From Dewey Dell’s memory of Lafe to Addie’s death
That’s what they mean by the love that passeth understanding: that pride, that furious desire to hide that abject nakedness which we bring here with us. . . .
Dewey Dell remembers a time when she went harvesting with Lafe, a worker on the Bundren farm. She had been heading toward the woods with him, but was nervous. Finally, however, they slept together because Dewey Dell “could not help it.” Dewey Dell later realized that Darl somehow found out about her and Lafe. She remembers all of these details as Darl stands in the doorway saying good-bye to Addie. Darl tells Dewey Dell that Addie is going to die before he and Jewel return, but that he is taking Jewel anyway because he needs help loading the wagon.
Tull tries to relieve Anse of his lingering reservations about Darl making the trip. Vardaman, Darl’s youngest brother, appears, climbing up the hill with a large fish that he is planning to show to Addie. Anse, unimpressed, orders him to clean the fish before taking it inside. Cora and Tull depart for the evening, as Anse stands dumbly in the room with Addie. Once in the wagon, Cora and Tull speak pessimistically with Kate and Eula about the Bundren situation and the future of the Bundren children.
Anse, in his crude, unschooled diction, begins complaining about the weather, his sons, and the commotion of the road. He is convinced that the road that was put in near his house has brought bad luck, and he blames it for Addie’s ill health. Vardaman reappears, covered with blood after cleaning his fish. Anse tells Vardaman to go wash his hands. Anse then reflects that he cannot seem to feel much about anything, and blames this lack of sentiment on the weather.
Meanwhile, Darl is in the wagon with Jewel. He recalls confronting Dewey Dell about her encounter with Lafe. The sun is about to set. Darl voices his belief in the inevitability of Addie’s death over and over to Jewel, who remains silent.
Addie’s doctor, Peabody, makes his way to the Bundren place after being called for by Anse. Peabody notices that a storm is coming. He is very overweight, and needs help climbing the bluff to the Bundren house. After a struggle, he arrives at the family’s house. He enters Addie’s room and finds Addie perfectly still except for the movement of her eyes. Outside, Peabody asks Anse why he didn’t send for a doctor sooner. Dewey Dell interrupts their conversation and they return to Addie’s room. Dewey Dell tells Peabody that Addie wants him to leave. Cash continues to saw away, and Addie calls out his name loudly.
Darl, still on his journey with Jewel, somehow knows what is happening back at the Bundren household. The rest of the family surrounds Addie’s bedside. Addie calls out again to Cash, who begins pantomiming the act of putting the coffin pieces together so she can see how they will fit. Dewey Dell flings herself upon Addie, clutching her tightly. Vardaman and Anse look on in silence. At this moment, Addie dies. Dewey Dell calls for her mother, and the narrative flashes over to Jewel and Darl. Darl says Jewel’s name twice. Back at the Bundren home, Cash enters the room and Anse gives him the news, telling him that he needs to finish up the coffin quickly. Cash stares at Addie for a time, and then returns to work. Anse tells Dewey Dell that she should prepare supper, and Dewey Dell leaves the room. Anse stands over his dead wife’s body and strokes her face awkwardly before returning to the business of the day. The narrative reverts to Darl, who tells Jewel that Addie is dead.
With the introduction of several new voices, the narrative becomes more complex and stylized, and we begin to see identical events through the voices of various characters. Because Darl appears so frequently as a narrator, and because his voice has the fewest peculiarities, his story begins to overpower those of the other narrators. Indeed, Darl’s mode of speech deviates the least from Faulkner’s prose style in other novels, and it is tempting to consider Darl’s point of view to be Faulkner’s. Further supporting this suggestion, Darl is chosen to narrate Addie’s death even though he is not present when it happens. Exactly how Darl knows what is going on back at the house remains a mystery, but his omniscience does put the role of narrator on his shoulders, at least temporarily.
Nonetheless, As I Lay Dying relies most heavily on what its characters say, and how they express themselves, to explain their thoughts and motivations. We do not need Darl, or a narrator, to explain that Anse is selfish—this observation is made obvious by the fact that Anse views his wife’s death as merely another example of his rotten luck. Anse’s colloquial diction tells us that he is rural and uneducated, which gives us a sufficient idea of his background. Furthermore, we can compare disparate voices, like the frantic thoughts of Dewey Dell and the calm reflectiveness of Tull, to get a sense of how these characters differ from one another; Dewey Dell is trapped by her problems, for example, while Tull is so removed that he barely cares.
Ironically, there is an inverse relationship between a character’s physical distance from the dying Addie and that character’s emotional attachment to Addie. Darl and Jewel, the two characters who care about Addie the most, are far from her when she dies, while those who are preoccupied with other, relatively unimportant matters stand clustered around her deathbed. Anse, for example, is rather flagrantly absorbed in his own concerns at the moment of tragedy. “God’s will be done. . . . Now I can get them teeth,” Anse says, thinking only of his long-standing desire for false teeth. Dewey Dell throws herself onto Addie’s deathbed with unexpected fury, but she seems more interested in her role as her mother’s nurse, and her mind is still primarily occupied by her growing problems with Lafe. Darl and Jewel are more thoroughly and constantly preoccupied with the actual loss of their mother than the other characters are. While the two brothers are far from Addie when she dies, Darl’s mysterious knowledge of her death arguably demonstrates that they are the most affected by the event.
Jewel’s behavior and feelings toward his mother are particularly complex and puzzling. From Cora’s point of view, Jewel is an insensitive, spoiled child who displays no qualms about leaving his dying mother. Indeed, although he appears to be Addie’s favorite child, Jewel, unlike Darl, does not even say good-bye to his mother before he leaves. Still, Jewel clearly cares about Addie, and grows deeply indignant at what he considers to be the Tulls’ intrusive presence in the household and the insensitivity of Cash’s working on Addie’s coffin right beneath her window while she is still alive. Moreover, in his interior monologue in the first part of the novel, Jewel expresses a forceful wish to be alone with Addie as she dies. Faulkner is not attempting to emphasize one view of Jewel over another. The difficulty in pinning Jewel down to a single perspective demonstrates the multifaceted nature of his character.