Summary and Analysis Sections 48-51

In Section 39, we heard Addie say that Jewel will be her salvation, that is, he will save her “from the water and from the fire.” Prior to her narration, we had the water episode in which Addie’s coffin and body were rescued by Jewel. During these sections we have the fire episode, in which Jewel will risk his own life in order to save Addie from the burning barn.

Section 48, narrated by Darl, shows how Darl continues to taunt Jewel by questioning who he is. Jewel obviously knows that Darl is referring to the fact that he does not have a father and that he was the result of Addie’s adulterous affair with Preacher Whitfield. These taunts partially justify Jewel’s later attack upon Darl, and particularly the violence with which Jewel later attacks Darl. Of equal importance is why does Darl continue with these taunts? Is he in reality being only malicious and spiteful, or could it possibly be that he is trying to force Jewel to come to an understanding of his relationship with the family? There is a strong argument in favor of the latter since Darl has constantly been concerned with his own relationship to the family. Jewel has seemingly functioned outside the family, and by his taunts Darl hopes to force Jewel to recognize his involvement and hopes to force him to act as a member of the family rather than as an isolated individual.

This section also prepares us for the later action of removing the cast from Cash’s leg. We observe here that Cash’s foot is beginning to swell and that he is in pain, owing to the improvised cast.

In the early part of this section, Darl tells Vardaman that he heard his mother asking to be hidden from the sight of man. This is one of the motivating reasons behind Darl’s decision to burn the barn. It can be assumed that Darl saw through the ridiculousness and absurdity of the entire procession. It can also be assumed that since Darl can see into the thoughts of others, he knows that everyone is going to Jefferson for selfish reasons. Therefore, he wants to thwart their selfish motives and at the same time give his mother a respectable cremation. Or one may say that he wants to give her a cleansing through fire and thus remove the odorous absurdity in the coffin that is offending the entire countryside.

Faulkner has prepared the reader for this section. He has very carefully shown us Darl’s ability to penetrate into the thoughts and motivations of others, and he has also shown us the selfish motivations of the other members of the family. Thus, Darl, who sincerely loves his mother, feels that he is benefiting her by giving her this cleansing cremation. But the reader should remember that it is this action by which the other Bundrens declare Darl to be insane. Therefore, we should watch his remaining actions to judge whether or not he is actually insane.

The reader should also step back from the novel and realize the consequence of Darl’s act in terms of the rural community in which he lives. To burn a barn during the time just prior to harvesting, to endanger the lives of the animals in that barn, and to destroy farm property could easily be viewed by rural people as an act of insanity. In earlier stories, Faulkner had even used the concept of barn-burning as one of the most dangerous types of crimes to be committed on a farm.

For these people, therefore, in spite of all justifications for Darl’s act, the mere fact that he has destroyed property so essential to the management of a farm would automatically cause many people to view him as being partially insane. Thus it is up to the individual reader to determine the exact nature of Darl’s sanity and insanity. The final justification for Darl’s act is rather ironic and is represented by the repeated refrain in this section of the strong smell of the body. We must remember that Addie has now been dead for over eight days: the stench must be overwhelming.

The implication in this section is that Vardaman saw Darl set the barn on fire. We must project that Dewey Dell’s motivations here are to get Darl declared insane, and then Darl would have no chance to tell Anse that she is pregnant. This reasoning, of course, is rather ironic since it will be impossible for her to conceal her pregnancy for many more months. But she still hopes to get the abortion in Jefferson.

The actual narration of the barn-burning is again given by Darl. The contrast between Darl’s sensitive and rather quiet narration and Jewel’s furious and determined actions is important. Jewel’s entire personality is captured in the desperate flights in and out the barn. It is only through violent actions that Jewel is able to express himself. In contrast, it is only through words that Darl is most able to express himself. Therefore, Darl’s narrating of this section captures the essence of Jewel’s violent personality.

As noted above, Addie had told Cora that Jewel would be her salvation. This section fulfills the prophecy that Addie made by showing how Jewel saves her from the fire. We should also be aware of Jewel’s actions because he first gives all of his attention to the mules. He knows that unless the mules are rescued, it will be impossible to get the body to town. He has no intention of leaving the body to burn with the barn, but he also knows that the mules would not leave the barn if the fire were too fierce. Thus the mules, which were bought with his horse, the symbol of his love for his mother, were first rescued so as to assure the completion of the journey, and only then, at great danger to himself, does he return to the barn to rescue his mother’s body.

This section also shows that Dewey Dell is terribly concerned over the fate of Jewel. We may project that her concern is partially based on the fact that she knows Jewel hates Darl also and will join her in turning against Darl later.

The combination of pathos and humor in this scene is handled masterfully. We laugh at the ignorance and at the absurd actions of these Bundrens, but at the same time we respond with opposite emotions since a human being, however comic, is undergoing intense pain. Thus, we cannot view these scenes as entirely comic since, according to the Aristotelian definition, comedy cannot consist of any scene where physical pain is inflicted upon a person. Consequently, we must classify these scenes as a combination of pathos and humor.

Again, Darl’s sanity or insanity must be viewed in terms of how other people react to him. After all, it was Anse Bundren who declared him insane, but, as has been noted, Anse is not a reliable judge of character. From outside viewpoints such as that of Gillespie, we realize that the uninvolved person looks to Darl to perform the rational action and is surprised to discover that Darl did not prevent Anse from applying the cement. This idea is then doubly ironic when the Bundrens send Darl to the insane asylum.

Vardaman’s view of Darl is that he thinks Darl is upset because Addie almost got burned up. Instead, Darl feels the pathos of continuing this absurd trip and is crying because his mother has not been given a cleansing funeral. In all the previous outside views, the other people have expressed the idea that the best way to honor a woman dead so long is to get her in the ground as soon as possible, which is exactly what Darl was trying to do — give his mother a decent and honorable funeral.