(The following is a condensation of the article "The Individual and the Family: Faulkner's As I Lay Dying," by James L. Roberts, which appeared in The Arizona Quarterly 16.1 (Spring 1960): 26-38, and is reprinted with permission.)
One key to a basic interpretation [of As I Lay Dying] lies in the relationship between the psychological motives for the journey to Jefferson and the attitude of the Bundrens toward Darl. The first problem is concerned not merely with the fulfillment of the promise made to dying Addie, but with both the reasons why Addie demands this promise and the reasons why her family defy fire and water to fulfill it.
Addie had always seen herself as being completely alone in the world. She sensed that her own father did not love her. Thus when he died, she had no kin left. When Anse came along, she was glad to escape from the loneliness of teaching school. She dismisses her courtship with the curt words: "So I took Anse." Faulkner mentions no love or emotional understanding, just an acceptance and maybe not even an acceptance but a conditioning for death. For Addie all living had to be some type of preparation for death. She had felt alone so much during her life that her great desire was to make other people aware of her presence. And she felt that only through violence could she achieve her aims. She also felt that words are useless, and she soon comes to realize that Anse (and later preacher Whitfield) are just words.
Thus Addie built her life around violence. But she had failed to make her presence felt by other people. She finally came to the full realization that during her life she had also been only words; after death, she was determined that it should be otherwise. Consequently, feeling that she would attain reality only when she imposed herself upon the consciousness of others, she made them promise to carry her to Jefferson, forty miles away, to bury her.
The first problem of this novel is to understand why Addie makes Anse promise to carry her back to Jefferson. We discover early in the novel that she bore no love for her own family and, eventually, even hated her own father when she discovered the need for violence in order to achieve awareness. Thus we must assume that Addie made one more desperate effort to force an awareness of herself on her family. This difficult and arduous journey was to be her revenge on Anse, who had been only words, who had failed to help her achieve awareness, and who had never violated her aloneness. Addie even acknowledges that part of her revenge would be that Anse "would never know I was taking revenge." Thus Addie's request to be buried in Jefferson was made essentially for selfish reasons, in a last effort to prove that she was not just useless words.
For all Addie's efforts to force an awareness of herself upon the consciousness of her family, she partly fails. Anse is quite content to carry out the promise — not because it is a promise and not because of his respect or awe for the dead. People of the Bundren type have seen death too often to view it as other than an event in everyday life. But, "God's will be done . . . now I can get them teeth" is the extent of Anse's feelings. He lives only in the world of ineffectual words. Without the outside help of Samson, Armstid, Tull, and Gillespie, Anse would never have made it to Jefferson. Even then he has to steal from his own children in order to replace destroyed equipment.
However, Anse makes sure that he does not steal so much that there won't be more left to steal — for his teeth — when he gets to Jefferson. He must also rely on other people to get the grave dug since he didn't bring a spade and refuses to buy one. When the water incident and the fire occur, Anse is always the bystander, commenting: "Was there ere a such unfortunate man," thinking that all these events are just more crosses he must bear before he can get his teeth. The irony of the situation is that Anse is constantly indebted to others but refuses to recognize his obligation and excuses himself by his oft-repeated comment: "I ain't beholden."
With Dewey Dell, Vardaman, and Cash, Addie's efforts to force an awareness of herself on her family again fail. Because of her pregnancy, Dewey Dell is interested only in getting to the druggist in town. Vardaman lives also in a vegetative world, and his is also a world of confusion. He is almost oblivious of his mother's decaying body and looks forward only to seeing the toy train in the store window. Cash sees only one action at a time; therefore, his only concern is with each immediate action. Only upon Jewel and Darl is Addie's presence deeply felt, and ironically these are the two whom she least wished to affect.
After the relationship between Addie and the rest of her family has been established, the next problem lies in Darl's relationship to the Bundren family, and especially their attitudes toward him. Darl is always elusive, complicated, thought-provoking, poetic in stream-of-consciousness observations, and especially observant of details. It is through Darl's eyes and observations that the reader gets a full perspective of the other characters.
Darl is the only character in the book who lives on several, interchangeable levels of consciousness. As a result of this perceptiveness, Darl is able to understand the feelings of others. Perceiving the relations between Jewel and Addie, he taunts Jewel about not having a father; and this taunt stems from Darl's realization that, because of the circumstances of his own birth, he has no mother. Darl is able to comprehend Jewel's inexpressible love for Addie and realizes that the emotions Jewel projects toward his horse substitute for his feelings toward his mother — hence, the accusation that Jewel's mother is a horse.
Not only does Darl understand Jewel's feelings for Addie, but he also realizes that Jewel is the "cross" that Addie bears. Consequently, Darl's descriptions or observations of Jewel are full of symbolic, wooden imagery. Darl has penetrated Jewel's inner consciousness and sees the motives behind each of Jewel's actions. The tension mounts steadily between Darl and Jewel as Darl projects himself into the consciousness of Jewel and knows instinctively each of Jewel's motivations, and yet refuses to act. The tension suddenly increases after Jewel sells his horse, and it culminates when, at the end, Jewel violently attacks Darl.
Darl's relationship with Dewey is similar to that with Jewel, but on a different level. Again, Darl has been able to project himself into another character's consciousness and senses all the implications concerning Dewey Dell's pregnancy. Her first comment to Darl is: "Are you going to tell Pa are you going to kill him [Lafe]?" But Darl again refuses to take any definite action; as a result, tension mounts steadily between Darl and Dewey Dell until she attacks Darl even more violently than does Jewel.
There is, however, no conflict between Darl and Cash, or between Darl and Vardaman. Darl is the only one who is able to project himself into the vegetative world of Vardaman, but no conflict arises since Darl lives on a level far above that of either Cash or Vardaman. Darl and Cash are the only ones who feel a close kinship to one another. This comes mainly from Cash, who thinks that, after all, Darl was probably right in trying to burn the barn but that it should have been he (Cash) who performed the action. But Cash's reasoning is not intricate enough to reach any definite conclusions since he lives only in the world of one-level actions.
As we progress through the novel, it becomes increasingly evident that Darl is the key figure to the solution of the complex interrelationships of characters. Darl's importance appears not only in his complex thought processes and his ability to perceive and sense everything, but also in the fact that most of the important action is presented through his eyes. Before leaving with the wagon to earn three dollars, Darl projects himself into the character of Addie. He later senses and tells of Addie's death in beautiful, heightened, poetic language.
It is through Darl that the reader learns of the loading of the coffin, of Jewel's purchasing of the horse, of the loss of the coffin, of the recovery of the tools from the water, and of the burning of the barn. It is even Darl who prevents Jewel from becoming involved in a fight with one of the Jefferson townsmen. It is evident, therefore, that Faulkner wrote into the character of Darl a key to the Bundren family. Darl is portrayed as the sane and sensible individual pitted against a world of backwoods, confused, violent, and shiftless Bundrens.
As the journey with Addie's rapidly decaying and odorous body progresses, the animosity between Darl and Jewel, and between Darl and Dewey Dell, heightens swiftly and rapidly approaches a climax. Jewel becomes more and more antagonistic after he is forced to sell his horse — the living symbol of Addie, on which he had lavished his love and violence. As the tension mounts, Darl's perceptive ability becomes keener and more sensitive. It is Darl, and Darl only, who senses the futility of the whole ridiculous procession. In the beginning of the journey, seeing it in its absurd perspective, he is forced to laugh. Then as the body gradually gives off its odors, it is Darl who first senses this new absurdity, and it is Darl who first perceives the buzzards hovering overhead in all their horrible significance.
As the odors become stronger, as the buzzards increase in number, and as the journey becomes a ridiculous farce, Darl — sensitive, perceptive, and intelligent — realizes that something must be done to put an end to this grave injustice to his mother. Just before Darl sets fire to the barn, he senses the presence and desires of his mother: "She's talking to God. . . . She wants Him to hide her away from the sight of man . . . so she can lay down her life. . . . We must let her be quiet." Thus Darl decides to end the futility and injustice by giving Addie a cleansing escape from the sight of man through cremation.
The barn burned, but Addie, still odorous as ever, was, in spite of Darl, saved by Jewel in fulfillment of her earlier prophecy. This one act, mature and intelligent, performed by Darl, was the basis on which the Bundren family decided to send him to Jackson's insane asylum. There was never an actual question of whether Darl was insane or not: that had nothing to do with the decision. But as Cash put it: "It was either send him to Jackson, or have Gillespie [the owner of the barn] sue us." Cash realized that what Darl attempted to do was the right thing, but still, the Bundrens must call him crazy or pay for the barn, and it is much easier to declare Darl insane. Of course, Darl has always been considered queer by the other people in the novel, but this is because he is superior, and in being superior he is different, and therefore, in their minds, queer.
Anse and Cash therefore declare Darl crazy for financial reasons; Jewel accepts it violently and anxiously out of the heightened enmity between them. And Dewey Dell, responsible for Gillespie's knowing that Darl burned the barn, is the one most pleased in disposing of Darl, thereby insuring the secrecy of her pregnancy.
Thus, Darl's supposed insanity is imposed upon him, and a close reading of the novel suggests that Darl did not go insane. A study of Faulkner's methods in his other novels indicates that if Darl had gone insane, the reader would have been made aware of his regression toward insanity. In the "Darl" passage immediately following the barn-burning, it is only Darl who is intelligent and sane enough to prevent Jewel from getting into a fight. As Jewel prepares to attack the town observer, Darl handles the situation with perfect sanity, composure, and equanimity.
Faulkner presents several objective views of Darl which create at least a doubt as to the validity of sending him to the insane asylum. Dr. Peabody looks upon the act of sending Darl to Jackson as a blundering episode typical of the acts of Anse. He compares the foolishness of this act with the foolishness of Anse's putting concrete on Cash's leg. Likewise, Gillespie, another objective commentator outside the Bundren world, looks to Darl as the only sensible Bundren capable of rational actions.
If Darl became insane, it is necessary to regard that as an instantaneous stroke of insanity; but this was not the case. What probably did occur, in that moment of clear and instant illumination when he began to laugh, was a complete comprehension of the absurd situation through which the family had just passed, and a thorough perception of the animosity between him and the others. This realization left him only one thing to do — to laugh loud and long at the ignorance of the Bundrens from whom he is escaping.
In his last passage, perhaps for a moment he even doubts his own sanity. He has never lived in a sane world, but only in the insane and incomprehensible Bundren world. When he refers to himself in the third person, he is merely reflecting to himself that he knows now what others have been thinking about him. He understands now all their hatred and envy of his superiority. A Darl Bundren in an insane asylum is in a much better position than an Anse Bundren in the outside world.
One of the great ironies of the book, consequently, comes from the fact that Darl, the only person capable of reaching an awareness of the complexities of life, is sent to the insane asylum while the rest of the Bundrens, who should probably be locked up, roam freely.