As I Lay Dying

by: William Faulkner

Sections 13–19

Vardaman

Vardaman states that his mother is a fish.

Analysis

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.