William Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying, depicts the journey of the Bundren family as they travel across the South on an odyssey to bury Addie, the deceased mother of the family. As the journey progresses and the Bundrens stray further from their small farm, their second eldest son, Darl Bundren, seems to stray further from sanity. His deranged mind leads him to act in a way that even convinces his closest family members of his own insanity. However, despite the superficial absurdities and irrationality of Darl’s behavior, his actions are rational and play a significant role in progressing the novel.
Throughout the novel, Darl’s madness allows him to be used as a scapegoat and ultimately as a sacrifice to portray the vanity of the Bundren family. Because of Darl’s omniscient mental state, he is able to confront and reveal the dark sins of other characters, such as Dewey Dell’s desire for Addie “to die so [she] can get to town” and Jewel being a bastard child of “[Addie’s] deceit” (40, 136). While his family members stray away from illicit topics of existentialism and illegitimate children, Darl is comfortable with such controversial subject matter, which is demonstrated when he taunts Jewel by asking him if he knows that “[Addie] is going to die” (39).
As a result, the majority of the Bundren family feel antipathy against Darl and show little regard for his thoughts and emotions. Because they are not able to mentally and emotionally connect with him, they physically victimize and attack him, as shown when Dewey Dell “jumps on him like a wild cat” while “scratching and clawing at him” and when Jewel brutally orders the officers to “kill him” (238). When the opportunity to cast him away to an insane asylum emerges, the Bundren family unanimously agree to imprison him for their own selfish conveniences rather than for the benefit of Darl’s mental health.
The Bundrens use Darl’s madness as justification for his imprisonment, which would alleviate them of their guilt for their sins in the absence of Darl’s clairvoyance to expose them. Thus, Darl is abandoned by his own family in the face of their superficiality and egoism and is banished into isolation after having already been ostracized for his madness. However, because of his sacrifice, his family is prevented from experiencing the distress and immense suffering that he undergoes. Hence, Darl’s role as the scapegoat to portray the arrogance of his family is fulfilled by his madness.
Moreover, at first glance, Darl’s madness shown through his stream of consciousness narration may seem to function as a bridge between the plot developed by the narration of his family members. However, his narration actually provides valuable insight to the reader only revealed through his omniscient rambling. For instance, when Darl’s stream of consciousness interrupts reality and points out that “about the shattered spokes and about Jewel’s ankles neither water nor earth swirls” while simultaneously revealing the death of Addie Bundren, Faulkner chronologically aligns the two sections that describe Addie’s passing told from multiple perspectives to more clearly depict her death scene (48). During Peabody’s account of the incident, the specifics of Addie’s death are unclear and do not reveal anything about Darl and Jewel’s situation. The section concludes abruptly with Addie harshly shouting, “you, Cash!” without any context, leaving the reader confused and the story incomplete (46)
. Contrastingly, through Darl’s omniscience, the reader is able to better perceive and understand the situation leading up to Addie’s passing. In his section, Darl reveals Anse’s true intentions for allowing Addie to die so he “can get them teeth” and Vardaman’s “colors draining from his face” as he realizes the death of his mother (52). These details that are imperative to the progression of the novel would have otherwise been left out if it were not for Darl’s omniscient stream of consciousness. Therefore, evident differences between Darl and Peabody’s account of the situation shows that Darl’s omniscience is almost essential for a clear chronicling of the story.
On the other hand, although Darl’s madness does indeed grant him the ability to narrate omnisciently, it also causes him to be a fallible narrator at certain times. This is shown when he first hints his suspicion that Jewel is by a different father when he describes his height as “a full head above [his] own” (1). Because this is only the opening page of the novel, Darl’s suspicion is disguised as contextual information, but the reader cannot help but notice his obsession over the differences between himself and Jewel, which is further unveiled when Darl presses Jewel with questions such as “Whose son are you?” and “Who was your father?” (145).
By continuously hinting throughout each of his monologues, Darl captivates the reader into the mystery behind Jewel’s birthparents. He eventually even misidentifies Jewel’s father as their neighbor, Vernon Tull, because he seems to be “tall, long, and lean” (108). Although Darl’s mistake misleads the reader into suspecting Tull, the false accusation ultimately functions to heighten the suspense of the novel and remind the reader to not simply rely on Darl’s omniscience to provide the entire plot. Thus, Darl’s madness allows him to find a balance between clairvoyance and suspicion while narrating the novel.
On the other hand, Darl’s deranged behavior may actually be judged as reasonable when considering the other characters’ actions. For instance, Cash, the most perceptive and logical Bundren, describes his concept of sanity:
Sometimes I aint so sho who’s got ere a right to say when a man is crazy and when he aint. Sometimes I think it aint none of us pure crazy and aint none of us pure sane until of the balance of us talks him that-a-way. It’s like it aint so much what a fellow does, but it’s the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it. Because Jewel is too hard on him. (233)
Here, Cash expresses his uneasiness in allowing his brother Darl to be imprisoned. Although he does not necessarily attempt to prevent Darl’s banishment, Cash’s philosophy supports the notion that Darl’s sanity may have been misunderstood. Darl may be considered strange by other characters throughout the novel, but he is never actually deemed insane until his family finally agrees so in order to cast him away to an asylum, albeit the majority of his family members have their ulterior motives in doing so: Dewey Dell wishes to censor the one person who knows of her pregnant “womb of time,” Anse intends to avoid being sued by Gillespie after “Darl set fire to it,” and Jewel is satisfied to be rid of him after he “[tries] to burn up the value of his horse” (121, 232, 233). Thus, the amount of bias stemming from his family’s vain personality casts suspicion on the credibility of the assessment of Darl’s sanity.
Furthermore, another potential sign of Darl’s insanity is his omniscence, such as when he describes Addie’s death as “two flames” that “go out as though someone had leaned down and blown upon them,” despite his absence at the time (48). However, there are several instances of other characters displaying the clairvoyance that Darl possesses. For example, Addie is able to explain her connection with Whitfield and the origins of Jewel in a section of the novel where she should chronologically already be deceased (170). Nonetheless, this does not necessarily suggest that Addie is narrating from the afterlife, and its purpose is understood as a way to dramatically reveal Jewel’s background to the reader.
Likewise, Darl’s narration of Addie’s death does not necessarily mean that Darl is literally viewing it, but rather he could be reflecting back upon the event in retrospect. In addition, Cash already refers to the house that Anse borrows a spade from as “Mrs. Bundren’s house” before Anse even makes his announcement regarding his new wife, and yet Cash is never suggested to be mentally ill (236). Hence, Darl’s apparent omniscient narration is not sufficient enough to prove his insanity because it is also possessed by other characters. In actuality, Darl’s unhinged behavior is reasonable considering the amount of bias involved in his imprisonment, and he may indeed be as rational as the rest of the Bundren family.
Darl’s character contrasts greatly with the others due to his intellectual and philosophical nature, which leads him to adopt a behavior that many deem to be aberrant and even insane. Although this depiction of Darl’s mind as insane may seem ironic when compared to his actual genius, it reflects a common practice of society in which the ones who dare venture beyond the status quo of indifference are labeled as mad outcasts.