As I Lay Dying

As I Lay Dying Summary and Analysis of Section 3

Third Section (Vardamann, Tull, Darl, Cash, Vardaman, Tull, Darl, Cash, Darl, Vardaman, Darl, Anse; pp. 59-95):

Vardaman narrates. He is disturbed by the idea of shutting Addie up in the coffin. He speaks confusedly about the wonders of town and the mysteries of his mother's death. He doesn't understand why he's a country boy and why such differences exist between town and country. He can't seem to understand the idea of death, and in his thoughts he confuses Addie's corpse with the dead fish. He feels the need to get Vernon, because Vernon also saw the fish.

Tull narrates. A storm has begun. He is woken by the passing of Peabody's (riderless) team. Cora hears the noise and thinks Addie has passed. She wants to hitch up and go to help, but Tull prefers to wait till he's called. Vardaman arrives at their door, dripping wait, and speaking incoherently about fish. His babbling is strange and eerie, and Tull shares the reader's reaction: "I'll be durn if it didn't give me the creeps" (63). Vernon hitches up the team, and when he comes back into the house he finds Vardaman and Cora in the kitchen, the boy still speaking of fish. Cora thinks it's a judgment against Anse. They bring Vardaman back, and help where they can. Toward dawn, the coffin is complete and they put Addie inside of it, nailing the lid shut. Vardaman is found later, asleep on the floor, after having used the drill to put holes into the top of the coffin; two of the holes were bored right into Addie's face. It is dawn before the Tulls return home. Tull thinks about God and faith and his wife, and the sadness of the world, the powerlessness of man.

Darl narrates. He has come home to get a spare wheel for the wagon. He watches as Cash completes the coffin. Anse gets in the way, so Cash sends him inside. Tull helps complete the coffin. Cash makes the coffin on a bevel, even though it takes longer. They finish and carry it in. Darl and Jewel have set out again to complete their job. Beneath a strange roof, Darl thinks of being, and the contradictions of being, and home.

Cash narrates. It is a list of thirteen reasons to build the coffin on a bevel.

Vardaman narrates. "My mother is a fish" (76).

Vernon Tull narrates. He returns to the Bundren home with the wagon at 10 AM the next day. With Quick and Anstid, he has discussed the high level of the river due to the storm; Anse had best hurry. The bridge is old and won't hold up much longer. Vardaman has been upset. He attacked Dewey Dell when she cooked up the fish he caught. The woman are inside and the men are on the porch. Cash repairs the damage Vardaman did to the coffin. They lay Addie in backwards, to protect her dress. Whitfield, the minister, arrives. He announces that the bridge has been swept away. The women sing, and Whitfield performs the rites for Addie. The women sing again. On the way home, Cora is still singing. They see a dirty Vardaman fishing in the slough, and they try to get him to come home with them so he can rest for a bit, but the boy refuses.

Darl narrates. He is telling Jewel that it is not his horse that's dead. Jewel is angry. Three days have passed, and they have returned home. Anse has been waiting for them; Addie's body rots in the coffin. Buzzards circle in the sky.

Cash narrates. He tries to explain to Jewel why the coffin won't balance, but Jewel ignores his advice and insists that Cash help to lift the coffin and move it to the wagon.

Darl narrates. He is witnessing the exchange between Jewel and Cash. The men carry the coffin down the hill to the wagon, having a great deal of difficult: Cash is right. It doesn't balance. In the end, Jewel is carrying most of the weight, and with sheer muscle and weight he hoists the coffin into the wagon.

Vardaman narrates. The family is going to town. Dewey Dell has assured him that the toy train set he saw long ago in town will still be there. Anse and Jewel argue: Jewel wants to ride his horse, but Anse wants him to ride in the wagon like Addie would have wanted. Darl and Vardaman have a strange conversation about their mother (see below, Analysis). Cash is bringing his tools along; on the way back from dropping off Addie, he's going to have to get to work on Tull's barn roof. Dewey Dell is taking Mrs. Tull's cakes to town for her.

Darl narrates. Everyone is getting into the wagon. Jewel appears not to be coming, angry about not being able to ride his horse. Anse is angry; Cash tries to brush it off, saying that Jewell will go and stay with the Tulls. But Darl predicts aloud that Jewel will meet them later. The buzzards circle in the distance.

Anse narrates. They are in the wagon, riding on. He is fuming about his sons. He is mad at Jewel for wanting to ride the horse and then refusing to come. He becomes angry when Darl starts laughing suddenly; behavior like that is what makes people think Darl is crazy. Anse berates his sons' lack of respect for their dead mother. We soon see the source of Darl's laughter: Jewel, as Darl predicted, is catching up with them. He is riding his horse.


Both Vardaman and Darl are taken by questions of being, consciousness, and identity. His mother's death has only added confusion to these questions; Vardaman cannot understand how something that "is" can become "was." In other words, the destructive power of time, the terror of mortality, and the mystery of ceasing to exist have been too much for Vardaman. In his mind, his mother has become something else. Vardaman turns death into transformation. His mother is a fish. He then imagines her as a rabbit, because she has gone far away, just as the rabbits did. He is disturbed by the fact that they are going to eat the fish.

Vardaman struggles to find teleology for the events around him. He tries to connect what happens to reasons, when in fact often things happen for no reason at all. He blames his mother's death on Peabody, because Peabody's arrival preceded his mother's death. He also has linked the fish and his mother. His reasoning is clearly incorrect, but in many ways it is no less reasonable than explanations given by other characters of the novel. Consider Cora Tull, he repetitively maintains that all happens by God's will, for God's reasons. Yet she is so wrapped up in forcing events into a Christian framework that her pronouncements become tiresome. She sees Vardaman's instability as God's punishment for Anse. Her reasoning is no more sophisticated than Vardaman's; the sole difference is that she has the backing of her near-fanatical religious beliefs.

Questions of identity and being are linked to poverty and rural life for Vardaman. In, Vardaman's first interior monologue of this section, he asks others and himself why he is who he is: "Why ain't I a town boy, pa?" (59). With a stopover "in town" imminent, the themes of poverty and rural vs. town life creep up. For Vardaman, the event gives rise to questions about why he has been born poor, without the things town boys have.

Poverty and rural hardship continue to be themes. Even for the Bundren children, the trip to bring Addie's body to burial must be mixed with business; life is too harsh to grant mourning periods. Cash brings his tools, so that he can stop and work at Tull's on the way back. Anse says that this act is disrespectful, but Darl defends Cash. And Dewey Dell must bring Cora's cakes to sell in town.

The Tulls are studies for the theme of religion. Cora's piety, as Faulkner depicts it, is something easy to admire and equally easy to ridicule. Cora's faith makes her a great help at times, but she is also judgmental, self-deceiving, and often misinterprets situations out of a zealousness to force all events into a Christian framework of understanding.

Tull's fatalism is a counterpoint to his wife's faith. He too believes in God, a God who directs all things, but he seems to derive little confort. He wonders about the burden of being human: what God decides, man must do. He respects his wife, and says that if God were to put things into mortal hands, they would be Cora's. But he seems resigned to suffering as a constant of life: "And I reckon she would make a few changes, no matter how He was running it. And I reckon they would be for man's good. Leastaways, we would have to like them. Leastaways, we might as well go on and make like we did" (67). This passage touches on Tull's religious attitudes, while doubling as a concise statement of how he feels about his overbearing wife.

Cash is seen in glimpses; so far, his only interior monologues are closely tied to his work as a carpenter. Cash is doing the only thing he knows how to do. He draws meaning from his work. Tull remarks that Cash takes care over carpentry jobs that require little craftsmanship (79). He is so bound up in his work and the details of craftsmanship that he seems unreasonable to his siblings. Jewel dismisses Cash's protests, while Cash continues to fuss. But carpentry is Cash's life; without it, he is nothing.

The siblings have strongly defined personalities, and each one is very different from the others. Jewel is evidently the hothead of the family. He is also tall and incredibly strong, hoisting Addie's coffin into the wagon almost single-handedly. His interior life is far less complicated that Darl's or Vardaman's. He expresses his grief not through thought, but through explosions of physical power. His feelings are intense and sincere, expressed mostly as bursts of defiance and anger and disgust. After he gets the coffin up into the wagon, he says "Goddamn you" repeatedly, and the target of his cursing here seems to be just about everyone. His defiance becomes clear again in his dispute with Anse, and his decision to come along, separate from the others, on horseback. His pride is clear, and he rides the horse despite the fact that it could be considered disrespectful to his family and dead mother.

Darl continues to be the most intuitive of the characters. He speaks with Vardaman as if he can read the boy's mind, and he accurately predicts Jewel's behavior.

Darl's musings veer between striking eloquence and a kind of elegant crudeness. When struggling with questions of what it means to be, his syntax becomes simple, almost childlike; at these times, he and Vardaman have the most in common of any of the siblings. He also recognizes that his questioning, rather than buttress his understanding of himself, makes him far less certain as an entity than someone like Jewel: "I don't know what I am. I don't know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not" (73). Jewel's thickheadedness protects him from the kind of philosophical self-torture that Darl cannot help but engage in. Tull believes firmly that Darl thinks too much, and the thinking has made Darl go funny in the head (64). Darl forces himself to question the very foundations of his being. As he falls asleep, he feels his identity disappearing. He reasons back and forth, confirming his existence, but also seeming to realize that his being is unstable: "And then I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room. And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is" (74). Falling asleep, for now Darl is able to affirm his being, and yet this whole monologue foreshadows the unraveling of Darl's being later in the novel.

The conversation between Darl and Vardaman is one of the novel's more unsettling moments (90-1). Darl seems to be playing with Vardaman as older brothers do, but given their interior monologues the dialogue becomes disturbing. This section merits close inspection. Vardaman speaks of how his mother is a fish, and Darl does not seem to contradict him. They ask aloud who their mothers are. Darl tells Vardaman that he doesn't have a mother: "Because if I had one, it is was. And if it is was, it can't be is" (91). He also repeats to Vardaman a thought Darl had in an earlier monologue: "Jewel's mother is a horse" (90). He seems for now to be alluding to Jewel's incredible love for his horse, which seems more meaningful to him than Addie. But Darl also explains to Vardaman that just because Jewel's mother is a horse, it doesn't necessarily follow that Vardaman's is. Darl's meaning will become clear later.

Something important to note: the interior monologues of the Bundrens are almost always in the present tense, while the interior monologues of those outside the family are usually, but not always, in the past tense. This move separates characters like the Tulls from the main action, making their narratives come from a position of some distance. The struggle to bring Addie's body to Jefferson is the Bundrens'; they suffer the most, and the woman they bury is theirs and no one else's. The emotions of those outside the family are appropriately less intense, and this distance is reflected in the verb tense.