Last Updated March 22, 2023.
Darl Bundren and his brother Jewel walk along a straight brick path toward the cotton house. When they reach it, Darl walks around the building, but Jewel steps straight through the window, crosses the floor with purposeful strides, and comes out on the opposite side. He is now in front of Darl and stops for a drink at the spring. Darl passes him and hears their brother Cash’s saw, which is hard at work as he makes a coffin for their mother, Addie, who is dying. Cash has positioned himself below her window, so she may offer comments or advice on the coffin, and Darl thinks it will give her comfort to have such a fine box to lie in.
Yesterday, Cora Tull baked some cakes and is quite proud of the results, thinking they look rather appetizing. Miss Lawrington told her she could make money baking cakes for a party, an idea Cora readily embraced; however, the woman who ordered the cakes has changed her mind and no longer wants them. Indignant, Kate, Cora’s daughter, says that the lady ought to take the cakes anyway, but Cora argues that she does not mind, saying that it cost her nothing to make the cakes because she used the eggs from her own hens.
Indeed, she is just pleased that the cakes turned out so well, though they are not as good as the ones Addie Bundren used to bake. As Cora thinks of Addie, she remembers seeing her lying in bed, her face wasting slowly away. Despite knowing the depths of Addie’s illness, Cora suggests that the sickly woman will soon be up and baking again, but the kindness of her platitudes is dulled by her quiet, internal commentary, which argues that Addie will find neither grace nor salvation in death.
Darl finds his father, Anse, sitting on the back porch with Vernon Tull. Vernon takes a drink of water from the bucket, and Anse says that water always tastes better when it has been sitting in a cedar bucket for hours and is better still if you drink it at night. He asks Darl where Jewel is, and Darl says he is in the barn, trying to mount and tame a horse, and then feeding him. He describes the interactions between Jewel and the horse in detail, showing how closely he has observed them and explaining the forceful and often explosive emotions that Jewel so often slips into. Jewel struggles to express himself, so his emotions—even love and compassion—are communicated through violence.
When Jewel’s internal monologue takes over the narrative, the story takes on an angry, unhappy tone. He is deeply upset with Cash for building his mother’s coffin right outside her window where she can avoid neither seeing nor hearing him build the container for her corpse, a fact that Jewel finds appalling and grotesque. As Darl indicated in the previous section, Jewel experiences an intense array of emotions, but they exclusively manifest themselves as anger.
Jewel is also unhappy with the other members of the Bundren family, as they have3 passively allowed Cash to act this way. If it were up to him, he would take Addie away from the house, where people—including the Tulls—come to stare at her, to the top of a high hill. From their protected vantage point, they would throw rocks down at anyone who came to trouble them. As he thinks about his mother’s death, he questions the nature and existence of God.
Vernon asks Darl and Jewel to run an errand for him, offering to pay...
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them three dollars for the favor; they agree, arguing that they need the money, but Anse worries that Addie might pass before her sons return from the errand. To convince Anse, Vernon adds that Addie seems more like herself today and will probably be sitting up in bed by the time they get back. Jewel pointedly replies, saying that Vernon ought to know because he and his family are always looking at Addie.
Darl observes that Jewel is further angered by Anse’s short-sighted commentary on Addie’s burial. Out of respect for her wishes, Anse plans to bury her in a family-made coffin in her family plot in Jefferson—which is forty miles away—but has no clear plan for how the family might feasibly transport Addie’s coffin such a distance.
Cora thinks to herself that Darl is different from the other Bundren children, imagining him to be the one who is most like his mother. She contrasts his affectionate nature with Jewel’s coldness, recalling that Jewel was always sulking or throwing tantrums despite the care that Addie lavished on him. She says that Addie has always been a lonely woman who will remain so in death, as she will be separated from the Bundrens by a distance of over forty miles.
As the Bundrens discuss their plan to bury Addie in Jefferson, Cora thinks that burying their mother so far away must be God’s will, as she cannot imagine that Addie actually wished to be buried apart from her family. She is glad that, unlike Addie, she will not die alone but instead will die surrounded by her loving, Christian family.
Addie’s sole daughter, Dewey Dell, ruefully considers a fateful day in the cotton fields, when Lafe, one of the other laborers, propositioned her for sex. She agreed on the condition that he filled her sacks with cotton as well, as she felt sick of doing Anse’s work for him; Lafe readily assented to the proposal and surreptitiously filled her sack with cotton he picked. Regrettably, their liaison led to her pregnancy, and she does not know how to cope with this revelation. Moreover, Dewey Dell worries about the fact that Darl knows about her transgression with Lafe but has not yet spoken of it. Before he and Jewel depart for their errand for Vernon, Darl comes to the door and prophetically says that Addie is going to die before they return.
As Vernon and Anse converse, Anse divulges his worries about Addie’s declining health, fearing that his sons will not return before she dies. He continues, adding that he knows that life is hard for women and remembering how his mother worked every single day of her life but still lived to be over seventy. The men’s conversation is interrupted, however, by Vardaman, the youngest of the Bundren children, who has come to show his father a fish he has caught; Anse repeatedly tells him to clean it, but Vardaman insists on showing it to Addie first.
Anse complains that his family has been little more than a burden on his life, adding that he feels as if he deserved more than this life. Shortly thereafter, he and Cora get into their wagon and drive off with their daughters, Kate and Eula. Kate says that she does not think Addie will die and that if she does, Anse will soon marry again. Eula adds that Cash, Darl, and Jewel will now be able to marry soon, but Kate jokes that Jewel will never marry, much to the benefit of the local girls.