As I Lay Dying Summary
As I Lay Dying is a novel by William Faulkner in which the Bundren family contends with the death of its matriarch, Addie.
- Addie Bundren is a bitter old woman who is on her deathbed. She hates her husband, Anse, and resents all of her children except for her son Jewel.
- After Addie's death, the Bundrens transport her body to her hometown of Jefferson for burial.
- The Bundrens face many hardships as they travel to Jefferson. When they arrive, Anse betrays his children, uses money he has stolen from them to buy himself a new set of teeth, and marries another woman.
Last Updated June 29, 2023.
Addie Bundren, wife of Anse and mother of four sons—Cash, Darl, Jewel, and Vardaman—and one daughter—Dewey Dell—is dying. Her family, along with their neighbors, Cora and Vernon Tull, discuss her imminent death and the plans for her burial in the town of Jefferson, Georgia, which is forty miles away.
Cash is building a coffin for Addie outside her window, where she can see and hear him working. Jewel thinks this is heartless and is upset that everyone is standing around, watching and waiting for his mother to die. Vernon Tull pays Jewel and Darl three dollars to run an errand for him, but Anse fears that their mother will die before they return.
Desperate, Anse finally calls Dr. Peabody, but the doctor explains that it is far too late for him to do anything for Addie. While Darl and Jewel are away on their errand for Tull, Darl senses that Addie has died and imagines the scene in her bedroom. Distraught, Dewey Dell throws herself on her mother’s dead body; unamused by his daughter’s conduct, Anse tells her to go and make supper.
As Dewey Dell does so, she considers her life, thinking about her illegitimate pregnancy and wondering if the doctor could help her terminate it if he knew about her plight. For dinner, the youngest Bundren child, Vardaman, caught a fish. However, with all the hubbub surrounding Addie’s death, there was no time to cook it, so Dewey Dell prepares a simple supper of bread and turnip greens, which Anse complains is not enough.
Vardaman, whose youth and simple-mindedness make him given to extreme emotions, runs away to Cora and Vernon Tull’s house, which is four miles away. The Tulls take Vardaman back home and help nail Addie’s coffin closed. Vardaman helps by boring holes into the lid, but two of the holes go through into Addie’s face.
A rainstorm during the night swells a nearby river and destroys the bridge, making it difficult for the Bundrens to take Addie’s body to Jefferson. Whitfield, the minister, arrives for the funeral covered in mud because he had to cross the river at a ford. Darl and Jewel finally return home and see buzzards circling the house. The brothers fight about how to handle their mother’s burial, and to get the upper hand, Darl pokes fun at Jewel’s parentage, knowing that he is the product of an affair between Addie and the minister.
Enraged at Darl’s words, Jewel curses Darl and leaves him behind. When the family gathers for the journey to Jefferson, Anse asks Jewel to travel in the wagon with the rest of the family, rather than riding his horse into Jefferson, but Jewel ignores him, unwilling to sit in the wagon with Darl. When Cash tries to take his tools in the wagon with the coffin, and Dewey Dell wants to bring some cakes made by Cora Tull, Anse tells them both that they are being disrespectful by attempting to profit off of their funerary journey to Jefferson.
The Bundrens—minus Jewel—set off in the wagon, but Jewel soon catches up with them on his horse. At dusk, they reach the home of Samson, a local farmer who allows them to stay in his barn even though Anse angers the farmer when he rejects his hospitality by refusing to have supper at his table and offering to pay for the horses’ feed. The next day, the Bundrens reach the river and argue with Vernon Tull, who has followed them there on his mule, about how to get across. They want to use the mule to help...
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tow the wagon through the river, but Tull will not allow this.
Anse, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman cross the river on foot with Tull, leaving Cash, Darl, and Jewel to bring the wagon across. In the river, a log hits the wagon, the mules are swept away, and Cash is nearly drowned. As Cash lies unconscious on the riverbank, the other Bundrens haul the wagon out of the water and try to retrieve his tools. The narrative flashes back to when Addie was alive and before she married Anse. She was a teacher, and Anse would drive miles out of his way to pass the schoolhouse. When he proposed, she married him without enthusiasm and bore him two children, Cash and Darl, before having an affair with the local minister, Whitfield, which resulted in the birth of Jewel. After this, she bore Anse two more children, Dewey Dell and Vardaman, to atone for her sin.
The Bundrens take Cash to Armstid’s farm, where a veterinarian sets his now-broken leg, and Anse obtains a new team of mules by trading Jewel’s horse and some of the family’s other money and possessions for them. They then drive on to the town of Mottson, where Dewey Dell tries unsuccessfully to obtain an abortion in a pharmacy. Meanwhile, a local marshal cautions them for the awful stench emanating from Addie’s coffin. The Bundrens buy cement and make a cast for Cash’s leg. As they travel on towards Jefferson, Jewel, who left them after Anse sold his horse, silently rejoins the family. They stay the night with a farmer called Gillespie and leave Addie’s coffin in his barn.
During the night, the barn starts to burn, and Jewel rushes in to save Addie’s body, burning himself in the process. Gillespie knows that Darl set fire to the barn in hopes of cremating his mother and saving her from the many indignities being done to her body. To avoid being sued, the Bundrens must arrange for Darl to be sent to a lunatic asylum in Jackson.
In Jefferson, Anse borrows some spades, and the Bundren family finally manages to bury Addie. Dewey Dell goes to another pharmacy, where the pharmacist pretends to be a doctor and molests her while pretending to perform an abortion. Anse takes the ten dollars Dewey Dell was going to use to pay for the abortion and buys himself a new set of teeth. On the day the family leaves Jefferson, Anse introduces his children to the woman from whom he borrowed the spades to bury Addie, telling them that she is his new wife.