Addie is a school teacher from Jefferson whose parents are already dead when Anse Bundren shows up to woo her. Anse appears stable and hardworking, owning his family's house and a small farm. Addie marries Anse out of a sense of hope, but she is not happy with him after she discovers love and motherhood are empty ideas. Once she has had two children, she realizes she does not want any more, but he insists they do. Addie decides Anse is dead to her, and nothing can make their relationship anything but a slog toward death. She requests that Anse bury her near her mother and father in Jefferson to honor her father's idea that death is better than life. Addie's middle child, Jewel, her favorite, is the result of a desperate affair with Whitfield, her minister, in a failed attempt to find love. Her last two children with Anse are conceived and born simply to absolve herself of the sin of having committed adultery, so she can die in peace.
Anse is a coarse man who tries to do what he believes is right, but he has trouble overcoming his own selfish tendencies. He goes through life trying to get his kids to do everything for him. He seems to love his wife, but the fear of spending money makes him avoid calling a doctor when she lies down to die, until it is too late. His neighbors, the local doctor, and shopkeepers know he is a stingy man and a bit addle-brained. His sense of confusion and helplessness inspire people in his community to help him. Anse is unlucky, too. Everything goes wrong on the way to bury his wife in Jefferson, and he has to spend even more money than he feared. He continues to be cheap with his family, of course: He won't spend money to help Cash with his broken leg; he steals Jewel's horse and takes money from Dewey Dell and Cash. He forgets to bring important items on the trip and has to borrow them, and he spends the money he steals and borrows on his appearance so he can attract a new wife. As befuddled as he is, he is the patriarch of the Bundren family, and his children seek direction from him and obey him; he is the only father they have.
Cash, a gifted carpenter, sees the world through the lens of his gift. He is a carver, a balancer, a doer, and a perfectionist, so when his mother is dying, he eases his grief through building her coffin. Even though his younger brother Jewel yells at him for letting Addie see her own coffin before she dies, Addie and the rest of the family and the neighbors seem to find consolation in the sounds and movements accompanying Cash's endeavor. The task gives them all something to think about and do. He hides pain well, having had a broken leg once before that was never really set, thanks to his father's unwillingness to call in a doctor. Cash breaks his leg again, trying to accomplish a fool's errand—crossing a swollen river with a wagon and two mules. He knows his father will not pay for him to be treated by a doctor, so he tries to pretend he is not really in pain. Loyal to his mother's dying wish and to his siblings in general, Cash is the only family member who questions whether sending their brother Darl to an insane asylum is fair and if his brother is truly insane. Cash is the last narrator in the novel, relaying events calmly and without judgment, leaving a sense of hope that the family will remain mostly intact, even if it is transformed.
Darl, the second Bundren son, is extremely perceptive. He knows his mother will die while he is gone, and he can see in his head exactly how it happens. He knows the secrets each family member hides, such as the fact that his younger brother Jewel is not his full brother, and that his sister, Dewey Dell, has had sex with a boy and is pregnant. He is disgusted by the way his father has drawn out the burial of his mother and eventually takes matters into his own hands, trying to burn the coffin by setting fire to the barn they stash it in along the way to Jefferson. People in town think Darl is strange, and his family takes advantage of this perception, committing him to an insane asylum for having set the fire. None of his siblings will stand up for him and save him from this terrible fate; on the way to the asylum he laughs cynically, knowing his family was lost to him from the very beginning.
Jewel is the middle son in the Bundren family, but he is not Anse's son. He is the product of his mother's affair with her minister, and he does not return the love his mother showers on only him, at least not while she is alive. He is not very kind to his horse, either, though he practically starved and worked himself to death by secretly working nights to earn the money to buy the horse. He is the one son who tries to save his mother's coffin when it falls off the upturned wagon in the river and when Darl tries to set it on fire in Gillespie's barn. He is livid when Anse sells his horse to get money for mules but seems to accept it once it happens, because it is the only way to get his mother to her chosen burial place. Jewel knows Anse does not have his best interests in mind, so he has become independent out of necessity.
Dewey Dell has a secret, and she tries to take care of it without letting anyone in her family know. She is devoted to her mother as Addie dies, but she is also anxious to get to a pharmacy to buy an abortion drug. She is pregnant by Lafe, a boy she sleeps with almost on a whim. She is easily duped into thinking the fake medications she is given in exchange for sex with a pharmacy stock boy are an abortion remedy, but realizes later that they probably won't work. She hates that Darl knows her secret and worries he will tell their father. She does try to protect Darl and help their youngest brother Vardaman make sense of Addie's death, but when she realizes she cannot keep Darl out of the insane asylum, she goes along with the family, understanding that with him gone, her secret will be safe if she can only get the abortion.
Vardaman, the youngest Bundren child, has no prior experience with death and is confused when his mother dies. He catches a fish and chops it up for her, but when he comes home with it, his mother is dead. Vardaman decides the doctor must have caused her death because he is at the scene. Later, Vardaman drills holes into his mother's coffin, thinking she needs to breathe, and he accidentally drills some nails into her face. Because of guilt and trauma, he confuses the fish he killed with his mother's corpse when she falls into the water.