As I Lay Dying | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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As I Lay Dying | Sections 39–41 | Summary



In these sections, the reader hears from Cora, Addie, and Whitfield, each focusing on the topic of sin. Section 39 begins with Cora remembering a conversation she has with Addie in the past. Cora interrupts her own story, remembering another time in the past when Brother Whitfield, who is the local minister, singles out Addie and wrestles with her soul, which Cora calls vain.

Section 39: Cora

During their conversation, Cora and Addie talk about God and sin. Addie says she knows what her sins are, but Cora chastises Addie, saying, "Who are you, to say what is a sin and not a sin?" Addie again says she knows her own sin and she deserves her punishment, and Cora calls her vain for believing so. Cora criticizes Addie for not listening to their minister: "Not even after Brother Whitfield, a godly man if ever one breathed God's breath, prayed for you and strove as never a man could except him." Then Cora reflects on what she believes is Addie's only sin: "being partial to Jewel ... in preference to Darl." Cora's mind wanders back to their conversation in which Addie almost confesses the truth about Jewel, but instead, Addie says, Jewel "is my cross and he will be my salvation. He will save me from the water and from the fire. Even though I have laid down my life, he will save me." Cora takes Addie's words, at first, to be about God, but when she realizes Addie is talking about Jewel, Cora gets down on her knees and prays for Addie, who she believes has spoken sacrilege.

Section 40: Addie

Addie's spirit speaks to tell readers about her marriage to Anse, which starts off as a way to escape her job as a teacher, which she hates. She confesses how she would whip students to make herself feel like she existed to someone. Addie mentions that her father once said the reason for living is "to get ready to stay dead a long time." Teaching to Addie is so intolerable, it makes her hate her father "for having ever planted me." So when Anse comes along to woo her, she marries him. At first Anse, and Cash, her first child, make her happy. She finds love and motherhood overwhelming, but she also experiences a feeling of love beyond expression: "My aloneness had been violated and then made whole again by the violation: time, Anse, love, what you will, outside the circle."

Addie's happiness does not last. Having Darl makes her feel tricked by Anse. In fact, she feels "tricked by words older than Anse or love," and decides "that my revenge would be that he would never know I was taking revenge." This motivates Addie to ask Anse to bury her in Jefferson when she dies. Anse tells her she is not going to die yet because they are not done having children. Addie's response: "He did not know that he was dead, then." Addie moves on to describe her affair with Whitfield and what she really thinks of Cora Tull; she is someone who does not know the difference between words and deeds. Two months after her affair ends with Whitfield, Addie discovers she is pregnant with Jewel. She falls in love with her new child, but decides then to "get ready to clean my house." So she "gives" Anse a new baby, Dewey Dell, as a way to cancel out the birth of Jewel, and then Vardaman, for the child she "stole" from Anse. Addie says afterward that Anse has "three children that are his and not mine." Now Addie is ready to die.

Section 41: Whitfield

When Whitfield finds out Addie is dying, he says he wrestles with Satan all night and wakes up to the enormity of his sin. He rushes to Anse's farm to confess his affair with Addie because he believes it is what God wants him to do. The bridge is out, so Whitfield must swim his horse across. Whitfield prays, "Just let me not perish before I have begged the forgiveness of the man whom I betrayed." When he does not die crossing the river on his horse, he feels God has forgiven him and he has been cleansed. A sense of peace comes over him. He still plans to confess his affair with Addie, though. When Whitfield arrives, however, Addie is dead, and she has died without confessing. Whitfield prays again, "I have sinned, O Lord. Thou knowest the extent of my remorse and the will of my spirit." Believing God has been merciful and accepted "the will for the deed," he decides not to confess.


Addie's presence in the text has been overwhelming. She is the focus of each character's action, although they also have ulterior motives for their behavior. As the novel progresses, her body becomes increasingly important to the action, an omnipresent fact that dictates their reception if not their behavior. It also mimics the fascination the characters have with their own bodies: Anse's hunchback and missing teeth, Cash's broken leg, Jewel's sinuous form, and Dewey Dell's pregnancy. Only Darl and Vardaman are disembodied, both by a sort of innocence. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Addie narrates her own section of the text. She is, in many respects, the most significant character in the novel.

Readers who are expecting a mothering figure may be shocked by Addie. She is a deeply angry person who despises several of her own children almost as much as the schoolchildren she once taught. She only learned what love was when she had Cash, and that experience was negated for her by Darl, as though the intensity of her relationship to all of these others both external to herself and so intimately tied to her body was simply too much to endure. Although she was attracted to Anse once, she learned to hate him and sought revenge on him both by cheating on him and by insisting she be buried with her people in Jefferson. She sought and gained redemption by giving him two more children.

While Addie may not be the nurturing mother readers are expecting, her character has been foretold by the others. Dewey Dell's anger, as well as Jewel's, runs straight and clean from their mother's blood. She shares Vardaman's intuition, shown in the way she finds comfort in the spring "with the water bubbling up and away and the sun slanting quiet in the trees," and Darl's imaginative and existential understanding of the universe: "after a while I could see the word as a shape, a vessel, and I would watch [Anse] liquefy and flow into it." And Cash's sense of duty and right flow from her mathematical insistence on the children she took from Anse and the children she gave him.

In comparison with Addie's section, Cora's is petty, Whitfield's is pompous, and both are hypocritical. The reader has previously seen how Cora represents a religious point of view that is superficial and self-serving. Addie searches for a deeper life experience, trying to understand the meaning of life, death, and love. Cora's narration is significant only in its role as a foil to Addie's. Cora preaches to Addie about her hard lot in the world, sin, and redemption, and considers Addie's responses immoral. Addie's own narrative shows how trite Cora's world vision is. In one sense, Cora's narrative serves as a warning to any reader who would attempt to read the text too literally or take the characters at face value. However, the novel's spiritual truths run deep. Addie nearly confesses to Cora that Jewel is Whitfield's son; instead, she says Jewel is her cross and salvation who will save her from water and fire. The reader has already seen half of the prophecy come true and should anticipate the remainder.

Whitfield preaches his section in a self-righteous voice, meant to absolve himself of both the first sin of sleeping with Addie when he was supposed to be wrestling with her soul for its eternal salvation, and the ongoing sin of deceit by not telling Anse he was harboring a bastard child in Jewel. Like Addie, he crosses the river while it is swollen, but he does so without the burden of her family, a burden she always had to carry. So, although he comes to her home, saying, "God's grace upon this house," it is unlikely that any universal being "will accept the will for the deed."

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