Addie Bundren – As the matriarch of the Bundren family, Addie is the absent protagonist of the novel. A former schoolteacher, she married Anse Bundren after a brief courtship and bore him four children: Cash, Darl, Dewey Dell and Vardaman. As the result of an affair with Whitfield, Addie is also mother to an illegitimate child, Jewel. At the outset of the novel, Addie is gravely ill, and dies soon thereafter. Her dying wish to be buried with her relatives in Jefferson, the capital of Yoknapatawpha County, provides the impetus for the novel’s action.
Anse Bundren – Anse, the patriarch of the Bundren family, is a poor farmer who feels duty-bound to honor his late wife’s burial request. But his unhalting ambition to deliver Addie to rest in Jefferson at any cost and despite all hardships serves to cast doubt on both his intelligence and his motives. Upon finally arriving in Jefferson, Anse quickly makes good on his promise to Addie, and then proceeds to acquire a new set of false teeth and a second bride.
Cash Bundren – The eldest of the Bundren children, Cash is an aspiring carpenter who occupies himself with the construction of his mother’s coffin during her dying days. After previously enduring a broken leg when he fell from the roof of a church, he re-injures the same leg in the journey to bury Addie while attempting to cross a river with a wagon in the face of flood conditions. For the rest of the novel Cash is incapacitated, and as the result of a shoddy attempt to set his injured leg in cement, he is hobbled for life.
Darl Bundren – The next eldest of the Bundren children, Darl delivers the largest number of interior monologues in the novel. An extremely sensitive and articulate young man, he is grief stricken by the death of his mother and the plight of his family’s burial journey. After he sets fire to the Gillespie barn in an attempt to incinerate his mother’s corpse, his family commits him against his will to a mental institution in Jackson.
Jewel – The bastard child borne of Addie’s affair with Whitfield, Jewel lives with the Bundren family as though he were completely of it. However, his unique antecedents inspire within him a fiercely independent turn of mind. As an adolescent, he secretly earned enough money to purchase his own horse, and his self-sufficiency leads to frequent clashes with Anse. A large young man, younger than Darl but older than Dewey Dell, he is as physically active as he is imposing, hauling Addie across the flooding river and rescuing her from the burning barn.
Dewey Dell Bundren – Dewey Dell, the only Bundren daughter, is a seventeen year-old with a libidinous streak. She becomes pregnant after an affair with Lafe, and seeks an abortion in Jefferson.
Vardaman Bundren – Vardaman is the youngest of the Bundren children. The fish he catches on the day of his mother’s death comes to stand as a symbol of her life and her passing.
Vernon Tull – Vernon tull is a wealthier farmer who lives near the Bundrens. He visits the Bundrens frequently during Addie’s last days, and assists them in their river crossing during the funeral journey.
Cora Tull – Cora, Vernon Tull’s wife, is a reverentially pious woman who, along with her daughters Kate and Eula, helps Dewey Dell to care for Addie in her final hours.
Whitfield – Whitfield is a local minister who carries out an illicit affair with Addie Bundren, resulting in the birth of Jewel.
Peabody – Peabody is an overweight rural doctor who attends to Addie and later to Cash.
Samson – Samson is a local farmer who puts up the Bundrens on the first evening of their funeral journey.
Armstid – Armstid is a local farmer who puts up the Bundrens on the second and third evenings of their funeral journey.
Moseley – Moseley is a druggist in Mottson who refuses to help Dewey Dell in her search for abortion medicine.
MacGowan – MacGowan is an employee at a drug store in Jefferson who poses as a doctor in an attempt to seduce Dewey Dell when she inquires after abortion medicine.
Darl describes his approach with Jewel from the field toward the main house. They pass a dilapidated cotton house and then reach the foot of a bluff, where Tull’s wagon sits holding two chairs. At the top of the bluff, Cash is working on a coffin for Addie, dutifully chopping and sawing. Darl leaves him there and enters the house proper.
Inside, Cora is thinking about some cakes she recently made to order, only to see the order cancelled after she had baked the cakes. Kate rails at the injustice of this twist, while Cora is more inclined to take it in stride. Addie lies nearby, frail and silent, hardly breathing, as Eula watches over her. Outside, the sound of Cash’s chopping and sawing continues. Cora recalls Addie’s talent for baking cakes. Addie appears to be asleep, or else watching Cash hard at work out the window. Darl passes through the hall without a word and heads for the back of the house.
Darl encounters Anse and Tull on the back porch. Anse asks after Jewel. Darl takes a deep drink of water, and recalls other drinks of water he has taken. Then Darl explains that Jewel is at the barn, attending to the horses. Jewel struggles violently with one horse in the mounting, the riding and the dismounting, and feeds him quickly before taking his leave.
Jewel thinks with bitterness and resentment about Cash’s insistence on constructing Addie’s coffin right outside of the window where she lays dying. He is angry at Cash’s pride in his craftsmanship, and at the other members of the family for their complicity in allowing such a situation to occur. He expresses a wish to be alone with his mother in her final days.
Darl is prepared to accept a job for Vernon, but then hesitates. Rain seems to be in the offing, and there is concern about Addie expiring before he and Jewel would be able to return with the team of horses. Tull reassures them, and Jewel lashes out at Tull for his intrusiveness. Jewel then proceeds to voice his anger toward Cash and the rest of the family for their seeming eagerness to hurry Addie to her end. Anse responds by defending the family’s fortitude in following Addie’s last wishes. Finally, Darl decides to take the job on the condition that he and Jewel will return by the next day at sundown. As Darl passes back through the hall to leave, he hears voices floating all around him.
Cora observes Darl re-entering the house, and is touched by the emotion with which he bids Addie farewell. She contrasts Darl’s sweetness with what she feels to be the callousness of Anse and Jewel. As Darl stands in the doorway, prepared to depart, Dewey Dell asks him what he wants. He ignores her, and instead stares at his mother, his heart too full for words.
Form the very beginning, Faulkner balances the intensity of his character monologues and the expansiveness of visual descriptions with admirable control. Each voice is uniquely subjective, but each voice makes observations about objective details which help to give fullness to the scene and to maintain a continuous narrative. For instance, Darl focuses on the quality of light in his walk toward home. He sees the cotton house as it leans in empty and shimmering desolation in the sunlight and later the boards of Addie’s coffin sit between the shadow spaces and are yellow as gold, like soft gold.
The attention given to climate and landscape provides a strong atmospheric effect which tends to function at the expense of the people themselves. They are less simply people than they are people in a place with specific things about them that make them specific people. So, before we meet Tull himself, we encounter his wagon holding two chairs beside the spring; before we meet Cash himself, we hear the roaring of his saw and the chucking of his adze; before we meet Addie herself, we see her coffin being assembled. These things about these people come to stand for the people themselves, as symbols of their identity. Thus, Tull is a detached man of industry via the fact of his wagon; Cash is a builder and a craftsman via the sounds of his labor; Addie is a corpse- in-waiting via the assembly of her coffin.
Often the intensity of these symbols, coupled with the experimental structure of the novel, serves to sap the energy out of any potential interactions between the several characters in the novel. Darl comes upon Cash at work on the coffin, but no words are exchanged. Instead of remembering any dialogue that Darl and Cash might have shared, the reader is left to ponder the strange silence of the words on the page that stand for the sounds made by the Chuck. Chuck. Chuck. of the adze.
If the reader is able to find out any information about the characters independent of the interior monologues, it is generally through the thoughts or attitudes expressed by other characters in their own interior monologues, rather than through the any revelations of dialogue occurring between characters. In this way, the structure of the novel becomes a self-referential web of increasing psychological complexity. The reader has no objective narrator to lean on, but also lacks the simple comfort of a single subjective narrator. This forces the reader to make decisions about which voices to trust, encourages the reader to select good characters and bad characters, and generally makes for confusion when different voices present the same character in a different light.
Even the little pieces of dialogue that are provided are always revealed in the context of a larger interior monologue, leading to a further indeterminacy of meaning. Is that really what Jewel said, or is that just what Darl remembered Jewel saying? Did Cora actually say that to Kate, or does she just choose to present it that way in her description? Paradoxically, the psychological nature of Faulkner’s approach serves to prevent the reader from feeling as close to understanding the characters as he or she might in a more traditionally structured prose narrative. They take on a life of their own to some extent, but as the creator of each of them he looms more self-consciously above the action than a more conservative author would seem to.
But to be sure, there are many benefits to Faulkner’s approach. Though harder to execute, the elastic approach to a narrative which accounts for thought as well as speech and objective experience provides a more fully realistic paradigm of consciousness than a more simplistic approach could hope to. Rather than just I-do-this, I-do- that, or I-do-this, I-say-that, Faulkner elects for I- think-this, I-do-that, I-say-this, I-think-that. For instance, when Darl encounters his Anse and Vernon on the porch, an eternity of thought passes in Darl’s mind during the pause between his father’s question about Jewel’s whereabouts and Darl’s reply to that question. And in the ultimate consideration of lived experience, which is sticking closer to the heart, what you said or what you were thinking in between the times when you were saying things? As Darl lingers in Addie’s doorway, it is that heart-too-full-for-words effect that shines, rather than any explanation of what is happening in verbal or visible terms.
Dewey Dell remembers a time when she went harvesting with Lafe. She was heading toward the secret shade with him, but wasn’t sure how she felt about it. She said that if the sack was full, then she wouldn’t be able to help it. Lafe helped her to make sure she couldn’t help it by helping her to fill her sack, and then they were together. Later, Dewey Dell realizes that Darl discovered them together. She is remembering all of this in the present as Darl stands in the doorway taking his leave of Addie. A brief exchange ensues between Dewey Dell and Darl about Darl’s imminent departure with Jewel.
Tull tries to relieve Anse of his lingering reservations about taking the job. Anse is resigned to the fact of Addie’s approaching death. Vardaman appears, climbing up the hill with a large fish which he is planning to show to Addie. Anse, unimpressed, orders Vardaman to clean the fish before taking it inside. Cora and Tull prepare to depart for the evening, as Anse stands dumbly in the same room with Addie. Cora and Tull restate their offer of help in any manner, and take their leave. As they approach the wagon, Cora and Tull speak with Kate and Eula about the Bundren situation. Kate is especially vocal and speculative about the Bundren fortunes.
Anse, in a crude diction, begins complaining about the weather, his sons, and the commotion of the road. He curses his luck for living near the road, and blames the road for Addie’s falling ill. As Anse thinks on his bad fortune, Vardaman reappears, full of blood from having dealt with his fish. Telling Vardaman to go wash his hands, Anse rues the hardening of his heart.
Meanwhile, Darl is in the wagon with Jewel, on the job. He recalls confronting Dewey Dell about her encounter with Lafe. The sun is about to set. Darl is still getting used to the idea that Addie is about to die, voicing the likelihood over and over to a silent Jewel.
Peabody, having received the call from Anse to come and attend to Addie, makes his way to the Bundren land. He can hear Cash sawing from a mile away. It is sunset. A cyclone is afoot. Being overweight, Peabody needs help to climb the ridge. Vardaman gets the rope to help him scale the mountain. After some struggle, Peabody arrives at the house. He enters Addie’s room and she is perfectly still, except for the movement of her eyes. Outside, Peabody asks Anse why he didn’t send for him sooner. Dewey Dell interrupts their conversation and they return to Addie’s room. Dewey Dell tells Peabody that Addie wants him to leave. Cash continues to saw away, and Addie calls out his name loudly.
While Darl and Jewel continue on their journey, back at the Bundren household the rest of the family surrounds Addie at her bedside. Addie calls out again to Cash, who continues to labor. Dewey Dell calls out to Addie, and then flings herself upon her, clutching her tightly. Vardaman and Anse look on in silence. At this moment, Addie dies. Cash enters the room, and Anse gives him the news, telling him that he needs to finish up the coffin as quickly as possible. Cash stands and stares for a time, and then leaves to return to work, taking up the saw again. Anse tells Dewey Dell that she should begin preparing supper. Finally Dewey Dell rises and leaves the room. Anse stands over his dead bride’s body, newly a widower, and strokes Addie’s face awkwardly before returning to the business of the day.
With the introduction of several new voices, Faulkner begins to widen the range of registers at his disposal. Because he appears so frequently as a narrator, Darl must be considered as the default, standard voice by which all others must be judged in comparison. Indeed, Darl’s mode of speech deviates least from Faulkner’s expository prose style, and it is through Darl’s voice that Faulkner most frequently draws his own conclusions as an author. Addie dies during Darl’s monologue, but Darl is not present at the time. In this key section, Faulkner gives as close to an objective account as occurs in the entire novel. The only portions of the section which are actually Darl’s voice are those which occur in italics. It is as though Faulkner didn’t trust Darl enough to describe Addie’s death, but didn’t trust any other character enough to stick the account in their section either.
Compared to Darl, Anse seems positively uneducated and unthinking. While studied in thought, Anse is in fact more studied in deed. Though his diction is extremely colloquial, and his words are peppered with Biblical allusions, all is ultimately in the service of his business interests. Dewey Dell is perhaps the least sophisticated of all, with her monologues among the most hysterical and muddled in the entire novel. Toward the other end of the spectrum, Tull, while just as business- minded as Anse, is less coarse in his consideration. His cunning, however, is no less the callous for its elevation. As a doctor, Peabody naturally holds forth at a higher level, using a wider vocabulary and employing more elaborate sentence structures.
Regardless of their level of sophistication, each speaker has a pettiness that characterizes his or her interior monologues. This pettiness is especially clear in the characters who are not members of the Bundren family. Peabody’s thoughts center not on Addie herself but on the inconvenience of being an overweight doctor who must climb a mountain to attend to a dying patient. Cora and Tull repeatedly offer to help the Bundrens in any way they can, but nevertheless their narratives are peppered with mundane passing thoughts that seem trivial in the face of life and death. Yes, Cora attends dutifully to Addie, but all the while she thinks only of her unsold cakes. Tull’s presence is ostensibly out of a sense of neighborly duty, but his concern for Addie is overridden by his concern the job that he sends Darl and Jewel on, and by his interest in the barn that he is recruiting Cash to work on.
Peabody, Cora and Tull are constantly aware of the matter at hand, but they are not constantly thinking of it. However, they may be forgiven their wandering thoughts; as outsiders they are inevitably less invested in the tragedy than members of the immediate family. Within the family itself, where Faulkner’s main interest lies, each character has his or her own complex relationship to the situation. Anse seems the most absorbed in their own concerns at the moment of tragedy. ‘God’s will be done,’ he says. Now I can get them false teeth.’ Dewey Dell is a mixed case, focussed as she is on her sexuality, but also intensely invested in her role as her mother’s nurse, as borne out by the unexpected violence of their last embrace on Addie’s deathbed. Darl and Jewel are more thoroughly and constantly preoccupied with the loss of their mother, and in this sense it is ironic that they should be on the road at the moment when Addie expires.
Let’s look more closely at the case of Jewel. Cora sees him as an insensitive money-grubber who is indifferent to the death of his own mother. Kate sees him simply as a hunk of meat, as marriageable as he is prepared to stray from marriage. But Jewel himself is filled with hurt at what he sees as the insensitivity of his own family in relation to Addie. Faulkner is not attempting to give more credence to one view of Jewel than to another; the reader may do so at his or her own peril. The benefit of Faulkner’s approach is that over time the reader begins to gather a composite picture of Jewel, which is the richer for its variety of perspectives. Jewel may in fact exist simultaneously as a sensitive person in his own right who comes across callously or coarsely to others.
The sense of omniscience that the reader derives from knowing what everyone thinks about everyone else is augmented by Faulkner’s penchant for foreshadowing. Because everyone is so convinced that Addie will die, and because Anse and Darl voice their convictions so explicitly, it begins to seem inevitable. At other points, Faulkner is more subtle with his hints. Kate is one of the few voices to strongly doubt Addie’s imminent death, predicting that she’ll be at Anse’s side for another thirty years. In the face of the evidence such a claim seems outrageous, but it certainly catches the reader’s attention. Her next remark, a slight revision of her first opinion, is equally striking. Or if it aint her, Kate says, considering Anse’s predicament if Addie were to die, he’ll get another one before cotton- picking. It is the most explicit criticism of Anse’s coldness yet, and one the reader would do well to remember.
Vardaman runs out of the house, crying violently. He sees the fish he has caught all chopped up into little pieces. He curses Peabody. He jumps off the porch and runs into the barn. Still crying, he takes up a stick and begins beating Peabody’s horses, cursing them and blaming them for Addie’s death. He shoos away a cow who wants milking, and returns to the barn to cry quietly. Cash passes by and Dewey Dell calls out, but Vardaman is quiet, crying in the dark.
Dewey Dell is stuck in her same predicament again, thinking of her union with Lafe, and the incipient pregnancy that has resulted. Her thoughts shift to Peabody, and the help he could give her as a doctor. Cash continues sawing. Dewey Dell begins to prepare supper, consisting of the fish that Vardaman caught, along with greens and bread. Cash enters the kitchen to announce that Peabody’s team of horses has gotten loose. Dewey Dell invites Peabody to supper. Anse, Cash and Peabody begin eating. Vardaman is missing. Dewey Dell has neglected to cook the fish. She leaves the house and runs up to the bluff. The cow wants milking but she tells it to wait. She passes Vardaman in the barn and he kicks the wall. In the dark she is thinking now of Lafe. It is quiet. Then Vardaman emerges and Dewey Dell shakes him violently. She scolds him and sends him off to supper. Preparing to milk the cow, instead she returns to her thoughts of Peabody, and how he could help her.
Vardaman is staring at the coffin. He cannot believe that Addie is going to be nailed shut inside of it. He cannot believe that she is dead.
Tull is roused at midnight by the sound of Peabody’s team. A storm is mounting. Vardaman is knocking at the door, soaking wet and covered in mud. He is speaking of fish. Tull goes out to harness the team, and when he returns, Cora and Vardaman are sitting in the kitchen. Vardaman continues to speak of fish. Cora, Tull and Vardaman make the journey back to the Bundrens, and Tull helps Cash to complete the coffin. Just before daybreak, they place Addie in the coffin and prepare to nail it shut. Vardaman inadvertently bores two holes into his dead mother’s face. He then falls asleep on top of the coffin. At dawn, Cora and Tull return home.
Darl, in the dark, has returned home to get a spare wheel for the wagon, which he and Jewel have run into a ditch. Darl stands near Cash, assisting him as they work to complete the coffin. It begins to rain. Cash, though soaked, continues working on the coffin. Cora and Tull arrive. Cash sends Anse away, and Cash, Darl and Tull make a push to complete the coffin. Just before dawn the rain ceases, and Cash finishes the coffin. Anse, Cash, Peabody and Tull carry the coffin inside. Darl and Jewel set out to complete the job, and Darl lies awake the next night thinking of home.
Cash gives thirteen reasons for using the bevel to build the coffin.
Vardaman says that his mother is a fish.
The qualities of the Bundren siblings now begin to emerge. Cash is by far the most inscrutable of the five. His only monologue to this point is a dry, technical description of his reasons for choosing to make the coffin on the bevel. It would be easy to write this off as the numbness of the obsessive laborer. But because Faulkner juxtaposes this with Vardaman’s hysterical reaction that his mother is a fish, Cash’s clinical approach seems more like just another maladjusted way of coping with the trauma of a death in the family. Still, Cash’s character is tough to read as a result of minimal airtime.
Dewey Dell and Jewel enjoy only slightly more exposure than Cash. Faulkner may be less interested in them because they are characters who enjoy less richly felt interior lives. Dewey Dell understands her own limits quite clearly. As she says of herself, I try to but I can’t think long enough to worry. Darl sizes up Jewel’s character in a remarkably convoluted fashion, saying that Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not. Jewel is certain not because he knows, but because he is ignorant, and thus not uncertain.
Darl and Vardaman appear much more deeply tormented than the other siblings. They are given the most frequent attention in the novel, and have the most interesting monologue styles. Darl, ponderous and searching in his thoughts, is as much of a protagonist as the novel has. He is prone to daydreams and philosophical abstractions. For instance, at one point he initially claims I dont know what I am. I dont know if I am or not, and then goes on to assert that if I am not emptied yet, I am is. In this spiral of thought, Darl is only capable of understanding himself by understanding what he is not.
Vardaman has a different, but equally penetrating, understanding of is. As the youngest of five children, it comes as no surprise that Vardaman is sensitive and wise beyond his years. But his articulateness is more fiercely poetical, as opposed to Darl’s more intellectual style. In coming to grips with the initial pain of his mother’s death, Vardaman has the realization that there is an is different from my is. That is, there is Vardaman’s way of seeing things, and then there is the way that things are. And these two things may have very little in common.
Once one realizes that his or her is can differ from the is of reality, the results can be disastrous. Vardaman certainly seems on the edge of a mental breakdown after Addie’s death, running around and blabbing about fish as he is. Here Faulkner uses the fish as a symbol which Vardaman invests with meaning, associating it with his mother’s death. Because he caught the fish when his mother was alive, and because he then cut it up, and because she then died, the fact of the fish and the fact of his mother’s death have become inextricably linked. In the same way, Vardaman arbitrarily blames Addie’s death on Peabody, just because he happened to show up when she was on her deathbed. In the same way, Vardaman lashes out against Peabody’s horses and blames them just because they serve as an extension of Peabody’s character, and are there at a moment when he needs someone to blame. Vardaman is in denial over his loss, and is projecting the meaning of his interior experience on to exterior encounters and events.
An elegant example of such projection occurs when Dewey Dell encounters Vardaman out at the stall. Dewey Dell assumes that Vardaman has been spying on her in hopes of catching her in a compromising position, and Vardaman assumes that Dewey Dell has come to punish him for lashing out at the horses. Both of them are so preoccupied with protecting their own innocence that neither takes the time to suspect the other of any wrongdoing. Faulkner’s narrative technique works particularly well here, as Dewey Dell passes by Vardaman twice, first in his recollection, and then in hers. We can reconstruct the events as having happened contemporaneously thanks to the presence of the eager cow, which Dewey Dell and Vardaman both foist off. The detail of a cow left unmilked, rather than serving as a superfluous incident, serves to link the action and unify it into a single moment. The storm described by Tull and Darl serves the same function, allowing nature to create an umbrella of reality observable to all. Such objective occurrences within the individual monologues create a set of reference points that the reader can use to establish a common ground.
Tull returns to the Bundren household with Peabody’s team at ten the next morning. He discusses the high level of the river with Quick and Armstid. Anse comes to the door and greets them. The women repair to the house, the men to the porch. Cash is getting ready to nail the coffin shut for good. They lay Addie into the coffin reversed, so as to protect her wedding dress. Whitfield arrives to perform the funeral as Tull is about to leave and announces that the bridge has been washed away. Cash emerges cleaned and dressed, and discusses his fall with Tull. Inside, the women begin to sing together. Then Whitfield sings, deeply. Then the women sing again. As they leave, Cora is still singing. On the way home, they see Vardaman fishing aimlessly in a slough.
Because of the ditched wagon, Darl and Jewel return home a couple of days later than expected. Upon arriving, Jewel is angered to find the dead horse of Peabody’s that Vardaman lashed in the stall. Finally, the family is getting ready to leave with the coffin.
Cash is trying to explain to Jewel why the coffin won’t balance. Jewel ignores Cash and demands that he help pick up the coffin.
Darl is witness to the confrontation. Anse and Cash and Darl and Jewel lift the coffin and carry it down the hall and out of the house. Cash reiterates his reservation about the coffin being unbalanced as they prepare to carry it down the slope. Jewel continues to push forward, and Cash, hobbling, falls back. Darl is shouldering the entire load on his side, but Jewel picks up the slack, almost single-handedly muscling the coffin into the wagon bed, and then cursing out loud.
Vardaman is preparing to go to town with the rest of the family. Jewel heads for the barn. Vardaman has a discussion with Darl about their mother. Cash is brinigng his toolbox to town. Dewey Dell is carrying a package with her.
Darl sees Jewel heading for the barn. Darl scrutinizes Dewey Dell. Jewel enters the barn. Anse remarks on Jewel’s disrespectfulness. Cash proposes that they leave Jewel behind. Darl suggests that Jewel will catch up to them. Anse, Cash, Darl, Dewey Dell and Vardaman set out with the coffin in tow.
Anse is still thinking bitterly of Jewel, when Darl begins to laugh. The wagon has just passed Tull’s lane, and just as Darl predicted, Jewel is approaching swiftly behind them on horseback. Darl continues laughing.
Darl sees Jewel approaching. They pass Tull’s lot, and exchange waves. Cash notes that the corpse will begin to smell in a few days, and that the coffin is still unbalanced. Darl proposes that Cash mention these observations to Jewel. A mile later, Jewel passes the wagon without acknowledgment.
Anse delivers another religious soliloquy. They drive all day and reach Samson’s at dark. A second bridge has been washed away. The river is higher than it has ever been. Anse takes comfort in the fact that he will be getting a new set of teeth.
Darl and Jewel manifest their grief over Addie’s death in two completely different fashions. Whereas Darl’s anguish is primarily mental, Jewel’s grief is expressed through the physical. The division between mental and physical anguish is a useful dichotomy for examining the other sibling reactions as well. Of course the two states of discord are linked, but one force may lead the other along more strongly. So, while Darl spends much of his time speculating on the meaning of is, Jewel is more likely to be riding roughshod over an unbroken horse. Interestingly, Vardaman’s anguish is a striking mix of Darl’s mental style and Jewel’s physical style. While Vardaman plays the language game with Darl, he also shares Jewel’s conflict with horses.
Cash’s grief, though strictly implicit up to this point, is primarily manifested through the physical. By absorbing himself in the construction of the coffin, Cash creates an emotional vacuum that allows him to escape from the pain of letting his mother go. However, Cash is unable to completely throw himself into the physical, as a result of the injury he sustained after having fallen thirty feet from the top of a church. Because of his limp, Cash hobbles at times when he might have otherwise pushed forward blindly and brutishly. For instance, when the Bundren men go to transport the coffin from the house to the wagon, Cash is unable to carry his weight at the pace that Jewel’s grief drives him to. With Darl thinking really hard and Jewel muscling really hard, Cash finds himself stuck in the middle, unable to do either.
Dewey Dell’s grief is also primarily physical, although of a different sort. As she says, she doesn’t know how to worry, and so her anguish comes out in the form of her promiscuity. Her sexual drive, far from solely the sheer seeking of physical pleasure, is a physical torment to her, and a mental torment as well. This torment assumes a tangible form with her pregnancy, when her world becomes a tub fullof guts. But her sense of helplessness in matters of sex is specific not strictly to her pregnancy or her sexuality. Her anxiety is a manifestation of the larger problems that plague her as a young woman in her general situation, as a teenage daughter in a poor farming family who has just lost her mother, and finds herself the only female of the lot.
Cash’s attempts to subdue boards, Darl’s attempts to subdue logic, Dewey Dell’s attempts to subdue desire, Jewel’s attempts to subdue horses and Vardaman’s attempts to subdue time passing: each of these struggles is intimately related to the struggle which all of them feel in parting with their mother. By projecting their energies into these other things, their focus shifts away from the true pain they feel at the loss of their mother. It is an subconscious shift, but one which serves to mitigate the trauma.
At the end of the 1920s, as Faulkner composed As I Lay Dying, ideas about the subconscious anxieties of man were on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Sigmund Freud had helped to establish psychoanalysis as an increasingly dominant field of inquiry, and Freudian notions of internal conflict, dreams and subconscious sexuality had by then captivated many of the leading intellectual figures of the day. Dewey Dell is one of the most representatively drawn Freudian types in American literature, to the point where she almost appears to be a caricature of Freud’s theories today.
Perhaps the fundamental plank of Freudian theory is that thoughts and awareness are entirely separate realms. How we think and what we do rarely line up, which leads much of the internal and external conflict that we face. By overlapping the action from several points of view, Faulkner is able to illustrate the ways in which what is done and what is thought stay separate. For instance, when Darl sees Jewel approaching the wagon on horseback, Anse observes him laughing. Although Darl doesn’t even mention the incident as having occurred in his monologue, Anse spends the bulk of his monologue dwelling on Darl’s insensitivity for having laughed so casually during his mother’s funeral procession. Because so much of the family resentment remains unvoiced, Darl’s molehill becomes Anse’s mountain. Or, even worse, in this case, Darl remains oblivious to that which consumes Anse.
Just before sundown, Samson is sitting on his porch with MacCallum and Quick when the Bundren wagon passes by. Quick catches up to them to inform them that the bridge has washed away, and the Bundrens return to Samson’s. Samson offers to put the Bundrens up for the evening. The Bundrens accept, but refuse an offer of supper and sleep in the barn. Early the next morning, they set out to retrace their steps without a farewell to Samson.
Dewey Dell is riding in the wagon on the road back to New Hope. She is thinking of her dead mother and of the relationships she has with the men in her family. Instead of turning into New Hope, they go back past Tull’s lane again, and exchange waves.
Tull takes his mule out to follow the wagon, and catches up with it down by the levee. The Bundrens stand at the river’s edge, staring at the washed-out bridge and contemplating a crossing. Jewel lashes out at Tull for following them down to the river. Cash hushes Jewel, and announces a plan for a crossing. Jewel asks Tull to help them cross with his mule, but Tull refuses.
Darl observes Jewel glaring at Tull. Darl recalls a time during Jewel’s teenage years when he began falling asleep regularly during the day. He remembers how Addie used to cover up his mistakes for him. Initially Cash and Darl suspected that Jewel was spending his nights with a married woman, but one night Cash trailed Jewel on his midnight run and found evidence to the contrary. All is revealed a few months later when Jewel materializes on a new horse that he has purchased from Quick after clearing forty acres of his land, working at night by lantern. Anse is upset by this gesture of independence, and later that night Darl finds Addie crying beside Jewel, who is asleep in bed.
Tull accompanies Anse and Dewey Dell and Vardaman on a treacherous crossing along the washed-out bridge. Eventually they make the other side, and Cash and Darl and Jewel turn the wagon around and drive it down to the ford.
In the world Faulkner creates, where so little is said, so much is communicated through glances and by eyes. When Tull arrives to help the Bundrens at the river’s edge, he finds himself being stared at in three very different ways by three very different Bundren siblings. Darl’s gaze is knowing, Dewy Dell’s is lustful and Jewel’s is hostile. Leaving aside the simple hostility of Jewel’s vision, let’s examine more fully the nature of the gazes of Darl and Dewey Dell.
Tull finds Dewey Dell looking at him like he was wanting to touch her. This may involve an real desire on the part of Dewey Dell to actually be touched, given the content of the monologues that she has delivered. Earlier, when Samson offered to put the Bundrens up for the night, he felt Dewey Dell’s eyes fixed on him as though pistols, blazing at him. Dewey Dell, checked by propriety against doing, or even saying, to these men, looks right through the standards of decorum and into the deep heart of desire. The intensity of her gaze is not lost on any of those whom she bestows it upon, and she is by no means reserved in applying it.
That Dewey Dell should be so wild-eyed is unsurprising in light of her outrageous thoughts. In addition to the fervor of her feeling for Lafe and Peabody, and the strength of her stares at Samson and Tull, she is driven to distraction by her family relationships as well. In a stream-of-consciousness sequence, she imagines being asleep in a bed next to Vardaman when suddenly she finds all of them back under me again and going on like a piece of cool silk dragging across my naked legs. Because Vardaman is pre-sexual, he doesn’t participate, but apart from that, Dewey Dell finds herself unwillingly overwhelmed by abstract incestuous desire.
Because of her sense of seductiveness, even where her family is concerned, Dewey Dell believes that she has a special pull over the Bundren males. In the wagon on the way to New Hope, she meditates on her power over Anse, sure that he will do a she says, that she can persuade him to do anything. However, she isn’t as positive of Darl’s automatic compliance. This frustrates Dewey Dell to the point of hostility, even to the point where she imagines killing him.
Darl stymied Dewey Dell because his gaze exceeds hers in degree, and is of a kind that she is powerless to comprehend. Whereas Dewey Dell’s gaze is sexually charged and therefore extremely focused, Darl’s is dispassionate and seemingly all-encompassing. Dewey Dell herself remarks that the land runs out of Darl’s eyes, suggesting that he has an overarching power to observe, process and explain the environment around him. This superhuman detachment and understanding is what makes Darl seem such a strange creature to other people, and generates much talk over his difference.
Again, the eyes have it. As Tull arrives at the river’s edge to help the Bundrens with the crossing, he is paralyzed by Darl, who, as Tull says, looks at me with them queer eyes of hisn that makes folks talk. As Tull explains, it was never so much as what Darl said or did as the way in which he look at others. The intensity of that gaze makes it seem, Like somehow you was looking at yourself and your doings outen his eyes.
Darl’s ability to transmit a sense of omniscience is largely due to the richness of his inner life, and especially, of his moral life. In remembering the incident where Jewel earned money by moonlight to buy a horse, Darl reveals the understanding of his gaze in several instances. He perceives Jewel wasting away, and knows that something is wrong; he perceives Addie by Jewel’s bedside, and knows that she is plagued by guilt for the deceit she has employed to cover his tracks; he perceives Cash the morning after Cash trailed Jewel on his mission, and knows that Cash has found out Jewel’s secret. Darl’s eyes are as strong as they are because of the careful scrutiny that they place on the eyes of others, in the above passages and throughout the remainder of the novel.