As I Lay Dying
From Addie’s monologue to the drugstore
That was when I learned that words are no good; that words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at.
The next monologue is Addie’s, although it is not made explicitly clear whether her thoughts are from the coffin, or whether the narrative leaps back in time to when Addie is still living. Addie remembers working as a schoolteacher before her marriage, taking pleasure in whipping her pupils when they misbehaved. Addie then recounts Anse’s terse courtship and their marriage. She says that when she gave birth to their eldest children, Cash and Darl, she felt as if her aloneness had been violated. She had declared Anse dead to her and bemoaned the uselessness of words. She recalls the extramarital passion she shared, and then lost, with Whitfield, the minister. As a result of that brief affair, Addie became disillusioned by that fact that someone supposedly virtuous could engage in such sinful behavior. She eventually gave birth to Jewel, Whitfield’s bastard son. Addie remembers giving birth to Dewey Dell and Vardaman, and describes the births as the final payments in an emotional debt to Anse, after which she was free to die. Addie recalls some of Cora’s remarks about sin and salvation, and dismisses them as empty words.
Whitfield overcomes temptation, and resolves to go to the Bundren household and confess his affair with Addie to Anse before Addie can do so herself. Although the bridge is washed away, Whitfield is able to cross. Upon reaching Tull’s house, he learns that Addie is already dead, and nobody seems to know about the affair. Whitfield decides that this turn of events must be a sign from God. He pays his last respects, and leaves without confessing.
Darl helps lay the semiconscious Cash on top of the coffin. Jewel rides ahead to get Armstid’s team, and the Bundrens ride up to the Armstid household. They carry Cash inside. Armstid offers the house to the Bundrens for the evening, but Anse declines and the Bundrens return to the shed. After initially refusing Armstid’s offer of supper, Anse accepts. Jewel remains behind to attend to the horses.
Over supper, Armstid and Anse discuss the purchase of a new team of mules. Armstid offers Anse the use of his team, but Anse declines. Jewel rides out to find Peabody, but returns with a horse doctor instead, who sets Cash’s broken leg. Cash faints from the pain but does not complain. The next morning, Anse rides off on Jewel’s horse to see about purchasing a team. Armstid watches Vardaman fight off a slew of buzzards that have gathered around Addie’s coffin. Jewel attempts to move the wagon out of the shed, but Darl refuses to help. Late in the day, Anse returns to announce that he has purchased a team. He explains that he has mortgaged his farm equipment, used some money that Cash was saving to buy a gramophone, used some money from his own false teeth fund, and traded away Jewel’s horse. After the first shock wears away, Jewel rides off on his horse. Without the horse, it looks as if the trade will not go through. However, the next morning, a farmhand comes by with a team of mules, saying that the horse was left, unattended, on the land of the man who made the trade with Anse.
Vardaman is traveling with his family in the wagon, and watches a group of buzzards circling above them in the sky.
Moseley, a shopkeeper in the town of Mottson, sees a young woman browsing in his store, and asks her if she needs assistance. Moseley is shocked when the young woman, Dewey Dell, hints that she is in search of an abortion treatment. He flatly refuses to provide her with one, saying that he is a churchgoing man. The young woman insists, and tells Moseley that Lafe told her the drugstore would give her the proper treatment for ten dollars. Moseley still refuses, and advises the young woman to marry her precious Lafe. After the young woman leaves, Moseley hears more about the Bundren family from his assistant. The assistant tells Moseley that Anse had an encounter with the Mottson marshal earlier about the stench of Addie’s eight-day-old corpse. One of the sons was seen buying cement to set his brother’s leg, and then the family left Mottson.
The sudden introduction of Addie’s voice into the narrative is puzzling, and, like Darl’s uncanny ability early in the novel to know what is happening at home even though he is nowhere nearby, Addie’s monologue defies logical explanation. It is, however, quite well placed, and provides us with more perspective on the characters. Addie’s description of Anse as a disheveled bachelor, and of their courtship as brief and matter-of-fact, accounts for his seeming lack of concern for Addie’s death and his various failures as a father. Once we learn that Jewel is an illegitimate son, the mystery behind Addie’s intense attachment to him is solved. For all the value we place on Addie’s commentary, however, she herself has little faith in words, and understands their limits. After giving birth to Cash, she expresses her disillusionment by proclaiming that “[w]ords were no good.” The words “marriage” and “motherhood” have been robbed of their expressiveness, and no longer have anything to do with Addie’s experience. Just as linguistic representations of the abstract concepts of marriage and motherhood have become meaningless for Addie, so have the actual institutions been stripped of their positive qualities.
Addie’s disillusionment with religion points to a deeper preoccupation in the novel with the extent to which religion, sin, and morality determine the actions of the characters. Although these elements factor heavily into the events of the novel, Faulkner is rarely moralistic or judgmental: although some characters know what is right and wrong, they often feel free to disregard that awareness, while other characters, such as Addie, are confused about what is morally correct in the first place.
Addie’s spiritual crisis stands in stark contrast with that of Whitfield, whose spiritual integrity remains untarnished in spite of all his failings. Whitfield’s strong and pronounced resolution to confess all to Anse dissipates as soon as Whitfield learns of Addie’s death, and he lamely justifies himself by claiming that God will accept his intention to confess in place of the actual confession. This weakness, however, does not cost Whitfield any of his esteem, and Faulkner shows a rather undisguised contempt for the clergy in this passage. Perhaps the greatest irony occurs with Cora’s condemnation of Addie for her pride and her statement that not even Whitfield’s prayers can save Addie from her vanity. Soon after the words are out of Cora’s mouth, however, we learn about the affair, and Whitfield’s whole character is unveiled to us as a sham. In fact, Whitfield’s spiritual hypocrisy is similar to Anse’s shameless exploitation of religious faith to justify his own interests. Whitfield, however, retains the admiration of the community, whereas Anse seems to be more or less despised. The contrast between the difficulty that the Bundrens face in crossing the river and Whitfield’s relatively easy passage to apparent absolution strongly hints that divine justice is unfair.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!