As I Lay Dying:A ddie Bundren, the wife of Anse Bundren and the matriarch of a poor southern family, is very ill, and is expected to die soon. Her oldest son, Cash, puts all of his carpentry skills into preparing her coffin, which he builds right in front of Addie's bedroom window. Although Addie's health is failing rapidly, two of her other sons, Darl and Jewel, leave town to make a delivery for the Bundrens' neighbor, Vernon Tull, whose wife and two daughters have been tending to Addie. Shortly after Darl and Jewel leave, Addie dies. The youngest Bundren child, Vardaman, associates his mother's death with that of a fish he caught and cleaned earlier that day. With some help, Cash completes the coffin just before dawn. Vardaman is troubled by the fact that his mother is nailed shut inside a box, and while the others sleep, he bores holes in the lid, two of which go through his mother's face. Addie and Anse's daughter, Dewey Dell, whose recent sexual liaisons with a local farmhand named Lafe have left her pregnant, is so overwhelmed by anxiety over her condition that she barely mourns her mother's death. A funeral service is held on the following day, where the women sing songs inside the Bundren house while the men stand outside on the porch talking to each other.
Darl, who narrates much of this first section, returns with Jewel a few days later, and the presence of buzzards over their house lets them know their mother is dead. On seeing this sign, Darl sardonically reassures Jewel, who is widely perceived as ungrateful and uncaring, that he can be sure his beloved horse is not dead. Addie has made Anse promise that she will be buried in the town of Jefferson, and though this request is a far more complicated proposition than burying her at home, Anse's sense of obligation, combined with his desire to buy a set of false teeth, compels him to fulfill Addie's dying wish. Cash, who has broken his leg on a job site, helps the family lift the unbalanced coffin, but it is Jewel who ends up manhandling it, almost single-handedly, into the wagon. Jewel refuses, however, to actually come in the wagon, and follows the rest of the family riding on his horse, which he bought when he was young by secretly working nights on a neighbor's land.
On the first night of their journey, the Bundrens stay at the home of a generous local family, who regards the Bundrens' mission with skepticism. Due to severe flooding, the main bridges leading over the local river have been flooded or washed away, and the Bundrens are forced to turn around and attempt a river-crossing over a makeshift ford. When a stray log upsets the wagon, the coffin is knocked out, Cash's broken leg is reinjured, and the team of mules drowns. Vernon Tull sees the wreck, and helps Jewel rescue the coffin and the wagon from the river. Together, the family members and Tull search the riverbed for Cash's tools.
Cora, Tull's wife, remembers Addie's unchristian inclination to respect her son Jewel more than God. Addie herself, speaking either from her coffin or in a leap back in time to her deathbed, recalls events from her life: her loveless marriage to Anse; her affair with the local minister, Whitfield, which led to Jewel's conception; and the birth of her various children. Whitfield recalls traveling to the Bundrens' house to confess the affair to Anse, and his eventual decision not to say anything after all.
A horse doctor sets Cash's broken leg, while Cash faints from the pain without ever complaining. Anse is able to purchase a new team of mules by mortgaging his farm equipment, using money that he was saving for his false teeth and money that Cash was saving for a new gramophone, and trading in Jewel's horse. The family continues on its way. In the town of Mottson, residents react with horror to the stench coming from the Bundren wagon. While the family is in town, Dewey Dell tries to buy a drug that will abort her unwanted pregnancy, but the pharmacist refuses to sell it to her, and advises marriage instead. With cement the family has purchased in town, Darl creates a makeshift cast for Cash's broken leg, which fits poorly and only increases Cash's pain. The Bundrens then spend the night at a local farm owned by a man named Gillespie. Darl, who has been skeptical of their mission for some time, burns down the Gillespie barn with the intention of incinerating the coffin and Addie's rotting corpse. Jewel rescues the animals in the barn, then risks his life to drag out Addie's coffin. Darl lies on his mother's coffin and cries.
The next day, the Bundrens arrive in Jefferson and bury Addie. Rather than face a lawsuit for Darl's criminal barn burning, the Bundrens claim that Darl is insane, and give him to a pair of men who commit him to a Jackson mental institution. Dewey Dell tries again to buy an abortion drug at the local pharmacy, where a boy working behind the counter claims to be a doctor and tricks her into exchanging sexual services for what she soon realizes is not an actual abortion drug. The following morning, the children are greeted by their father, who sports a new set of false teeth and, with a mixture of shame and pride, introduces them to his new bride, a local woman he meets while borrowing shovels with which to bury Addie.Character List
Addie Bundren - The wife of Anse Bundren and mother to Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman. Addie is a mostly absent protagonist, and her death triggers the novel's action. She is a former schoolteacher whose bitter, loveless life causes her to despise her husband and to invest all of her love in her favorite child, Jewel, rather than in the rest of her family or God.
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Anse Bundren - The head of the Bundren family. Anse is a poor farmer afflicted with a hunchback, whose instincts are overwhelmingly selfish. His poor childrearing skills seem to be largely responsible for his children's various predicaments. Alternately hated and disrespected by his children, Anse nonetheless succeeds in achieving his two greatest goals in one fell swoop: burying his dead wife in her hometown of Jefferson, and acquiring a new set of false teeth.
Darl Bundren - The second Bundren child. Darl is the most sensitive and articulate of the surviving Bundrens and delivers the greatest number of interior monologues in the novel. As the family encounters disaster upon disaster during the trip, Darl's frustration with the whole process leads him to try to end things decisively by incinerating his dead mother's coffin.
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Jewel - The bastard child of Addie and Whitfield, the minister. Though Darl seems to understand him, Jewel remains the novel's greatest mystery, and is the least represented in its many sections. Jewel has a proud, fiercely independent nature that most of his family and neighbors confuse for selfishness. His passionate, brooding nature, however, reveals a real love and dedication to his mother, and he becomes a fierce protector of her coffin.
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Cash Bundren - The eldest Bundren child and a skilled carpenter. Cash is the paragon of patience and selflessness, almost to the point of absurdity. He refuses ever to complain about his broken, festering leg, allowing the injury to degenerate to the point that he may never walk again. Cash emerges as one of the novel's few consistently stable characters.
Dewey Dell Bundren - The only Bundren daughter. Dewey Dell is seventeen, and a recent sexual experience has left her pregnant. Increasingly desperate, she finds her mind occupied exclusively with her pregnancy, and views all men with varying degrees of suspicion.
Vardaman Bundren - The youngest of the Bundren children. Vardaman has a lively imagination, and he views his mother's death through the same lens with which he views a fish he has recently caught and cleaned. Although his ramblings at the beginning of the novel border on the maniacal, Vardaman proves to be a thoughtful and innocent child.
Vernon Tull - The Bundrens' wealthier neighbor. Tull is both a critic of and an unappreciated help to the Bundrens. He hires Darl, Jewel, and Cash for odd jobs, and helps the family cross the river in spite of its overt hostility toward him. Tull and his wife Cora, however, are critical of the Bundrens' decision to bury Addie's body in Jefferson.
Cora Tull - Vernon Tull's wife. Cora stays with Addie during Addie's final hours. A deeply religious woman and pious to a fault, Cora frequently and vocally disapproves of Addie's impiety and behavior.
Lafe - The father of Dewey Dell's child. While he never appears in person in the novel, Lafe is certainly a driving force behind many of Dewey Dell's thoughts and much of her behavior. In a supreme effort to disassociate himself from her problems, Lafe gives Dewey Dell ten dollars with which to pay for an abortion.
Whitfield - The local minister. Held up by Cora Tull as the pinnacle of piety, Whitfield is in fact a hypocrite. His affair with Addie results in Jewel's conception, and, though Whitfield resolves to confess the affair to Anse, he ends up deciding that the mere intention to confess will do just as well.
Peabody - The severely overweight rural doctor who attends to Addie and later to Cash. Peabody is extremely critical of the way Anse treats his children.
Samson - The local farmer who puts up the Bundrens on the first evening of their disastrous funeral journey. Samson sees the Bundrens' problems as a judgment on the family's uncouth manners and on Addie and Anse's disregard for God and their own children.
Armstid - A local farmer who puts up the Bundrens on the second evening of their funeral journey. Anse repeatedly and rigidly refuses Armstid's offer to lend Anse a team of mules.
Gillespie - A farmer who puts up the Bundrens later in their journey.
Moseley - The Mottson druggist who indignantly refuses Dewey Dell's request for an abortion. Moseley's stern lecture to Dewey Dell is both the embodiment of sanctimoniousness and, some might say, of fatherly caring.
MacGowan - A rather despicable young employee at a Jefferson drugstore. MacGowan extorts a sexual favor from Dewey Dell in return for a fake abortion treatment.
The Gillespie boy - Gillespie's son, who
Analysis of Major Characters
Though she is dead for most of the novel, Addie is one of its most important characters, as her unorthodox wish to be buried near her blood relatives rather than with her own family is at the core of the story. Addie, whose voice is expressed through Cora Tull's memories and through her own brief section in the narrative, appears to be a strong-willed and intelligent woman haunted by a sense of disillusionment. Unable to bring herself to love the coarse, helpless Anse or the children she bears him, Addie sees marital love and motherhood as empty concepts, words that exist solely to fill voids in people's lives. After she bears a second child to Anse, Addie first expresses her wish to be buried far away, stating her belief that "the reason for living [is] to get ready to stay dead a long time." The little value she does find in life, from her brief affair with Whitfield and her love for her son Jewel, ends on a morbid note. Jewel treats Addie harshly while she is alive, and only once she is dead does he "save [her] from the water and from the fire," as she always believed he would. Addie invests her life and energy in a love that finds repayment and comes to fruition only after she is dead.
As a corpse, Addie is equally important to the novel, hindering and dividing her family as much as when she is alive. Many of the incidents after Addie's death reflect this feeling that some part of Addie is still living. Vardaman drills holes in the coffin so that the dead Addie might have air to breathe, and when Darl and Vardaman listen to the noises of the decomposing body, Darl claims that these sounds are Addie speaking. Even the stench of Addie's corpse captivates a large audience of strangers. The notion that there is continuity between the articulate human voice of the living Addie and the putrid biological mass that is the dead Addie is among the most emotionally powerful ideas presented in the novel.
Darl, who speaks in nineteen of the novel's fifty-nine sections, is in many ways its most cerebral character. Darl's knack for probing analysis and poetic descriptions mean that his voice becomes the closest thing the story offers to a guiding, subjective narrator. Yet it is this same intellectual nature that prevents him from achieving either the flashy heroism of his brother Jewel or the self-sacrificing loyalty of his brother Cash. In fact, it prevents Darl from believing wholeheartedly in the family's mission. Darl registers his objection to the entire burial outing by apparently abandoning his mother's coffin during the botched river-crossing, and by setting fire to Gillespie's barn with the eight-day-old corpse inside.
Another consequence of Darl's philosophical nature is his alienation from the community around him. According to Cora Tull, people find Darl strange and unsettling. He is also able to understand private things about the lives of the people around him, as he does when he guesses at Dewey Dell's fling with Lafe or perceives that Anse is not Jewel's real father. At times, Darl is almost clairvoyant, as evidenced by the scene in which he is able to describe vividly the scene at his mother's death, even though he and Jewel are far away from the scene when she dies. Other characters alienate Darl for fear that he will get too close to them and their secrets. It is perhaps this fear, more than Darl's act of arson, that leads his family to have him committed to an insane asylum at the end of the novel—after all, Dewey Dell, who realizes that Darl knows her sordid secret, is the first to restrain him when the officers from the asylum arrive.
Because Jewel speaks very few words of his own throughout the novel, he is defined by his actions, as filtered through the eyes of other characters. Jewel's uncommunicative nature creates a great distance between him and us, and a great deal of room exists for debating the meaning of Jewel's actions. Darl's frequent descriptions of Jewel as "wooden" reinforce the image of Jewel as impenetrable to others, and also establish a relationship between Jewel and the wooden coffin that comes to symbolize his mother. Whether or not Jewel returns his mother's devotion is also debatable—his behavior toward her while she is alive seems callous. Even as Addie lies on her deathbed, Jewel refuses to say good-bye to her, and harshly asserts his independence from her earlier on with his purchase of a horse. Jewel's actions after Addie's death show, however, that Jewel does care deeply about her, as he makes great sacrifices to assure the safe passage of her body to her chosen resting place, agreeing even to the sale of his beloved horse. Similarly, Jewel's cold, rough-spoken behavior toward the rest of his family contrasts sharply with the heroic devotion he demonstrates in his deeds, such as when he searches valiantly for Cash's tools after the river-crossing and nearly comes to blows with a stranger whom he believes has insulted the family. In general, Jewel is an independent, solitary man of action, and these traits put him in an antagonistic relationship with the introspective Darl.
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Impermanence of Existence and Identity
The death of Addie Bundren inspires several characters to wrestle with the rather sizable questions of existence and identity. Vardaman is bewildered and horrified by the transformation of a fish he caught and cleaned into "pieces of not-fish," and associates that image with the transformation of Addie from a person into an indefinable nonperson. Jewel never really speaks for himself, but his grief is summed up for him by Darl, who says that Jewel's mother is a horse. For his own part, Darl believes that since the dead Addie is now best described as "was" rather than "is," it must be the case that she no longer exists. If his mother does not exist, Darl reasons, then Darl has no mother and, by implication, does not exist. These speculations are not mere games of language and logic. Rather, they have tangible, even terrible, consequences for the novel's characters. Vardaman and Darl, the characters for whom these questions are the most urgent, both find their hold on reality loosened as they pose such inquiries. Vardaman babbles senselessly early in the novel, while Darl is eventually declared insane. The fragility and uncertainty of human existence is further illustrated at the end of the novel, when Anse introduces his new wife as "Mrs. Bundren," a name that, until recently, has belonged to Addie. If the identity of Mrs. Bundren can be usurped so quickly, the inevitable conclusion is that any individual's identity is equally unstable.
The Tension Between Words and Thoughts
Addie's assertion that words are "just words," perpetually falling short of the ideas and emotions they seek to convey, reflects the distrust with which the novel as a whole treats verbal communication. While the inner monologues that make up the novel demonstrate that the characters have rich inner lives, very little of the content of these inner lives is ever communicated between individuals. Indeed, conversations tend to be terse, halting, and irrelevant to what the characters are thinking at the time. When, for example, Tull and several other local men are talking with Cash about his broken leg during Addie's funeral, we are presented with two entirely separate conversations. One, printed in normal type, is vague and simple and is presumably the conversation that is actually occurring. The second, in italics, is far richer in content and is presumably the one that the characters would have if they actually spoke their minds. All of the characters are so fiercely protective of their inner thoughts that the rich content of their minds is translated to only the barest, most begrudging scraps of dialogue, which in turn leads to any number of misunderstandings and miscommunications.
The Relationship Between Childbearing and Death
As I Lay Dying is, in its own way, a relentlessly cynical novel, and it robs even childbirth of its usual rehabilitative powers. Instead of functioning as an antidote to death, childbirth seems an introduction to it—for both Addie and Dewey Dell, giving birth is a phenomenon that kills the people closest to it, even if they are still physically alive. For Addie, the birth of her first child seems like a cruel trick, an infringement on her precious solitude, and it is Cash's birth that first causes Addie to refer to Anse as dead. Birth becomes for Addie a final obligation, and she sees both Dewey Dell and Vardaman as reparations for the affair that led to Jewel's conception, the last debts she must pay before preparing herself for death. Dewey Dell's feelings about pregnancy are no more positive: her condition becomes a constant concern, causes her to view all men as potential sexual predators, and transforms her entire world, as she says in an early section, into a "tub full of guts." Birth seems to spell out a prescribed death for women and, by proxy, the metaphorical deaths of their entire households.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text's major themes.
Pointless Acts of Heroism
As I Lay Dying is filled with moments of great heroism and with struggles that are almost epic, but the novel's take on such battles is ironic at best, and at times it even makes them seem downright absurd or mundane. The Bundrens' effort to get their wagon across the flooded river is a struggle that could have been pulled from a more conventional adventure novel, but is undermined by the fact that it occurs for a questionable purpose. One can argue that the mission of burying Addie in Jefferson is as much about Anse's false teeth as about Addie's dying wishes. Cash's martyrdom seems noble, but his uncomplaining tolerance of the pain from his injuries eventually becomes more ridiculous than heroic. Jewel's rescuing of the livestock is daring, but it also nullifies Darl's burning of the barn, which, while criminal, could be seen as the most daring and noble act of all. Every act of heroism, if not ridiculous on its own, counteracts an equally epic act, a vicious cycle that lends an absurdity that is both comic and tragic to the novel.
As Faulkner was embarking on his literary career in the early twentieth century, a number of Modernist writerswere experimenting with narr