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As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner


THE STORY

Not numbering the 59 monologues is Faulkner's effective way of suggesting continuous action, but it makes any section-by-section discussion of the novel difficult. To eliminate that problem, you might want to number the monologues in your own copy of the novel to make it easier to match your text with the discussion that follows.

[William Faulkner reads from As I Lay Dying]

1. DARL

In this opening section, Faulkner carefully establishes the setting of As I Lay Dying and introduces you to one of the novel's central conflicts- the rivalry between Darl and his younger brother, Jewel. You also get your first impression of Darl's mind, another major focus of the novel.

NOTE: AVOIDING CONFUSION
Expect to be somewhat disoriented at the outset, much as you would be if you overheard a snippet of conversation between two strangers. You will find few identifying labels attached to the people named in this section. Yet, as the novel develops, the identities and motivations of each character will become clear through clues which Faulkner drops and which you, as a detective, must interpret.

As the story opens, Darl and Jewel are tramping silently across a cotton field toward their house. Faulkner doesn't tell you that they are brothers, or even how old they are. (Darl, you will learn much later, is about 28, and Jewel is about 18.) Faulkner does tell you that Jewel is a head taller than Darl and that, for some reason, they are rivals.

Their silent march is loaded with tension, as if the two were actually competing. Darl is 15 feet ahead of Jewel as the section opens. But when they reach the cotton house, exactly in the center of the field, Darl walks around it. Jewel, however, steps through it- in one window and out another- and emerges five feet ahead of Darl. They keep this pace all the way to the spring, where Jewel pauses for a drink.

Jewel has quit the race- if race it was. Darl continues on, and as he reaches the top of the path, he comes upon a carpenter named Cash. (Cash, we will learn, is at 29 the oldest of the four brothers.) Cash is making a coffin for someone named Addie Bundren. He is completely absorbed in his work, kneeling alongside the coffin to squint at the fit of two planks. Darl's words of admiration- "a good carpenter, Cash is"- suggests no rancor between these two. He walks by Cash up to the house, which holds (though we don't know it yet) the cause, and the object, of the rivalry between Darl and Jewel.

Various clues in the section make it clear that these are poor country people. The section also provides some insight into Jewel's character, or at least Darl's perception of it. He seems unsmiling and stiff, with a "wooden face" and the "gravity of a cigar store Indian... endued with life from the hips down." He seems undaunted by obstacles, too. He "steps in a single stride" through one window of the cotton house and exits, four strides later, out the other.

NOTE: JEWEL AND IMAGERY OF WOOD
Darl frequently describes Jewel with imagery of wood, here and elsewhere. Some readers think that in so doing, Faulkner is trying to associate Jewel with Dionysus, the Greek god of fertility and wine who was also a god of trees. Dionysus was conceived in the woods at Nemi. Jewel was also conceived in the woods, as you will learn in section 40.

Dionysus was both violent and cruel- two primitive characteristics that Jewel will exhibit in both thought and action. He was also very manly. Jewel's virility is hinted at with the reference to his being "endued with life from the hips down," and in section 8 it is suggested that he is somewhat of a ladies' man.

You can choose to ignore this interpretation. Most readers do. If you follow such parallels, however- even if they lead to dead ends- you will learn something about Faulkner's method of weaving references to ancient myth into his works. You'll learn more about this method in the discussion of sections 3 and 11.

Finally, the opening section gives you a glimpse of Darl's mind and of his special powers as an observer. He describes with geometric precision the setting of the silent race, almost as if he were in a helicopter looking down at the scene. The path runs "straight as a plumb-line" and goes around the "square" cotton house "at four soft right angles." He is aware of everything- the spaces between the coffin planks "yellow as gold" and the "chucking" sound of Cash's adze (a curved, handled tool used to dress timber and planks). He even knows what's going on behind him!

What sort of a person is Darl, judging from the way he sees things? Here, he will probably strike you as someone whose mind is uncluttered, despite its capacity to accumulate details. His vision seems absolutely clear. He appears to be an accurate reporter, someone whose perceptions you can trust.

Be careful, however. Darl will narrate almost a third of the book. As the novel progresses, he may not always appear rational and trustworthy.

NOTE: TONE AND COMIC EFFECTS
Before leaving this opening section, assess its tone. Darl's attitude seems matter-of-fact, accepting. He doesn't criticize Jewel, or even comment on the tension between them. His entire tone is one of understanding and sincerity. He makes no obvious attempt at humor.

And yet, there's something gently comic about the whole scene. Most readers find themselves smiling at the silent march across the field, at Jewel's abrupt passage through the cotton house "still staring straight ahead," and at Darl's comment that "Addie Bundren could not want... a better box to lie in. It will give her confidence and comfort." If you find yourself smiling at these points, take a moment to ask yourself why.

2. CORA

This section introduces you to the Tull family- Cora, her husband Vernon, and their daughters Kate and Eula- and it gives you your first glimpse of Addie Bundren. It also gives you, in Cora, a look at the unfelt, shallow piety that, you learn later, repulses Addie.

Though she is an object of humor, Cora has characteristics that can draw you to her. "So I saved out the eggs and baked yesterday," her monologue begins. She was baking, it turns out, in hopes of selling cakes to a lady in town. But the lady called off her party and Cora is stuck with her cakes.

Does the turn of events bother Cora? Her pride is hurt ("They turned out real well") and so is her pocketbook ("I could have used the money real well"). But Cora, being Cora, refuses to admit to any loss. The lady who made the order "ought to taken those cakes anyway," Cora's daughter Kate remarks- not once, but four times.

NOTE: CONFLICT BETWEEN COUNTRY AND TOWN
A recurring theme throughout As I Lay Dying is the conflict between the hill people and those who live in towns, especially Jefferson, the county seat. The episode of the spurned cakes is the first instance of this conflict. "Those rich town ladies can change their minds. Poor folks cant," Kate tells her mother. You may want to write about this conflict later, so keep an eye out for signs of it as you read the novel.

Through it all, Cora uses her religion, never too convincingly, to comfort herself. "The Lord can see into the heart," she says. "If it is His will that some folks has different ideas of honesty from other folks, it is not my place to question His decree."

It's not until halfway through the section that we learn how almost sacrilegious Cora's self-pity is. She rises out of her concerns- petty to the reader, major to her- to take note of Addie for the first time. And you learn that she is sitting by the bedside of a woman whose dying is of less importance to her than her couple of dollars' worth of cakes.

Addie is not far from death. "Her eyes are like two candles when you watch them gutter down into the sockets of iron candle-sticks," Cora says. It's a painful, yet perfectly apt description- the sort of matter-of-fact simile you might expect a country woman to come up with.

Addie has been propped up so that she can look out the window at Cash building her coffin. Cora instinctively links her to her own concerns about the rejected cakes. "They turned out real nice," Cora says. "But not like the cakes Addie used to bake."

Cora's eye falls on the dirty pillow case, giving her a chance to mentally criticize Addie's daughter, who sits by the bed fanning her mother. (In later sections you will learn that the daughter's name is Dewey Dell, and that she is 17 years old.) In the next breath, Cora praises Addie's baking and makes a lame attempt to reassure everyone that "first thing we know [Addie will] be up and baking again." Cora's monologue ends with Darl's entrance into the house.

Take a moment to analyze the way Faulkner creates Cora. He puts the technique of the interior monologue to excellent use here, mixing spoken and unspoken thoughts with sometimes hilarious effect. To see how Faulkner uses this technique, go back over this section and read only those lines that were spoken aloud. The spoken thoughts leave you with no humor at all- just a mother and her daughters exchanging small talk at the bedside of a dying neighbor.

3. DARL

In this section, Faulkner gives you a second glimpse of the workings of Darl's remarkable mind. He exposes you to Jewel's violent nature and his ambivalence toward his horse, the one possession that sets him apart from the other Bundrens.

At the end of Cora's section, Darl walked toward the back of the house. Now, you see where he was heading- to the back porch for a drink from the water bucket.

Vernon Tull, Cora's husband, is sitting there with Anse Bundren, Darl's father. Anse asks, "Where's Jewel?" and Darl, savoring this "warmish-cool" water that he is drinking from a gourd, takes a long time answering.

The water sets off a chain of associations. It brings back memories of hot nights during Darl's childhood and the almost mystical experience of taking a drink, alone, under the starry sky. In one of the many poetic passages in the novel, Darl recalls "a star or two in the bucket, and maybe in the dipper a star or two before I drank."

His thoughts float naturally from the sensual pleasure of the water's taste to an early period of sexual awareness, when he would keep himself awake until the others had gone to sleep. Then "I could lie with my shirt-tail up,... feeling myself without touching myself, feeling the cool silence blowing upon my parts...."

NOTE: SEXUAL THEMES IN AS I LAY DYING
Sexuality plays an important role in this book, as in most of Faulkner's works. This theme was alluded to in an early description of Jewel and in Cora's section. It will recur again and again in As I Lay Dying- as a source of tension between men and women, as an antidote to loneliness, and as a bid for immortality, by projecting oneself into the future through children and grandchildren. Some readers see sexuality here both as a source of temptation and sin, and as a force for the renewal of life.

Darl finishes drinking and makes an observation about the weather before finally answering Anse. Jewel, he says, is "down to the barn.... Harnessing the team."

But he knows that isn't true. A clairvoyant (someone who can see objects or actions removed from natural viewing), Darl can see Jewel "fooling with that horse." Study Darl's description of the violence Jewel inflicts upon the horse- violence that seems to be Jewel's way of expressing love. Darl reports Jewel cutting off the horse's wind supply with one hand and, with the other, stroking its neck. All the while Jewel curses the horse "with obscene ferocity." What kind of person is this?

NOTE: ALLUSION TO GREEK MYTH
The horse is no ordinary animal, and Jewel's relation to it is rather special, too. Faulkner makes sure you know that with two fleeting references to ancient myth. As the horse stands on its hind legs, slashing at Jewel, "Jewel is enclosed by a glittering maze of hooves as by an illusion of wings...." Suddenly, the horse has become Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek mythology. Pegasus and his rider, Bellerophon, shared many adventures until Bellerophon tried to ride to the throne of the gods atop Mt. Olympus. Zeus, angered, caused Pegasus to throw Bellerophon to the ground. Crippled and blind, the humiliated Bellerophon wandered alone until he died.

In the next paragraph, Jewel mounts the horse and, together, the two become another mythological creature a centaur. (Centaurs- half men, half horses- were among the lesser gods in Greek myth.) On horseback, Jewel "flows upward in a stooping swirl like the lash of a whip, his body in mid-air shaped to the horse."

These two references are fine examples of Faulkner's use of what the poet T. S. Eliot called "the mythical method." By evoking characters from Greek and biblical myth, Faulkner offers yardsticks against which you can measure his modern characters. In a sense, he is suggesting parallel narratives- stories that serve as backdrops to the one he is telling. Jewel is neither Bellerophon nor a centaur, exactly. Nor is he exactly Dionysus, as is suggested elsewhere in the novel. But you understand him better when you know how much like these mythical characters he is, and how much he and his actions differ from theirs, too.

Will Jewel risk the gods' wrath on his Pegasus? Will he prove to be a savage, coarse centaur? You may want to write a report on his relation to myth, so stay tuned.

4. JEWEL

This brief, passionate section provides the only glimpse you'll get of the way Jewel's mind works. His anger, his hatreds, and his love for his mother clog his consciousness.

One way to get a grip on this section is to tote up the targets of Jewel's anger: (1) Cash enrages him by his "hammering and sawing on that goddamn box." Perhaps jealously, he mocks what he sees as Cash's attempt to win Addie's praise by crafting a coffin outside her window. (2) The Tulls and Dewey Dell, "sitting there, like buzzards" also infuriate Jewel. Even the fanning makes him angry, because it keeps "the air always moving so fast" on Addie's face. (3) People who might pass on the road get him mad, too. Jewel imagines them stopping and praising Cash's carpentry.

What he really wants is to be Addie's lone protector during her last moments of life. In the violent passage that ends the section, Jewel has a fantasy: "It would just be me and her on a high hill and me rolling the rocks down... at their faces... until she was quiet...."

Despite the violent imagery, this is really a touching section. So far, Jewel offers the only genuine expression of love for Addie that you've seen.

NOTE: ECHOES OF THE OLD TESTAMENT
The biblical references in As I Lay Dying help to explain Faulkner's purpose. Some readers stress the importance of the novel's few Christian images, which appear in later sections.

Other readers find echoes of the "pre-Christian" Old Testament throughout the book- in the cadences of some of the soliloquies, the themes, and some of the characters' attitudes. Indeed, it is possible to find strong overtones of the Book of Job in the novel. God permitted Satan to test Job, "a perfect and upright man" in God's view. Everything Job owns is destroyed, and he is afflicted with sores. Four friends gather round him, ostensibly to comfort him. But their comfort consists of accusations that Job cannot be just, as he claims, and that he must be guilty of arrogant pride.

The parallels here will become obvious as the story unfolds. It's possible to see Addie as Job, and people such as the Tulls, who gather around her ("like buzzards," Jewel says), as Job's quarrelsome friends. The subject of the Book of Job is the problem of good and evil in the world. "Why do the just suffer and the wicked flourish?" the story's prologue asks. Jewel, echoing Job's laments, wonders "if there is a God what the hell is He for." Why, Jewel wonders, doesn't God protect his mother from suffering?

5. DARL

In this key section, Faulkner reveals, in a matter-of-fact way, the promise that propels the entire story forward. At the same time, he pulls back the veil, ever so slightly, on the motivations and foibles of his characters.

NOTE: FAULKNER'S USE OF PRONOUNS
Faulkner's stream of consciousness technique requires him to present pronouns without always clearly establishing their antecedents- the nouns which the pronouns stand for. An instance occurs in the first sentence of this section. This potentially confusing use of pronouns annoys some readers, especially in later sections, when Darl and Vardaman use "it" several times in a row, implying a different- and unspecified- antecedent each time.

In using pronouns this way, Faulkner is working toward verisimilitude- representing thought processes as they actually occur. He is merely trying to reproduce, or at least suggest, the mental shorthand that we all use in our private thoughts.

The comical Anse is played against the serious Anse in this scene, giving you a sense of two sides to his character. Darl wants his father to give the go-ahead to a plan to haul a load of lumber. Anse can't make up his mind. He doesn't want his sons away with the wagon because he has promised Addie he will take her for burial to her hometown, Jefferson, as soon as she dies. "She'll want to start right away," Anse says. "I know her."

This man is generally seen as an object of ridicule. In a circus, he'd be wearing a pair of oversized shoes and patched clothes. Faulkner takes Anse's shoes off, gives him a hunchback, and makes him toothless and unshaven. The way he mangles the language- with a touch of pomposity- only adds to his ridiculousness.

And yet, Faulkner portrays this bumbler with affection. He shows that Anse means well and seems sincere about his intention to respect Addie's wishes. What effect does this have on your assessment of Anse?

Anse never really grants permission for the lumber-hauling trip. Jewel impatiently walks off the porch. Anse sees they are going and tries to recoup a measure of dignity by telling them to be back by sundown the next day.

Why is Darl so eager to make the trip at such a critical point? Some readers, noting the tension between Darl and Jewel, have concluded that Darl has an ulterior motive. If you were told that Darl wants to prevent Jewel from being present at his mother's death, what would your reaction be?

Certainly Jewel seems, to Darl, to have been Addie's favorite. "Ma always whipped him and petted him more," he says, because his height made him stand out. "That's why she named him Jewel," Darl says.

Is Darl's perception of Addie's favoritism accurate? Or is he merely throwing you a false clue? It's hard to tell at this point.

Jewel is certainly true to form. He lashes out at Vernon Tull and accuses everyone of "burning hell" to see Addie dead and buried.

Anse misinterprets Jewel's anger, showing how little he understands about Jewel. "You got no affection nor gentleness for her," he says. "You never had."

What do you learn about Addie here? From Darl, we hear she had a favorite child. From Anse, we hear she is a "private woman" and neat, "ever one to clean up after herself."

Notice how the two brothers make their exits here.

6. CORA

Once more, Cora provides comic relief, this time with a syrupy monologue that suggests she is not attuned to the drama that is unfolding around her. Her monologue would be a marvelous set piece (a section of a work of art strong enough to stand on its own) if you could appreciate its humor without reading earlier sections. But the humor depends on irony- our knowledge that she doesn't know what she's talking about.

The first line- "It was the sweetest thing I ever saw"- sets the tone and lets us know we're in for another string of platitudes. Faulkner delays his punch line in this extended joke, so it's a long while before you learn what she sees. By that time, her credibility as a reporter has been so destroyed, you end up wondering if she saw anything at all.

Somehow, Cora has persuaded herself that Darl has gone to haul a load of lumber against his will. "But nothing would do but Anse and Jewel must make that three dollars," Cora says.

What does this misinterpretation allow her to do? Cora wouldn't have expected anything better from Anse, she says. But she is outraged that the lure of three dollars would induce Jewel to turn his back on the mother who showed him "downright partiality."

She exempts Darl from her blanket condemnation. On his way out of the house, he stopped by Addie's door. "He just stood and looked at his dying mother, his heart too full for words."

Dewey Dell gives another version of the same scene in the next section. In its own way, as you will see, her version is as complicated as Cora's. By putting two opposite interpretations of the same event side by side, Faulkner is calling attention to the subjective nature of experience. The human ability to interpret events in an entirely personal way ensures that there will always be an unbridgeable gap between even close relatives. The isolation of individuals within a group- a seeming paradox- is one of the major themes of As I Lay Dying.

7. DEWEY DELL

Dewey Dell is one of Faulkner's most successful comic characters, and in this section you see why. Her name suggests a sensual being, a part of nature. Although Faulkner mocks her, he treats her with affection, as he does Anse.

Half of her brief section is a hilarious attempt to shed the blame for her seduction and subsequent pregnancy. The seducer is someone named Lafe, who has come to help the Bundrens harvest their cotton crop. Woods border the cotton field, and Dewey Dell and Lafe happen to be picking down a row towards this "secret shade."

As they move closer to the trees and Dewey Dell's fever rises, she creates a game that allows her to think that she has no responsibility for her actions. If her sack is full of cotton by the time they reach the woods, she will let herself be seduced. If it isn't full, she will continue picking cotton up the next row, away from the woods.

She may have been thinking out loud. For Lafe ends up picking into her sack. At the end of the row, her sack is full of cotton- "and I could not help it," she says.

NOTE: THE PERSEPHONE MYTH
In Greek myth, there's a lovely story about Persephone, the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. Persephone was the goddess of spring and therefore of fertility. One day Pluto, king of the underworld, or Hades, seized her and held her captive. Her mother, Demeter, as goddess of vegetation the major fertility goddess, managed to persuade the gods to have Persephone returned to her. But Pluto tricked Persephone into eating a pomegranate, the food of the dead. So for four months every year she had to return to the underworld. The flowers and grain died whenever she left the earth, but when she returned, the flowers blossomed and everything grew again. The story symbolizes the annual vegetation cycle- the end of the growing season in the fall and its return in the spring.

Some readers hear echoes of this myth in As I Lay Dying. They see the fertile Dewey Dell suggesting Persephone. Lafe, who has come from town to harvest cotton, suggests Pluto. Lafe lured Dewey Dell into the "secret shade," a place whose very name hints at the underworld.

You may want to ponder what all this might mean- if anything. Some readers feel that if Faulkner is using the Persephone myth, he is doing so only to show how far Dewey Dell veers from it. For Dewey Dell is surely not comfortable with her fertility. She will spend a lot of the book thinking about, or actually seeking, an abortion.

Darl has a special relationship with Dewey Dell. They can communicate without speaking. Darl knows she is pregnant, and Dewey Dell hates him for knowing.

At Addie's door- the same door where Cora saw him standing silently- he tells Dewey Dell that Addie is going to die before he and Jewel return. "Then why are you taking Jewel?" she asks. Because, he answers, he wants Jewel to help him load the wagon.

This is all very strange, this conversation without sound. But don't forget that Darl has seemed clairvoyant before, and that, as Cora reported, he's the Bundren "that folks say is queer."

Dewey Dell makes some interesting comments about other family members here. She reinforces the view that Anse is lazy and crafty. And she says that Jewel has concerns that the rest of the family don't share. Her choice of words (he is not "care-kin") suggests, in fact, that Jewel is in some way unrelated to the rest of the Bundrens. This is an interesting clue to his character.

8. TULL

Faulkner continues to introduce his cast of characters with this section, narrated by Cora's husband, Vernon. And he brings one of the novel's central images, a fish, into the story for the first time.

Anse and Vernon sit on the back porch after Jewel and Darl have left. Vernon's thoughts wander from the weather ("It's fixing to rain tonight") to the hard life all women have. The men make a reference to the Book of Job. "The Lord giveth," Anse says, reciting part of the prayer in which Job acknowledges and accepts God's will.

Addie's youngest son, Vardaman, comes up the hill carrying a fish he wants to show Addie. It's unclear how old Vardaman is. But if the fish he caught is "nigh as long as he is," it's a fair bet that he isn't older than eight or nine. On Anse's orders, Vardaman lugs the fish away to clean it.

NOTE: VARDAMAN'S NAME
Vardaman is named after James Kimble Vardaman (1861-1930), a Mississippi politician who died the year Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying. Vardaman won the governorship in 1903 by exploiting the racial prejudices of poor white farmers like the Bundrens. Faulkner once pointed out that poor whites in Mississippi often named their children after politicians like Vardaman, who pretended to show an interest in their concerns.

At five o'clock, the Tulls say their goodbyes to Anse. Vernon offers to help him bring in his corn. Cash is still working on the coffin outside the house. As they pass him, Vernon mutters a silent hope that Cash will work as carefully on the Tulls' barn as he does on the coffin. As you'll see, nearly everyone in this book has something else besides Addie on their minds.

Vernon Tull seems to be a narrator you can trust, one who passes no judgment on events or people he reports on. Like Dewey Dell and Darl, he points out how dependent on others Anse is. These observations belie Anse's own claim, in section 5, that he has never been "beholden" to anyone.

Even Kate Tull, who continues to smolder over the rejected cakes, notes how dependent Anse is. If Addie dies, she predicts, he'll get another wife "before cotton-picking."

9. ANSE

In this section you learn that the image most people have of Anse is accurate. He's selfish and luckless, and too adept at rationalizing his laziness to make any effort to change his fortunes. Yet Faulkner paints a picture of him that draws our sympathy. Watch how he does it.

Anse stands in front of the house, gazing at the road and contemplating his bad luck. He traces his misfortunes to the road, which brings "every bad luck" to his house.

NOTE: THE IMAGE OF THE ROAD
Faulkner once told a critic that the idea for As I Lay Dying grew out of a story someone told him about a man who was angry at a road because it brought trouble to his house. Preposterous as it seems, Faulkner has Anse develop that idea here.

The passage foreshadows the novel's basic story line. Spectacular calamities will happen on the road to Jefferson.

Significantly, Anse implies that traveling is a flaunting of God's will. God built man to stay put, like a tree, he says. Could he be suggesting that the Bundrens' journey will be in some way a defiance of the gods?

Old Doc Peabody pops into Anse's thoughts without warning. Clues in other sections suggest that Anse sent for him, even though he shudders at the thought of paying a doctor. So it's unclear why he tells Peabody, "I never sent for you." Perhaps that is Anse's way of gaining Peabody's promise not to tell Addie that he had done so.

Peabody goes in to see Addie, leaving Anse to curse his bad luck. He can envision rain coming up the road and finding only his house. In an echo from job, he wonders why a sinless man must suffer such torment.

Vardaman reappears, bloody from gutting his fish. Anse tells him to wash his hands. The order probably reminds him of Addie, for he thinks of how hard she worked to make her sons "right." Suddenly he feels drained, unable "to get no heart into anything." Vardaman drives Anse's pain home with a question about Addie's health.

As the section ends, Anse isn't crying. Nonetheless, he may remind you of that classic portrait of a clown with a smile painted on his face and a tear rolling down his cheek.

10. DARL

Darl shows an unattractive side to his personality in this short section. He gets a perverse pleasure from taunting Jewel about Addie's death and Dewey Dell about her pregnancy.

Sitting behind Jewel on the wagon, Darl asks his brother again and again if he knows Addie is going to die. Jewel never responds.

Darl then recalls taunting Dewey Dell about her eagerness to get to town. But she can't bring herself to admit that she is pregnant any more than Jewel, in an earlier scene, could refer to his mother's coffin.

Why should Dewey Dell want to get to town? You've probably guessed by now that she hopes to have an abortion.

Faulkner ends the section with an image of Hades, or the underworld. An hour before darkness, the sun "is poised like a bloody egg upon a crest of thunderheads," and the air smells like sulfur. All-knowing, Darl realizes that Peabody will have to be pulled up the steep hill to the Bundrens' house on a rope- "balloon-like up the sulphurous air."

11. PEABODY

In Doc Peabody, you meet one of the most trustworthy outside observers of the Bundren family. A hefty old man, he is full of knowledge and wisdom.

Peabody realized as soon as the weather turned bad that it had been Anse and no one else who called for him. "Nobody but a luckless man could ever need a doctor in the face of a cyclone." He also realized that if Anse thought he needed a doctor, the patient was beyond hope.

NOTE: DEATH AS A STATE OF MIND
Peabody presents his view of death as "merely a function of the mind- and that of the minds of the ones who suffer the bereavement." He disputes those who say death is the end as well as those who call it a beginning. To Peabody, death is just like someone moving out of town and living on in the memory of his former neighbors.

Addie is not yet dead. But you can be sure that, even in death, she will be present in the lives of the survivors. The promise she extracted from Anse- to bury her in Jefferson- will ensure it. The ability of the dead to shape life, to motivate the living, is one of the major themes of the novel.

Outside on the porch, Peabody chews out Anse for waiting so long to call him. Peabody suspects he didn't want to pay a doctor's bill. But Anse suggests- here as in the fifth section- another reason for delaying: his fear that, once Addie saw Peabody, she would simply die.

And that seems to be what has happened. Dewey Dell calls Anse to Addie's bedside. Addie is near death.

Her eyes drive Peabody out of the room. Outside, he can hear Addie call Cash in a strong voice.

Peabody tries to explain why a woman would reject sympathy and help and cling, instead, to Anse, a "trifling animal." Such, Peabody says, is "the love that passeth understanding: that pride, that furious desire to hide that abject nakedness which we bring here with us [and] carry... with us into the earth again."

We are back to Job again: "Naked I came out of my mother's womb," Job said, "and naked shall I return." We are born alone and we die alone, Peabody seems to say, but we spend our days trying to deny it.

NOTE: THE BUNDRENS' PRIDE
In order to understand what motivates the Bundrens especially Addie- it's important to understand their pride. In general, pride is a lofty, sometimes arrogant, sense of one's own superiority. To many Christians, pride is a sin- an attempt to set oneself up as better than God. Elihu, one of Job's four counselors, accuses him of provoking God's wrath with his arrogant pride. (Cora will accuse Addie of such sinful behavior in section 39.)

In Faulkner's view, however, pride needn't be a negative value. He sees it as essential to man's dignity. It can and does, in this book, mean strength- the dignity that can hold a family together and enable it to overcome adversity. In a sense, the Bundrens' pride is of this heroic sort, as their journey to Jefferson will show.

12. DARL

Darl, with his clairvoyance, details the scene of Addie's death even though he is miles away at the time.

Addie's death is a special moment, one full of clues to many of the characters. Anse, Vardaman, and Dewey Dell are in the room when she dies.

Anse, ill at ease, is clumsy and touching by turns. While trying to tell her where Darl and Jewel are, he breaks off as if he doubts his own explanation. He puts his hand on hers just as she sits up to look out the window and call Cash. She dies looking at Vardaman, who backs out of the room in horror.

Cash comes to the room. Anse's sense of timing is off, as always. He queries Cash about his progress on the coffin while Cash is trying to come to grips with his loss. Without looking at Anse, Cash goes back to work. Anse tells Dewey to get some supper ready. She leaves, and Anse is alone with Addie. He touches her face and her hands and makes some awkward attempts to smooth the quilt covering her. He gives up and breaks the solemnity of the scene with the words, "God's will be done. Now I can get them teeth."

Three italicized paragraphs break up Darl's description of Addie's death. In one of them, Faulkner has Darl explain his and Jewel's plight. At the moment of their mother's death, they are stuck in a rainy ditch with a broken wheel.

In the second italicized paragraph, Darl reports an inconclusive exchange between Peabody and Dewey Dell. Peabody tries to comfort her. She tries to tell him how he could help her with an abortion. Yet, still unable to say the word "pregnant," even to herself, she cannot make her need clear.

The third italicized paragraph ends this section with Darl's announcement to Jewel that Addie is dead. Darl reports no reaction from Jewel, who at the time is straining against the axle, trying to raise it. It's curious how quickly Anse and Dewey Dell lapse into their own private concerns as soon as Addie is dead. Cash returns to his work, Jewel and Darl to theirs. Only Vardaman seems overwhelmed with grief.

13. VARDAMAN

In psychiatry, a trauma is a startling experience that has lasting effect on someone's mind. With this monologue, Faulkner gives you an "inside look" at a young boy's reaction to a traumatic event- his mother's death.

In the previous section, Vardaman was backing out of the room where his mother died. Now he has run through the house to the rear porch. Crying, he realizes he is standing near the spot where he dropped the fish when he first brought it home. He realizes that the fish is dead- "not-fish"- like his mother, who "is getting so far ahead I cannot catch her."

In the next paragraph, thoughts of his mother and the fish occur side by side, too. Thinking by analogy, he realizes that he killed and cut up the fish and assumes that someone must have killed his mother. Since she died after Peabody came, he blames Peabody. He rushes to the barn to get a stick, possibly intending to hit Peabody. -

NOTE: JEWEL'S HORSE
Pause to examine how Faulkner treats Jewel's horse in this section. Inside the barn, Vardaman leans against its warm body and cries, the way a child in pain might seek his mother's warmth. Like a mother, the horse is a life-giving force, and it seems to give Vardaman strength. "The life in him runs under the skin.... I can smell the life running up from under my hands, up my arms, and then I can leave the stall." Later, Darl will taunt Jewel about his mother being a horse, and you may want to return to this paragraph to piece together his meaning.

Vardaman doesn't hit Peabody. Instead, he strikes Peabody's horses, who race off pulling the buggy.

Back in the barn, Faulkner throws in a little comic relief in the segment about the lowing cow. Dewey Dell calls Vardaman for dinner. His mind returns to the fish that was alive one minute and dead the next. He can't make sense of it- of death. "And now she's gittin ready to cook hit."

14. DEWEY DELL

This section shows you Dewey Dell trying to cope with the burdens of her pregnancy and the chores she inherited from her mother. It also gives you a closer look at a mind unable to follow any train of thought for long.

Dewey Dell's monologue begins where Darl's report on her in section 12 left off. She is thinking that Peabody could help her end her pregnancy. She leaps from one idea to another and ends in frustration, because Peabody doesn't know she's pregnant and she can't tell him.

NOTE: DEWEY DELL'S ISOLATION
One thread of thought is worth tracing here, because Dewey Dell touches on the theme of isolation that Faulkner pursues throughout the novel. In the second paragraph, she says that if she could feel the baby's presence she would not be alone.

Try to "translate" the rest of the paragraph. She seems to contradict herself twice. She says she would not be alone if she had an abortion, and that "Then I could be all right alone."

It sounds like gibberish, and many readers believe it is gibberish. Others, however, see no contradictions at all. She wouldn't be alone if she had an abortion, they explain, because Peabody would have her secret in his mind. But in another sense, she would be alone. She would not be carrying a child.

Her actions are as random as her mental processes. She stashes the mutilated fish in the cupboard, puts turnip greens and buttermilk on the table, and leaves the house to milk the cow and stare at the pine clumps where she was seduced. While she is doing all this, her thoughts jump about, from what Peabody could do for her, to Lafe and "the process of coming unalone"- of uniting with Lafe.

She finds Vardaman in the barn. He is relieved to see that Dewey Dell shares his anger about Peabody.

After Vardaman leaves, she gazes at the "secret clumps." She sees lightning in the distance. Everything else is "dead": the oppressive air, the earth, the darkness. In the last line, Faulkner reminds you that amid these images of death Dewey Dell is, like Persephone, a life-giving, fertile part of nature- "like a wet seed wild in the hot blind earth."

15. VARDAMAN

Vardaman continues to grope for an understanding of his mother's death. Study the way Faulkner captures a child's mind by showing it rather than describing it.

Pausing over the first paragraph here, as in the other sections, will help you get your bearings. Vardaman is watching Cash finish the coffin, and he is thinking of the time he got shut up in a corn crib. He remembers how hard it was to breathe, and he remembers his fear.

NOTE: FAULKNER'S USE OF OBJECTIVE CORRELATIVES
If someone tells you about a beautiful, smiling baby, how do you feel? The description might make people who love babies feel happy. For them, the baby objectifies happiness.

The U.S.-born British poet T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) mastered the art of presenting emotions as objects, or even scenes, and having his readers "feel" what he was talking about. He called these scenes, or objects, "objective correlatives." Faulkner, a great fan of Eliot, uses objective correlatives throughout As I Lay Dying to get you to experience his characters' feelings.

What feeling is he trying to have you share in the opening paragraph of this section? What words does he use? How does he use punctuation to heighten this feeling?

Vardaman associates being shut up in a corn crib with being shut up in a coffin. It's not a very apt analogy, because Addie is dead. But Vardaman, in real pain ("the bleeding plank" is the clue here, if any is needed), has taken the adults at their word (see section 12) and decided that Addie has literally gone away. The trouble is, he can't find her, or "catch her," as he said in section 13.

He's convinced now that the woman lying in the bed was not his mother. "She went away when the other one laid down on her bed...."

Since he knows he couldn't breathe in the corn crib, he knows his mother- he is sure she is still alive- couldn't breathe in a nailed-up coffin. And so he's sure she wouldn't allow herself to be nailed up. "So if she lets him it is not her." Only an impostor would let Cash nail her into a coffin.

But if the dead woman is an impostor, where is Addie? The fish he caught and cut up pops into his mind. Before the fish showed up, his mother was alive. "Then it wasn't and she was, and now it is and she wasn't."

He decides, without saying it yet, that his mother is the fish. Tomorrow the family will eat it. "And she will be him and pa and Cash and Dewey Dell...."

The imagined eating of the fish serves as a Christian reference, some readers believe. In this view, the chopped-up fish is a parallel to the symbolic eating and drinking of Christ in Holy Communion as a way of preventing the believer's death. You will have a chance to further explore this interpretation in the discussion of section 19.

As this section ends, Vardaman remembers that Vernon Tull saw the fish. Maybe he can find it, he figures, if he gets Vernon to help him.

NOTE: BANANAS AND ELECTRIC TRAINS
Something else you learned in this section is that Dewey Dell whetted Vardaman's appetite for the journey to Jefferson. Apparently she promised that they'll get bananas there- a real luxury for a poor country boy- and maybe look at an electric train in a store window. Now Vardaman has a goal in Jefferson, just like Anse and Dewey Dell.

16. TULL

In this section, you see the first stirrings among the Bundrens' neighbors as they hear of Addie's death.

Cora takes the arrival of Peabody's panicked team of horses as a sign that Addie is dead. But Vernon is in no mind to hitch the team and drive to the Bundrens'. He wants to sleep.

Vardaman wakes the Tulls around midnight. He has walked four miles through the mud to get there, and all he wants to talk about is the fish. "He's outen his head with grief and worry," Cora says, quite sensibly. Vernon thinks she may be going a bit far to say that Vardaman's confusion is God's judgment on Anse Bundren. "The Lord's got more to do than that. He's bound to have. Because the only burden Anse Bundren's ever had is himself."

NOTE: FOLK HUMOR IN FAULKNER
America has a strong tradition of homespun, or folk, humor. Most humorists in this tradition lace their stories with seemingly naive comments that on closer inspection often turn out to be nuggets of wisdom. It is this irony- the tension between what a person seems to say and what he is actually saying- that triggers the laughs.

Faulkner makes Vernon Tull one of the art's most engaging practitioners. It's hard to believe that Tull could answer the door, hold up his lamp, and miss seeing Vardaman, no matter how short the boy is. He's spinning a tall tale- something you know is preposterous, but which you allow the teller to get away with because it's so entertaining.

There are many instances of folk humor in this section alone. The matter-of-fact way Tull tells how Addie got two holes bored into her face is a fine example of the grotesque violence that occurs in many tall tales. How did you react to this scene? With shock? Laughter? Both?

With Vardaman sitting between them, Cora and Vernon drive through the rain to the Bundrens'. There, Vernon helps Cash finish the coffin.

Vardaman opens the windows next to Addie's bed twice, to let her breathe. This prepares you for his boring holes through the coffin lid later.

17. DARL

Of all the Bundrens, Darl so far seems the most perceptive and reflective. He alone is clairvoyant, as has been shown earlier. Faulkner calls attention to these powers in this section, where Darl describes still another scene that he does not witness in person.

Faulkner handles the opening in an almost cinematic way. He focuses our attention first on the source of light- sooty, cracked lantern- and then on the scene its "feeble and sultry glare" illuminates. Cash continues to labor over the coffin. The saw's shadow is about six feet long and appears to be cutting through Anse's "shabby and aimless silhouette."

NOTE: THE SCENT OF SULFUR
The air still smells of sulfur. As pointed out earlier, that could be a tipoff that in Faulkner's view the Bundrens inhabit some sort of underworld. Sulfur is the brimstone, or burning stone, associated with Hell and the fiery punishments inflicted there.

Anse is no help at all. Cash sends him into the house to "get something to cover the lantern" from the rain. Anse returns from his mission wearing Jewel's raincoat and carrying Dewey Dell's, which Cash uses to make a roof over the lantern. It wouldn't occur to Anse to offer the raincoat he's wearing to his son.

The Tulls arrive and lend Cora's raincoat to Cash. Vernon helps Cash finish the coffin. Anse keeps himself busy picking up tools and laying them down. After Anse accidentally knocks down the makeshift roof over the lantern, Cash ushers him into the house to keep him out of trouble.

NOTE: THE DEPTH OF ANSE'S GRIEF
Anse is such a complicated character, and Faulkner handles him so ambiguously, that it's hard to tell how he feels about Addie's death. Perhaps he's not even sure himself. In the rain, his own face is twice shown to be "streaming," as if with tears.

Faulkner describes his wet face as "a monstrous burlesque of all bereavement"- a mockery, not the real thing at all. In section 14, there also seemed something phony about his momentary inability to eat. Some readers think he is too selfish and too emotionally dead to mourn. Others think he just does not know how, although he feels a duty to do so. Still others feel he is genuinely grieved by his loss but too much of a bumbler to show it plainly.

There's a fine passage toward the end of the section that lets you see how Faulkner can shift moods unexpectedly, sometimes with comic effect. It has stopped raining. In the dark before dawn, the men carry the completed coffin into the house and place it next to Addie's bed. Faulkner captures the solemnity of the moment by describing their slow, careful, awkward movements "as though for a long time they have not walked on floors." Then Peabody says, "Let's eat a snack," and the solemnity evaporates as abruptly as it did in section 12 when Anse said, "Now I can get them teeth."

In both cases, Faulkner brings you back suddenly to the petty concerns of the living. Can you suggest why?

In the final two paragraphs, you are with Darl's thoughts as he and Jewel lie awake in a "strange room" miles away. He is questioning himself, wondering not just who he is but whether he exists at all.

This is the first sign you get that Darl may be haunted by such questions. Maybe Vernon Tull was on to something when he said that Darl's main problem is thinking too much.

18. CASH

Faulkner presents Cash's thought processes here in an unusual way- in the form of a list. The subject of the list is structure- of houses, beds, bodies, and coffins. But the list also mimics the structure of Cash's mind.

A list is an arresting format and, in Cash's case, it seems an appropriate one. Cash is a methodical man, as you have seen already. He took infinite care on the coffin, planing off the inside edges of its lid and sides.

This beveling to make the lid fit snugly was time-consuming, as Tull pointed out. But Cash has his reasons for spending the extra time, and he presents them here.

As you read them, you may dismiss some as nonsensical. To an educated mind, it may seem ignorant to speak of the "sideways" stress on a bed's joints and of the "slanting" stress caused by a dead body's animal magnetism. But Cash is simply piecing together elements of folk wisdom into a coherent set of principles to guide his work. The methodical nature of the list reflects his methodical mind.

The 13th and final entry- "It makes a neater job"- may seem to you the most important reason for beveling the coffin's lid and sides. Not to Cash. Can you think why?

19. VARDAMAN

This is the shortest of the 59 sections, yet it has raised, to many readers, several knotty problems.

What is Vardaman getting at by equating his mother with a fish? Is there a larger symbolic meaning here that provides a key to understand As I Lay Dying? This is a good place to pause and make a stab at those questions.

NOTE: VARDAMAN'S MENTAL FACULTIES
Some readers have assumed that Vardaman is retarded, like the character Benjy Compson in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. Other readers feel that he seems irrational only after Addie dies and he tries to make sense of the mystery of her death. The trauma of his mother's death and his primitive idea of the world lead him to a conclusion that seems entirely logical to his young and troubled mind. This view got support from Faulkner himself, who told a college class in the 1950s that Vardaman is not retarded.

20. TULL

Addie's funeral takes place the morning after her death. Vernon Tull describes the day from the time he returned to the Bundrens' at ten o'clock in the morning until he took his family home again in the wagon. In the interval you meet some neighbors, get a glimpse of Preacher Whitfield.

You learn in the first paragraph that the river has been rising to record heights and that the bridge across it is in danger of collapsing. Whitfield shows up with the news that it has fallen. Lon Quick II, the son of the man who sold Jewel the horse, notes that God will probably help Anse get Addie across the river somehow. "He's took care of Anse a long time, now," he says. Another man chimes in, echoing Tull's thought in section 8: "I reckon He's like everybody else around here. He's done it so long now He can't quit."

NOTE: SENSE OF COMMUNITY
This remark is a reminder that the Bundrens and their poor white neighbors are part of a community. They are much like a family, looking out for one another, even for ne'er-do-wells like Anse. There's a sense of solidarity about them that's reflected in the way they extend helping hands to the Bundrens. The paradox- and a major theme- of the novel, however, is that none of these people can ever really communicate with each other, no matter how closely their lives are intertwined.

Watch Anse in this section. He is like a man transformed. Tull twice notes his dignity. How can you account for it?

Note Whitfield, too. You'll get a closer look at him in section 41, where you may have to revise the opinion of him you pick up here. Tull points out that his voice doesn't seem to belong with his body. The voice is "triumphant and sad"; the body, mud splattered, smaller than the voice.

On the way home, the Tulls pass Vardaman, who is fishing in a swampy pool. Do you suppose he's hoping to find his mother returned to life?

This section has some grotesque humor. They lay Addie backwards in the coffin to avoid wrinkling the flared skirt of her wedding dress. Then the women fashion a veil out of mosquito netting to hide the auger holes in her face.

Another bit of humor mocks Cash's precise mind. He describes his fall from a church roof as "Twenty-eight foot, four and a half inches, about."

NOTE: ITALICIZED SECTIONS
Faulkner isolates two segments in italics here. The first segment contains assorted banter that Tull hears as he talks with Cash. The second section is a flash-forward. Faulkner uses it to tell you that it was three days before Darl and Jewel got the wagon fixed and loaded Addie onto it. That's a long time to keep a body above ground in July heat.

21. DARL

This is the first of three short sections that conclude the first part of the novel. Here, you see Darl taunt Jewel as the two approach their home three days after Addie's death.

Darl points out the buzzards that hang in the sky high above the house. They both know why the buzzards are there. Yet it seems Darl can't resist infuriating Jewel by saying, "But it's not your horse that's dead."

Jewel's mind is riveted on the horse he cannot see, shaping it in his mind. When they reach the barn, Jewel enters his horse's stall and pulls himself into the loft. His only sound has been an angry curse at Darl.

NOTE: JEWEL'S MOTHER AS A HORSE
What does Darl mean when he says that Jewel's mother is a horse? Here are three interpretations you might consider:

  1. With Addie dead, Darl has nothing he can love with the intensity that one might love a mother. Jewel does. He has a horse. Thus, Darl reasons, Jewel's mother is a horse.
  2. Jewel yearned for an exclusive relationship with his mother- the sort he described in his monologue early in the book. Yet he couldn't have such a relationship, so he bought a substitute. The horse is his own possession, something so wild that no one else can approach it.
  3. In Greek mythology, both Demeter, goddess of fertility and harvests, and Dionysus, god of fertility and wine, are associated with the horse. Dionysus, in fact, was also a god of the trees. Readers who see the "wooden" Jewel as a kind of Dionysus see the horse as his "fructifying [fruitbearing] spirit"- the fertilizing spirit that enables him to be virile. Faulkner was familiar with James G. Frazer's 1890 study of mythology, The Golden Bough, which called the horse "the fructifying spirit both of the tree and of the Corn." Demeter, goddess of harvests, was also known as the Corn-Spirit. The horse is thus Jewel's link to Addie, who many readers see as a sort of Demeter.

22. CASH

Cash was obsessed with building the proper "balance" into the coffin. Now he hopes to maintain that balance in transit. It seems he wants Darl and Jewel to carry Addie's coffin to the wagon in a way that will allow the coffin to "tote and ride on a balance." But Jewel, able to act only impulsively, orders his brothers to "Pick up!"

23. DARL

Darl describes the scene begun in section 22. Jewel rushes ahead with the coffin, leaving Cash limping behind. Jewel thrusts it onto the wagon. In "fury and despair," he curses Darl as the section ends.

24. VARDAMAN

Except for Jewel, who is heading to the barn, everyone is on the way to the wagon or in it. Anse orders Jewel to leave the horse home, but Jewel doesn't stop. "Jewel's mother is a horse," Darl says.

Vardaman still has it in his own mind that his mother is a fish. So Darl's comment sets off a charming discussion about their mother's and their own existence.

Anse is making a vain attempt to take charge. He doesn't like the idea that Cash is bringing his toolbox along, that Jewel wants to take his horse, and that Dewey Dell carries a package that she says contains Cora Tull's cakes. "It ain't right," Anse says. "It's a flouting of the dead."

All the while, Anse is no doubt thinking of the false teeth he wants. Vardaman has a hard time getting his mind off the electric trains he hopes to see.

Many novelists want their readers to relate to the situations they present. How is it possible for us to make connections with such far-out situations?

25. DARL

Darl gives another view of what Vardaman reported in the earlier section. He studies Jewel, who is approaching the barn, and then he shifts his attention to Dewey Dell. Peabody is there; Darl can see his reflection in Dewey Dell's eyes.

The wagon moves, and as it does the buzzards disappear. Anse thinks he has convinced Jewel to leave his horse home.

NOTE: DESCRIPTION OF DEWEY DELL
Darl describes Dewey Dell's leg in a way that may reveal more about Faulkner's view of her. Darl speaks of "that lever which moves the world; one of that caliper which measures the length and breadth of life." What do you think Faulkner is saying about women with these two metaphors, one of a lever and the other of a caliper (an instrument that measures diameters)? Is he identifying her as a life force, someone literally capable of moving the world? How could her two legs, spreading and closing like a caliper, take the measure of life?

THE STORY, continued

THE NOVEL


ECC [As I Lay Dying Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]

© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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