First Section (Darl, Cora, Jewel, Darl, Cora, Dewey Dell; pages 1-23):
Darl Bundren narrates. He and his younger brother Jewel come in from the field, passing a dilapidated cotton house. Darl walks around the shack, but Jewel steps through a window and walks straight on through. They go up a path, coming up the bluff; Vernon Tull's wagon is by the spring, and in the wagon bed are two chairs. At the spring, Jewel drinks from a gourd. Darl can hear his brother Cash sawing away, building the coffin for their mother, Addie Bundren. Cash is building the coffin right outside the house. Darl goes inside.
Cora Tull narrates. She baked some cakes on engagement, but the town lady client changed her mind afterward. She now has to find another place to sell them. Her daughter Kate voices her anger about the cancellation: "But those rich town ladies can change their minds. Poor folks can't." Cora views the situation differently, taking comfort in her God. He sees into people's hearts. Cora Tull and her family live nearby. They have come to help as Addie Bundren in dying. Cora and her two daughters, Kate and Eula, help with the chores. Darl passes on through the house, and Cora notes that Eula watches Darl with signs of infatuation.
Darl narrates. He goes onto the back porch, where his father Anse and Vernon Tull sit around waiting for Addie to die. Anse Bundren asks after Jewel. Darl takes a deep drink of water, and thinks about the pleasure of water and other times he has felt it, especially in the cool of night. He thinks about masturbating quietly in the dark, and wonders if his older brother Cash, sleeping not far away, was doing the same thing. Darl replies to his father's question, telling him that Jewel is in the barn harnessing the team. But Darl knows that in truth Jewel has passed through the barn and out into the pasture, to work with his horse. The horse, fiery and independent, gives him hell, and Jewel repeatedly addresses the animal as "you son of a bitch"; it is clear that the horse is Jewel's passion.
Jewel narrates. He despises Cash for sawing the coffin right where Addie can see him; Cash, Jewel thinks, wants to be complimented for his carpentry, wants to show off what a good son he is. He views the others as waiting around for Addie's death "like buzzards." He wishes violently that he could be alone with her, so that her last days could be quiet, private.
Darl narrates. He, Jewel, Anse, and Vernon Tull discuss whether Darl and Jewel are going to do a job transporting lumber for Tull. Anse waffles, clearly wanting the money but afraid of seeming cold. The family needs the three dollars. Darl and Anse discuss the possibility that if they go, Darl and Jewel may not make it back in time to say goodbye to the dying Addie. Jewel refuses to admit that Addie is that sick. Jewel is angry that Tull is even there, and accuses the family of trying hurry Addie into the grave. Anse says that she wants to see the coffin being made, and that Jewel is selfish and doesn't try to respect her wishes. Darl leaves the decision in Anse's hands, but the man continues to waffle, clearly wanting the money but lacking the courage to admit it. The brothers go to do the job. Darl goes into the house to look at his mother. He hears voices.
Cora narrates. She sees Darl, looking in on Addie, and believes more fervently than ever that he is the best of the Bundren lot. Cora has been coming to help for a while, trying to comfort Addie in her last dies. She finds the Bundrens a deplorable lot. She does not approve of Addie being buried among her family in Jefferson; a wife she be buried near her husband and children. She thinks that Jewel hates Addie most of all, despite Addie's partiality toward him. And she notices that Dewey Dell, the only daughter of the family, takes to her job fanning Addie with a kind of unhealthy possessiveness. Dewey Dell seems to want Addie all to herself. Cora believes that Darl begged Anse not to send him off on that lumber job, and that Jewel would rather have three dollars than say goodbye to his mother.
Dewey Dell narrates. She remembers when she went with the young boy Lafe to the secret shade, wondering if she would give in to him and have sex. They were harvesting, and she told him that if her sack were full by the time they reached the secret shade it meant that God meant for her to do it. Lafe helped her fill her sack. She later saw Darl, and he knew without being told what had happened. The communication between the two is powerful, often unspoken, but part of Dewey Dell hates Darl for this closeness: "And that's why I can talk to him with knowing with hating because he knows" (23). Darl stands in the door now, looking at Addie. He tells Dewey Dell that Addie is going to die before he and Jewel return.
As I Lay Dying is an important experiment in narrative. The language is intense and highly subjective, with a recognizable change in language depending on the narrator. Each section falls somewhere in the range from confessional to stream-of-consciousness. The novel is a series of interior monologues, and through these fragmented passages we piece together the story of Addie Bundren's death and the transport of her body to Jefferson.
The narrative appears fragmentary, but the story demonstrates admirable unity: it is limited to the span of a few days, and the different sub-plots are logically and skilfully interwoven. Faulkner's innovation is in how we see this unified set of events: we are forced to look at the story from a number of different perspectives, each of which is highly subjective. In The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner made use of some elements of this technique. However, As I Lay Dying presents us with a far greater range of voices. Additionally, The Sound and the Fury provides a clearer distinction between unreliable and reliable narrators. Part Three of The Sound and the Fury is narrated by a man who is unmistakably evil, and Part Four helps clarify the novel through its use of a more objective third-person narrator. The voices in As I Lay Dying are more numerous and more ambiguous.
Darl is the first and most important narrator of the novel. He is sensitive, intuitive, and intelligent, and his monologues are some of the most eloquent; they are also a more intricate representation of the process of thought. Some of the interior monologues are fairly straightforward, but Darl's passages are stream-of-consciousness narrative. For much of the novel, he acts as a kind of narrative anchor. One of the challenges of the novel is the complete absence of an objective third-person narrator. Everything we know about these characters is told to us through the lens of a subjective speaker; because of Darl's sensitivity and isolation from the other characters, most readers come to rely heavily on his version of events. He is eloquent, intelligent, and isolated. Isolation is one of the recurring themes of the novel. Because of the novel's unique structure, the isolation of the characters is highlighted. Darl tells us what he and alone can observe, and his isolation is the most poetic; ultimately, it is also the most tragic.
From the very first section, the sensory and sensual images of the novel are a strong element. Although the novel takes the form of interior monologues, each character is powerfully influenced, in his own way, by the sheer physicality of their world. As I Lay Dying presents one of the most rugged and rural settings of any Faulkner novel; this South is the South of heartbreaking poverty and life lived close to an often unforgiving land. Nature and physical needs dominate as a theme: Darl narrates a long passage on the pleasure of drinking water, and relates a memory of seeing the stars reflected in a bucket full of water. He is described as always having his eyes "full of the land" by other characters; he sees something in the world that the others don't, and his descriptions of nature are often striking for their sensuality and the unusual metaphors he employs.
Work is part of the relationship to the land, and it is an important theme of the novel. Cash is a man whose work gives him an identity; we hear the sound of his saw before we see him, and in all of the characters monologues Cash is inseparable from his work as a carpenter. The sound of his saw is the constant background noise that accompanies us all the way to Addie Bundren's death. Jewel is furious at Cash for building the coffin right near Addie: "It's because he stays out there, right under the window, hammering, and sawing on that goddamn box. Where she's got to see him. Where every breath she draws is full of his knocking and sawing where she can see him saying See. See what a good one I am making for you" (11). But Jewel love's is possessive and perhaps ignores Addie's wishes: she wants to see the coffin being made. Cash is doing for her the only thing he can do. He takes his identity from his work as a carpenter, and the coffin is the only gift he can give his mother.
We do not only hear about the negative aspects of characters from other characters; characters often inadvertently present their own faults in their own sections. In Cora Tull's first section, Cora's self-righteousness and irritating piety come through loud and clear. Her daughter Kate seems far healthier in comparison: Kate complains about the insensitivities of the rich. Cora's attitude of acceptance seems at first to be kinder, but in the end turns out to be self-righteous and equally angry. She continues to talk to us about the cakes, thinking about them again and again without reason, and continuing to take comfort in the power of God, who "can see into the heart" (4). Implicit in Cora's interior monologue is that she feels she does not need to judge the rich because her God will. Religion is a theme of the novel, and often Faulkner is deeply critical of the religious characters of the book. Characters often are blinded by their own piety.
Poverty is an important theme of the novel. The Bundrens are one of the poorest families in any of Faulkner's books. Jewel and Darl are going to miss their mother's death for three dollars. The family lives in a perpetual state of need, always slightly short of cash.
Isolation also is apparent in Dewey Dell's narrative. She is the only daughter of the family, and Addie's death will leave her as the sole female. This fact might explain the extreme possessiveness with which she watches over Addie. Dewey Dell is clearly lonely, and has found comfort in the arms of a boy who lives nearby. But although she is lonely and isolated and suffers for it, some part of her treasures this isolation. Part of her resents and fears Darl because he intuitively understands her and can see her secrets. Most of the time, Dewey Dell seems very partial to Darl. The two enjoy a closeness and love that is evident to the other members of the family. But in Dewey Dell's first section, she voices a resentment that will explain her actions later: "And that's why I can talk to him with knowing with hating because he knows" (23).