As I Lay Dying

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Fish Symbol Icon
The fish Vardaman catches for dinner early in the novel provides him with a meaningful symbol to understand the nature and meaning of death. After Addie's death, Vardaman realizes that the fish, like his mother, is now in a different state of existence than before, leading him to conclude, "My mother is a fish." This connection between Addie and fish emerges once again during the river episode, as Vardaman compares his mother's coffin to the fish in the river. The idea of the dead fish aids Vardaman's process of coping with loss, as he is only able to understand mortality and the idea of existence by looking at the concrete example of a fish, once alive, that he caught and cut up to be cooked for dinner.

Fish Quotes in As I Lay Dying

The As I Lay Dying quotes below all refer to the symbol of Fish. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage edition of As I Lay Dying published in 1991.
13. Vardaman Quotes

“I will be where the fish was, and it all cut up into not-fish now.”

Related Characters: Vardaman Bundren (speaker), Vardaman Bundren
Related Symbols: Fish
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

In his own way, the six-year-old Vardaman is attempting to come to terms with his mother's death based on the language he can use and the references he can understand. Vardaman has caught a certain amount of fish, but now he looks at what he caught in the basket and notices that it has changed irrevocably: what he sees now is "not-fish," not the living beings that he handled in the water, but objects lacking animation, lacking life. Vardaman draws a connection, even if he cannot explicitly say so, between this mysterious change from "fish" into "not-fish" and the change undergone by his own mother, from life to death.

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15. Vardaman Quotes

“It was not here. I was there, looking. I saw. I thought it was her, but it was not. It was not my mother….It was not here because it was laying right yonder in the dirt. And now it’s all chopped up. I chopped it up. It’s laying in the kitchen in the bleeding pan, waiting to be cooked and et.”

Related Characters: Vardaman Bundren (speaker), Addie Bundren
Related Symbols: Fish
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

Vardaman is thinking about having seen the body of his mother, Addie Bundren, in her coffin. Although he is only a young child, Vardaman has a strong intuition in certain ways about what it means to die: he recognizes, for instance, that although his mother's corpse is recognizable as the body of Addie Bundren, the body is not "his mother" - that is, what makes it "his mother" has disappeared. 

Vardaman links this strange disconnect between presence and absence to the first-hand experience that he has with fish, which were once alive, but which become forever something else once he chops them up to be eaten. Although Vardaman's language may seem obscure, this is not because he has advanced theoretical ideas, but because he is attempting, with only the tools available to a six-year-old mind, to grapple with vast questions of life, death, and the border between the two.

19. Vardaman Quotes

“My mother is a fish.”

Related Characters: Vardaman Bundren (speaker), Vardaman Bundren
Related Symbols: Fish
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:

In this famous line of As I Lay Dying, Vardaman uses a situation that he is quite familiar with, that of catching, skinning, and eating fish, to a new, unknown situation in which he finds himself (dealing with his mother's death). As we have seen in earlier quotations, Vardaman has already drawn a connection between the fish that were alive when he caught them, and then are limp and still, ready to be cut up and eaten - and his mother, once alive and now silent and still in her coffin. Fish have this property of at one point being lively, at another point being still, and Vardaman can see that his mother too has that quality. As a result, it is not preposterous to say that his mother is a fish: it simply means that if his mother has certain properties, and a fish has the same properties, it could well mean mathematically that his mother is fish. Vardaman doesn't necessarily mean this judgment literally: instead, he is trying to use the definitions that he has at his disposal in order to make sense of where he finds himself. 

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Fish Symbol Timeline in As I Lay Dying

The timeline below shows where the symbol Fish appears in As I Lay Dying. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
8. Tull
Mortality and the Nature of Existence Theme Icon
Language versus Action Theme Icon
Vardaman emerges from the hill with a dead fish in his hand, proudly telling Anse and Tull that he plans to show it to... (full context)
9. Anse
Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty Theme Icon
Family, Birth, and Death Theme Icon
Language versus Action Theme Icon
After a while, Vardaman returns to the house with the fish chopped up, and with his own body covered in blood. Anse tells Vardaman to go... (full context)
13. Vardaman
Mortality and the Nature of Existence Theme Icon
Language versus Action Theme Icon
...begins to cry after looking at the place in the dust where he placed the fish he caught. He notices that the fish he caught, now cut up, has become "not-fish"... (full context)
14. Dewey Dell
Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty Theme Icon
...prepares greens and bread, but claims she does not have enough time to cook the fish Vardaman caught. Anse complains about the meagerness of the meal. When Cash comes into eat,... (full context)
15. Vardaman
Mortality and the Nature of Existence Theme Icon
Language versus Action Theme Icon
..."It was not my mother." He then connects this idea to the idea that the fish he caught was once alive, and is now chopped up, laying bleeding in the pan... (full context)
16. Tull
Family, Birth, and Death Theme Icon
Religion and Faith Theme Icon
...comes into the house wet and covered in mud, and continues to talk about the fish he caught and chopped up for dinner. Tull reasons that Vardaman's nonsensical words and strange... (full context)
19. Vardaman
Mortality and the Nature of Existence Theme Icon
Language versus Action Theme Icon
Vardaman states: "My mother is a fish." (full context)
20. Tull
Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty Theme Icon
Mortality and the Nature of Existence Theme Icon
Family, Birth, and Death Theme Icon
...be free from Anse. Cora and Tull leave the funeral and find Vardaman attempting to fish in a nearby bog on their way home. Tull tells Vardaman to come home with... (full context)
24. Vardaman
Mortality and the Nature of Existence Theme Icon
Language versus Action Theme Icon
Vardaman states once again that his mother is a fish, though Darl claims that Jewel's mother is a horse. Vardaman confusedly reasons that if Jewel... (full context)
35. Vardaman
Mortality and the Nature of Existence Theme Icon
Family, Birth, and Death Theme Icon
Language versus Action Theme Icon
...does not succeed. Vardaman asks Darl where Addie is, reminding him that she is a fish, and that he let her get away. (full context)