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As I Lay Dying | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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As I Lay Dying | Sections 47–51 | Summary



In these sections, the Bundrens stay on the Gillespie farm, but they cause trouble when Darl sets the barn on fire.

Section 47: Vardaman

Before they arrive at the Gillespie's farm, Vardaman counts five buzzards circling in the sky—attracted to the smell of the corpse—and reflects on his family members: "Jewel has not got a horse anymore. Jewel is my brother. Cash is my brother. Cash has a broken leg." Vardaman walks beside the wagon, up a hill, saying he plans to find out where the buzzards stay while they are in the barn tonight.

Section 48: Darl

Jewel, Dewey Dell, Vardaman, Darl, and Cash sit by Addie's coffin next to an apple tree. Darl pokes at Jewel by saying, "Jewel ... whose son are you? Your mother was a horse, but who was your father, Jewel?" Jewel responds by calling Darl a "goddamn lying son of a bitch." After supper, Cash's leg begins to get hot and hurt him, so they pour water on it. He still will not admit he is in pain, but it is clear he is. He is feverish, and his foot is red, as though it has been boiled.

Section 49: Vardaman

Vardaman recalls a conversation he has with Darl under the apple tree, after they see a cat sitting on Addie's coffin. Darl tells Vardaman to listen to Addie from inside the coffin. "What is she saying, Darl?" Vardaman wants to know. Darl tells Vardaman Addie is talking to God, and she wants God to hide her away from "the sight of man ... so she can lay down her life." Vardaman thinks Addie turns over and looks at him through the wood. Darl says they must let Addie be quiet and go check on Cash. Vardaman thinks about how he saw something and Dewey Dell told him not to tell anyone. Back in the present that night, Vardaman lies on a pallet with Dewey Dell on Gillespie's back porch. She tells him to go to sleep, but Vardaman plans to sneak out to the barn and see where the buzzards go at night. He describes how Anse, Jewel, Darl, and Gillespie's son walk by in the moonlight, moving Addie's coffin from under the apple tree and into the barn because the wind has changed and the smell is so bad.

Section 50: Darl

Darl describes the fire he set and its aftermath. Just before the explosion causes the barn to go up in flames, Jewel comes running into the barn, furious, knowing somehow what Darl has done. Vardaman, Dewey Dell, Gillespie, Mack, and Anse emerge from the house. A horse in the barn screams, and Jewel saves it by dragging it out. Gillespie and Mack, who are in their nightshirts, save two panicked mules by tearing off their clothes and covering the mules' faces. Darl just watches. He helps only by telling Mack to use his nightshirt. Meanwhile, the cow is still trapped in the back stall, and Jewel is frantic to find it. The loft floor incinerates and comes crashing down. Jewel breaks a milking stool and uses the legs to hit the back wall to frighten the cow. It works, and the cow comes charging out of the stall. Darl sees that Jewel is going to try to rescue the coffin. He hollers for someone to stop Jewel, as the barn is dangerously burning now. Gillespie and Jewel fight, but Jewel knocks him down and rushes back into the barn. He yells to Darl for help with the coffin, but Darl stays put. Dewey Dell screams, "Jewel ... Jewel!" but the others keep her from running into the barn. Jewel drags Addie's coffin out of the barn single-handedly, jumping on top of it as it careens through the barn doors. Jewel's back is badly burned in the process.

Section 51: Vardaman

Afterward, Vardaman describes how Darl goes missing. Meanwhile, Dewey Dell helps put ash ointment on Jewel's burns, and she puts some on Cash's foot. It is clear they have to get the cement off his leg. At first, the cement only cracks. Finally, they bust it off, and Cash's leg bleeds. Darl is still missing, but Vardaman finds him under the apple tree, crying on top of Addie's coffin. Vardaman wants to know if Darl is going to keep the cat away, and he tells Darl not to cry; Addie did not burn in the fire.


The animal symbolism William Faulkner weaves throughout As I Lay Dying comes to the fore in this group of sections. In Section 44 of the last group of sections, while Jewel is still missing, Vardaman says there are now seven buzzards, which is the number of Bundren family members—two parents, five children (the novel treats Addie's corpse as a character and member of the family). Then Vardaman counts four buzzards, which is the number of children with Jewel missing. In Section 47 Jewel is back, increasing the number of buzzards to five. Vardaman wants to know where the buzzards stay while "we stop at night in the barn." Vardaman's inquiry about the buzzards is operating on two levels: the buzzards have come to reflect various configurations of the family members, and Vardaman is also intuiting what Darl is about to do, this deed that happens in the barn.

Vardaman also reflects on his mother as a fish and Jewel's mother as a horse. Of course, Jewel's sacrifice means "Jewel hasn't got a horse anymore," meaning he does not have a mother. Vardaman's repetition of these metaphors, as well as his lists of the status of each family member and their relationship to him, shows how he is beginning to accept his mother's death and find his way back into the family, just as Cash and Jewel have been forced to do. Darl uses Vardaman's childish ideas to taunt Jewel about his real father, suggesting that unlike his brothers, Darl is unable to accept his family situation and will not be able to find his way back.

Darl's conversation with Vardaman is both cruel and grotesque. As Addie's body decomposes, it gives off gas and makes noise in the coffin. Darl tells Vardaman to listen, that their mother is speaking to them. Vardaman takes him seriously, puts his ear to the coffin, and believes she rolls over to see him better. Meanwhile, Darl plots to rid the family of the one thing still holding them together. Addie may be a decomposing corpse, but she is still their mother, and the duty they owe to her is the thin, fragile thread slowly bringing them back to a sense of family.

While Cash and Jewel—and even Vardaman—are reconciling themselves to the family, Darl's action deliberately tears them apart, and all the other children know it. Darl almost kills two mules, a horse, and a cow; burns his mother's coffin; and injures his own brother. He endangers the whole family, almost causes their whole mission—getting Addie buried—to fail, almost thwarts each character's hidden desire to go to Jefferson, and completely destroys a barn, which is a vital resource for a farmer. Darl's act is extreme. Also, all of the animals in the barn have previous symbolic associations already linked to them. In a way, Darl has set fire, at the climax of the novel, to every major element building in the narrative. And at the end of it all, he lies on his mother's coffin weeping at his failure.

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