Summary and Analysis
In the total body of Faulkner's writings, Dr. Peabody will appear in several works and always retain the same characteristics. That is, he is the overweight, friendly humanitarian, the person who grasps the very nature and essence of a person's character, but who is yet willing to devote his time to his patients' welfare. Indicative of this is the fact that he has on his account books almost $50,000 in bad debts. It is a Faulknerian technique to use the same character in many novels.
Consequently, when Dr. Peabody appears as one of the narrators in this work, the reader of all of Faulkner's novels knows immediately that this is an intelligent and reliable witness to the Bundrens' qualities. He is included so that the reader can have this outside objective view of the Bundren family, and he is the most objective commentator in the novel. For example, his view is essentially an accurate description of Anse Bundren.
Dr. Peabody also makes several other observations that are quite accurate. His description of Addie suggests that she is a woman who has lived terribly alone and that she is simply exhausted from having lived for so long with Anse Bundren. In fact, the doctor ironically or sarcastically suggests that it is good Anse didn't call him too soon because he might have been able to save Addie Bundren and prolong her unbearable life for additional years with such a person as Anse Bundren.
The death of Addie Bundren as narrated by Darl presents many questions for some critics. For example, why does Faulkner choose to have Darl render or narrate the death scene when he is not even present? This technique emphasizes Faulkner's method of narration and his characterization of Darl. The intuitive and perceptive abilities of Darl allow him to visualize a scene even though he might be miles away from it. That is, Darl knows exactly how his father, his brother, Dewey Dell, and other members of the family will react to the death scene even though he is not present at the scene. We must assume, therefore, that Darl in going for the load of lumber must have known that his mother was going to die or else that he has some exceptional perceptive ability that allows him to sense her death even though he is not present. This ability will also contribute to the suggestion that Darl is, if not mad, at least different from the other Bundrens.
The reader, if not aware of it before, must now realize that Cash is building his mother's coffin under her window so that she can watch and see that he is building her a good one. The comic aspect of this situation is almost lost in the pathos of Addie's death. But then the entire section is a combination of that which is tragic and that which is comic. For example, the selfishness of Anse Bundren is caught in one simple phrase, which he utters immediately upon learning that his wife is dead. There is no mourning, there is no thought other than for his own selfishness concerned with obtaining his new teeth so that he can eat the food that God intended him to eat.
The section narrated by Vardaman, Section 13, is the first direct view we have inside Vardaman's mind. The youngest son can find no way to express his grief for his mother's death and therefore at first begins to blame the doctor since this man is a stranger to him. Then he begins to wonder about the fish that he caught that afternoon at the pond. He remembers watching the fish die and then he begins to wonder about his mother's death. Gradually in later sections, these two deaths will become confused and interchangeable, but here is the first hint of this forthcoming change. Vardaman's confused thinking is expressed in terms of him striking at Dr. Peabody's horse in an attempt to express his grief over the death of his mother. This confusion of how to express his grief is later reflected in his confusing his mother with the dead fish.
Dewey Dell's narration presents her again as a person almost incapable of reason. She is trying to worry, but she is also incapable of worrying. She is almost incapable of any emotion except that of animal desire. Consequently, images often connected with her are those of the bovine animals of the farmyard. The cows are described in the same imagery with which Dewey Dell is described. In her passage, she even says she would like to worry, but she cannot think long enough in order to worry about anything.
Like her mother, Dewey Dell yearns for something to "violate" her aloneness, and she also yearns for some act of violence, but she is incapable of understanding these two emotions.
In this section, the imagery of Vardaman and his fish is also repeated. Gradually, the fish, in general literary terms a symbol of regeneration, is reversed here to suggest the symbol of death and disintegration.
Whereas in the last section we found that Vardaman had been feeding Dr. Peabody's team, now in this section we find out that Dr. Peabody's team has run away. Ironically, Cash, the oldest son, wants Vardaman to go after the team because he thinks that Vardaman can catch and handle the team. This refers essentially to an old folktale that a person who is slightly mentally retarded is able to communicate with and manage animals better than other people. And later on in the novel, it is somewhat obvious that Vardaman is either mentally slow or else is much younger than the implied 12-14 years.