As I Lay Dying
From Darl’s departure to Anse’s marriage
[A]int none of us pure crazy and aint none of us pure sane. . . . [I]t aint so much what a fellow does, but it’s the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it.
Cash explains why the family has decided to send Darl to a mental institution in Jackson. He says that because Gillespie was prepared to sue the Bundrens over the fire, they had no other choice. The family drives into Jefferson. Darl proposes that they treat Cash’s leg before burying Addie. Cash says that he can wait. Anse stops the wagon in front of a house and enters to ask for a shovel. A gramophone is playing inside, which interests Cash. Anse stays longer than expected and eventually emerges with two shovels. After the Bundrens finish burying Addie, the men from the institution show up to take Darl away. Darl struggles violently, but his family, with Dewey Dell in the lead, helps to subdue him. Darl sits on the ground, stunned, laughing uncontrollably.
Peabody treats Cash’s broken leg. He says that Cash will hobble on a shortened leg for the rest of his life—if he walks again. Peabody berates Cash for allowing Anse to set his leg in cement and loudly deplores Anse’s treatment of his children.
MacGowan, a clerk at the Jefferson drugstore, is at work when a young girl enters. MacGowan finds the young woman, Dewey Dell, attractive, and he takes advantage of the the absence of his boss by pretending to be a doctor. Dewey Dell explains her situation to MacGowan, who understands that she wants an abortion. She offers him ten dollars to perform the operation. MacGowan’s cover is almost blown when a coworker interrupts them, but he lies his way out of it. He tells Dewey Dell that ten dollars is not enough, and asks her how far she is willing to go for this operation. Desperate, the young woman agrees. MacGowan picks a bottle at random for her to drink and tells her to meet him back at the store that night for the rest of the procedure. She drinks from the bottle and leaves. That night, MacGowan closes the store down and waits there. Dewey Dell arrives promptly with a young boy, Vardaman, who waits on the curb outside the store. MacGowan hands Dewey Dell a box of talcum capsules and tells her to come to the cellar with him.
Vardaman accompanies Dewey Dell on an evening walk through Jefferson. They pass through the dark streets and the closed stores. Vardaman wants to stop to look at a toy train, but Dewey Dell takes them in the other direction, where she enters a drugstore, leaving Vardaman on the curb. Vardaman sits alone in the town square, thinking about how Darl went crazy, and stares at a lone cow. Dewey Dell emerges, and as they walk back to their hotel, she repeatedly makes the cryptic comment that “it” will not work.
Darl rants to himself as he is brought to the mental institution by armed guards. He switches madly between the first and third person perspective as he wonders why Darl cannot stop laughing, even as he lies in a dirty, grimy cell in Jackson.
Anse asks Dewey Dell about her ten dollars. She claims that she made it by selling Cora’s cakes. Anse wants to borrow the money, but Dewey Dell explains that it is not hers to loan. She says that if he takes the money from her, he will be a thief. Anse takes the money anyway and leaves the hotel.
Cash remembers Anse going back to the house to return the spades and remaining inside for a long time. That night, a sheepish Anse goes into town to attend to some unnamed business. The next morning, as the family prepares to leave Jefferson, Anse goes out, telling his children to meet him later. They wait for him on a corner, eating bananas. Eventually Anse arrives, wearing a new set of false teeth and escorting a stern-looking woman who carries a gramophone. Looking both sheepish and proud, Anse introduces all of his children to the woman, and tells them all to “[m]eet Mrs. Bundren.”
“It’s Cash and Jewel and Vardaman and Dewey Dell,” pa says, kind of hangdog and proud too, with his teeth and all, even if he wouldn’t look at us. “Meet Mrs Bundren,” he says.
In the novel’s final chapters, Cash emerges as the most objective and rational member of the family, and is consequently the most obvious choice to inherit the role of narrator from the ranting Darl. Up to this point, Cash has been the least vocal of the Bundrens, giving him a sort of neutrality in the politics of the family. This neutrality allows him to tell the final episode of the story with an impartial eye that is rare in this conflicted, self-loathing family. Cash’s reflections on Darl’s insanity accurately articulate the novel’s skepticism about absolute moral claims. Although Cash makes no apology for the family’s decision to commit Darl to a mental institution, he goes on to say that madness “aint so much what a fellow does” as how “the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it.” This intellectually complex statement acknowledges the role that society plays in determining people’s fates and interpretations of themselves. Cash’s use of the past tense also indicates his strong rationality, as though he has fully thought out the actions he describes. We have seen similar perspectives from characters outside the Bundren family, suggesting that Cash has escaped his family’s dysfunction and has arrived at some degree of normalcy.
In Darl’s final narrative, the degeneration of the voice of a once insightful and rational man into that of an incomprehensible schizophrenic is shown by his use of wildly incongruous pronouns and points of view. Darl speaks of himself sometimes as “I” and sometimes as “Darl,” indicating that he sees his inner, private self as an identity separate from his outer, social self. Similarly, his comment toward the end of his monologue that “Darl is our brother” indicates that he is assuming the perspective of his siblings. Through this insane raving, we can see traces of the old Darl, who earlier senses his siblings’ deepest secrets. While Darl earlier has the uncanny ability to get inside others’ heads, he is now somewhat locked out of his own head.
The family members’ reactions to Darl’s incarceration seem far less intense than their reactions to Addie’s death, and they quickly return to their usual preoccupations following Darl’s removal. Vardaman mentions Darl and Addie repeatedly in his final monologue, but he is also enraptured by the buzzards and by a toy train he sees in town. Cash seems resigned to Darl’s being put in an asylum, and Dewey Dell neglects to mention Darl at all. Anse seems to bear no scars, nor to have learned any lessons, from the tribulations of his journey. Anse’s stay in Jefferson is brief, but culminates in a second marriage that happens so quickly it is almost comic. Anse embodies the contrast between the macabre and the mirthful, between high seriousness and cheap farce, and his status is emblematic of the contradictions that permeate the narrative. These contradictions underscore the novel’s key idea that there is no absolute perception of reality, and that one person’s pain is another’s comedy. The differing reactions to Darl’s removal serve as a last reminder that even the most cataclysmic events do not set off a universal reaction, and that events are shaped entirely by the perspective and experience of the person witnessing them.
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