SANITY AND COMEDY IN AS I LAY DYING
Darl's first narrative appropriately opens the novel. In describing an unextraordinary combination of setting and action, Darl shows a clear preference for the exact and often telling detail, rather than the colorful metaphor. This preference is most apparent in the single sentence of the second paragraph:
Yet, even in this first narrative, Darl is not an entirely objective reporter, nor could we realistically expect such objectivity from one narrating in the present tense. We should expect, however, that where Darl's narrative seems to generate, rather than to clarify, ambiguities, those ambiguities will equivalently, if not simultaneously, affect the narrator and his audience. But, since Faulkner intends that we should at least initially accept Darl and his perspective as reliable and even sympathetic, the ambiguities in Darl's first narrative are quite understated, so much so that they might become conspicuous only on a later reading. For instance, Darl's two most striking references to Jewel violate the narrative stance he has otherwise quite consciously maintained. In the first instance, though he admits as much, Darl assumes a perspective other than his own:
In the second instance, Darl quite unconsciously and, perhaps, unnecessarily slips into the only extended, explicit metaphor of this narrative:
Likewise, on a first reading, we are more apt to accept Darl's almost clichéd presumption about his dying mother's state of mind:
Indeed, because it meets many of our conventional notions of how best to react to the impending death of a loved one, we are led all the more to accept Darl's humorless but generally level-headed opening narrative.
That narrative is juxtaposed with Cora's first narrative both to reinforce in a major way our sympathy for Darl's perspective and to undermine in a subtle way our confidence in it. In her conversation with Kate, Cora presents a pleasant, accepting face. Were we not allowed inside her consciousness, were we not allowed to hear her think as well as speak, we would likely find her behavior at least as unobjectionable as Darl's. Kate's comments on the reneged purchase of the cakes much more openly show a disregard for Addie's condition. But we do hear Cora's thoughts, and they echo so loudly that they render inconsequential her conversation with Kate. Cora is clearly self-concerned and self-righteous, and clearly hypocritical because her behavior is so controlled that it reveals neither to Kate. Cora is clearly more concerned with parlaying her husband's response to her predicament with the cakes than with sparing Addie her comparatively minor problem. Her Biblical truisms undercut, rather than substantiate, her behavior with Kate because they seem afterthoughts judiciously attached to a very mercantile preoccupation. Indeed, Cora seems to view Addie's lying near death as a comforting distraction, as much as she might assume that her own presence is a comforting distraction to Addie. She doesn't mention Addie until two-thirds into her narrative:
The quilt is drawn up to her chin, hot as it is, with only her two hands and her face outside. (8)
And though she presents a gruesomely precise picture of Addie's mordant condition--
--she literally distances herself from such a reality by implicitly denying that it applies to herself:
She is unaware even of the effort exhibited in her redundancies. Cora's preoccupation with the reneged purchase of her cakes, with Dewey Dell's cheesy appearance, and with Eula's prospects with Darl, which otherwise would probably be quaintly satiric, are in this context quite darkly comic. If we laugh at all, we laugh at Cora, not with her, for she very conspicuously sees no humor in herself. Of all the characters in the novel, Cora has constructed the most unassailably conscious (because it is almost purely self-conscious) defense against life's meaninglessness. In this respect, her perspective becomes more and more apparently the inverse of Darl's. Still, if we choose to accept Cora's preoccupations as lightly comic, we also choose to close our distance to her and to open some greater distance between ourselves and Addie's dying.
If only by apparent coincidence, Cora's narrative also subtly undermines our confidence in Darl's perspective. At the end of his first narrative, the macabre (perhaps ludicrously macabre) effect of Cash's building the coffin so near its prospective occupant does not strike home. The "It" that Darl claims "will give her confidence and comfort" blurs the distinction between the effect of the finished coffin and that of its construction. Cora clarifies what Darl blurs:
Moreover, Cora's description of the dying Addie (which I have quoted previously) indicates pointedly that Addie is beyond comfort or confidence in anyone or anything. Peabody later reinforces this impression, but without Cora's sanctimony. And Cora does not suggest here that she is deeply disturbed by Cash's macabre diligence. Rather, she feels the need to think disparagingly of Dewey Dell's abilities as a housekeeper. Cora reveals again that she is self-protectively limited in her appreciation of reality. Yet, in the course of the novel, it becomes apparent that Cora demonstrates only in an extreme and, therefore, most conspicuously questionable manner what all the characters need to function in an acceptable manner.
As we might expect, since Darl has moved physically and emotionally closer to his dying mother, the relatively minor technical inconsistencies of his first narrative become much more conspicuous in his second. Though he has paused to drink water, Darl first extends and fills time almost impossibly between Anse's question--" ’Where's Jewel?’ " (10)--and his response--" ’Down to the barn...Harnessing the team’ " (11). He associatively connects the taste of the water he is now drinking with his nightly sneaking to the bucket as a young boy and then with his erotically exposing himself to the night air as an adolescent. The more apparently objective passages which precede and follow this reverie are also so precisely detailed that they, in effect, stall time. For instance:
Furthermore, Darl's reverie is occasioned by his stopping to drink from a bucket on the porch in the same manner as he has reported Jewel's stopping to drink from the spring, and it ends with his wondering if Cash had similarly, but for a longer time, been exposing himself to the night air. Darl, who can only for so long stall time in his own mind and still continue to function, is looking to others, who seem less troubled by Addie's impending death, not only for a means of stalling time but also for a way of eventually coping with time. There seems no other explanation for his describing the condition of Anse's feet and shoes and for his mentioning Tull's habits of dress and Cora's having taught school, all in a single paragraph. Similarly, an attempt at personality transference, rather than clairvoyance, seems the best explanation for Darl's extended narration of Jewel's antics with his horse, especially since the metaphors are so flamboyant and mixed. Whatever animosities exist between Darl and Jewel (and Darl seems both to have exacerbated them more and to be exacerbated more by them because of his desperate state of mind), Jewel has found in his horse a simplistic source of meaning and comfort. Darl eventually admits, though he might have earlier realized, that he cannot recover even vicariously this sort of simplicity. In desperation, he will (and his descriptions of Jewel imply that he has already begun to) exasperate Jewel to achieve at least a correlative to his own exasperation.
Still, the essential futility of this attempt at personality transference is demonstrated in the next narrative, which significantly is Jewel's only narrative. Jewel's perspective, like Cora's, is self-protectively limited and, therefore, humorless. But Jewel, unlike Cora, is not a hypocrite. Whereas Cora's truistic spirituality compels her to appear pleasant to the world and to mask her feelings until she less than anyone can recognize them for what they are, Jewel makes no pretense of liking anyone or anything that intrudes on the small reality he has created around his horse. Worse for Darl, Jewel decidedly does not wish to understand any but that small reality. His response to Addie's death, therefore, never extends beyond thought that is almost purely emotional, that is violent and incoherent, that is at least temporarily satisfying because it dissipates the emotion, if not the cause of the emotion:
Once we recognize the subjunctive mood of Jewel's thought, we might find its incoherence and hyperbole as comic as the speech of any archetypal frontier braggart. But Jewel's outward silence, seething though it is, and the context of his thought make the comic effect on us a correlative to the temporary relief in him. Finally, and somewhat ironically, we might discover that we sympathize more with Jewel's description of the adze's sound--"One lick less. One lick less"--more than with Darl's earlier, and apparently less subjective description--"Chuck. Chuck. Chuck" (5). For Jewel, time will begin to dissipate the effect of Addie's death after she is buried. For Darl, the sound of the adze is comforting because it signals, in a strange way, that Addie is still alive, that his fearful awareness of meaninglessness has not yet become irrevocably proved.
The next narrative, Darl's third, might seem an almost objective report of the conversation on the Bundrens' porch. It is not. Because Darl focuses on Jewel's exasperation, Anse's indecision, and Tull's awkwardness with such snide delight, his voice becomes, in a very calculated way, the most dispassionate. Yet Darl seems to have carefully selected innuendoes and gestures that will least favor Jewel, Anse, and Tull. Jewel is presented as a hyperactive, loudmouthed bully; Anse as a rationalizer ad infinitum, a physically lazy man who has become mentally sluggish; and Tull as a precise spitter whose opinion is worth as much as a spit, however precise. But though he presumes--albeit in a very slick, even imaginative way--to know the thoughts and motives of the others, Darl tries very hard to repress his own thoughts. Indeed, he tries so hard that he seems--understandably--to miss the humor which he himself has generated in his narrative. Darl, in reporting his part of the conversation, cannot conceal entirely that he himself is the instigator of the lumber-haul--that he has merely manipulated Jewel's exasperation, Anse's indecision (and, perhaps, his greed), and Tull's awkwardness to facilitate his putting some distance between himself and his soon-to-be-dead mother. The paragraph which closes this narrative clearly conveys that Darl's approaching meaninglessness--represented in his mother's dying--without any ability to admit it openly even to himself:
Any doubts that Darl has tried to misrepresent the conversation on the Bundrens' porch should be erased by the next narrative, Cora's second. Although Darl's standing at his mother's bedroom door is the only action reported by Cora in this narrative, her lengthy digressions into obviously biased and sanctimonious opinions about the Bundrens echo and, therefore, damage the credibility of Darl's representations of Anse and Jewel in particular. She presents Darl as the loving son who is forced to leave the side of his dying mother, but her efforts to explain why there is such a special bond between Addie and Darl are garbled at best. She claims that Tull agrees with her opinions and implies that he has even fostered some of them, but when she reports part of a conversation with Tull, she clearly (to everyone but herself) has tried to browbeat him into agreement with her (22). Cora needs to feel a sense of moral outrage over the unglorious manner of Addie's dying. Darl, because of his quiet manner and, perhaps, because of the interest shown towards him by Eula, is a convenient figure to justify her outrage, just as the other Bundrens, who obviously have not coddled to Cora's sanctimony, are convenient scapegoats for her implicit fear that her faith will, indeed, not save her from a death like Addie's. Finally, that, to this point in the novel, this is the only narrative given in the past tense seems to indicate that reflection leaves Cora more adamant than enlightened.
Moreover, in the next narrative, Dewey Dell's first, she reports that, in Cora's presence, Darl quite openly admits that he has instigated the lumber-haul to avoid Addie's death--that Jewel, not he, has been forced to leave his dying mother's side. Darl's motives are complex to the point of ambiguity, but this need to be with Jewel does seem very much connected with his earlier attempts at personality-transference. If he cannot face Addie's death and continue to function on the level that Jewel can, then he must inveigle Jewel into his own position of avoidance. Later, it becomes much clearer that he wants Jewel to have to cope, as he can less and less cope, with his despair.
Dewey Dell, already very confused by the awful coincidence of her illegitimate pregnancy and her mother's dying, not only feels isolated from the men in her family but is especially disturbed by Darl's strangely motivated invasion of the secret by which she now, in her inarticulate way, defines her self. Forced by ignorance, fear, and guilt to be self-limited, Dewey Dell tries in her own way to come to terms with her pregnancy, just as Cora tried to come to terms with the reneged purchase of her cakes, and Jewel with his anger. It is just that pregnancy cannot be rationalized like failed ambition or dissipated like anger. Still, like Cora and Jewel, Dewey Dell has become, again in her own way, too self-limited to realize the humor in her attempt to find meaning in an absurd reality:
Yet if we laugh at Dewey Dell's limited perspective, we in effect become like her, mitigating in some measure our awareness of the immediacy of Addie's death.
At this point in the novel, Tull's appearance as a narrator is well-timed. Were we allowed no reliable perspective as our confidence in Darl's begins to erode, we would likely accept Darl as a spokesman for an author reveling in the inarticulate preoccupations of misfits. Tull's reliability prevents such a view.
Tull is reliable because he is neither entirely self-limited nor entirely self-assured. He has a quiet sense of humor, even about himself, that reflects his capacity to perceive absurdities, if only in a careful way. For instance, he is genuinely concerned for Anse, but he has difficulty justifying that concern to himself. He cannot decide whether to pity or to respect Anse, whether to pity or to respect himself for his ambivalence toward Anse. Still, he recognizes that he can sympathize more with Anse than with Addie, though that recognition does not prevent him from trying to understand Addie's perspective:
But like most of us, Tull generally functions without reflecting deeply on his actions; this does not, however, prevent him from sincere, though not always unconstrained, introspection in moments of self-doubt. He has a homespun facility to accept spiritual truisms and to recognize droll ironies with the same deadpan amazement. He can, with little condescension, enjoy the spectacle of Vardaman and his big fish, just as he can hope, with little hypocrisy, that Cash will work as diligently on his barn as he is working on Addie's coffin. Toward the end of his first narrative, Tull might seem an unselective reporter, but, in fact, he has few pretensions about what is or is not important. He is open-minded without being un-opinioned, curious without being distracted, sensitive without being a posturer.
Anse becomes as much an enigma to us as he is to Tull, and it is unsurprising, then, that Anse should become our point of interest between the increasingly disturbing conditions of Addie and Darl. This is not to say that through Anse we come to terms with death, meaninglessness, or even with the disabling effects of perceiving that meaninglessness without the modification of a sense of self. We can, indeed, never even resolve the enigma of Anse himself. If anything, he becomes more enigmatic as the novel progresses. Anse functions, therefore, as a comparatively simple analogy to the darker concerns of the novel. The ending of the novel, as I will demonstrate, seems purposely, if somewhat mischievously, designed to ruin any notions that As I Lay Dying is Anse's novel. For in trying to resolve Anse's position at the end of the novel, one must inevitably consider it in reference to what has happened to Addie and Darl.
The enigma of Anse has been established through almost all of the narratives--but especially in Tull's--preceding his own first narrative. Furthermore, by the end of his narrative Anse reveals that he is an enigma to himself: he feels at peace with himself and with the world at large; yet, he feels accursed because of his humanity and inhuman workings of the world at large. He thinks himself a good, if not a religious, man--insofar as he tries to be honest with himself about himself; yet he recognizes that honesty is often not enough for understanding, although confusion seems preferable to the pretense of understanding exhibited by the likes of Cora. Like Cora, Jewel, and Dewey Dell, Anse tries, however, to make language resolve what he cannot:
But, unlike Cora, Anse not only adapts, but truly experiments with truisms, extending them to fantastically personal terms; and yet, unlike Jewel and Dewey Dell, Anse is not so self-consumed that even his language becomes entirely personal in effect and meaning. While Anse's experience has not made him any less ignorant, one senses that it has given him at least a vague measure of his ignorance. Indeed, like Darl, Anse cannot allay a sense that he has forced a resolution and that an open understanding of broad confusions is eventually dysfunctional. But, unlike Darl, Anse does not have the capacity to follow his thoughts through to a fearful, omnipresent awareness of meaninglessness. The closest he comes is to admit he's tired. This limitation makes him more comic than any of his children, except perhaps Vardaman, and more sympathetic than Cora.
Darl is, in fact, becoming more and more frenetic in his efforts to find something in others to at least forestall his increasing anxiety. In his fourth narrative, he reports himself goading Jewel about Addie's dying as they haul the wagonload of lumber. When Jewel does not respond, Darl resorts to recollecting his goading of Dewey Dell about her pregnancy. But nor did Dewey Dell respond; so Darl resumes his goading of Jewel. Darl's maliciousness is not yet petulant; rather, here it still seems a quite desperate response to an isolation felt so increasingly severely that even a mundane remark would be momentarily sustaining. Darl is, moreover, beginning to lose touch even with what he cannot resolve:
For Darl, language is beginning to lose its functions, except for that of filling time with fantastic distortions.
Whereas Darl's instigation of the lumber-haul is proving a frustrating diversion, Peabody's arrival at the Bundrens' home is a purposely futile gesture at preventing Addie's death. If we accept Tull's perspective as being at least somewhat akin to our own, then we might accept Peabody's as being somewhat akin to the author's. Whereas Tull cannot decide whether to pity or to respect Anse, whether to pity, to respect, or even to dismiss Addie, Peabody cannot decide whether to pity or to respect Addie, whether to despise, to pity, or even to respect Anse. Whereas Tull's sense of humor expresses itself in a sort of deadpan amazement, Peabody's expresses itself in an almost uncurbed sarcasm. The grim possibilities of death eventually upset, though they do not destroy, Tull's faith in life; Peabody's respect for life depends on his faith in death. Peabody carrying the medical bag for which he has no present use parallels Faulkner's publishing this novel. Darl seems, then, a projection of the author stripped of the capacity to complete the book. We laugh with Tull because we can empathize with him; later, we laugh at him because we can still sympathize with him. We laugh simultaneously with and at Peabody because he is, it seems, beyond the need for engaging either empathy or sympathy:
When Darl finally laughs, we must have become more like Peabody than like Tull to appreciate the insight as well as its cost.
It is appropriate that Peabody and Darl should relate the only two versions of Addie's death and that those two versions should be juxtaposed. Each has rationalized a function which provides some necessary distance from the event. Peabody's role as physician, despite how much he is just a bystander here, permits an emotional commitment that stops short of complete empathy, permits a sense of self-sacrifice that stops short of sacrificing self. Peabody accepts that the predictable unpredictability of death confirms life's meaninglessness. Yet that anyone, perhaps most of all himself, should still want to live and, as is his case, even devote his life to sustaining the lives of others perplexes him enough to provide him with a very tenuous and, therefore, tenable sense of self. His sense of humor prevents his perplexity from becoming despair. It provides an emotional distance without an intellectual compromise. He can mimic the cosmic joke and also perceive that his mimicry points as much at himself as outside himself. Peabody can integrate Addie's death into his experience because his is a relatively broad experience appreciated from a broad, thoughtful perspective.
On the other hand, Darl's function of hauling lumber provides emotional distance from Addie's death because it also provides physical distance. In addition, Darl's hauling lumber is a temporary function in a life without a regular function. The distance it provides cannot, therefore, be relied upon. Darl's thoughtful perspective is, moreover, severely constrained by his limited experience. Having no identifiable function, having no sense of self that can be verified both by himself and outside himself, Darl has no secure sense of self and, therefore, no sense of humor about himself. He lacks ultimately the flexibility of a well-rounded self, the capacity to compromise emotionally without compromising intellectually, the capacity to survive by reflex, to function by habit, when emotionally he finds no ready encouragement for doing so. So, when Darl looks to those in his family who do continue to function, he not only perceives their ignorance, their inability to think as he does, but he contradictorily perceives their ignorance as a willful denial of the sense of meaninglessness that is the result of his thought. In his attempts to project himself onto their personalities, he is actually only projecting his perspective onto actions that have no meaning within his perspective but have meaning in theirs. Only when he projects himself into the perspective of his dying mother does he find a condition that fits easily into his own perspective. But Darl also senses the frightful prospects of having to empathize with death.
Peabody's account of Addie's death is a first-hand report related in the present tense. It is as reliable as any account by such a conspicuous narrator can be. As far as we are permitted to know, Peabody has no reason to color what he thinks or witnesses. Darl's account, on the other hand, is clearly a very imaginative projection. The accounts overlap at only one point and then nearly exactly. Darl's relative physical isolation has alleviated some of his sense of emotional isolation. He can almost confront Addie's death as if it were an event in which he has no more of a part than a good storyteller has in his story. This accounts for the self-removed, though very literary tone of much of his account. In this way Darl can, if only very briefly, explore and express a range of emotional responses to his mother's death without intellectually compromising himself, without confronting the implications of his own emotional response.
Of course, Darl is not completely isolated either physically or emotionally; so he has, first, to explain his absence from the scene of his mother's death and, then, to find a way to merge his imaginative projection with his actual situation. He explains his absence very cleverly. He has Dewey Dell say that Addie wants Jewel; the implication is that Jewel, because he was her favorite, is then the more guilty of having deserted Addie at such a time. He, furthermore, has Anse present a rationalization for Jewel's and his being away. It is as much Darl's own rationalization as it might have been Anse's. In addition, Darl's account of Addie's response--
in part seems to imply, especially in the context of Darl's other representations of Anse, that if she is even beyond reproaching Anse, she must also forgive Darl himself. Still, after his imaginative, indeed, purple rendering of the others' grief, Darl, it seems, cannot deny that he does feel some guilt; so he has Anse reproach him and Jewel. Curiously, this reproach occurs immediately before an awareness of his present situation intrudes on his imaginative projection. The effort that his projection has cost him is clearly indicated in the garishly expressionistic quality of his description of Jewel and himself in the rain beside the broken wagon. Yet he still has the capacity to remove himself again from his present situation just before he admits for himself, through harassing Jewel, that Addie is really dead. The second part of his projection focuses on the others' efforts to stall the effect of Addie's death. Even Addie's corpse does not want to give up the aspect of life:
But, as Darl has previously discovered, one cannot stall time indefinitely because even an elaborate preoccupation eventually wears thin. So Darl projects himself into Dewey Dell's apparently more absurd dilemma: she faces the doctor who could do nothing to prevent her mother's death and thinks with confused bitterness that he could--but would not even if he knew--terminate her pregnancy. Of course, this preoccupation also wears thin because Darl realizes that he has only projected himself into another unresolvable absurdity. So he imaginatively projects himself into Anse's grief and arrives at the same confused bitterness that he imagined in Dewey Dell. He is not only bitter that Anse does in reality have the capacity to alleviate his grief with the prospect of getting new teeth; rather, he is also bitter because his sensitivity has deprived him of that capacity, because the sensitive, though clumsy, gestures that he has imagined Anse making are also beyond him. Not surprisingly, Darl begins again to taunt Jewel, who is trying to rescue the wagon without his help. His taunts are more than ever a desperate attempt to diffuse at least the effects of a despair that has become nearly concentrated.
Excepting Darl, Vardaman is the least willing to accept the finality of Addie's death. His young years and restricted experience limit Vardaman's outlook, but, because of those limitations, he has not yet become as self-protectively conditioned to ignorance as most of the adults around him. Vardaman's first narrative juxtaposes nicely with Darl's imaginative confrontation with Addie's death because Vardaman's intellect struggles in a similar, though much more naive, way with the emotional upset caused by that death. Vardaman's intellect merely lacks the breadth to render him dysfunctional. So, not surprisingly, Vardaman in this narrative seems to imitate, though probably not consciously, his older brothers' emotional responses to Addie's death in order to find his own satisfactory response. The comic confusion of tone in the opening paragraphs extends throughout the narrative:
With his child's logic, Vardaman finds he cannot suspend his emotions in reflection, even as briefly as Darl has; so Vardaman tries to spend his emotions in rhetoric, as Jewel has. But just as Vardaman is not so self-diffused as Darl that reflection alone can perpetuate a semblance of sanity, so he is not so self-limited as Jewel that rhetoric alone can dissipate an impulse toward insanity. Vardaman cannot retreat to intellect alone, or to emotion alone. When his child's logic and his attempted communion with Jewel's horse fail him, he attacks Peabody's team and then intimidates the milk cow. We likely find this all quite darkly comic because our even guarded laughter dissipates an emotional empathy that, considering our intellectual superiority to Vardaman, might have unsettling intellectual ramifications. At the close of his first narrative, Vardaman begins imaginatively to correlate Jewel's relationship with his horse to his own relationship with the big fish he has caught. This correlation will become just a more naive parallel to Darl's attempts at personality transference. If, as he cannot, Jewel can compensate for the loss of his mother by his attachment to his horse, Vardaman will simply convince himself that his mother is the fish he has caught and, by extension, any fish with which he can replicate or eradicate the fate of that fish.
In the next narrative, Dewey Dell's second, she exhibits a confused bitterness fairly close to that which Darl has imagined her feeling. Like Vardaman in his preceding narrative, she tries to correlate the circumstances which have produced this bitterness to the fish which is now a tub full of guts (opening paragraph, 56). This correlation, however, succeeds only in expressing, not in resolving, her bitterness. Unlike Vardaman, she has nothing to do with the fish except to cook it. She senses that all of her domestic functions, including that of carrying Lafe's child, are equally limited and limiting, that they are part of a routine that has been pre-ordained and, yet, not rightly so of late. At the end of the narrative, she senses an affinity with the milk-burdened cow, a reflection which brings her to a vociferously poetic conclusion:
Later it will become clearer that Dewey Dell's insight moves her not to attempt to achieve a fuller sense of self but rather to retrieve her unconfused self by attempting to abort Lafe's child. She does not blame previous ignorance for her present sense of isolation; rather, she associates it nostalgically with her previous sense of belonging.
While Dewey Dell will eventually compensate for the horrors of her mother's burial journey with the prospect of getting an abortion, she cannot find a similar compensation for Vardaman. In his second narrative, his child's logic ironically allows him to see through facile attempts to divert his attention from or to explain to him what has happened to his mother and what is happening to her corpse:
Again, our intellectual distance from Vardaman prevents complete emotional empathy and transforms his horrified concern into a confusion which likely strikes us as darkly comic. Indeed, as Vardaman and Darl become more and more apparently similar in the persistence of their attempted repudiations of Addie's death, we are likely to laugh more and more at Vardaman to compensate both for our increasing sense of the horrors which Darl perceives and for our increasing unwillingness to accept their effect on Darl.
Especially after the four previous narratives, we do, however, wish to empathize with Tull--that is, to empathize with a viewpoint that allows for some reflective distance. Accordingly, Tull's second narrative is related in the past tense; indeed, to this point, it is the only narrative besides Cora's second narrative to be related in the past tense. But, whereas reflection seems to have left Cora only more self-protectively adamant, it seems to have broadened Tull's awareness of uncertainty both within and outside himself. Tull's reflection is provoked, moreover, much as our own has been provoked by Vardaman's bewildered frame of mind and his bewildering behavior:
Tull, implicitly here, has come to question his reliance on steadying but inflexible beliefs, represented in Cora. Still, he recognizes that such reliance has saved him from Darl's predicament:
So Tull, for all his nagging doubt--
--finally reconciles himself in this narrative, though not without some bitterness, to a comparatively safe acceptance of programmed sanity:
Our willingness to empathize with Tull's motives, if not with his position, should, therefore, make us at least sympathize with Darl's failure to function within his less reinforced perspective. Tull merely accepts alternatives that Darl cannot find. And yet, unlike the other Bundrens, Tull has a capacity for awareness that he prefers not to exercise fully in accepting those alternatives.
The next narrative, Darl's sixth, does, indeed, also seem designed to increase our capacity to sympathize with Darl. Again, he imaginatively projects himself back to his home. He and Jewel have apparently exhausted their frustrations enough so that they can lie quietly together under the broken wagon. Through most of the narrative, Darl imagines how Cash and Anse are finishing Addie's coffin. The slight, comic tension between Cash's competence and Anse's incompetence is delightfully balanced and seems to reflect Darl's hope that Addie will have been buried before he returns home, his hope that he might yet find a way to live with his despair with a semblance of sanity. But the fragility of this hope is very poignantly underscored in the last paragraphs of the narrative, when Darl turns from his imagination to a consideration of the frame of mind and outside circumstances that made such imagination so necessary:
Darl has not found a way to cope with the implications of Addie's death, but, rather, he now hopes that his avoiding any direct exposure to her death will have left him not much worse off than he was when she was still dying.
Cash's accident has given him a capacity for simple-minded concentration that makes him a clear opposite to Darl. While he possesses the fine skills of an experienced, i.e., adult, craftsman, he has the emotional complexity of a lobotomized child. (Tull's later comment that Cash was lucky to have broken only his leg in the fall from the scaffold is the only evidence that Cash did not fall on his head as well, and that comment is suspect because Tull addresses it to Cash.) Cash's first narrative appropriately occurs after he has finished the coffin, which he has presented board by board to Addie as if for customer-approval. His first narrative is also appropriately begun in the past tense: having completed the job, he is simply reviewing it to satisfy himself that he did it right, especially since she can no longer assure him that she is satisfied.
Cash's first narrative is juxtaposed with Vardaman's third--"My mother is a fish"--to emphasize the childlike quality of Cash's concentration and also to show that Vardaman, for all his bizarre precocity, is still very much a child. Still, Vardaman's previous and later narratives demonstrate an emotional and even intellectual capacity that is now beyond Cash.
Whereas the preceding narratives of Cash and Vardaman are simple-mindedly comic because they are so single-minded, Tull's third narrative is as confused in tone as it is disjointed in focus. Even the verb tense in which the narrative is related shifts erratically between past and present. Despite his decision to accept the programmed sanity represented in Cora's adamant faith, Tull finds the macabre and ominous circumstances surrounding Addie's funeral service too pervasive not to be unsettling. His uneasiness is exacerbated by his physical separation from Cora through most of the narrative. Tull wants to believe in the efficacy of rote religious faith, but when Vardaman has augured Addie's coffin and face full of holes, it is Cash, who has no spiritual leanings or yearnings, who meticulously repairs the damage. And, like the other men, Tull feels awkwardly apart from the women's rapt exercises in spirituality:
Whatever comfort Anse finds is merely momentary and reverie. Tull senses that, for himself, any further involvement, even in Anse's behalf, will require a continuing confrontation with his own spiritual uncertainty. His comment--
--represents a brief attempt to deny his neighborly commitment to Anse. Yet, Tull inevitably recognizes that such a denial is untenable for him, the more so because it contradicts even Cora's Christianity. So, in a sort of compromise gesture, he offers Anse the use of his team and wagon, an offer that Anse exasperatingly refuses. Tull is not to be given the chance to avoid in good conscience his commitment to Anse. As a marked sign of his desperation for a reprieve, he even offers to take Vardaman home with himself and Cora. After Vardaman's refusal, Cora's singing--
--must seem almost a mockery of the shaping course of his involvement with Anse.
Tull's sense of foreboding is echoed and exceeded by Darl's sense of doom, very marked now in his short seventh narrative. As Darl and Jewel approach the house, Darl notices the circling vultures. Darl's sarcasm--
--elicits a predictably angry response from Jewel--
Jewel is too self-limited, indeed too ignorant, to see the despair which undercuts Darl's sarcasm. Darl, on the other hand, with nothing to sustain even a sarcastic stance, is reduced to echoing Jewel's anger--
In his second narrative, even Cash shows the strain of circumstances. Having single-handedly built the coffin to perfect balance, he is now forced, in loading the coffin on the wagon, to work with his brothers, who, in more ways than he could ever perceive, have no sense of balance.
In the next narrative, Darl relates the loading of the coffin in more detail than the preoccupied Cash is capable of noticing. But, whereas in his previous narrative Darl was reduced to actually echoing Jewel's anger, he is here, as are Anse and Cash, so overwhelmed by Jewel's anger that he is reduced to merely relating it.
After Jewel has loaded the coffin onto the wagon, it is appropriate that Vardaman should relate the family's subsequent behavior. While he still insists that his mother is a fish, Vardaman's attention in his fourth narrative is somewhat distracted by the childishly appraised, unintelligibly exciting prospect of the journey. This excitement derives from the convergence of Jewel's concern for his horse, Darl's entrapment in his despair, Cash's planning ahead to his work, Dewey Dell's secret preparations to secure her abortion, and Anse's vague sense of moral outrage at his children's preoccupations; at the same time, it provides Vardaman with an analogous distance from the gruesome reality of the journey. Perhaps, the most poignant part of this narrative is Vardaman's report of his conversation with Darl:
If there is any sense of accommodation here, it seems, rather pathetically, that Vardaman is accommodating Darl, as much as vice-versa.
Roughly half of Darl's ninth narrative is a fairly scant and objective report; it echoes in tone, if not in detail, his eighth narrative (91-93). The rest of his ninth narrative, a consideration of Dewey Dell's condition, echoes in its diction the last paragraphs of his sixth narrative (76):
Darl no longer has hope for his self, and, in the abortion-seeking Dewey Dell, he finds a self that without understanding unites the polarities of hope and despair, faith and chance, life and death, which have wrecked him. In Dewey Dell, he finds cause and effect muddled in a confusion through which ignorance alone can sustain meaning; "that lever which moves the world" has become, for Darl, the released brake of the wagon moving toward a grave, toward an asylum.
Anse, in his second narrative, explores his exasperation with his family, but he cannot unravel exactly the reasons for his exasperation. Of course, he just expects appropriate behavior, an adherence to the forms of sanity. He is especially exasperated by Darl's laughter because he has not yet classified Darl as insane; he is, on the other hand, convinced of the sanity of his purpose, in part because convention permits him to continue to regard Addie's corpse as a living presence.
Darl (as he undiscriminatingly relates in his tenth narrative) is, indeed, showing more overt signs of his insanity. The sign to New Hope does not point for him, as it figuratively points for Cash and Dewey Dell, to hope or despair; rather, the sign seems to Darl to stand as a mockery of their ignorance of meaninglessness, as a mockery of conventional distinctions between sanity and insanity. So Darl has begun to merge normal measures of time and space, but, worse, he has begun to disregard ethical distinctions, even those of blood--he tries to incite Cash against Jewel and takes a perverse satisfaction from Jewel's horse clopping mud onto the coffin:
It is, significantly, Anse, nor Darl, who (in his third narrative) reports the rise of the river and the destruction of the bridge. After our exposure to Darl's insanity, we are likely to understand even Anse's ????? to this catastrophe as at least an attempt to maintain sanity:
But it's a long wait, seems like. It's bad that a fellow must earn the reward of his right-doing by flouting hisself and his dead . . . I am the chosen of the Lord, for who He loveth, so doeth He chastiseth. But I be durn if He dont take some curious ways to show it, seems like.
Naturally, Anse never recognizes that this is all very comic because, for all his Job-like posture, he never sweats and because he has no awareness of the hypocrisy implicit in his thinking about new teeth while decrying his children's distracted behavior. Indeed, that this is Anse's last narrative seems to indicate that he has no more to reveal of himself than that vague process that has led him to take comfort in, to reconcile himself to, new teeth.
When the Bundrens reach Samson's farm, Samson himself narrates the events of their stay. As Tull's part in the action is coming to a close, it is necessary that others fill his narrative function. Samson is the first of several narrators who, especially at first, resemble Tull almost to duplication, except for Tull's greater intimacy with the Bundrens. Significantly, as the narrators' intimacy with the Bundrens becomes less and less a factor in their response to the Bundrens, the narrators more and more become storytellers for whom the telling becomes more important than the story. So, eventually, our choice in perspective is not between Peabody and Tull, but between Peabody and MacGowan, who only in his place in the narrative pattern resembles Tull.
Samson, however, is still very much like Tull in circumstance and personality, and we respond to him much as we respond to Tull, shifting between empathy and sympathy. We laugh both with him and at him as he tries to accommodate the Bundrens, almost in spite of themselves and in spite of his own good sense, as he tries to align his behavior with his wife's beliefs and finds a gap in understanding inexplicably widening between them. In comparison, the differences between Samson and Tull seem almost underplayed. First, Samson frames his narrative with a very tangential concern--MacCallum's first name, and MacCallum is, significantly, one of those to whom he is likely to tell at least a version of this narrative. Second, Samson does not find it so difficult as Tull does to extricate himself from the Bundrens' affairs. After one night with them, he avoids them. Third, whereas Tull gets the creeps from Vardaman, an experience which draws him into the vortex of a confusion that seems to emanate from, but to extend beyond, the Bundrens, Samson gets the creeps from a vulture that lags behind the Bundrens after they have left his barn. Finally, whereas Tull has some awareness of Darl's problem, Samson refers to him only once as "the second one, the one folks talks about" (107).
In her fourth narrative, Dewey Dell demonstrates, as they pass again the sign to New Hope, how precariously her sanity now hinges on the prospect of her getting an abortion. That prospect, as she consciously admits, allows her a distance from her mother's death that otherwise only time will provide:
She also has to rid herself of the guilt which Darl arouses in her, for she is fearful that that guilt will become manifest in her inability to get an abortion and also occasion a continuation of his unlucky hold on her. So, much as Vardaman has convinced himself that his mother is a fish in order to keep her alive, Dewey Dell convinces herself that she killed Darl as she gutted the fish for cooking. Finally, and somewhat ironically, as Dewey Dell feels most distanced from Darl, she recalls her first menstruation in much the same terms as he has recalled his first masturbation. And one senses that that experience, if only in retrospect and in conjunction with her failure to get an abortion, might disable her as his own experience has disabled Darl. But, ultimately, time and the presence of the new Mrs. Bundren will screen Dewey Dell from her despair.
When the Bundrens pass his property and stop at the end of the levee before the washed-out bridge, Tull feels compelled to join them out of a mixed sense of neighborly duty and dark curiosity. It is hardly surprising that the result is as comic as it is. Tull, of course, has nothing to offer the Bundrens except generally unwanted advice and the use of his mule. And, although he seems adamant about not lending his mule for such a doomed enterprise as fording the rising river, we should sense, perhaps even before Tull himself realizes, that he must ultimately risk the mule for the sake of a good conscience. In an almost instinctive way, Dewey Dell and Jewel especially manipulate his confused guilt. He says of Dewey Dell:
At the same time, Cash is, in his simple-minded way, considering the crossing as if he were an authority on such matters, as if any predicament could be resolved like planing an ill-fitted board. In contrast to the hotheadedness of Jewel and Dewey Dell, however, Cash's simple-mindedness naturally must seem like level-headedness to Tull. Moreover, Anse is so persistent in his wistful helplessness that Tull cannot for long suspect him, as he initially does, of perversity. So Tull will eventually concede his mule, but not without briefly measuring Darl as a scapegoat for his exasperation with himself and the other Bundrens:
Darl's eleventh narrative is one of his most apparently lucid, and, I think, the only Bundren narrative with an essentially anecdotal form. He relates how, to the great concern and sometimes the great amusement of members of his family, Jewel worked secretly at night to purchase his horse. It is, indeed, a marvelous anecdote, in part because for once the Bundrens are presented in relatively normal circumstances when their oddities of character seem more colorful than bizarre. Still, this narrative so suddenly has the markings of lucidity that it stands as only another example of Darl's insanity. It is only very tangentially coherent with its context. Darl might have taken any one of a number of other opportunities to expound in this way on Jewel's secrecy, stubbornness, or volatility. In fact, the narrative raises more questions than it resolves, and not only about Jewel. For instance, if the point of the anecdote is that Darl discovered Jewel's illegitimacy just as he later discovered Dewey Dell's pregnancy, or if the point is that Darl discovered a capacity for deceit in his mother just as he later discovered that capacity in Dewey Dell, then, in either case, what is the point of rehashing it now? I suggest that if Darl knew, he would not be on his eventual way to the asylum.
In his fifth narrative, Tull, who can distinguish enough between sanity and insanity to know when he is acting, if not thinking, insanely, reports the beginning of the river crossing. Under these dangerous circumstances, separated as he is from Cora, Tull more than ever feels a bond with Anse. This is rather obviously implicit in the similarities in his descriptions of Anse and, then, of himself making the crossing:
Indeed, the experience has a powerful enough effect on Tull that he uncharacteristically starts even to think like Anse:
Furthermore, if only momentarily and very much in spite of himself, Tull almost agrees that sometimes it is worth taking risks "just to eat a sack of bananas" (133).
After Anse, Tull, Vardaman, and Dewey Dell have crossed the washed-out bridge, Cash and Darl on the mule-pulled wagon and Jewel on his horse move downstream to the fording place. Darl, Vardaman, and Tull each present versions of this crossing. Significantly, Darl's version is the first and the most apparently coherent, even despite its "literary," descriptive excess. Indeed, if we had only Darl's report of his dialogue with Cash and Jewel and a bare-bones account of the action, we might, as Tull reports of Cora, admire Darl for his seemingly distinctive sanity on this stressful occasion. Yet, all our previous exposure to Darl should lead us to expect the opposite behavior from him if he were, indeed, even still clinging to sanity. But, because Darl is now insane, he is capable of acting very sanely under a circumstance that severely tests a man as sane as Tull. For all his acute, metaphoric sensitivity to his surroundings and to the events of the crossing, Darl manages to convey that he is not, as he is, a central actor, that he is almost an onlooker caught up in the periphery of the event. In his sixth narrative, when in a tentatively sane state he imaginatively projected the scene of Addie's death, Darl lapsed into an acute, even distorted, sensitivity to his actual surroundings (48) and, then, harassed Jewel almost unmercifully (51) because he could hardly sustain the psychological effort that sanity required and could hardly constrain the effects of that effort. Here, Darl can act in an apparently sane way because he is no longer expending any great effort to remain sane; his mind can indulge his senses without restraint because his physical experience has less and less correspondence with his psychological experience. Darl is, consequently, becoming unpredictable, and predictability is essentially at least the legal measure of sanity in this insane world.
Vardaman's version of the crossing, his fifth narrative, is comic in effect because it captures the event with seemingly mindless spontaneity, because it seems a purely emotional, unintellectually shaped tour de force--as even an excerpt will demonstrate:
In fact, however, the narrative is dramatically shaped by a tension in Vardaman's mind (whereas tension is lacking in Darl's mind and narrative): his confusion of the danger of Addie's coffin being swept away down the river and of his persistent conviction that his mother is a fish which can be caught. Our appreciation of the former and its likely effect on Vardaman prevents the narrative from being only slapstick, while our appreciation of the latter and the distance it creates between us and Vardaman prevents the narrative from being only macabrely melodramatic. This balance is no more evident than in the last paragraph:
Tull's version of the crossing is almost as comic as Vardaman's account, but Tull, in recounting the experiences, achieves a slight, reflective distance that Vardaman is incapable of achieving. Tull's narrative is, therefore, that much less immediate and its effect that much less comic. His narrative opens with a fragment of an uncharacteristically heated argument with Cora, which occurred after he returned home. Having failed, however, to justify his involvement to Cora, he feels at the least he must justify it to himself--this is the purpose which underlies the rest of his narrative; but even his blaming Anse at the time of the crossing seems hysterical in retrospect. So, Tull's narrative ends--"We watched it" (148)--signifying how he will likely never attempt to further integrate this experience with the Bundrens into his general experience. With time, one suspects, Tull will probably begin again to rely easefully on Cora's faith, on Cora's truisms screening him from thoughts he might otherwise find irrepressible. This is, after all, Tull's final narrative.
Still, the juxtaposition of Tull's final narrative and Darl's thirteenth narrative differentiates Tull's tested sanity from Darl's only apparent sanity. Darl's narrative opens with a description of Cash's wasted condition, a description so meticulously detailed that its impact is leveled as much as if Cash himself were arranging the words. Dewey Dell's using the hem of her dress to wipe the vomit from Cash's mouth, as a detail, contrasts strikingly, then, with the rest of the opening paragraph. Most of the rest of the narrative concerns the salvaging of Cash's tools from the river. In form and tone, this account resembles Darl's anecdotal eleventh narrative. But, whereas that narrative was hardly at all coherent with its context, this narrative violates its context only in tone. Finally, the narrative closes inconsistently with the sort of metaphoric excess that marked much of Darl's previous narrative:
In contrast, Cash's third narrative is almost ludicrously predictable:
Even in between faints, Cash's thoughts are limited to his incompleted job.
Cora's third and final narrative is very noticeably disconnected from the continuing story of the Bundrens' journey to Jefferson. It is, however, appropriately the first in a sequence of three such disconnected narratives, and its juxtaposition with Cash's third narrative is also effective. Whereas Cash's concentration on his work is ludicrously simple-minded, Cora's religious faith is hardly less ludicrously narrow-minded. Whereas Cash cannot think beyond the concrete particulars of the job at hand, Cora cannot think beyond the abstract generalities of her faith. Consequently, neither has much understanding of the changes in perspective, the modifications of attitude, that experience can effect on a thoughtful mind. Cora's final narrative is appropriately disconnected, then, because her truisms can be made applicable to any circumstances, though seldom credibly to anyone who would question their application. However well-intentioned she might be, Cora's mind is only tangentially connected to the world beyond her home. For instance, Cora never senses the extent of Addie's involvement with Whitfield and, therefore, never realizes the irony in her counselling Addie to seek Whitfield's guidance. Still, it is important that we receive this last exposure to Cora because it reminds us that Darl is not merely lacking in the will to remain sane; for Cora willfully imposes sanity on herself, but at the cost of any free, individual expression.
If Cora's final narrative is meaningful only to herself because her mind is only tangentially connected to the world beyond her home, then Addie's only narrative is almost entirely meaningless because she is dead. Ironically, Addie herself states that words are meaningless, that the only meaning is in action, and, of course, she has no capacity whatsoever to act. So the only part of Addie's narrative that has meaning is the blank space in the middle of page 165, and that represents the meaninglessness of meaning. Addie's narrative seems ultimately important because it mirrors the extremity of Darl's psychological crisis, which occurs because he too lacks a regular physical function, the sort of capacity to act which can provide a tenuous, but tenable sense of meaning within an awareness of meaninglessness.
Whitfield's only narrative is the last in the sequence of disconnected narratives because, quite simply, Whitfield is a conscious hypocrite, a pretender to meaning. Whereas Cora refuses to recognize consciously the limitations of her faith, Whitfield rationalizes a very conscious awareness of the limitations of his faith. His function as minister is a mask--one which he has grown accustomed to wearing, but a mask just the same. Darl's failure to find a function, therefore, should seem, then, more admirable in motive, if not in effect, than Whitfield's posturing.
Except for his anecdotal twelfth narrative, Darl's fifteenth narrative is the first of his narratives told almost entirely in the past tense. Since Darl himself leads us to believe that Jewel walked away from him toward the barn, the shift to the present tense in the last paragraph of the narrative (174) does not likely indicate that Darl is speaking from that point in time, for in the present tense, Darl does not once mention himself, but rather, only Jewel and his horse. Although most of what Darl reports seems chronologically coherent with the narratives which follow, it is a matter of conjecture about when he is relating the narrative. So, in a qualified sense, Darl's narrative is disconnected like the preceding three narratives. Of course, the narratives of Peabody, Samson, Armstid, Moseley, and MacGowan are all related in the past tense from an ambiguous present, but, since the narrators have no continuing part in the action, what they tell is more significant than when they are telling it. And I have already discussed the various reasons for Cora and Tull narrating sometimes in the past tense. Yet, of the Bundrens, all of whom have a continuing part in the action, only Darl and Vardaman shift tenses in their narratives. Dewey Dell, Anse, and Jewel always narrate in the present tense, and Cash always in the past tense. And, unlike Darl, Vardaman is consistently inconsistent in the tense in which he narrates. This seems a function of both his age and emotional strain. Darl, however, has narrated consistently in the present tense until his anecdotal twelfth narrative. Then, in his thirteenth narrative, for no apparent reason, he shifts once from the present to the past tense, a shift that like the opposite shift in this narrative is marked by italics. Of course, in this narrative, all references to Jewel and his horse, except a remark to Cash, are also italicized. There are only two previous instances of other italics in Darl's narratives. At the end of his seventh narrative (76), various forms of the verb-to-be are italicized as Darl considers his place in time. And, in his sixth narrative, italics appear, first, when his actuality intrudes on his imagination (48) and, second, when he fails in his efforts to merge his imagination with his actuality (50-51). So, in this, his fifteenth narrative, Darl's shifts in verb tense seem to indicate that he is losing his place in time, and the italics that he is, consequently, losing his ability to differentiate between his actuality and his imagination. His usual relationships with Jewel and Cash are, moreover, becoming exaggerated, in part by circumstances that seem to trigger Darl's manic behavior. He is becoming incredibly sympathetic to Cash after he has broken his leg and will become incredibly malicious toward Jewel after he has lost his horse. This, logically, cannot be attributed to the effect of either event on the course of the journey or the disposition of Addie's remains. Finally, if one is to conjecture at all, one might suspect, because of the focus on Jewel and his horse, that Darl's fifteenth narrative is being related after Jewel has lost the horse.
Like Tull and Samson, Armstid reacts with deadpan amazement to much of his experience with the Bundrens. He also has trouble accommodating them and trouble understanding and being understood by his wife. But in Armstid's narrative, these troubles and, indeed, even the effects on him of Addie's remains (which are now in a much worse condition than they were then) are comparatively underplayed. Armstid is most concerned with the progress of Anse's bargaining for another team of mules and with the effect of that bargaining (and not Addie's remains) on Anse's children. Appropriately, Armstid concludes his narrative admiring Anse for his ability to bargain, without questioning any longer the enterprise which necessitated the bargaining.
Just as in his fourth narrative Vardaman narrated the departure from the Bundren farm, so in his sixth narrative he narrates the departure from the Armstid farm. In both instances, he reports tensions which he can hardly understand. Basically, he is still trying to integrate new experiences with his conviction that his mother is a fish. Here, these new experiences include the vultures' increasing presence, Jewel's departure with his horse, and Cash's broken leg. Importantly, Vardaman reports Darl's care of Cash and also his goading of Dewey Dell again, not that Jewel is absent.
Whereas Samson's narrative follows Darl's somewhat disconnected fifteenth narrative and, therefore, is itself important in re-establishing the continuity of the Bundrens' journey after the sequence of the three very disconnected narratives, there is a noticeable day's gap between Vardaman's and Moseley's narratives. Likewise, while Moseley narrates in much the same deadpan, folksy style characteristic of Tull, Samson, and Armstid, he is the first narrator in the pattern who regards the Bundrens as outsiders. Indeed, only Moseley's basic decency compensates in part for the self-righteous condescension he shows, particularly toward Dewey Dell. Finally, Moseley is the first narrator in the pattern with no first-hand exposure to the Bundren family at large or to their cargo. Most of his narrative concerns his experience with Dewey Dell in the drugstore; the end of the narrative is a second-hand, broader account of the Bundrens' abbreviated visit to Mottson. This account is very funny, but in an almost slick, comedic way--the ending is almost a punchline:
It's the kind of joke that almost anyone could tell, a punchline that could be attached to any number of other humorous anecdotes.
Moseley's narrative is followed by a climactic sequence of seven narratives--four narrated by Darl and three by Vardaman. In his sixteenth narrative, Darl very straightforwardly reports the setting of Cash's leg in cement. His solicitous care of Cash has given him, it seems, a tremendous sense of concentrated purpose. He overtly takes the initiative for the first time in the novel--for instance, he sends Dewey Dell for a can and water. Still, Darl has such a concentration of purpose that he doesn't once question the sanity of setting the leg in cement; he only realizes that Cash is little more comfortable with his leg in cement. He is, consequently, exasperated with his lack of results:
At this point (at the end of the narrative), Darl reports Jewel's return:
The joke on Jewel would seem merely slick, like the conclusion of Moseley's narrative, except for Darl's obviously malicious delight.
For almost the next three narratives, we have no clear sense of time or place. Vardaman's exacerbated childish confusion is juxtaposed with Darl's unconstrained insanity. In his seventh narrative, Vardaman tries to sort out, to particularize, his confusions:
Vardaman can define elements of his experience, but he cannot at all integrate them. He finally submits to his confusion:
Darl has much the same problem in his seventeenth narrative. His goading of Jewel has gotten quite beyond his control; not even his caring for Cash can restore his mind to more than a momentary semblance of coherence. The narrative has at least seven shifts in verb tense. Moreover, early in his narrative, Darl mentions taking Vardaman to the coffin to listen to Addie decomposing, and, lest the insanity of this is lost on us, Vardaman spends roughly half of his eighth narrative relating the experience:
Very clearly, what is pathetically comic in the child is only very grotesquely comic in the adult. Only Darl's concern for Cash finally pulls him away. At the end of this narrative, Vardaman begins to talk more about the train in the store-window in Jefferson to compensate for the secret he cannot tell--Darl's have only confused him, so he is beginning to turn more readily to Dewey Dell; still, he inadvertently lets slip enough information that the time and place of the action are again rather clearly established.
As Vardaman's narrative suggests, Darl, who has not mentioned God previously, suddenly believes he is the hand of God and sets fire to Gillespie's barn. Anyone who suggests that this is a legally insane but morally sane act should consider that the Bundrens are hardly a day's travel from Jefferson. It is also, at the least, ambiguous whether Darl has any concern for Jewel when he tries to prevent his rescuing the coffin: after the fire has died out, Darl lies on the coffin and does not see to Jewel's condition. Finally, Darl's narrative has a consistently inconsistent tone, the implications of which extend beyond his affective proximity to the fire. His madness is evident in his metaphors-- The front, the conical facade with the square orifice of doorway broken only by the square squat shape of the coffin on the sawhorses like a cubistic bug, comes into relief. (208-09)
--and his aside--
Finally, Darl's making much of Jewel's angry glances at him is important because he seems not to recollect the focus or the impact of that anger in his next narrative.
After Darl's quite maniacal account of his arson, Vardaman, in his ninth narrative, reports the further aftermath. As if the fire were not trauma enough for one night, they have coincidentally decided to remove the cement from Cash's leg--a process more gruesome than successful. Ominously, Anse blames Darl for Cash's aggravated condition. At the same time, Vardaman reports the treatment of Jewel's burns and connects by color those burns with Cash's gangrenous leg. Vardaman does not, however, connect the explicit and implicit blame building against Darl. Indeed, Vardaman does not even connect his "secret" with Darl's sleeping on the rescued coffin; he thinks that Darl is guarding against the return of the cat. Vardaman, while hardly a stupid child, has become stupefied to a great extent by his variously awful, recent experience. He returns more and more to thinking about the train--less now, it seems, to compensate consciously for his "secret" or his experience (less now to resolve by self-delusion--as with his conviction that Addie was a fish), but more simply as a reflexive attempt to distract himself. If Vardaman were not a child, his successive responses to his experience would, indeed, ominously echo Darl's.
On the other hand, Darl demonstrates in his nineteenth narrative that he has lost much continuity with his own immediate past, that he has lost, or at least suppressed, an awareness of the repercussions sure to follow his arson. Indeed, like Vardaman at the departures from the Bundren and the Armstid farms, Darl here reports tensions that he does not fully understand, but in this case his own behavior is at the center of many of the tensions, whereas Vardaman's behavior seldom was. For instance, looking at Jewel's back makes Darl suddenly philosophic about their journey, but in a curiously distracted way, as if suddenly he was more a commentator than a participant, as if suddenly he was only in mind a fellow-traveller:
Yet, even though Darl is very untenably adrift in his present, he does respond reflexively to Cash's shout and interferes in the quarrel between Jewel and the man with the knife. It is important to note that Cash prompts this interference, for that offers the only, even remotely sane explanation for Darl's very sudden shift in loyalty to Jewel. There is, however, a sort of precedent for Darl's exaggerated affection for Cash cancelling his exaggerated hostility toward Jewel. In his fifteenth narrative, his only unitalicized mention of Jewel or his horse occurs in reference to Cash's condition:
Still, Darl's parting challenge to the man with the knife--" ’Do you think he's afraid to call you that?’ " (220)--is a crazy impulse that only an adolescent mentality would perceive as sane. And finally, Darl does not realize that his telling Jewel to "Shut up" (221), more even than his interference, is sure to infuriate Jewel, nor does he realize that Jewel is merely biding his time for revenge. His last description of Jewel seems more quizzical than his other, similar descriptions:
Since Darl's exaggerated care of Cash represented his last slender connection to sanity and actuality, it is ironically appropriate that Cash, in his fourth narrative, should relate so dispassionately Darl's removal to the asylum. With a blank self-satisfaction, Cash relates how, with an unnecessary, almost masochistic sense of purpose, he, first, saw the job of burying Addie through to its completion. He, then, has come to view Darl's removal to the asylum as a somewhat botched job, the effect of which he himself likens to the effect of poor carpentry (224--top paragraph). It is, again, a mistake to interpret (as Tull once did) Cash's simple-mindedness as level-headedness. He has absolutely no understanding of the psychological complexities involved (on Darl's part) in his relationship with Darl, or in Jewel's and Dewey Dell's relationships with Darl. Whereas in his first narrative he reviewed his work on Addie's coffin to assure his sense of satisfaction, he here reviews Darl's removal to the asylum to remove at least somewhat his sense of dissatisfaction. The word "balance" (223) appears again to characterize the purpose and effect of his review. The end result is that Cash can less understand the psychological horrors represented in Darl's sense of betrayal, in his laughing at the even personal meaninglessness of his care of Cash, than he can understand the practical horror of one man's destroying the work of another. The final paragraph of Cash's narrative--
--shows that Cash, in balancing "horror" and "astonishment," has, in fact, canceled out their effects and succeeded in proving only his lack of any capacity for complex emotional involvements.
Indeed, in his second narrative, Peabody sarcastically tries to penetrate Cash's simple-minded imperviousness, but manages only to turn the joke on himself as well:
Peabody's situation parallels that of the author: having perceived meaninglessness through the filter of a regular function, he still cannot penetrate ignorance of meaninglessness or even feel entirely superior to that ignorance. Only their functions have served Peabody and Faulkner from Darl's fate, while the ignorant continue to function with no real sense of what their experience holds. So, just as the conclusion of Peabody's narrative demonstrates his awareness that he has turned the joke on himself, so Faulkner demonstrates the same awareness in closing the novel as he does.
MacGowan's narrative, therefore, seems merely a pointedly distasteful contrast to Peabody's and Faulkner's position. MacGowan demonstrates no awareness that his manipulation of Dewey Dell's ignorance is as well an indication of his own mean ludicrosity. And Vardaman's final narrative, in which he poignantly wanders and wonders through Jefferson and his confusion, seems intended to remind us of the wider context of MacGowan's smug, self-interested narrative and to combat any tendency we might feel to laugh with MacGowan and not at him.
Still, Vardaman's ultimate capacity to find satisfaction in bananas and especially his comment--"Jackson is farther away than crazy"--finally and very comically differentiate his childish confusion from Darl's insanity. That insanity is undeniably demonstrated in Darl's last narrative. He has lost all sense of his place in time, all sense of self. He has begun to speak of himself in the third person. He has become the pathetic personification of all the meaninglessness he has perceived, and, yet, he has been isolated to protect a meaningless sense of meaning that includes even his ignorant family.
Indeed, Dewey Dell's last narrative, in which she reports Anse taking the abortion money to buy his new teeth, shows how Addie's corpse, even when buried, can be maintained, in effect, as a living presence. For Anse finally secures the money by implying Addie's approval of his demand. At the same time, however, Darl can be locked away and essentially forgotten. So, if, like Cash in his concluding narrative, we can find a sense of balance in new teeth, bananas, a graphophone, and a new Mrs. Bundren, we only, I think, prove ourselves as simple-minded as Cash. Rather, we should laugh, as Peabody would and as, I think, Faulkner did, with sarcastic amazement at this whole business of life.