As I Lay Dying
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Read As I Lay Dying a few times a few times and you’ll start to notice talk of eyes all over the place. First you’ve got Darl's description of Jewel and "his pale eyes like wood set into his wooden face." Later he notes that again that "Jewel’s eyes look like pale wood in his high-blooded face," and only paragraphs later AGAIN notices Jewel’s "pale wooden eyes." (Does this seem important yet or what?) Interestingly, Tull later refers to Jewel’s eyes as "pieces of burnt-out cinder fixed in his face, looking out over the land."
Cora is the first to touch on Addie’s eyes, which she calls "two candles when you watch them gutter down into the sockets of iron candlesticks." Peabody says the same thing: "Her eyes look like lamps blaring up just before the oil is gone." Then Darl puts in his very similar two cents to describe the moment of Addie’s death: "She looks at Vardaman; her eyes, the life in them, rushing suddenly upon them; the two flames glare up for a steady instant. They go out as though someone had leaned down and blown upon them."
Dewey Dell has this crazy obsession with Darl’s eyes, which she says "go further than the food and the lamp, full of the land dug out of his skull and the holes filled with distance beyond the land." She later says that "the land runs out of Darl’s eyes; they swim to pinpoints. They begin at my feet and rise along my body to my face, and them my dress is gone: I sit naked on the seat above the unhurrying mules, above the travail." Anse would seem to concur, as he draws the same conclusion about his son Darl: "He’s got his eyes full of the land all the time."
We think we’ve made our case. Now, it’s interesting that different narrators describe certain characters’ eyes in exactly the same way. Dewey Dell and Anse both talk about the land running out of Darl’s eyes. Peabody, Darl, and Cora all think that Addie’s eyes are like burnt-out candles. Remember that As I Lay Dying is very much about looking at the world through different people – yet the one thing that unites these different perspectives is the way they view each other’s eyes, or maybe even each other’s perspectives.
Eyes are also used to get at some bigger plot-related ideas in the novel. Dewey Dell finds Darl’s eyes threatening because she finds his powers of perception intimidating – he knows about her baby, remember? That’s why she imagines him stripping her naked with his stare; he sees right through her, essentially. Jewel is connected to his mother because he’s the only character described as having similar "burnt-out" eyes. On the other hand, Darl’s description of Jewel’s light eyes sets him physically apart from his other siblings, fitting for this illegitimate child. And of course, Vardaman’s round eyes are a mark of his innocence and childlike wonder.
Lastly is the reference to eyes in the title of the novel. If you haven’t read "What’s Up with the Title?" yet, here’s the line from Homer’s Odyssey to which the title refers: "As I lay dying, the woman with the dog’s eyes would not close my eyes a I descended into Hades." You might have guessed that "woman with the dog’s eyes" is not a nice term for a lady back in the Greek day. In this case, Agamemnon (the speaker) is justified in referring to his wife this way, since she cheated on and also murdered him. Looks like eyes are again being used to characterize, right? Now the second ocular reference in this passage: it was (and in many places still is) tradition to close a dead person’s eyes. Agamemnon’s wife wouldn’t do that for him, and he considers it a mark of high disrespect (though probably not as much as stabbing him to death). Addie is in some ways treated with the same post-mortem disrespect: her body is placed upside down in her coffin, holes are bored into her face, she’s dropped into a river, nearly cremated, and her burial is used as a pick-up joint for her husband. Isn’t it great that you can get all that from a pair of eyes?