Faulkner did not number the sections since he was interested in creating a continuous impression; therefore, the following attempt to divide the novel into sections and groups is made so as to facilitate critical commentary.
Faulkner's technique throughout the novel is to present short individual sections in which some character gives his thoughts about the events that are taking place. Each section is an "interior monologue," an attempt to reproduce what the character might be actually thinking. Therefore, if the character is in the presence of other people, often his thoughts will be interrupted by the conversation and often the character will record that conversation before continuing with his line of thinking.
In its largest view, the novel will concern itself with the death of Addie Bundren and the long arduous journey that the family undertakes in order to bury her in Jefferson, a town forty miles away. In these first parts, however, Faulkner is introducing some of his characters. The first section introduces the introspective Darl, who is the only son who is fully aware of all types of sensory images and impressions. Many of his sections will be characterized by his sensitive awareness of all the physical sensations around him. Through Darl, we come to feel the land and the people, and it is by him that most of the novel is narrated.
The first section also introduces the death and coffin theme. In only a matter of a few pages, it becomes clear that the older brother Cash is building his mother's coffin under her window so that she can inspect it. From Darl, we hear that Cash is a good carpenter and that their mother could not expect a better coffin than the one Cash is building.
Darl's section also introduces another image that will reappear throughout the novel. First, Darl is always aware of Jewel's eyes and particularly their wooden quality. Throughout almost all of Darl's sections, he will describe Jewel in wooden imagery and often associate Jewel with the wooden wagon. Later, when Darl and Jewel are earning the three dollars for the load of lumber, Darl tells of the death of Addie Bundren while Jewel is in a "wooden" setting.
Cora Tull's section is the first of many sections narrated by an "outsider." Faulkner apparently thought that his depiction of the Bundren family would gain more credence by having them viewed by neighbors, strangers, and other people. But he is not content merely to use these outside narrators to objectify the plot; he also creates vividly realizable characters.
For example, Cora is a delightful caricature of the country woman who spouts forth religious clichés. She is carefully delineated as a character because, as the novel progresses, we must have some outside narrator to rely upon who will give us varying views of the Bundren family. Not all of her observations are valid, but we must evaluate them in the light of what we know Cora to be as a character. For example, Cora's view of Dewey Dell as a blank person who stands indolently by her mother and fans her is picked up and repeated many times in later parts of the book. Also, Cora observes that even though Addie Bundren is dying, there is no sense of salvation or grace about her. Later, we will discover that Addie is a violent and somewhat nihilistic woman who rejects such words as "salvation" and "grace."
In Section 3, Faulkner is again setting up Darl as the perceptive person receptive to all types of detail. He describes with poetic imagery the simplest detail, such as taking a drink of water. The other narrators do not attempt to record their ideas in any type of poetic language. Furthermore, Darl is also highly perceptive when it comes to human evaluations and understanding behavior. For example, he understands his father's ineffectual behavior and knows that his father is incapable of a definite action.
Darl's perceptive ability is further suggested in his visualizing the scene between Jewel and the horse. This technique is employed many times in the novel when Darl will frequently narrate a scene or an event even though he is not present at the event. This technique or this ability of Darl's has led some critics to suggest that this is an indication of Darl's possible madness.
The description of Jewel's relation to the horse is quite significant since Jewel's relationship with this horse is one of the central ideas in the novel. For example, in the scene that Darl visualizes for us, Jewel acts with violence toward his horse, but beneath the violence there is a sense of deep devotion to the animal. This particular dichotomy characterizes Jewel as a person who feels violently and can only express himself — even love — through acts or images of violence. Consequently, the violence of this short scene with the horse leads directly into Jewel's only narration.
Since Jewel is one of the most significant characters in the novel, it is at first puzzling that he narrates only one section in the entire book. We see Jewel from every other perspective; that is, we see him from Darl's viewpoint, from Cash's, and so forth, but this is our only chance to get into Jewel's own mind and hear his personal thoughts.
Essentially, this section reveals Jewel's very deep but inexpressible love for his mother. He is unable to express his love in any way except in symbols of violence, as was displayed in the last section by the manner in which he violently caressed his horse. Consequently, it is often in symbols or images of violence that we observe Jewel, and this violence is later correlated with his birth since he was, according to Addie, conceived in violence. Furthermore, later on, Darl will also taunt Jewel by saying that Jewel's mother is a horse.
Jewel's love for his mother is expressed in terms of standing on a high hill and throwing rocks down the hill at anyone who would intrude upon the privacy of his love for his mother. This violent image suggests the violence with which he does love his mother — a violence that will come to an end only after she is buried and Darl is sent to the insane asylum.
Later in the novel, it is Jewel who violently saves Addie from both water and fire. Section 4 serves to illustrate Jewel's need for violence, and only through violence can he express his deep-founded and deep-rooted love for Addie. Thus, since Jewel can express himself only through acts of violence, we have only one section narrated by him. All of the other views of Jewel are through some other narrator's eyes.
Jewel offers one humorous insight into the character of Cash, prompted by the fact that Cash, the most literal-minded of the children, is actually building the coffin under Addie's window. Jewel recalls that when Cash was young, his mother asked him to bring her some fertilizer from the barnyard and he took the bread pan and brought it back filled with dung. This illustrated Cash's literal-mindedness and prepares us for some of his later sections where we see him functioning only on a very literal level.
With the above incident, Faulkner introduces us to one of the interesting techniques in the novel: the juxtaposition of something that is extremely serious — the building of the coffin — with something that is inordinately comic — collecting dung in a bread pan. The juxtaposition illustrates how Jewel is trying to express his deep emotional love for his mother and his resentment that Cash is building the coffin under her window, as though he were anxious for her to die so that he can see what a good job he has done. Yet to express his idea, Jewel resorts to a comic scene involving Cash as a young boy bringing dung in a bread pan.
Throughout the entire novel, we will have many comic aspects juxtaposed with a potentially tragic scene. The structure of the novel depends heavily upon this tragic-comic combination, and it is sometimes difficult to analyze our response to such scenes.
As Darl confronts his father about the need of hauling the load of lumber and the practicality of securing the three dollars, we realize that Darl has a strong practical side to his nature and furthermore knows how to go about accomplishing such a task. Later, it will be Darl who will be sensible enough to prevent the fight in Jefferson between Jewel and the town man. The reader should take these facts into account when trying to determine the degree of sanity that Darl possesses.
However, one could also view Darl's desire to deliver the lumber as another method of tantalizing Jewel, of taking Jewel away from his dying mother. Darl is certainly aware that Jewel is unable to face any type of reality where his mother is concerned. Jewel refuses to believe that she is dying and even refuses to say the word "coffin." Darl is acute enough to notice this reluctance and explains it by saying that Jewel doesn't know how to express his love and speaks with harshness so as to cover up the fact that he can't say the word coffin.
Since Jewel can express his love only violently, Anse then completely misunderstands him. Anse thinks that Jewel has no love for his mother and no respect for her. But, as Darl points out, it is because Jewel loves her so strongly and so violently that he acts as he does. Darl's perception is further indicated in the manner in which he judges his father. He mentions that once when Anse was young, he was sick "from working in the sun" and now believes that if he ever sweats he will die. But Darl knows that Anse uses this excuse to cover up for his laziness.