As I Lay Dying: Novel Summary: Sections 36-40
Section 36 Tull
Tull tells his wife Cora how he watched from the bank of the river as the log rose up out of the water and upset the wagon and then about how Darl attempted to right the coffin. Tull yelled at Anse and watched as Jewel hung on to the coffin with the rope and watched Cash grab the horse to get to shore: "so it was Cash holding to the horse when it came splashing and scrambling up the bank, moaning and groaning like a mortal natural man" (155).
Section 37 Darl
Darl watches an unconscious Cash on the riverbank "his head raised on a rolled garment," lying "pole thin in his wet clothes," in a pool of vomit as the others pull the broken wagon out of the swirling waters (157). After tying a rope to a tree, Tull wades into the river to locate the remnants of the Bundrens belongings and enlists Vardaman's help in this effort. Jewel dives into the water in search of Cash's tools while Anse looks at his dead mules. As the others surround him, Cash regains consciousness but he is unable to talk and vomits once more as Dewey Dell calls to him and wipes his mouth with the hem of her dress.
Section 38 Cash
Cash recalls his concerns to his family about the unbalanced coffin: "I told them . . . " (165).
Section 39 Cora
Tull's wife Cora recalls an earlier discussion with Addie in which she took Addie to task for judging right and wrong. God should be the only judge, Cora maintained. Addie was too proud, she recalls, and more motivated by her love for her son Jewel, who didn't appreciate her, than by love of God. She remembers Addie speaking of Jewel in terms more appropriate to God and telling Cora, "he is my cross and he will be my salvation. He will save me from the water and the fire (169)."
Section 40 Addie
Addie's voice is finally heard in section 40. She speaks either from the past or from the coffin. She provides a sketch of her life as a particularly mean school teacher before she married Anse. When Cash and Darl were born she felt she knew "that living was terrible," and that they violated her sense of aloneness. She said that Anse was dead to her after she gave birth to Darl and made him promise her then to take her body to Jefferson after she died. She also realized that "words were no good: that words don't ever fit what they are trying to say" (171). Then she admits the physical passion she felt for the minister Whitfield. Addie, who hated deceit, lost interest in Whitfield when she realized how easily he engaged in an affair with her, but not before giving birth to his son, Jewel. Then Addie recalls the births of Dewey Dell and Vardaman and considers their births the final payments due to Anse for her affair with Whitfield: "I gave Anse Dewey Dell to negative Jewel. Then I gave him Vardaman to replace the child I robbed him of.and then I could get ready to die" (176).
In these sections we hear various versions of what happened when the Bundrens attempted to cross the river and as a result, we read about the action from different point of views. In this regard, Tull's more objective rational version to his wife Cora, which is written in the past tense when events have been considered, should have more validity over, let's say, Vardaman's frantic version of the events. By now, the Bundrens seem to be experiencing not just a bad karma day, but a bad karma week. Can anything go right? Anything? Do they have any control? The river seems to be the poisonous Styx, the classical mythical river one crossed into Hades, the dark underworld some call hell. At this point, one wonders if Addie indeed is being cast into hell.
The river episode, which provides a break in the processional action of the novel, sheds more light on the Bundren siblings. Cash breaks the same leg which had not healed very well the first time but thinks only of his earlier warnings to the family that the coffin was unbalanced. Now, he will hobble more, or become more unbalanced himself, so to speak. Jewel wants to get things done. A creature ever in motion, he doesn't make plans, and this lack on his part results in failure and disaster. Vardaman's belief that his mother is a fish is reinforced in this scene. Naturally, the patriarch Anse does nothing and thinks of his new teeth throughout.
Cora Tull's narrative sets up readers for Addie's narrative in section 40. In effect, she introduces the readers to Addie, who is central to the entire plot. She provides the background information that makes Addie's speech especially poignant and powerful and acts as a mouthpiece for Addie who has prophesized to Cora that Jewel will be her salvation; he will save her from the water and from the fire. By this point, Jewel has already "saved" Addie from the water and so we can anticipate that shortly he will in some manner save her from the fire. This goes beyond foreshadowing. This is prophesying and is heightened by Cora's fanatical religious overtones.
Addie, who up until now has been silent, is hardly religious. Indeed, scholars call Addie a nihilist. Life to her is mere preparation for death. Anse is lazy but Addie is nasty. With the exception of Jewel, she hates her children and beats them as she beat her students. She insists on people paying attention to her and for this reason makes them carry out a promise to take her to Jefferson. They will not get away with burying her near home and forget about her. Cash she believed would pay attention to her and make her less lonely. However, she realized after his birth that this was not the case and she rejected Darl as serving no purpose, which of course contributed Darl's belief that he has no mother. Still seeking intimacy with another human, she turned to Whitfield, the minister, and while hoping for some form of violence to make her feel alive, conceived Jewel who thematically exemplifies violence. Then she gave birth to Dewey Dell as a form of penance to Anse for having Jewel and then Vardaman to make up for the child Anse would have had.