Last Updated March 24, 2023.
The family plots how to best cross the river, determining that Vardaman, Anse, and Dewey Dell should cross the bridge on foot while the three other brothers attempt to ford the wagon across. As the three walk, Vernon accompanies them, attempting once more to convince them not to embark on this foolish mission.
Anse complains about Vernon’s unwillingness to allow them to use his mule but acknowledges that Addie was not part of his family. Vernon tells them to go help Cash, Darl, and Jewel haul the wagon, adding that they ought to have waited another day. As he leaves the Bundrens to their work, Anse retorts that he gave his word to Addie and intends to deliver on it.
Cash and Darl take the wagon down to the ford, with Jewel riding behind them. They argue about how to cross the river, and Cash reproaches himself for not coming to look at the crossing the week before and frets about the balance of the coffin on the wagon. Jewel rides his horse into the river, with Cash carefully driving the wagon in after him. Suddenly, a log rises up from the river’s depths, colliding with the wagon, and snapping the rope Cash and Jewel were using to guide the wagon across. The mules stumble and are swept away, and the wagon tilts and turns over. Cash calls for Darl to jump clear and head for shore, while he attempts to protect the coffin and hold onto his tools.
As everything slowly falls apart, Cash grasps at Addie’s coffins, struggling to keep it on the wagon. However, it is imbalanced, just as he warned, and it slips into the water. From the opposite shore, Vardaman cries out for Darl to catch her; he thinks Darl has done so when he starts moving slowly toward the bank. However, as Darl’s hands come into view, Vardaman realizes they are empty, and Addie’s coffin is nowhere to be seen. Sobbing, Vardaman says once more that his mother is a fish that Darl has let get away.
Vernon witnesses the chaos on the river and, when he returns home, tells Cora about the Bundrens’ attempt to cross the river. She comments that she thinks Darl was sensible to jump off the wagon before it turned over and adds that Anse was even smarter, as he did not get on the wagon at all.
Cora sees the hand of God in the days’ events, but Vernon replies that if this is the case, the events cannot be the fault of the Bundrens, as no one can guard against the hand of God. Vernon recalls what happened in the river, seeing the mules kick themselves loose and the wagon tipping over. He remembers losing sight of Cash but ultimately recovering him, though significantly worse for the wear and looking “like a bundle of old clothes.”
Cash is lying on his back beside the river, unconscious and wounded from a swift kick from Jewel’s panicked horse. The other Bundrens haul the wagon out of the river and tie a rope to a tree to hold them as they search in the river for Cash’s tools. While they are doing this, Cash does not move, and Dewey Dell squats beside him, lifting his head and saying his name. He opens his eyes, and the Bundrens hold up the tools they have retrieved, asking him what else he brought with him. Cash is unable to reply, and Jewel returns to the river with Vernon, while Anse laments his misfortunes.
After somewhat recovering from...
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his ordeal, Cash complains once more that the coffin was off-balance and that this was why the wagon overturned. He resents them for not listening to him early, bitterly adding that he told them time and again how to rectify the coffin’s imbalances; if they had just listened, the wagon would have likely made it across the river unscathed.
Cora recalls a conversation she once had with Addie, in which she told her friend that God gave her children to comfort her. Addie said that her daily life was an acknowledgment and expiation of her sin, and Cora replied that it was not for mortals to judge the sinfulness of any of their actions. Addie, however, said that she knew her own sin, and also knew that she deserved her punishment. Cora thought that Addie’s sin lay in preferring Jewel to Darl, and told her that Jewel was her punishment. Addie says that she knows this, and adds: “He is my cross and he will be my salvation.” Cora realized that she meant Jewel, not God, and thought her words were sacrilegious.
From Cora’s reflection, the narrative shifts back abruptly to when Addie was a young teacher who hated her students. She wished she had never been born, and looked forward to the times when her students did something wrong, so she could whip them. She finally decided to marry Anse, who would drive miles out of his way to pass the schoolhouse and look at her, but when she looked at him, he avoided her gaze.
When she gave birth to Cash, she felt that her solitude had been permanently violated, and reflected that the word “motherhood,” like all other significant words, did not fit the thing it purported to describe. After Darl was born, and Anse seemed dead to her, she had an affair with the minister, Whitfield. However, he quickly came to seem dead to Addie as well, and she did not understand how he could talk about sin as he did while acting sinfully himself. Jewel is Whitfield’s son, and after he was born, Addie gave Anse two more children, Dewey Dell and Vardaman, to make up for her transgression. After doing this, she felt as if she had repaid Anse for her sins and could finally prepare for death.