Novel Summary: Sections 16-20
Section 16 Tull
The Bundrens' neighbor Tull recalls the moment when he and his wife Cora heard of Addie's death. During the storm, Tull is woken by Vardaman, who is covered in mud while knocking wildly and crying hysterically at the door about his mother being a fish. Dr. Peabody's horses are also there and Tull goes to care for them while Cora comforts Vardaman. The Tulls accompany Vardaman back home and Tull helps Cash finish the coffin. Addie is placed inside and the men nail it shut. However, in the morning, the coffin is full of holes, which Vardaman drilled. Inadvertently, he drilled two of the holes into his mother's face. Tull believes God has punished Anse.
Section 17 Darl
Although he and Jewel are a day's distance away, Darl can see the happenings at the Bundren house. He somehow "sees" Cash working on the coffin; the Tulls arrival with Vardaman; Tull helping Cash complete the coffin and then how Anse, Cash, Doctor Peabody and Tull place Addie inside the coffin. Darl wonders whether he "is," or whether he is "not," while Jewel remains stoic.
Section 18 Cash
Cash focuses on his work and lists his reasons for why he built the coffin on a bevel (a slant).
Section 19 Vardaman
Vardaman states his "mother is a fish "(84).
Section 20 Tull
Tull brings Doctor Peabody's horses back to the Bundrens behind his wagon and talks with Quick and Armstid, two neighboring farmers, about the river rising. Anse stands talking on the porch with the men while Cash plugs up the holes in the coffin. Addie lies reversed in her coffin so her wedding dress will fit inside. Her feet are where her head should be and vice-versa, and a mosquito net covers her face to cover the holes made by Vardaman. At this point the minister Whitfield, all wet and muddy, comes in to perform the memorial service. Tull leaves after announcing that the rain has caused the bridge to wash away. Whitfield wonders, especially because of the rain, at Addie's request to be moved to Jefferson for burial. "It'll take the Lord to move her over that river now," Peabody pipes up (89). But Anse is insistent. Cash talks to Tull about his leg, which was broken after he fell off a church. It hurts him when it rains. Inside the house the women begin to sing as the men remain on the porch. Whitfield starts the service. Someone cries. On their way home, the Tulls see Vardaman fishing in a bog where no one has ever caught a fish.
Once again, Darl fills in the blanks of the plot with his precognitive, or perhaps highly intuitive, ability to see through time and space. He simply does not have to be present at the scene to view what is going on. He also knows beyond doubt that Cash, whose name speaks for itself, is concerned with numbers. In section 18, the text makes no mention of Addie's death. All it consists of is a list of Cash's reasons for why he made the coffin on a bevel. Doubtless, he is far more intent on making a perfect coffin than on dealing with the death of his mother. Does he have any feelings at all, and for that matter, does his father, Anse? Darl realizes his brother Cash is a good carpenter because his work takes up his entire concentration. In fact, he is only able to concentrate on one thing at a time.
At the end of section 17, Darl takes a page out of Vardaman's book. He is having difficulty dealing with Addie's death and attempts to latch on to something to define it. Darl seems to be concerned with how his mother's death affects his own existence. Since she gave birth to him, does he then still exist, now that she is dead?
The entire Vardaman section, the shortest section in the novel, has only five words.
It is surprising that Tull narrates the comparatively long section 20. Scholars speculate the reason is that such a dull narrator balances the Bundrens strange antics and provides information in a factual reliable manner. The bridge has washed out so how are they to get the body to Jefferson? They must take a longer route. So far, Addie has not been buried in three days. Consider this is Mississippi in July in an era without air conditioning. And they haven't left yet! No wonder the buzzards are circling. Armstid, the farmer, suggests they bury Addie in New Hope, a nearby town but the Bundrens will not hear of it.