Anse Bundren, an ignorant and poor white man. When his wife dies, he is determined to take her body to Jefferson, as he had promised, even though the town is forty miles away. In a rickety old wagon, he and his sons must get across a flooded river that has destroyed most of the nearby bridges. Ostensibly, the shiftless and unlucky man is burying his wife there because of the promise. After a long trip with her unembalmed corpse, now dead more than a week, he arrives in Jefferson, pursued by a flock of buzzards that, like a grim chorus, hang apparently motionless against a sultry Mississippi sky. On reaching Jefferson, his family learns Anse’s true reason for the trip: a set of false teeth and a “duck-shaped woman” whom he marries, to the surprise of his children.
Addie Bundren, Anse’s overworked wife. Though dying, she wants to see her coffin finished. Anse does not know it, but she has always thought him to be only a man of words, and words, she thinks, are useless. Feeling isolated from him and her children, she has always tried to break through the wall of isolation surrounding her, but despairing, she never finds any meaning in her grinding existence. To her, sexual relationship means only violation, whereas, to Anse, it means love. Before her death, she believes her father’s words to be true: “The reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time.”
Darl Bundren, Addie’s strange son, thought by his family to be feebleminded. Unlike the others, he seems to have the gift of second sight. Knowing the true reasons why Anse and the others are going to Jefferson, he tries to burn the barn that houses his mother’s body. For this act of attempted purification, his family declares him insane, and he is taken to the asylum at Jackson.
Jewel Bundren, Preacher Whitfield’s illegitimate son. A violent young man, he loves only his horse, which costs him many long hours of labor at night. Although devoted to the animal, he allows Anse to trade it to Snopes for a badly needed team of mules. Like the rest of the Bundrens, he tenaciously hauls his mother on the long, eventful trip, all the while cursing and raging at his brothers. When Darl tries to burn the corpse, it is Jewel who manages to save her body for burial.
Cash Bundren, Anse’s son, a carpenter. While his mother is dying, he busily saws and hammers away at her coffin, just outside her window. Carefully beveling the wood (he hates shoddy work) and showing his mother each board before nailing it in place, he finishes the job shortly after Addie’s death. At the flooded river, he desperately tries to save his treasured tools when the wagon overturns. His leg broken on the trip, he stoically endures the pain, even after his father uses cement to plaster the swollen and infected leg.
Vardaman Bundren, Anse’s son who constantly repeats to himself, “My mother is a fish.”
Dewey Dell Bundren
Dewey Dell Bundren, Anse’s daughter. A well-developed girl of seventeen, she has a reason for going to Jefferson: She is pregnant and wants to buy drugs that she hopes will cause a miscarriage.
Dr. Peabody, a fat, seventy-year-old country doctor. During his long practice, he has ministered to many poor families like the Bundrens. He intends to retire when his unpaid bills reach fifty thousand dollars.
Vernon Tull, Anse’s helpful neighbor. He does what he...
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can to help Bundren on his ghoulish journey.
Cora Tull, Vernon’s fundamentalist wife. Constantly praying and singing hymns, she tries to make Addie repent.
Preacher Whitfield, Addie’s former lover, the father of Jewel.
Much like the Compsons of The Sound and the Fury or the Sutpens of Absalom, Absalom, As I Lay Dying presents a family portrait of the Bundrens. Unlike the multigenerational families in the other novels, the Bundrens are not an aristocratic dynasty but a family of poor hill farmers, and as a result readers may not be aware that the Bundren family contains three generations. Addie Bundren is the wife of the poor hill farmer, Anse Bundren, and mother to his five children. Despite the fact that Addie has only one monologue, she is the most powerful character in the novel. She is a masculine woman who "takes" both her husband and her lover; they respond to her needs and desires, not vice versa. Unlike her neighbor Cora, who hopes to earn heaven, Addie believes in desire more than sin, in will more than goodness. Instead of being a source of unconditional maternal love, Addie is a source of conditional love. Addie sees her sons Cash and Jewel as her children, not Anse's. Her passion for her illigitimate son Jewel far exceeds whatever feeling Addie had for his father, Reverend Whitfield. She refuses to acknowledge the existence of her son Darl, and she sees Vardaman and Dewey Dell as replacement children for Anse after she herself usurps Cash and Jewel's emotional bonding with their father. More interested in action than words, Addie supplies whatever backbone her children possess.
Anse Bundren, who owns a small Mississippi farm, is an expert in appropriating the money and work of others. Anse is comically ineffectual: in his hands he holds the very saw Vernon and Cash look for, he wrinkles a blanket he tries to smooth, and he smothers a lantern he tries to protect from rain. But ultimately, he is vicious in his selfishness. His awkwardness so affects people that they take work away from him. The reader can easily see that his sloth has worn out Addie during their thirty years of marriage. Comfortable in appropriating what belongs to others, Anse does not mind taking Cash's money, Jewel's horse, or the money Dewey Dell gets from Lafe for her abortion. Although he is tricked by Addie into promising to bury her in her birthplace, Jefferson, which is miles from their farm, Anse uses this family emergency to justify taking Dewey Dell's money. However, the trip to Jefferson clearly has additional purposes as far as Anse is concerned: new false teeth and a new wife. While he recognizes the need to address family crises, he believes that only others are required to give—Anse gives nothing.
Addie and Anse Bundren's oldest son Cash, whose mind in early monologues is filled with carpenter's calculations, expresses his love for Addie through action. The crafting of Addie's coffin is an act of love, an act that Addie understands and appreciates. Cash's stoicism in bearing the pain of a broken leg throughout the lengthy burial journey from the river to Jefferson is heroic and yet comic in its understatement. A builder and a protector of property, Cash nonetheless understands why his brother Darl sets fire to the barn in which Addie's reeking coffin rests. He fails to judge Anse's antics or those of the rest of his family, but his sympathy for Darl creates reader sympathy for Cash.
Darl, the second son, unwanted by Addie, is hungry for recognition from his mother. His hunger explains his character, his jealousy of Jewel, and his remarkable perceptiveness, since he has little identity of his own that would impede his ability to understand others. Darl's monologues ache with a need for recognition, as he thinks, "I dont know what I am. I dont know if I am or not." This perceptiveness about others, especially Dewey Dell and Jewel, is so close to the bone that it is an intrusion of their identities, almost a rape of others. Such behavior accounts for the violent impulses Dewey Dell and Jewel, as well as other characters, feel toward him. In spite of Darl's behavior, his brothers Cash and Vardaman miss him when Darl is taken by force to the insane asylum in Jackson. As Vardaman ponders Darl's absence with longing, he cries, "Darl. Darl is my bother. Darl. Darl."
The third Bundren son, Jewel, the illegitimate son of Addie and Reverend Whitfield, also believes in action; however, reflection on his action is not his style. While Jewel does not know that Whitfield, instead of Anse, is his father, he is still isolated from the rest of the Bundrens by Addie's love. In his single monologue, Jewel's isolation from the world becomes evident as he imagines himself with Addie on a high hill, rolling rocks down the hill at everyone else. He loves Addie passionately, and he heroically exhausts himself to earn the money for the wild horse he loves just as passionately. Heroic enterprise is the stuff of Jewel's being. Rescuing Addie's corpse and coffin from the flooded river or from the burning barn are perfect actions for Jewel. If he waits and thinks, he tangles himself in the confusion of his own conflicting emotions.
Dewey Dell is the only daughter of Anse and Addie Bundren. Her pregnancy, unknown to all but Darl, isolates her from the rest of her family, and at the moment when she most needs to talk to her mother, Addie dies. All Dewey Dell can think about is getting an abortion or a drug to abort the fetus so that she can maintain her own identity and not take on a new one as a mother. Lacking love almost as much as Darl, Dewey Dell is abandoned by her lover Lafe. Instead of being a bodiless eye, like Darl, she is an eyeless body, a girl trapped and characterized by flesh. Experience seems to race by her, and she cannot find her place within it.
Vardaman, the youngest of the Bundren children, must be very small, since several characters, such as Vernon and Cora Tull, comment on his size. Perhaps he is five or six years old, big enough to handle an axe and catch a fish as large as himself, but small enough to test the experience of death. Refusing to accept his mother's death, Vardaman dreams up a wild analogy; since he catches and cleans the fish at the time her death, he states, "My mother is a fish." Even though he knows that a dead fish has no need for oxygen, Vardaman believes his mother will need to breathe; thus he bores holes in her coffin. When the fish analogy falters, Faulkner reinforces Vardaman's refusal to believe in Addie's death with the use of state-of-being verbs. Vardaman conjectures that an imposter has taken his mother's place, that the woman who has died "was not my mother.... I saw when it did not be her." When Darl is taken to the asylum, Vardaman's refusal to accept Darl's absence poses a similar problem. Vardaman's primary concern is his place in the family, and the absence of Addie and Darl and the presence of the duck shaped woman, Anse's new wife, undermine Vardaman's sense of the world.
Although many of the other characters exist only to provide outside views of the Bundrens, such as Samson and Armstid, who are farmers that narrate the Bundrens' journey—Samson before the river crossing and Armstid after, they also judge the behavior of the Bundrens, particularly Anse's laziness and selfishness. Three other characters serve more important purposes: Doctor Peabody and the Bundrens' neighbors, Cora and Vernon Tull. All have known the Bundrens a long time. As a doctor, Peabody is accustomed to telling people what to do, how to live their lives; he never restrains his criticism of any of the Bundrens. Cora, who uses religion to get the better of others, sees Addie not only as a threat to her values, but as a rival, a woman who has succeeded in giving a worthless husband sons while Cora has been able to give her good husband, Vernon, only daughters. Like Arise Bundren, the third character, Vernon Tull, is also a hill farmer. Tull has a good-natured practicality that serves as a standard by which the reader can measure the social disintegration of the Bundrens.
Some characters, such as the Mottson druggist, Moseley, and the Jefferson drugstore clerk, MacGowan, exist to tell the story of a single character, Dewey Dell, and her attempt to abort her pregnancy. Moseley self-righteously rejects Dewey Dell's ten dollars which Lafe has given her for medication to abort the fetus, while MacGowan exploits her by taking the money and seducing her. Reverend Whitfield is more significant, since he is Addie's lover when Jewel is conceived. Anxious to get to Addie's home before she dies, Reverend Whitfield hopes to confess his sin to Anse before the dying Addie tells Anse of their relationship. When he discovers from one of the Tulls' daughters that Addie has died and has told no one about their affair, the hypocritical Whitfield no longer feels the need to confess.