As I Lay Dying is a novel written by William Faulkner.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 helps Jewel save the animals from the burning barn.
Addie 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 Bunderns' 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.
Shortly after Addie's death, the Bundren children seize on animals as symbols of their deceased mother. Vardaman declares that his mother is the fish he caught. Darl asserts that Jewel's mother is his horse. Dewey Dell calls the family cow a woman as she mulls over her pregnancy only minutes after she has lost Addie, her only female relative. For very different reasons, the grief-stricken characters seize on animals as emblems of their own situations. Vardaman sees Addie in his fish because, like the fish, she has been transformed to a different state than when she was alive. The cow, swollen with milk, signifies to Dewey Dell the unpleasantness of being stuck with an unwanted burden. Jewel and his horse add a new wrinkle to the use of animals as symbols. To us, based on Darl's word, the horse is a symbol of Jewel's love for his mother. For Jewel, however, the horse, based on his riding of it, apparently symbolizes a hard-won freedom from the Bundren family. That we can draw such different conclusions from the novel's characters makes the horse in many ways representative of the unpredictable and subjective nature of symbols in As I Lay Dying.
Addie's coffin comes to stand literally for the enormous burden of dysfunction that Addie's death, and circumstances in general, place on the Bundren family. Cash, always calm and levelheaded, manufactures the coffin with great craft and care, but the absurdities pile up almost immediately—Addie is placed in the coffin upside down, and Vardaman drills holes in her face. Like the Bundrens' lives, the coffin is thrown off balance by Addie's corpse. The coffin becomes the gathering point for all of the family's dysfunction, and putting it to rest is also crucial to the family's ability to return to some sort of normalcy.
Tools, in the form of Cash's carpentry tools and Anse's farm equipment, become symbols of respectable living and stability thrown into jeopardy by the recklessness of the Bundrens' journey. Cash's tools seem as though they should have significance for Cash alone, but when these tools are scattered by the rushing river and the oncoming log, the whole family, as well as Tull, scrambles to recover them. Anse's farm equipment is barely mentioned, but ends up playing a crucial role in the Bundrens' journey when Anse mortgages the most expensive parts of it to buy a new team of mules. This trade is significant, as the money from Anse's pilfering of Cash's gramophone fund and the sale of Jewel's horse represents the sacrifice of these characters' greatest dreams. But the fact that Anse throws in his farm equipment should not be overlooked, as this equipment guarantees the family's livelihood. In an effort to salvage the burial trip, Anse jeopardizes the very tools the family requires to till its land and survive.
Cash's Broken Leg
Cash's broken leg serves as a symbol of sacrifice.