Unfortunately, in making the holes, Vardaman accidentally drills into his mother's head. He is ignorant of the truth of the world and, in his attempts to right perceived wrongs, he performs a desecration of the past. In the antebellum period, many historians tried to glorify what it would have been like to grow up before the Civil War in a south which would have been ruled by plantation ownership and the practice of slavery. They recreate famous Civil War battles and reminiscent longingly over the period of petticoats and coaches. Even modern southerners look back on the time of the antebellum and celebrate it through Civil Ware reenactments and a supposed devotion to history. Yet, like Vardaman, in trying to recapture historical moments, the present population misunderstands the purposes for those excursions. In trying to embrace the past, the present people actually cause damage to it.
The climax of the story, if there is one per say, occurs when Darl Bundren decides to burn down a barn owned by the family of the Gillespies. His intention for committing the arson is not to damage the building, but to burn up his mother's corpse. Unlike the other members of the Bundren clan who went along with their mother's request willingly, Darl has shown himself to be reluctant. Darl does not see any logical reason to carry out Addie's wishes and indeed sees the trek as a waste (Brooks 85). The other family members believe that they are honoring their mother by taking her dead body to Jefferson. Darl does not see the events in the same light. He believes that this is a waste of time. The mother is dead and there is no reason to do as she asked. He is bitter and angry without a specific target for his rage. At one point he discusses being an author and what that means in terms of the present historical moment. "[A writer] will be completely ruthless if he is a good one…If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies" (Brooks 87). Darl is thus another representation of the new south. If Vardaman sins in trying to honor the past, Darl's actions are caused by a determination to forget the past and to react against change. Unable to do so without resorting to acts of violence, Darl is sent away presumably to end his life either in a prison or a mental institution. He is insane or at least highly mentally disturbed by story's end. The most easily identifiable real-world counterpart to Darl would be the racially prejudiced members of southern communities, such as members of the Klu Klux Klan. His motivations are not racial, but they are violent and he does not care if other creatures, such as the animals in the barn, get injured in his attempts to destroy his mother (Fargnoli 51). For him, the individual purpose outweighs any humanitarian impulse.
Jewel Bundren is the third son of the Bundren family and clearly the mother's favorite child. He has a different father from the other Bundren children. Jewel was the offspring of an adulterous relationship that Addie had with a member of the Yoknapatawpha clergy. Reverend Whitfield had an affair with Addie Bundren and Jewel was the result of that relationship. This is a symbol of the importance of religion in the American south before and after the Civil War. Before the Civil War religion had a very important role in the lives of people in the south. Since before the founding of the nation, the center of the government was the leader of the church and the place of worship was also the center of the community. However, following the war the halo of purity that surrounded both the church and the members of the clergy slipped and there were reports of fallibility in the nation's church members. Reverend Whitfield was a man of the cloth and as such was supposed to be a person of the highest caliber and quality than the average man. Yet, he engaged in sex with a married woman and impregnated her as well. Jewel, being the product of an unholy union, is thus made other by the society in which he lives (Fargnoli 52). The mother's favorite, Jewel is still marginalized within the family because of the undercurrent of difference that he exudes. Even though he is other, Jewel shows himself to be the better man of his legitimate family. It is important that it is Jewel who braves the flames of the burning barn and enters to save both his mother's corpse and the animals which are trapped. Cleanth Brooks writes in William Faulkner: First Encounters, that "Jewel has moral courage as well as animla courage, and he truly wishes to honor his mother's wishes" (85). Only this young man, the illegitimate and thus society says inferior child, who has the strength of character to sacrifice for other beings.
Although there are many characters and stories going on in the often chaotic story by William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying is at the center a metaphor for the time in the American south both before and after the Civil War. Addie Bundren symbolizes the past and all the glory and disturbance that can be associated with it. She is long dead and yet the present moment cannot or will not allow her to go on to the next realm without long professions of honor and adoration. As each of the members of the Bundren family help in carrying the quickly-decomposing corpse of their matriarch, each reacts based upon their character and their purpose as a representation of the an aspect of the new south. In the end, the family has accomplished their goal and the reader is left wondering whether or not they will succeed. This is a sound conclusion to a story which is itself more of an exploration than a narrative. There is no way of knowing if the new south will be able to move past their horrific and honorific past, just as there is now way of knowing what happens to the Bundren family after Faulkner stops writing.
Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner, First Encounters. New Haven: Yale UP, 1983. Print.
Fargnoli, A. Nicholas., Michael Golay, Robert W. Hamblin, and A. Nicholas. Fargnoli. "As I
Lay Dying." Critical Companion to William Faulkner: a Literary Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2008. Print.
Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. New York: W.W. Norton &,…