Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2366
Darl Bundren: main narrator; second son of Addie and Anse Bundren
Cora Tull: religious neighbor of the Bundrens, at the house for Addie’s “passing”
Kate: another neighbor and a friend of Cora Tull’s
Eula: another visitor and friend of Cora Tull’s
Miss Lawington: friend of Cora Tull’s; Cora mentions that this woman has given her advice on what type of chickens to breed and where she might sell her cakes for pocket money
Jewel Bundren: Addie’s third son
Dewey Dell: only daughter of Anse and Addie Bundren; she is quiet and sullen
Vernon Tull: Cora Tull’s husband; closest thing to a friend the Bundrens have
Dr. Peabody: country doctor called in to Addie’s death bed
Vardaman Bundren: youngest son and last Bundren child
Cash Bundren: first born son of Addie and Anse Bundren
Addie Bundren: wife and mother to the Bundren clan; she is on her deathbed having given up the desire to live
Anse Bundren: Addie’s husband; a poor farmer who is constantly whining about his problems but who manages to get others to do all his work for him
Lafe: a neighbor boy who is attracted to Dewey Dell; does not have his own narrative, but is an important part of Dewey’s narrative
Brothers Jewel and Darl Bundren, who have been working together in the field, stop working and walk the path back to their house. Neither one speaks to the other. Darl describes his brother’s rigid, grave, and cold demeanor. In the distance, the sound of a carpenter at work can be heard. It is their other brother, Cash, who is working on a casket for Addie Bundren. Darl tells us that Cash is a good carpenter.
Cora Tull narrates the next section. She is speaking with a woman named Kate about baking cakes for rich folks. Cora relies on God’s will and wisdom and does not question His plans for people. She is watching Addie Bundren, who is wasting away before her. She notes that Addie will not have everlasting salvation and grace, though she is on her deathbed. She tells the other woman that Addie is listening to her son building her casket.
Darl sees his father, a worn-out and unkempt man, on the porch with Vernon Tull. He contrasts Anse’s appearance with that of Tull, whose wife, he supposes, has some say over his dress. Darl notices Jewel calling to his horse. When it comes to him, it suddenly rears up and appears savage, terrible, and rigid. He thinks of Jewel and the horse as one figure. Jewel can control the horse, but he does it with violent gestures and curses. When he puts the horse in the stall, the horse tries to kick him, and he kicks back. Though he is very brutal with the animal, he mixes his curses with sweet words.
Jewel narrates a brief section in which he is angry at Cash for his continual sawing and hammering on the casket. He calls the others buzzards who seem to be waiting for Addie to die. He doubts the existence of God because, he says, “What the hell is He for?” Jewel imagines what it would be like if other family members had died when they had accidents. He says that there would have been no others, just he and Addie, living high on the hill. He imagines that he could protect her from the curious by throwing rocks at their faces.
Darl notes that he has never seen his father sweat. In fact, his father believes that if he ever sweats, he will die. When Darl insists that they had better go earn three dollars by finishing some job quickly, Jewel believes that their mother is not so sick that they need to rush. Anse keeps repeating how luckless he is and how terrible the situation is. He says Addie wanted to be buried in a home-built casket and put to rest in her family plot in Jefferson. Because he promised her he would follow her wishes, he insists his sons not return late so they can get to her family plot right away.
Cora compares Darl and Jewel. She says that Anse and Jewel were more interested in making money than in saying good-bye to Addie. She believes that Darl loves his mother though Addie preferred Jewel. She mentions her own self-sacrifices in devoting the last three weeks to the Bundrens’ sorrow. She doesn’t believe that Addie wanted to be buried in Jefferson because she wouldn’t want to be buried apart from her husband and children. She reflects on Darl standing in the doorway and staring at his dying mother. She says he couldn’t speak because his heart was “too full for words.”
Dewey Dell mentions that Anse is afraid to work and sweat, so he lets his neighbors do his work for him. She doesn’t think Jewel feels any kinship ties with the rest of the family, and she considers Darl strange and distant. She describes a time she and Lafe, a farm hand, were picking rows of cotton. She made a deal with herself that if the sack was full by the end of the row, she would go into the woods with Lafe. She noticed that he was putting the cotton he picked into her sack so it would be full. She realizes that Darl knows what she and Lafe did in the woods. He also knows his mother will die before he and Jewel return, but he wants Jewel to help him load the wagon.
Tull is sitting with Anse, who continues to complain about his troubles. Tull notices Vardaman, the youngest boy, bring a large fish into the yard. The boy struggles with the huge fish which seems “ashamed of being dead.” Vardaman says he plans to show the fish to his mother. Tull knows that the work Cash is supposed to do for him will have to be postponed. However, he still hopes that Cash will work as carefully on his barn as he does on Addie’s casket. Before the Tulls leave, Cora, Kate, and Eula discuss the possibility of Anse remarrying before cotton-picking time. The women say that Cash and Darl can now get married. When Eula mentions that Jewel can get married now, too, Kate responds that the girls in the neighborhood do not need to worry. She says that he will never get tied down.
Anse describes how his wife and his children have been a burden. He tells us how he has suffered for his family. He is toothless and cannot eat “God’s own victuals,” and claims he suffers because his sons must work. Anse feels luck is against him though he has done no wrong. Vardaman reappears, covered in blood. He has cut up the large fish and asks if his mother is sick.
Darl seems to taunt Jewel by asking if he knows his mother is going to die. He also pushes Dewey Dell to admit that she wants Addie to die so they can go to Jefferson, where she might find a way out of her pregnancy.
Peabody remarks that Anse has called him because he finally wore Addie out. He wonders if it would be right to cure her just to make her continue living with Anse. Because the house is at the top of an incredibly steep hill, the old doctor must be hauled up by rope. Peabody can see that Addie is dying and asks Anse why he didn’t call for him sooner. Dewey Dell calls them into the bedroom as Addie is just about to die. The dying woman forces Peabody from the room with her intense stare. As he goes to the porch, he hears her call Cash’s name.
Though he is not present, Darl describes Addie’s deathbed scene. She searches the room for Jewel and, missing him, calls out to Cash. As he holds up the boards to show her how the casket is progressing, Addie lies back and dies. Dewey Dell begins to wail, Vardaman runs from the room, and Anse exclaims, “God’s will be done . . . Now I can get them teeth.” Darl, working far off with Jewel, says to him, “She is dead, Jewel. Addie Bundren is dead.”
Faulkner combines two narrative techniques in As I Lay Dying: stream-of-consciousness and multiple narrators. Faulkner became known for using different narrators to tell a single story, each from his or her own perspective.
The stream-of-consciousness style permits narrators to speak their minds. Their thoughts appear unplanned and unmediated and, therefore, more true and immediate. We may or may not like a character or agree with him or her, but we can trust that the speaker truly believes in what he or she is saying.
Multiple narration shifts back and forth among the many characters providing the reader with differing viewpoints of the same events. It also complicates the search for the truth. Cora Tull’s view of the relationship between Addie and Darl, and Addie and Jewel, is different from what we learn of their feelings for Addie in their respective narratives. Faulkner is stressing that the truth—or history—of an event or situation is not contained in any one viewpoint. Anse views himself as a victim; Jewel and Peabody see Addie as the victim. The reader is forced to examine each narrative carefully in order to piece together the whole picture. Had the story been told only from Cora Tull’s or Anse’s point of view, it might turn out to be a very different story. It would have stressed their concerns. Cora is religious and concerned with that aspect of life. Anse is self-centered and believes everything bad happens to him.
Faulkner also uses figurative language in describing scenery and characters. He uses metaphors and similes to create more vivid images of the scenery and characters. For example, he refers to Addie’s eyes as sputtering candles and, a few pages later, as oil lamps which are about to go out. These metaphors and similes remind the reader of the larger and more common metaphor of the “spark of life.” However, rather than relying on well-known metaphors, he creates new ones. The new images are also closer to the rural, farm world which his characters inhabit. Her eyes are oil lamps or candles, not electric lights. Faulkner’s figurative language adds to the tone of the novel and helps us envision the world of the Bundrens.
The language used by each character is very different and reveals even more than the subject he or she is discussing. A parallel can be made between the characters and their language because their words are an important extension of who and what they are.
Cora Tull uses many religious references. However, she speaks them the way a child does, in a repetitious, parrot-like fashion. She does not appear to fully understand her religion, just as she does not understand the relationships in the Bundren household. Jewel uses harsh or obscene language, highlighting his personality and the differences between him and his brother, Darl. Jewel’s violent language parallels his quick temper and his brute and forceful actions. Jewel is his language—hostile and angry. Darl, unlike most of the others, is descriptive in his narrative and notices small details. He employs both metaphors and similes to create a vivid description of his brother, Jewel. He says, “His pales eyes [are] like wood set into his wooden face” giving him “the rigid gravity of a cigar store Indian dressed in patched overalls.” In describing Jewel’s fancy, spotted horse, Darl says, “Then Jewel sees him, glinting for a gaudy instant among the blue shadows.” Darl also gives creative and articulate descriptions of other characters and of the Bundren farm and its environment. His use of language is very different from that of his family members and neighbors. It is yet another characteristic which sets him apart from people, making them consider him “queer.” The majority of the other characters speak plainly, using the everyday language suited to their time and place.
The description of the house and surrounding landscape should be examined carefully. The Bundren house is built on a nearly inaccessible hill. The house is built on a slant so that voices seem to speak out of thin air. The sun looks like a bloody egg, the air is sulphurous, and the path is like a crooked limb. As later sections will indicate, the use of dark, gothic images will set the tone for the journey.
In this first section we learn about family relationships and concerns. We discover that Jewel and Darl have a strained relationship, that Dewey Dell has come to view her mother’s death as an opportunity to seek help, and that though neighbors realize that Anse uses people, they are compelled to continue to do his work for him. The major character conflicts established in this section are between Darl and Jewel, Addie and Anse, and Dewey Dell and Darl.
The most interesting narrator in this first section is Darl. He seems to have second sight, to be omniscient. He knows what happened between Dewey Dell and Lafe, and he knows his sister needs to get to Jefferson. He tells Jewel their mother is going to die, though Jewel thinks she will get better. Though he and Jewel are working some distance away at the time of Addie’s death, he is able to narrate the deathbed scene and even gets inside his sister’s mind as she follows Peabody onto the porch and considers asking him to help her. Finally, he is aware of the moment of Addie’s death and informs Jewel that she is now dead.
The first section, up to Addie’s death, establishes the characters and their relationships and prepares us for the main action of the story: the family’s journey to Jefferson with Addie’s corpse. It also requires the reader to examine what each character says and the language used to express his or her thoughts.
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