Summary and Analysis
Section 15, narrated by Vardaman, begins to juxtapose various animals and their breathing. Vardaman's recollection of his rabbits, his dead fish, and his being once trapped in a crib occurs simultaneously with his inability to accept his mother's death as a physical reality. The concept of death leaves him confused as to the nature of reality and thus causes some of his vague and strange statements and acts.
All of these remembrances are Faulkner's preparations for presenting Vardaman's confused mind. Through these associations and others, Vardaman is gradually confusing his dead mother with the dead fish that he caught that afternoon. But already Faulkner has been preparing the reader for the shocking revelation. By this point in the novel, the reader should begin to note that even among the bizarre Bundrens, Vardaman is a little different from the others.
Even though this section is narrated by Vardaman, another motif is introduced. We have previously seen that Anse is anxious to get to Jefferson to get his new teeth. Dewey Dell is anxious to get there to get an abortion. Vardaman also has his selfish motives, as illustrated by his desire to see a toy train in a store window. These personal considerations will ultimately become more important than the burial of Addie Bundren and the promise that she extracted from them to bury her in Jefferson.
In Section 16, narrated by Tull, Vardaman is still associating the death of the fish with the death of his mother. Both memories evoke other memories of when he was not able to breathe because he was in a confined place. Therefore, when Vardaman comes home, he opens the window so that Addie can breathe.
Apparently his grief is of the sort that is suffocating, or, in other words, he associates the idea of suffocation with the idea that his mother is now suffocating in a coffin. Consequently, when they finally put Addie in the coffin, Vardaman's various associations between breathing, the dead fish, his dead mother, and so forth, cause him to think of his mother as a fish that is unable to breathe in the small coffin. Therefore, he bores holes through the coffin so that his mother can breathe, but in doing so he also bores holes in his mother's face.
This scene embraces then both the comic in a gothic and grotesque way, and the tragic in a pathetic way. Vardaman cannot express his grief and is so neglected as a child that in trying to help his mother and in trying to alleviate his own sense of grief, he unintentionally mutilates the dead body of his own mother. Perhaps part of the greatness of the novel is that the reader does not know how to respond to such a scene, whether the response should be one of horrified tragedy over the ultimate and final result, or whether one should respond with a grotesque comic view of the entire episode.
The fact that Faulkner allows Vernon Tull to narrate this bizarre section adds to the confusion of our response. The reason that Tull narrates this section is that he is such a dull person, therefore emphasizing the contrast between Tull as a dull and objective narrator and the bizarre aspect of the scene that he narrates. These two elements then complement one another; that is, the scene is so bizarre that it gains in effect by being reported in a quiet, unemotional, and objective manner.
In the midst of the scene, we have one observation that is seemingly unimportant, but the reader should hold it in abeyance. That is, Tull comments that Darl thinks too much. This at least indicates that Darl is an introspective person concerned with the intricacies of the mind, whereas the other Bundrens simply accept things as they come.
Darl's narration in Section 17 again conforms with Faulkner's technique of allowing Darl to narrate a scene when he is not present at the scene. Again this shows Darl's perceptive qualities. He can envision his father making comments about Addie Bundren's death, and he can picture Anse saying that he does not begrudge the work that Addie has caused him. But at the same time, we know that Anse is doing nothing.
Furthermore, Darl also realizes that Cash is more concerned about building a good coffin than he is about his mother's death. This realization indicates Darl's understanding of Cash's character, that is, that Cash is a person who can only concentrate upon one thing. As long as he has the coffin to build, Cash cannot concern himself with grief or mourning for his mother. Once the coffin is completed, then Cash will be able to turn his mind to other thoughts.
At the end of Darl's narration, we note that he enters into a rather intricate thought process. The two characters in the novel who are concerned with their relationships to others, Darl and Vardaman, both try to establish the exact relationship that they have with other members of the family, and Darl, more so than Vardaman, is concerned with trying to determine the exact nature of his own personal existence. Consequently we will find Darl constantly questioning himself in terms of his own existence.
Both Section 18 and Section 19 — the first narrated by Cash, the second by Vardaman — are tours de force. Cash has so far been depicted as a rather literal-minded person who could concentrate only on one thing at a time. Here, in the first section to be narrated by Cash, he presents in numbers 1 through 13 the exact technique of building a coffin. This humorous, comical, and untypical narrative technique, then, reinforces the interpretation of Cash as being literal-minded.
In Cash's narration, there is no mention of his mother's death. All of his energy, his thoughts, have gone into the making of the coffin, and the coffin is of supreme importance. Now that the coffin is completed, Cash can turn his mind to something else, but this something else must also occupy his entire thought process.
The Vardaman section, the shortest section in the novel, having only five words, is also a tour de force. Faulkner has been leading up to this statement by Vardaman's many associations of his mother with the fish. All of the preceding actions and imagery connected with Vardaman have been leading up to this statement, but it nevertheless comes as a surprise.
Again the reader is involved with another question, that is, is this section the height of comedy or is it extremely pathetic? Most people would agree with the combined qualities of both the comic and the pathetic. But how is one to respond to a comic assertion by a confused young boy that his dead mother is a fish?
Vardaman's attack on Cora and his running away are additional suggestions that he does not understand the idea of his mother's death and knows no conventional way in which to express the grief that he does not understand. His confusion will continue until after Addie is buried.
Tull's narration also conveys some important factual information. We find out that the bridge is washed out, necessitating a longer trip down the river that will require extra time. We find out that Addie has been in the coffin three days before Darl and Jewel get back with the wagon. And in a hot Mississippi July rainy spell, this is a long time to have a dead body above ground. We receive more facts about the perfection with which the coffin was built.
Other than the factual information, we also receive certain impressions. Armstid, a new character introduced in this section, suggests that the Bundrens would do much better if they would bury Addie Bundren in the nearest town. This suggestion prepares us for the fact that the body will indeed be in the advanced stages of decay before they can possibly reach Jefferson and the burial ground that Addie has requested.
Perhaps the most grotesque bit of information conveyed in this section is Tull's narration of how Vardaman bored a hole into the coffin and in doing so actually bored some holes into his mother's face. Again, as in Section 16, the reader must formulate an individual response to such an episode, which contains both the potentially comic and the potentially tragic. Under any circumstances it is one of the most ironic scenes in the novel since this bizarre episode is narrated by the dull and unimaginative Tull.
It is also comic that Cash's precision will let him give the exact distance that he fell when he broke his leg. That Cash has broken a leg previously is important to know since later on when he breaks the same leg trying to rescue the coffin, Anse will say that it is lucky that he broke the same leg that had previously been broken. But also Cash's giving the exact measurement of the distance that he fell when he broke his leg emphasizes that Cash exists in a world of well-regulated fact, and that he is concerned with how well the coffin is made according to balance, measurement, and weight.
In Section 21, narrated by Darl, three important thematic ideas are employed: Jewel as wooden, Jewel's mother as a horse, and Darl without a mother. Darl's taunt that Jewel's mother is a horse indicates that Jewel devotes all the love he possesses for his mother on the horse. The horse has become a type of mother symbol, but only Darl is perceptive enough to be aware of this. However, Darl does not realize that when Jewel was conceived, Addie thought of Jewel as being conceived in violence. Therefore, the symbol of the horse, a violent and untamed horse, as the symbol of the mother conforms with the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jewel and also answers the question of why Jewel himself expresses his love in terms of violence.
Jewel is constantly depicted by Darl and to a lesser degree by other characters as having a wooden appearance. In this section alone he is described both as "wooden-backed" and "wooden-faced." This wooden imagery contrasts ironically with Jewel's violent and agitated motions.
Darl's realization that he cannot love his mother because he has no mother is also a perceptive realization that will become clear later. When we come to Addie's section, we find that Addie rejected Darl before he was born because she realized that a birth could not "violate" her aloneness. And since she did reject Darl, this is represented in Darl's sense of rejection by his mother. This thought will be developed much more fully in later sections but is introduced here.
Section 22, narrated by Cash, emphasizes again that Cash is concerned only with one thing, the immediate construction of the coffin. In terms of the later action of the novel, Cash's emphasis that the coffin will not ride on a balance is partly justified since we can assume that the loss of the coffin in the river is due in part to the fact that it was not riding on a balance.
Even though this is a short section and the person to whom Cash is talking is not identified, we can easily assume that the person is Jewel because of the violence of his language and his predilection for action rather than talk and analysis. The same type of violent language is picked up in the next section, Section 23, which is narrated by Darl and which records Jewel's furious and desperate movements, which serve to replace any type of verbal expression of grief. Jewel's actions, then, are seen in terms of despair and fury and his only comments are curse words, indicating once again that he can find no adequate way of expressing his grief for his mother's death.