Fifty-nine sections comprised of fifteen different first person narrators
Wow. There must be a reason for such a crazy narrative technique, right? Let’s start with a little passage from Cash Bundren:
Sometimes I ain’t 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 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. […] That’s how I reckon a man is crazy. That’s how he can’t see eye to eye with other folks. And I reckon they aint nothing else to do with him but what the most folks says is right (53.8).
As I Lay Dying reminds us that everything is in the eye of the beholder. Right, wrong, sin, good, duty, responsibility, love, hate – all of these depend on who’s looking. Cora thinks that Darl is a godsend to Addie, while Addie is convinced that Jewel is her salvation. Anse thinks he’s doing the right thing while his neighbors question his motives. Dewey Dell is frightened of Darl for his perceptiveness, while Jewel resents him as competition for their mother’s love.
It’s not just emotion and motive that are up for grabs; fact, too, is a flexible concept in this novel. When narrative sections overlap, we see the same scene from two perspectives, often with incongruities. As a reader, we have to gather what we can of the tale when we can, and we often don’t know the full story until after the fact. We aren’t sure what caused the fire, for example, until several sections after the Gillespie barn has burned to the ground. It’s often unclear whether events are really happening, or are taking place in the given narrator’s mind, or are flashbacks to an earlier time. When Addie begins narrating, for example, were not sure if she’s speaking from beyond the grave, if she maintains some sort of post-mortem consciousness from inside her coffin, if we’re flashing back to a narration she created before her death, or if these words take place in the mind of some omnipresent narrator with magical abilities of perception, like Darl. Notice that Darl narrates Addie’s death though he is not present. Is he capable of witnessing it even though he is not there? Or is this the way he imagines Addie’s death?
Here’s a real kicker of an interpretation: it doesn’t matter. What’s the difference if Darl really sees Addie’s death, or if he imagines it? This novel has taught us that his narration of the event is equally subjective either way. Scary, isn’t it?