The river-crossing



Darl and Cash take the wagon along the river to the ford, with Jewel accompanying them on horseback. The trees break, and they spot Tull with Anse, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman on the other side of the river. The brothers argue about how they should cross. Finally, they come to an agreement. Jewel crosses upstream on horseback with a support rope, while Cash takes control of the wagon, with Darl inside. As they enter the ford, a log comes rushing at them, upsetting their progress. On Cash’s advice, Darl jumps from the wagon downstream. Jewel struggles with his horse while Cash clutches at the coffin and his tools. Anse’s mules float up out of the water, drowned.


Vardaman, watching from the opposite shore, sees Cash lose his grip on the coffin. Vardaman begins running along the bank, yelling at Darl to catch the coffin before it floats away. Vardaman runs past Tull, who hesitates to jump in, and rushes into the water to help Darl. Darl dodges the mules to grab hold of the coffin and struggles with it beneath the surface. When he comes up out of the water, his hands are empty. Vardaman rushes back to the bank and runs farther downstream.


Tull sees the log upset the progress of the wagon, and watches the chaos that ensues. Vardaman runs past him. Tull chastises Anse for the whole situation. Tull sees Jewel keeping hold of the coffin and the wagon by gripping a rope tied to them. Cash grabs a horse and is pulled to shore.


Darl sees Cash washed up on the riverside, unconscious, lying with a pool of vomit beside him. The other men are pulling the wreckage of the wagon out of the river. Tull ties a rope between himself and a tree to avoid being swept away by the current as he searches for things that have fallen out of the wagon. Tull asks Vardaman to keep the rope steady while he ventures into the water. Jewel is diving into the water in an effort to gather Cash’s scattered tools. With several of the tools in hand, the men hover over Cash, who opens his eyes. Unable to speak, he turns his head and vomits again. Dewey Dell squats over him and calls his name. Jewel and Tull return to the river to search for Cash’s saw set.


Cash remembers how he told the other family members that the coffin was not balanced, and how they should balance it.


Cora remembers a discussion she had with Addie about religion in which she criticized Addie for presuming to judge what is right and what is wrong, rather than leaving such judgment to God. Cora realizes that Addie was proud and vain, more driven by her love for the thankless Jewel than by her love for God. She remembers Addie speaking of Jewel in terms more appropriate to discussions of God, saying, “He is my cross and he will be my salvation.”

Analysis: Segment 34–39

In these sections, verb tenses fluctuate as each character tells his or her version of the river-crossing in either the present or the past tense. One of the functions of this technique is to separate the immediacy of the Bundrens’ involvement with their plight from the detachment that Cora and Tull experience as observers who are not particularly invested in the Bundrens’ problems. While the Bundrens generally narrate in the present tense, Cora and Vernon Tull usually give their monologues in the past tense. The past tense gives Cora and Tull an air of careful consideration, as if they have had some time to consider and evaluate the entire story before telling it with calmness, rationality, and balance. The Bundrens, on the other hand, do not have the luxury of reflection, as they are trapped in a frenzied and confusing world that allows time only for frantic explanations.

After the bridges wash out and their crossing is foiled, the Bundrens begin to seem more and more like the victims of some cosmic hex. Cash suffers the most in the failed crossing, reinjuring the leg that he first broke after falling off of a church. This injury can be seen as the result of his heroic self-sacrifice in telling Darl to leave the wagon for safety while refusing to do so himself, or it can be read as darkly comic bad luck brought on by forces outside of the Bundrens’ control.

Darl’s language, on the other hand, suggests something less humorous and more apocalyptic. When Darl describes the desolate air that surrounds the wagon as it enters the river, which he compares to “the place where the motion of the wasted world accelerates just before the final precipice,” he employs particularly fatalistic language. Cast in this light, the river becomes a final frontier separating the Bundrens from the next life, and given the circumstances that lead up to this journey, it is hard to gauge whether Addie is being sent off to heaven or to hell.

The crossing of the river is especially fraught with religious references, and in some ways seems like the fulfillment of a long-standing curse of biblical proportions. Cora has already speculated that Vardaman’s strange behavior is a curse on Addie and Anse, and she reiterates this point here, calling Addie overly proud and an idolater, due to Addie’s worship of Jewel. Now the absurd circumstances of the first few sections appear to add up to a colossal punishment for these past sins. This river episode also invokes classical mythology, most notably the legend of the River Styx. According to the ancient Greeks, the River Styx flowed nine times around the underworld, a spiral of poisonous waters that were thought to dissolve any mortal vessel that attempted to make a crossing—a consequence similar to the disastrous effect that crossing the river has on the Bundrens’ mule team and wagon. In classical mythology, however, the damned crossing the river were aided by a boatman named Charon, while the Bundrens have no such assistance, and are left to navigate the river alone.