From the shops and signs that the wagon is now passing, Darl deduces that the family is approaching Jefferson. Cash is resting on top of the coffin, and Anse decides that they must get him to a doctor. Suddenly, Dewey Dell declares that she needs to head for the bushes. When she returns, she has changed into her Sunday dress. The wagon passes a group of pedestrians, who remark on the odor of the corpse. Jewel angrily confronts one of them, who pulls out a knife. Without admitting his brother is wrong, Darl restrains Jewel and settles the dispute, and they drive on into Jefferson.
Over time, most of the Bundren narrators become more rational in their recounting of events. Vardaman’s initial frantic outbursts cool into an absorbed perceptiveness more representative of his character. Dewey Dell’s hysteria gives way to a more practical outlook, and Cash progresses from a reticent carpenter into the most even-keeled and reflective voice of all. But Darl, who starts out as the clearest narrator, gradually adopts a style that reflects blind passion and anger. The literary term for this kind of inversion is chiasmus, or the diagonal or crosswise arrangement of elements. The term “chiasmus” comes from “chi,” the Greek word for the letter “X” in the Greek alphabet. The letter “X” represents the simplest form of chiasmus, as the second stroke forming the letter is a perfect inversion of the first stroke. In As I Lay Dying, the most chiastic element is the inversion of the characters’ attitudes after Addie’s death. Whereas Darl’s brothers and sister climb out of an initial period of grief into an acceptance of their loss, Darl himself falls into despair. In As I Lay Dying, the use of chiasmus serves the vital purpose of giving form to a story that might otherwise fail to have a narrative arc. The thoughts and words of the narrators may be jumbled, but the novel itself is not—it focuses on and finds order in the emotions of its protagonists, rather than in the events that drive these emotions.
Darl’s burning of the barn and the changes in his narrative ability are symptoms of deeper changes in his character. Darl’s questioning of Jewel’s paternity reveals the same cruel streak that he displays when they first learn of Addie’s death and Darl sardonically reassures Jewel that Jewel’s horse is not dead. When he rescues Jewel from a brawl with a knife-wielding townsman, however, Darl reveals his concern with both his brother’s safety and dignity. This last action suggests that Darl, even though he burns down a barn—an especially serious crime in the agricultural South of Faulkner’s time, when barns were a key part of industry and personal survival—is moving toward a reconciliation with the living members of his family. Even Darl’s unkind words about Jewel’s father may be a symptom of this reconciliation, as Darl tries to deal honestly with yet another issue haunting the family.
With all the dysfunction plaguing the Bundrens, however, it is no surprise that Darl’s attempt to deal honestly with issues proves to be destructive. The members of the Bundren family have very little to their name in the way of either possessions or dignity. Because they have little else in their lives with which to preoccupy themselves, they adhere inflexibly to their mission to bury Addie in Jefferson. This gesture, however, costs them what little of value they do have: Anse’s mules, Jewel’s horse, and Cash’s leg, the loss of which amounts to the loss of his livelihood. The novel frequently mentions the stench of both Cash’s rotting leg and Addie’s corpse to remind us of the family’s desperate situation. In burning the barn, Darl may be seeking to stop this cycle of putridity. The barn’s flames complete the image of the family stuck in an inferno, but this kind of catharsis is needed to shake the family out of its stupor. Whether or not it succeeds, however, is up for debate. Darl’s burning of the barn does hasten reconciliation between Darl and Jewel, but it also compounds the family’s woes, and the mission to bury Addie is no closer to completion than before.