After reading As I Lay Dying, I was unsettled by something. It wasn’t the plot, although As I Lay Dying had a singularly bizarre storyline. During the action of the novel a mother dies, and her family embarks upon a disaster ridden journey in order to fulfill her last wishes. The eldest son breaks his leg, the family has to sell or mortgage practically all it’s worldly goods, and Jewel risks his life twice in order to get his mother’s body to Jefferson. Why has Disney not snatched up the film making rights to this singular testament to Bundren family’s love and dedication?
The answer, and the source of my discomfort, is that the Bundren family is awful. They are almost completely and totally defunct. The fact that there is next to no mourning following Addie’s death, the most basic tribute a family can give, is only the tip of the iceberg of selfishness which seems to characterize the Bundren family. The trip to Jefferson, a journey which under other circumstances could be seen as a family’s noble tribute to a fallen matriarch, was ruined by the selfish motives of most of the family for undertaking the expedition.
Dewey Dell wanted to go to get an abortion. Vardaman wanted to go to get some bananas. Anse wanted to go to get a new set of teeth. Cash wanted to purchase a record player. Not only were the motives selfish, but they were utterly transparent. The Bundren’s neighbor Tull expresses the absurdity of the situation best when he said, “They would risk the fire and the earth and the water and all just to eat a sack of bananas. ” (p. 140) Indeed, the last images of the Bundren’s as a family (minus Darl) are of them eating bananas out of a sack, and sitting around a record player at home.
There were two members of the family, however, with no ulterior motives for going into town. Jewel and Darl seem to have no object in getting to town other than the burial of Addie Bundren. Both Darl and Jewel have special connections with their mother. It is tempting to draw the conclusion that Darl loved his mother the most. He narrated the majority of the chapters in the novel, and as readers we grow most accustomed to his voice. Cora Tull is certainly under impression that Darl loves his mother the most when she says, “it was between her and Darl that the true understanding and the true love was.
But Cora Tull cannot be trusted as a judge of relationships, as is evidenced by her misreading of the relationship between Addie and Reverend Whitfield. Darl, I believe, was just as selfish as the rest of the Bundren family, but in a much more subtle and less materialistic way. Darl possessed superhuman powers of clairvoyance, as revealed in his knowledge of Dewey Dell’s pregnancy, his mother’s death and of Jewel’s real father. Jewel is Addie’s clear favorite, and Darl was intensely jealous.
His jealousy could only have been further provoked by his knowledge of Jewel’s illegitimacy. Throughout Darl’s narration about Jewel, it is clear that he feels Jewel is superior to himself. In the opening paragraph of the novel Darl comments, “Although I am fifteen feet ahead of him, anyone watching from the cottonhouse can see Jewel’s frayed and broken straw hat a full head above my own. ” (p. 3) Darl feels that he is metaphorically fifteen feet ahead of Jewel; after all he is much older, he has uncanny powers of observance, and he is a legitimate child.
Despite these facts, Jewel’s head still appears above Darl’s: people think Darl is strange and Jewel has the love and affection of Addie, the one thing which Darl seems to desire most. Darl’s jealousy of Jewel’s relationship with Addie leads him to taunt Jewel, asking him, “Jewel… whose son are you” and, “Your mother was a horse, but who was your father Jewel? ” (p. 212). Darl was pushing to leave with Jewel to move lumber at the hour of Addie’s death.
Darl certainly knew that Addie was going to die (due to his powers), but took Jewel away anyway. It is never made clear in the novel, but I believe that it was Darl’s jealousy of Jewel and Addie’s relationship that drove him to and separate them at Addie’s death and rob Jewel of the tender moments which he might have had. Darl’s action here sets up a perfect model for the sort of destructive behavior without regard for others which Darl exhibits at the burning of the barn.
Jewel is probably the best of the Bundren’s, (possibly because he has no actual Bundren blood) in his only narrative he expresses his anger at Cash for exploiting their mothers death as an opportunity to show off his skill as a carpenter to everyone who came by. He expresses his anger at the entire family for just sitting around and waiting for Addie’s death.
And in a moment of fierce tenderness he thinks to himself, “It would just be me and her on a high hill and me rolling rocks down the hill at their faces… til she was quiet… ” His wish to be alone with his mother is seems fairly selfish, but turns out to be the closest thing to love that is found in the novel. After all, Jewel’s description of the family as buzzards waiting for Addie to die turns out to be fairly accurate. In a sense all of the Bundren’s except Darl and Jewel were buzzards who used Addie’s death to feed their own desires. Darl turns out to be less appealing than Jewel because of his destructive jealousy.