As I Lay Dying Summary and Analysis
Cash justifies the family's decision to send Darl to the asylum. Gillespie was threatening to sue them for the destruction of the barn (he found out, somehow, that Darl had set the fire); it was either face a lawsuit or send Darl off. Jewel seems almost eager to send Darl off. Cash is not. Cash thinks that the distinction between crazy and sane is not so easy to make: "It's like it ain't so much what a fellow does, but it's the way a majority of folks is looking at him when he does it" (220). Darl wants to get a doctor for Cash before they bury Addie; Cash takes note, feeling that between the two of them there has always been a kind of closeness. Cash says he can manage. Anse goes off to search for spades. He goes into a place from which gramophone music is playing. Cash refers to this place as "Mrs. Bundren's house" (222). With two borrowed spades, they go off to bury Addie. The woman of the house looks at the window as they go, and Anse waves at her. After Addie is buried, the men from the institution come and subdue Darl, with help from everyone in the family except Cash and Vardaman. Darl is stunned. He cannot believe that Cash didn't warn him.
Peabody narrates. He is treating Cash's leg, while Anse returns the borrowed spades. Peabody cannot believe that Anse is such a fool; Cash will be lame for the rest of his life. If he walks at all, he'll be hobbling on a shortened leg. Peabody continues to condemn Anse, expressing disgust at how Anse had Jewel committed.
MacGowan narrates. He is an assistant at a Jefferson store. Dewey Dell comes looking for a treatment, and he pretends to be a doctor. She can pay ten dollars, she assures him. He ushers her down into the cellar, give her a random sampling of medicine, and tells her to return that night for the rest of the "treatment." That night, she comes promptly at ten, with Vardaman in tow. While she goes inside, Vardaman waits outside on the curb for her. MacGowan gives her more fake medicine, and brings her down into the cellar.
Vardaman narrates. While Dewey Dell goes in with MacGowan, he sits outside and thinks about Darl, who has gone to Jackson. He knows that people say Darl has gone crazy. He keeps thinking about Darl, his brother, but he does not understand what has happened. Dewey Dell emerges, and they walk home. She keeps saying that she knows "it" won't work.
Darl narrates. He is on the train to Jackson, on his way to the asylum. He has completely lost his mind.
Dewey Dell narrates. At the hotel, Anse confronts her about the ten dollars she has. She pleads with him, telling him that the money isn't hers. He takes it from her.
Cash narrates. He remembers that when they returned the shovels Anse stayed in the woman's house for an unusually long time. This event occurred before Cash was brought to Peabody. Cash listened to the graphophone music, wondering if he could some day buy one. That night, Anse went off, after a visit to the barber. The next morning, Anse left again, saying he would meet up with them at the corner. The children wait there, the team hitched up, while Dewey Dell and Vardaman eat bananas. Anse comes to meet them, false teeth in his mouth. The woman from whom they borrowed the shovels is with him. She carries the graphophone and her face is fixed in a fierce, defiant expression. Anse introduces her as Mrs. Bundren.
Cash comes to dominate as the narrator near the end of the novel. His two lengthy monologues reveal the climactic events that finish the story. His monologues are delivered in past tense, giving him a more detached perspective.
Cash is not a vocally articulate character. For much of the novel, he is more or less silent. Yet he seems to provide just the right balance of tenderness and detachment for the novel's closing. He is a sensitive character, less intuitive and intelligent than Darl, but also more stable. His work grounds him.
Although in the end he goes along with Darl's institutionalization, it is clear that he has feelings of guilt about it. These feelings of guilt stand in sharp contrast to Anse's indifference and Dewey Dell's and Jewel's outright hostility. Discussing the plan to commit Darl, Anse seems to welcome it: "I reckon he ought to be there,' pa says. God knows, it's a trial on me'" (219). Anse, as usual, is thinking only of himself. He evaluates Darl's institutionalization only in terms of convenience. Dewey Dell and Jewel are downright hostile. When Darl tries to escape, Dewey Dell leaps on him "like a wildcat" (224); when they have Darl pinned, Jewel snarls "Kill him . . . Kill the son of a bitch" (225). Most readers have tremendous sympathy for Darl. And while Jewel seems initially to be an impressive character, his behavior here leaves a distinctly unfavorable impression of him. Remember that only a few hours ago Darl intervened and possibly saved him from serious harm. Jewell is full of venom against Darl because Darl dared to ask Jewel about his fatherhood. Dewey Dell is angry at Darl because his powers of observation make her feel violated; in fact, it was probably Dewey Dell who told Gillespie about Darl setting the fire (224). The two siblings turn savagely on Darl at the end. The theme of isolation is developed in a surprising way: Dewey Dell and Jewel feel their aloneness violated by Darl, and they betray him in the most horrible way imaginable.
But Darl's last few hours with his family show him at his best. He intervenes and helps Jewel; he insists on bringing Cash to the doctor before burying Addie. He is capable of deep compassion and feeling. He is shocked by his betrayal. Cash himself observes that he and Darl have always shared a special bond, partly because they are so much older than the others. And indeed, it is Cash's betrayal that Darl finds the most shocking. When he is held down by the others, who looks up at Cash helplessly: "I thought you would have told me" (225). Although Cash remains a sympathetic character, he also has betrayed Darl. In the end, he says that listening to the graphophone in years afterward always made him feel sorry that Darl wasn't there to enjoy the music with them, but he too has decided that it is for Darl's own good.
Anse's act is despicable, and Peabody's monologue emphasizes that fact. Peabody's criticism of Anse is the most direct and damning speech about Anse in the whole novel. Nothing can be respected about a man who takes so little care of his son's shattered leg, or who can be so unbothered by having a son committed.
Vardaman is the sibling who seems to miss Darl the most. He keeps dwelling on Darl's absence, although it is clear he does not understand what has happened. He thinks of Darl with envy, because Darl is going to Jackson and will ride a train. He continues to repeat to himself that Darl is his brother. The truth about what has happened will hit Vardaman later, when he is older.
The two brothers continue to have a special bond. Darl's final, raving monologue echoes elements of Vardaman's monologue. But the trauma of being betrayed by his family and committed has pushed Darl into a complete breakdown. He has lost all sense of self: he speaks of "Darl" as if he is not Darl. Darl's philosophical ponderings of being and the basis of being have taken a tragic turn. Trauma has led him to lose all sense of his identity. His family views him as an outside, and this view is tragically paralleled by Darl himself, as his consciousness splits from himself. He views himself from the outside: "Darl is our brother, our brother Darl" (242). He seems to be dwelling on how he has been betrayed. And he cannot stop laughing. His final interior monologue is one of the most terrifying representations of insanity in all of literature. But it also seems to be a dramatic change, a collapse brought on suddenly by his family's betrayal, rather than the inevitable end of a gradual process. The final image is chilling: Darl in a cage, foaming at the mouth, repeating "yes" to himself again and again. His musings on the instability of identity have degenerated into a loss of identity.
To return to Cash's thoughts about sanity and insanity, the relativism of Cash's analysis is an important element of Faulkner's modernist experiments. Faulkner used stream-of-consciousness to explore truth as emerging from multiple perspectives. More than James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, Faulkner's experiments more self-consciously emphasize the lack of an objective vantage point. Truth emerges from a fragmented narrative. Cash's observations about insanity drive home the point. Insanity is as much a matter of social convention as anything else.
The others continue with life. We hear no more from Jewel, though from Cash's narrative it seems that Jewel took some satisfaction in Darl's institutionalization. Dewey Dell is absorbed in her own problems. Vardaman remembers his brother, but he also thinks about the toy train and the buzzards; he has become more lucid as the novel has progressed. Still, his connection with Darl may be cause to doubt the boy's future.
And Anse takes a new wife. Cash lets us know that this is the case from an earlier monologue, when he refers to the women whose spades they borrow as Mrs. Bundren (222); even so, most readers slip over the name without realizing what is being indicated. Cash's narrative being in the past tense also contributes to the sense of life going on; his love of the graphophone music and his regret for Darl hint at many evenings spent quietly together at the Bundren home, enjoying the music. But this is hardly an idyllic ending. Anse is one of the most repugnant of Faulkner's characters, primped and ridiculous with his new teeth and wife; he remains the family patriarch, with Peabody snarling that the whole family would be better off with Anse dead. The new Mrs. Bundren comes not with a smile, but with a fierce look of hostility. There is the specter of the pregnancy that Dewey Dell has not succeeded in terminating. And the family's betrayal of Darl hints at how fragile the Bundrens' loyalty to each other really is. The novel has ended, with sensitive, beautiful Darl destroyed and Anse pleased as punch, able to lose a son and wife without so much as batting an eye. Jewel can call on officials to kill his own brother without having his sanity questioned, but Darl, for trying to spare his mother further indignity, is destroyed. The final tone of the novel is of loss and pain; the voyage has not been about healing so much as about scarring. For the sensitive ones among them, life does not give enough rest for healing.
As I Lay Dying Essays and Related Content
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- About As I Lay Dying
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