, Darl and Jewel’s older brother, Cash, is dutifully fitting boards together for a coffin for their mother, Addie. Darl walks past Cash and enters the house.
The narrative perspective shifts to that of Tull’s wife, Cora, who is thinking about some cakes that she was recently hired to make, only to see the order cancelled after she had baked them. Cora’s daughter, Kate, rails against the injustice of this turn of events, while Cora takes it in stride. Addie lies nearby, frail and silent, hardly breathing, as Cora’s other daughter, Eula, watches over her. Outside, the sound of Cash’s sawing continues. Cora recalls Addie’s talent for baking cakes. Addie appears to be either asleep or watching Cash’s efforts through the window. Darl passes through the hall without a word and heads for the back of the house.
Darl encounters his father, Anse, and their neighbor, Vernon Tull, sitting on the back porch. Anse asks after Jewel. Darl takes a drink of water, thinking about what a simple pleasure it is to do so, and remembers sneaking out at night to drink water as a child. Darl answers Anse’s question, informing his father that Jewel is attending to the horses. In the barn, Jewel struggles violently to mount a horse, before finally leaping onto its back and riding it down and up a hill. When he gets back to the barn, Jewel dismounts and feeds the horse.
Jewel thinks with bitterness and resentment about Cash’s insistence on constructing Addie’s coffin right outside her window. He is angry with the other members of his family for allowing Cash to proceed in this way. He expresses a wish to be alone with his mother in her final days.
Darl talks about how he and Jewel are making preparations for a delivery trip they are running for Tull, who is going to pay them three dollars. Anse is hesitant to let them go, as he is worried that Addie will die before Darl and Jewel return with the team of horses. Tull reassures them about Addie, and Jewel lashes out at him for his intrusiveness. Jewel then proceeds to voice his anger toward Cash and the rest of the family for their seeming eagerness to hurry Addie to her end. Anse responds by applauding the family’s fortitude in following Addie’s last wishes. Finally, Anse agrees to let the boys make the trip, on the condition that they return by the next day at sundown. As Darl enters the house, he reflects on how voices travel in the hallway: “they sound as though they were speaking out of the air about your head.”
Cora watches Darl enter the house and is touched by the emotion with which he bids Addie farewell. She contrasts Darl’s sweetness with Anse’s and Jewel’s callousness. As Darl stands in the doorway, Dewey Dell, his sister, asks him what he wants. He ignores her and instead stares at his mother, “his heart too full for words.”
As I Lay Dying has no fixed narrator, and is instead composed of a number of different protagonists’ successive interior monologues, the rendition of a character’s inner thoughts and feelings. Each voice is subjective, shaped by the particular character’s views and perceptions, but also makes factual observations about events, moving the story along in a staggered but continuous narrative. While some characters, particularly Darl, narrate in a straightforward, storytelling fashion, others, such as Cora and Jewel, express their thoughts in a confused and contradictory jumble. We have none of the simple comfort of an entirely objective narrator who can reveal the truth—when the various voices present the same character or event in different lights, we have to make decisions about which voice to trust. Faulkner’s approach is challenging, but by employing a narrative in which events are described, judged, and interpreted from several different perspectives, he is able to probe his characters’ minds deeply. We are not passive observers of dialogue and events; rather, we experience the characters as they experience themselves. When Darl encounters Anse and Tull on the porch, for example, an eternity of thought passes in Darl’s mind during the pause between his father’s mundane question about Jewel’s whereabouts and Darl’s equally mundane reply. In Faulkner’s world, what a character thinks is frequently more relevant to the story than what a character says.
Faulkner helps us get a grasp on his characters by associating them with objects: before we meet Tull, we encounter his wagon; before we hear Cash speak, we hear the roar of his saw and the chucking of his adze, a cutting tool used for shaping wood; and, of course, before we meet Addie, we see her coffin being assembled. These objects come to stand for the individuals themselves, as symbols of, and clues to, their respective identities. Tull’s wagon implies that he is a man of wealth and industry, Cash’s saw and adze signify that he is a skilled craftsman, and Addie’s coffin signals that her primary role in the novel is played out in her death. We also learn from what the characters do not say. When Darl comes upon Cash, they exchange no words, leaving us to ponder the dull chops of the axe. This tendency toward mute interaction, which is certainly not limited to Darl and Cash, demonstrates how thoroughly the characters in As I Lay Dying are cut off from each other. Again, the use of multiple points of view underscores this separation, with the characters so isolated from each other that even their thoughts cannot be mixed.
Faulkner appears to make a sly reference to his own narrative technique with Darl’s reflection on the voices “out of the air about your head.” While this comment refers specifically to the sound of many voices mixing in the hallway, we can also read Darl’s words as an indirect reference by Faulkner to the mosaic of individual voices that constitutes As I Lay Dying. When Darl’s reflection ends, for example, Cora’s monologue begins, describing Darl’s good-bye to Addie as “the sweetest thing I ever saw.” The tone of these two characters’ perspectives is quite different, but the second picks up seamlessly where the first ends. These fluid transitions from one passage to the next allow the story’s narrative to progress rather than become inextricably mired in the same incident.
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