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.