These sections present one of the more crucial and significant episodes of the novel, that is, the arrival at the bridge and the loss of the coffin while attempting to ford the high waters. The introduction to the washed-out bridge is presented from Anse’s viewpoint and again presents Anse as a man who does nothing but who feels that he must endure untold burdens for the sake of others. Actually, however, as the end of the section indicates, Anse’s only concern now is with getting his new teeth.
We hear more of the Bundrens by the introduction of a new objective commentator. This is Samson, a neighboring farmer, and with him Faulkner takes us away from the Bundren world for a while. At this point in the novel, we need to see the normal, or average or typical, reactions so as to be able to evaluate the absurdity of the Bundrens’ actions.
When Samson first sees the Bundrens, we hear him assume that the Bundrens are taking a holiday, now that they have buried Mrs. Bundren. The irony here, of course, is that the average person would assume that a woman dead for four days would not be carted about the country in the back end of a wagon. Consequently by this one assumption, the absurdity of the Bundrens’ actions is further indicated.
Later, Samson expresses the idea that the best way to respect a dead woman is to get her into the ground as quickly as possible. Samson’s section, then, adds a note of objectivity by reminding the reader of the proper perspective and of the normal reactions of the average person toward the dead. And since the body is beginning to decay so rapidly, and since we see it from the outside narrator’s point of view, we are prepared later on for Darl’s drastic actions in trying to give his mother a decent and respectable funeral when he burns the barn.
What Samson does not understand is that Anse is using the promise to his wife as an excuse to get to Jefferson for his false teeth. But Dewey Dell is even more insistent than Anse about getting to Jefferson. It is she who reminds him of his promise. But then in actuality Dewey Dell is not interested in her mother or in fulfilling the promise, but only in getting to Jefferson so that she can have an abortion.
It is somewhat comic that Anse consistently asserts his independence and will not become indebted to anyone while at the same time he is constantly accepting help from someone.
In Section 30, Dewey Dell narrates a short scene; mainly her narration is one of impressions. Her scenes are essentially illogical because, as Dewey Dell herself says, she is incapable of thinking, of remembering, or tying things together. She responds only on an elemental level. In remembering the fish that Vardaman caught and stuck the knife into, she juxtaposes this previous scene with an imaginative scene of violence in which she stabs Darl. This image of violence foreshadows her later attack on Darl at the end of the novel and should be seen as her subconscious desire to punish Darl because he knows of her pregnancy. Dewey Dell herself seems to be unaware of the significance of the buzzards, and they seem to gain significance for her only in the fact that Darl constantly watches them.
Sections 31 and 33 are both narrated by Tull, but these sections are interrupted by the narration in which Darl recounts for us the story of Jewel’s obtaining the horse. In Tull’s narration, we note once again Anse’s complete helplessness when confronted with some obstacle, in this instance, the washed-out bridge. The irony here is, of course, that Anse cannot perform any action and he can only mouth generalizations, hoping that someone will soon come to his rescue.
Tull’s observation of Darl is interesting in view of our final analysis of Darl. Tull makes the remark that Darl has always been considered somewhat strange, and in Tull’s view what Darl says is not as strange as is the manner in which Darl looks at a person. This conforms with our general view of Darl. We have seen that Darl has the ability to penetrate into another person’s thoughts or subconscious, especially Dewey Dell’s and Jewel’s.
In Darl’s section, we see how dedicated Jewel can be when confronted with the task of earning money to purchase a horse. This dedication should be juxtaposed to his love for his mother. His desperate efforts to earn money for the horse are partly the reason why he loves it so dearly, which also accounts for part of the pathos when he has to sell it to help complete the journey to Jefferson.
In this section, it becomes almost certain that Jewel knows that Anse is not his father. Jewel has a pronounced antagonism toward Anse, as seen when Jewel promises that he will never allow his horse to eat any of Anse’s food.
The entire section concerning the purchase of the horse leads us deeper into the relationship existing among the various Bundrens. For once we see Darl and Cash both as having some type of almost brotherly affection for Jewel. But more important, Faulkner also gives us an inside view of Addie, who is somewhat partial toward Jewel. We see her doing things for Jewel in secret, even though she has always maintained that deceit was one of the worst sins.
Tull’s continuation of his narration leads to one minor problem concerning time in the novel. That is, earlier the Bundrens had passed by the Tulls and gone and spent the night with the Samsons, and then in these sections we hear that Tull followed them immediately after they left the house. We can account for this only by saying that again Faulkner is not presenting the story in strict chronological order. That is, these sections by Tull can be considered a jump back in time. Yet Samson in his section has also suggested that the bridge is out. The important thing, though, is that Tull is totally unable to determine why the Bundrens must cross the water.
As noted previously, whenever a significant event occurs, the reader should be aware that it is Darl who narrates this event. Thus, he is also responsible for the main narration about the losing of the coffin. The narration itself is in language that is impressionistic, musical, and imagistic, rather than a straightforward narrative. However, we do gain a sense of the immediacy of the situation.
In the attempt to cross the river, we again have the basic attributes of Cash and Jewel demonstrated. Jewel is impetuous and has no logical plan for the crossing. Instead, he simply must be doing something, must be performing some action. He cannot tolerate the slow process of thinking or working out some plan, but his impatience is partly responsible for losing the coffin. In contrast to Jewel, Cash is slow, deliberate, and calculating. He likes to think over every possibility before he begins anything, and it is Cash who wishes to secure the coffin better and to have a rope on the other side as a brace against the current. Yet because Jewel cannot stand the delay, they begin the crossing before they are certain of its success.
In the next narration by Vardaman, we have another view of essentially the same event. And in the following section, Tull again gives us still another view of the same event. These three sections taken together are an excellent illustration of the narrative technique Faulkner uses. That is, he narrates the same event from several perspectives so that the reader can gain a fuller understanding of the event.
Earlier Vardaman had confused his mother with the fish he caught on the day she died. This scene, then, combines the height of comic irony with tragic pathos as the pathetic Vardaman associates his mother’s body, now apparently bobbing and floating in the river, with a fish. Faulkner does not narrate this directly; therefore, the reader must imaginatively reconstruct the scene in order to grasp the grotesque pathos of this entire section.
Tull’s narration is apparently some time later in time since he is telling his wife Cora what happened. Throughout the entire episode at the river, Faulkner never mentions what Anse is doing. Whenever there is some emergency or some action that must be performed, Anse is most often rendered totally incapable. For example, during the confusion caused by the overturned wagon in which each character is desperately involved in some type of furious activity, Anse is completely absent from the scene. Imaginatively, the reader can envision Anse as a mere bystander shaking his head and muttering one of his platitudes.
Faulkner again utilizes Darl to narrate another aspect of the ill-fated crossing. And again we should notice that Anse can merely stand ineffectually by and bemoan his predicament, but he does nothing to rectify it. And when he says that he does not begrudge Addie the effort, he is actually thinking only about his teeth.
It is typical of Anse that he thinks it is lucky Cash broke the same leg, when in reality this is the worst possible thing that could have happened. But Cash himself does not even think about his leg. Cash, even in the midst of the pain of his broken leg, is more concerned about the reason that the coffin was lost. Ironically, this concern again suggests that Cash cannot become involved in more than one thought at one time. Since the opening of the novel, his entire attention has been focused upon the mechanics of the coffin itself, and since he is so proud of his handicraft, it is ironically fitting that he will be compelled to ride on top of it.