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As I Lay Dying | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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As I Lay Dying | Symbols



Faulkner employs animals as personal symbols of Addie after her death. For Vardaman, Addie is a fish. Like the one Vardaman catches and kills, the fish is something transformed from one state to another. Vardaman uses the symbol of the fish to keep himself from being sad about losing his mother, because if his mother is a fish, he believes he has not really lost her.

In a symbolic inversion, the fish is also a symbol of Christ, who sacrifices himself and is then resurrected. While Addie makes sacrifices for her family, however, there is no resurrection. Despite the holes Vardaman drills in her coffin, Addie does not take another breath.

For Jewel, Addie is a horse—the object of his love and the vehicle of his hard-won independence from Addie's family. Yet, Jewel's horse is also the object of his cruelty and disillusionment with the world as the one son who is not Anse's and who therefore occupies the role of outsider in Addie's family. For Dewey Dell, Addie is the family cow. The milk cow reflects Dewey Dell's situation with her unwanted pregnancy, a situation that mirrors that of her mother earlier in her life as she bore children she did not want.


Money symbolizes not only what the Bundren family does not have, it also symbolizes their need for self-sufficiency as opposed to a threatening cycle of family dependence. Anse, the head of the family, has a dismal work ethic and little common sense, and on top of that he's inept at managing money. For example, he insists the family cross the river with the wagon, even though the river is swollen from the storm and the bridge is washed out. In doing so, he nearly loses the wagon and his wife in her coffin. The mules drown, and Anse has to buy two more, leading to further woes. The family's poverty is, in great part, the result of their heritage, but there seems little hope of breaking the poverty cycle with Anse as the family's head.


The coffin signifies Addie's continued presence at the center of the family. The family's ability to continue living beyond the death of its matriarch hinges on its ability to address its grief and put Addie to rest figuratively as well as literally. When Cash breaks his leg and is forced to ride atop the coffin, he begins to replace his mother as the immobile dictator of the family. When the coffin goes overboard into the river, Jewel saves it in a burst of feeling for his dead mother. He also saves it from fire, when Darl, frustrated and embarrassed that his mother has been left in the coffin to rot for so long, sets the Gillespie's barn on fire. Although Jewel is unable to provide salvation from water and fire to a living Addie, perhaps he will provide his own salvation as the remaining living testament to Addie's one act of independence from Anse.

To Vardaman, the coffin symbolizes the ill treatment of his mother by everyone in the family. For her to be "nailed in" is, to Vardaman, a terrible thing to do to someone he loves. He drills holes in the coffin, thinking he is at least giving her some ability to breathe in the wooden box in which she is trapped. From a child's point of view, life and death are not separate states of being; death is a transformation of life.

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