As I Lay Dying Themes and Symbols
Themes and Symbols
The Ephemerality of Existence and Identity: Addie Bundren’s death prompts several characters to explore existence and identity. Vardaman is confused and horrified by the transformation of a fish he has caught and cleaned into pieces of what is no longer a fish, and associates that image with the transformation of his mother from a person into something that is no longer a person.
Jewel never really speaks for himself, but Darl summarizes his grief, stating that Jewel’s mother is a horse. For his own sake, Darl believes that since Addie is now described as ‘was’ rather than ‘is’ it should be assumed that she no longer exists. If his mother no longer exists, Darl reasons that he must also no longer exists because he has no mother.
Animals: Not long after the passing of Addie, the Bundren children view animals as symbols of their mother. Vardaman insists that his mother is the fish he has just caught. Darl states that Jewel’s mother is a horse.
Dewey Dell labels the family cow as a woman while she agonizes over her pregnancy minutes after her mother’s passing – her only female relative. She tells that the cow is a woman too and is the only creature able to understand her sufferings. Anse, in his turn, is compared to a bird.
Addie’s Coffin: The coffin on Mrs. Bundren is symbolic of the enormous burden and dysfunction that Addie’s death has caused the family. Cash seems to always remain level headed, and has crafted the coffin with expert skill, however, the burdens continue to pile up. Addie is placed into the coffin upside down, and Vardaman drills holes into her face.
The coffin because a meeting point for everything dysfunctional the family experiences and laying it to rest is a critical step in their ability to return to normalcy.