Darl: Narrator or Character?
William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying tells the story of the Bundren family when the matriarch of the family dies. Faulkner alternates perspectives between each member of the family and their neighbors. While most characters focus on their thoughts around Addie’s death, Darl Bundren is more aware of his surroundings. He focuses on appearances and sensory details rather than how he feels about his mother’s death. Faulkner writes Darl this way to show his personality. Faulkner shows the audience Darl’s personality rather than telling them about Darl. If Faulkner had used stream of consciousness as he did with the other characters, he would have contradicted how he wanted to craft Darl.
When the audience is introduced to Darl, he and Jewel are walking home when he hears Cash making their mother’s coffin. Darl vividly describes the cotton house and how Jewel cuts through it to be ahead of him. He relates, “The path runs straight as a plumb-line, worn smooth by feet and baked brick-hard by July…” (Faulkner 3). Already we can start to put together Darl’s character. He pays close attention to detail even in the most trying times. As the audience continues to read and experiences different characters, they can clearly see that Darl is the most observant. The language Darl uses in each of his chapters is significantly more elevated than that of his family and neighbors. He describes, “Jewel’s eyes look like pale wood in his high-blooded face” (Faulkner 17). His elevated language provides evidence for reasoning that Darl is the most intelligent member of the Bundren family. Darl’s thoughts are more critical of the world around him when compared to his family. However, his eloquence in thought does not cross into his direct speech patterns, so Darl’s family may not know exactly how intelligent he is.
Throughout the non-Darl chapters, the characters consistently mention Addie Bundren and her death. Anse is determined to keep his promise to Addie that he will bring her back to Jefferson to be buried with her blood family. Dewey Dell reminds Anse about his promise to Addie and even earlier in the book is upset with Jewel and Darl leaving home while their mother is dying. Jewel is upset that everyone seems to be watching Addie die when he would rather just be alone with his mother. Vardaman is visibly distressed when Addie dies and accidentally drills a hole in Addie’s head. Even Cash, one of the main characters, is thoughtful of Addie when the family is trying to cross the river. Darl hardly mentions Addie in his chapters. In fact, he hardly shows any emotion about his mother’s death at all. He refers to Addie as ma only in one of his chapters, “It was ma that got Dewey Dell to do his milking, paid her somehow” (Faulkner 130), and after this paragraph, he returns to calling her Addie. This could show how strained his relationship with his mother is.
After days of traveling with Addie Bundren’s rotting corpse in a simple wooden coffin, Darl has a mental breakdown. He tries to burn the barn down where they have stopped for the night. However, Jewel saves the coffin, or Darl would have succeeded. Traveling with a rotten corpse would unnerve any person, but to try to destroy one’s own mother’s body is a sign of extreme disturbance. Why would Darl try to burn his mother’s corpse? Has the experience made him snapped? Is Darl simply a psychopath? The answer lies within his mental deterioration. The text states, “Darl had a little spyglass he got in France at the war” (Faulkner 254). He was in a war that took place in France, a soldier in World War I most likely. The Great War was the first modernized war with heavy artillery and chemical warfare. Darl would have seen horrific scenes of violence. His lack of emotional attachment to his mother might be explained by his military experience. To show any emotion in active combat could be hazardous to himself and his fellow soldiers. The smell of a decomposing body might have triggered a flashback for Darl. He would remember his fallen comrades in No Man’s Land. Soldiers would be simply left in No Man’s Land when they were killed in action; it was too dangerous for living soldiers to retrieve the bodies, and the fallen would stay in No Man’s Land until they were torn to shreds, buried with dirt from explosions, or eaten by vermin. If a soldier died in the trenches, his body could become part of the maze-work of the trenches. Darl is perhaps desensitized to the concept of a dead body. That is why he so easily decides to set afire his own mother’s body. He isn’t a psychopath with no feeling; he’s a war veteran with posttraumatic stress disorder. He pays more attention to his surroundings because he would have to take notice of enemies approaching during combat. Since he had a spyglass, his role in the army might have been a lookout. He would need to pay attention to detail.
Why would Faulkner write Darl as this war veteran, though? Did Faulkner simply need a plot device? One could argue that, yes, Faulkner did need a plot device to make the story have more challenges than simply obstacles nature presents the family. On the other hand, I argue that Faulkner uses Darl as the unofficial narrator of the story. Even with alternating perspectives, Darl could be the narrator. He knows his mother died despite being absent from home. He knows that Dewey Dell is pregnant even though she hasn’t told anyone. Darl knows that Jewel has a different father than the rest of the Bundren children. Even during his mental breakdown on the train, he narrates in third person. His family could sense his unique ability, and that is partially why they decide to send him to the mental asylum. Was Darl Bundren slowly slipping into insanity, or was his perspective simply transitioning into the formal narrator? Faulkner carefully wrote Darl’s character to transition into being a subtle narrator.
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William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying tells the story of the Bundren family when the matriarch of the family dies. Faulkner alternates perspectives between each member of the family and […]