As I Lay Dying
From Vardaman’s accusation of Peabody to Vardaman’s statement that his mother is a fish
Vardaman runs out of the house and begins to cry. He sees the spot on the ground where he first laid the fish he caught, and thinks about how the fish is now chopped up into little pieces of “not-fish” and “not-blood.” Vardaman reasons that Peabody is responsible for Addie’s death and curses him for it. He jumps off the porch and runs into the barn. Still crying, Vardaman picks up a stick and begins beating Peabody’s horses, cursing them and blaming them for Addie’s death, until they run off. He shoos away a cow that wants milking, and returns to the barn to cry quietly. Cash passes by and Dewey Dell calls out, but Vardaman continues to cry in the dark.
Dewey Dell is again thinking of her union with Lafe and of the pregnancy that has resulted. She thinks, with some bitterness, of how much Peabody could do for her, if only he would. Outside, Cash continues sawing the wood to make Addie’s coffin. Dewey Dell begins to prepare a supper of greens and bread, but does not have time to cook the fish that Vardaman has caught. Cash enters the kitchen, announcing that Peabody’s team of horses has gotten loose. Anse, Cash, and Peabody begin eating. They invite Dewey Dell to eat with him, but she leaves to look for Vardaman, who is missing. Dewey Dell runs up to the barn, where the cow needs to be milked, but she tells it to wait. Dewey Dell walks among the stalls, repeating Lafe’s name to herself. She finds Vardaman hiding in a stall and accuses him of trying to spy on her. Dewey Dell shakes Vardaman violently before sending him away, then returns to her thoughts of Peabody, and how he may be able to help her.
Vardaman stares at the coffin. He is disturbed by the thought that Addie is going to be nailed shut inside of it.
Tull remembers how he and Cora found out Addie was dead when Peabody’s team of horses showed up at his door. It is raining when Tull goes to sleep, and the storm is getting worse when he is woken up by a knock at the door. He finds Vardaman there, soaking wet and covered in mud. Vardaman talks incoherently of the fish that he caught earlier. Tull goes out to harness the team, and returns to find Cora and Vardaman sitting in the kitchen. Vardaman is still speaking about his fish. Cora, Tull, and Vardaman make the journey back to the Bundren house, and Tull helps Cash finish building the coffin. Just before daybreak, they place Addie in the coffin and nail it shut. The next morning, they find the coffin bored full of holes and Vardaman asleep next to it. Inadvertently, Vardaman has bored two of the holes through his mother’s face. Throughout the chapter, Tull notes that Vardaman’s inexplicable behavior is God’s judgment upon Anse’s failures as a father and husband. At dawn, Cora and Tull return home.
Darl, still away on the delivery with Jewel, is able to see what is happening far away at his home. He sees Cash and Anse working to complete the coffin. It begins to rain. Cash, though soaked, continues working. Cora and Tull arrive. Cash sends Anse away, and Cash and Tull make a push to complete the coffin. Just before dawn, Cash finally finishes his task. Anse, Cash, Peabody, and Tull carry the coffin inside. As Darl watches this scene, he reflects that he does not know whether he “is” or not, whereas Jewel knows that he “is” because he does not question his own existence.
Cash very precisely lists the logic behind his decision to make the coffin on a bevel, or a slight slant.
Vardaman states that his mother is a fish.
The Bundren siblings’ varied responses to Addie’s death provide us with deeper insight into their characters. Cash’s dry, technical list of his reasons for choosing to make the coffin on a bevel could be read as callousness, but one could also argue that his assembly of the coffin in front of Addie’s window is a gesture of some kind. Jewel, on the other hand, remains completely uncommunicative in this section, and remains so throughout the novel, as he is the only Bundren child whose narrative is cut off following Addie’s death. Dewey Dell speaks frequently, but she is lost in thought over her pregnancy, which not only eclipses her awareness of her mother’s death but even manages to distract her during the relatively simple task of finding Vardaman in the barn. Dewey Dell mentions that she laments this inability to focus on Addie’s passing, but feels powerless to change it, noting that she cannot think long enough to worry about anything. Dewey Dell’s ability to communicate with the cow introduces an affinity for animals that endures throughout the novel. Like the cow in need of milking, Dewey Dell is preoccupied with her own immediate concerns and is unable to contemplate fully matters that are not her own.
While the first sections of the novel make it clear that Darl’s voice is the most authoritative, Vardaman’s narration takes on increasing importance as the story progresses. Both Darl’s and Vardaman’s voices find common ground on the incredibly intricate issue of existence. Darl has the air of an amateur philosopher when he ruminates, “I dont know what I am. I dont know if I am or not.” For Darl, his mother’s transformation from a living person into a thing to be placed in a box brings up the question of what it means to exist. Vardaman wrestles with similar questions, although his thoughts are conducted with the imagination of a child. As he comes to grips with the initial pain of his mother’s death, Vardaman observes that there exists “an is different from my is.” Vardaman’s endless rants about the fish puzzle the other characters, but they are simply his way of expressing and making sense of his mother’s death. Vardaman equates the transformation of a live fish into “not-fish” and “not-blood” with the death of his mother, and the idea that his own parent can so suddenly cease to exist is as traumatic for him as it is for Darl.
The various characters’ interior monologues often seem detached from the rest of the novel, but there is in fact a very careful structure holding them all in place. One particularly noteworthy example of this structure can be found in the overlapping, but still contradictory, passages in which Dewey Dell and Vardaman are both in the barn. We see Dewey Dell pass by Vardaman twice, first in his account of the episode, then in hers. The two narratives are connected by the unmilked cow, a seemingly superfluous entity that reminds us that these two voices, although separated by chapters, are in fact speaking at the same time. Tellingly, Dewey Dell and Vardaman take away quite different impressions of the same experience—she thinks he has been spying on her, while he thinks she knows about his treatment of Peabody’s team—but these differing perspectives are nonetheless borne out of the same urge to protect their own innocence. The storm serves a similar function, appearing in the thoughts of both Tull and Darl and providing a sort of narrative umbrella to expose the thematic link between the two men’s thoughts.
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