As I Lay Dying

As I Lay Dying

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The Coffin Symbol Analysis

The Coffin Symbol Icon
The coffin symbolizes the sense of weight and lack of balance (literally and figuratively) that the Bundrens take on by carting Addie all the way to Jefferson to be buried. Throughout the novel, the coffin also serves to emphasize the absurdity of the Bundrens' journey and the questionable heroism of the family members. For instance, Cash's meticulous construction of the coffin outside Addie's window or Vardaman's drilling of the holes in the coffin after Addie's death both point to a strange mix of devotion on the one hand and inappropriate behavior on the other that characterizes many of the deeds of each character and the Bundrens' journey in general.

The Coffin Quotes in As I Lay Dying

The As I Lay Dying quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Coffin. 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.
4. Jewel Quotes

“It would just be me and her on a high hill and me rolling the rocks down the hill at their faces, picking them up and throwing them down the hill, faces and teeth and all by God until she was quiet and not that goddamn adze going One lick less. One lick less and we could be quiet.”

Related Characters: Jewel (speaker), Addie Bundren
Related Symbols: The Coffin
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

Jewel is angry about Cash's incessant hammering and sawing that can be heard from within the house - Cash is preparing the coffin for the dying Addie. Here, he may not employ the kind of rich, complex language that his brother Darl can make use of, but that certainly doesn't mean that he's incapable of feeling or powerfully describing his feelings. Jewel feels alienated and alone within the Bundren family: the only person he feels a connection with is Addie, and she is now dying. 

While Cash may think he is honoring his mother by making a coffin for her, this has nothing to do with familial duty in Jewel's eyes. In this passage he imagines a heroic final battle involving him and his mother against the rest of the family before Addie dies. This image seems to be derived in some part from mythical or Biblical stories, but Jewel is vague on the specifics: for him, it is enough to imagine a violent fantasy that would allow him to escape from the noise and selfishness that he believes characterizes the other Bundrens.

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22. Cash Quotes

“It won’t balance. If they want it to tote and ride on a balance, they will have …”

Related Characters: Cash Bundren (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Coffin
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

Cash has spent a great deal of time and care hammering and sawing the coffin that will hold Addie’s body. Now, in a short but intense exchange with someone who remains unnamed (but who we will later learn is Jewel), Cash fixates on the coffin’s lack of balance, which will make it more difficult for the family to carry it to Jefferson. Cash’s intense attention to this lack of balance might seem relatively unimportant in the scheme of his mother’s death. Nonetheless, this passage underlines Cash’s own way of coming to terms with his mother’s death, by using all his technical skill in the creation of a physical object that might honor Addie. This material activity may lack verbal explanation or justification, but it is another way of responding to death – even if it is one that other characters, including Jewel, cannot understand.

49. Vardaman Quotes

“And I saw something Dewey Dell told me not to tell nobody. It is not about pa and it is not about Cash and it is not about Jewel and it is not about Dewey Dell and it is not about me.”

Related Characters: Vardaman Bundren (speaker), Darl Bundren, Dewey Dell Bundren
Related Symbols: The Coffin
Page Number: 215
Explanation and Analysis:

Darl has assured Vardaman, as they walk outside, that he has heard Addie speaking to them from within her coffin: she has told them to remove her from the sight of man. Darl's language seems to be derived from the Bible, and is another reminder of how differently and creatively the characters use faith and religion in pursuit of their own interests and in following their own particular beliefs.

This passage in particular underlines the specific perspective of Vardaman in the family, as the youngest and the child who must rely the most on the knowledge and protection of the others. As if in an example of rote learning from school, Vardaman goes through the list of people not involved in what Dewey Dell told him. By doing so he believes that he's still obeying Dewey Dell, but he also reveals his limited understanding as he clings to the words available to him in a confusing and constantly changing context.

50. Darl Quotes

“Then it topples forward, gaining momentum, revealing Jewel and the sparks raining on him too in engendering gusts, so that he appears to be closed in a thin nimbus of fire.”

Related Characters: Darl Bundren (speaker), Jewel
Related Symbols: The Coffin
Page Number: 222
Explanation and Analysis:

In a show of attempted heroism and faithfulness to Addie, Jewel is emerging from the fire with her coffin, firmly positioning himself as Addie's most beloved son once again. Darl, of course, has put this entire series of events into action. And yet even he cannot help but admire Jewel's actions, describing them in his typically lush and powerfully descriptive language. Darl describes Jewel as a kind of Christ figure, sacrificing himself for the good of another - even though his own carefully reasoned judgment has made him conclude that the best thing for everyone would be for the fire to consume everything, and for the coffin to be swallowed up as well. Even while remaining in opposition to his brother, then, Darl is drawn to him, fascinated by the strange familial connections that keep them together despite their differences.

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The Coffin Symbol Timeline in As I Lay Dying

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Coffin appears in As I Lay Dying. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
1. Darl
Family, Birth, and Death Theme Icon
Language versus Action Theme Icon
...becomes distracted by the sound of Cash's saw. Darl describes Cash's meticulous preparation of the coffin for their mother Addie, who is on her deathbed. Darl passes Cash without engaging with... (full context)
2. Cora
Religion and Faith Theme Icon
Language versus Action Theme Icon
...daughter Eula claims that Addie must either be listening to or watching Cash build her coffin. Then Darl walks in the door without looking at or talking to any of the... (full context)
4. Jewel
Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty Theme Icon
Family, Birth, and Death Theme Icon
...and saw loudly outside Addie's window, blatantly revealing to her that he is building her coffin right outside her deathbed-window. Jewel not only feels angry at Cash for these actions, but... (full context)
5. Darl
Family, Birth, and Death Theme Icon
Language versus Action Theme Icon
...Tull's interference in the situation. Anse then begins to discuss potential arrangements for carting Addie's coffin to Jefferson, but is silenced by Jewel, who expresses anger at the family as a... (full context)
11. Peabody
Mortality and the Nature of Existence Theme Icon
Family, Birth, and Death Theme Icon
Language versus Action Theme Icon
...tell Peabody that Addie wants him to leave. Meanwhile, Cash diligently continues to build Addie's coffin outside, making lots of noise with his tools. Addie screams Cash's name but is not... (full context)
12. Darl
Mortality and the Nature of Existence Theme Icon
Family, Birth, and Death Theme Icon
Language versus Action Theme Icon
...out the window at Cash, who has not budged from his project of making Addie's coffin. Addie calls to him again. Cash stares into the room through the window, while Anse... (full context)
Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty Theme Icon
Family, Birth, and Death Theme Icon
...the rest of the Bundren family members. Anse tells Cash to hurry and finish the coffin and then orders the grieving Dewey Dell to make dinner. Dewey Dell leaves the room,... (full context)
15. Vardaman
Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty Theme Icon
Mortality and the Nature of Existence Theme Icon
Family, Birth, and Death Theme Icon
After Cash finishes Addie's coffin, Vardaman is disturbed that she will be nailed up in it. Dewey Dell comforts Vardaman... (full context)
Mortality and the Nature of Existence Theme Icon
Language versus Action Theme Icon
..."His shadow walks around." He then looks at Addie, about to be nailed in the coffin and claims "It was not my mother." He then connects this idea to the idea... (full context)
16. Tull
Mortality and the Nature of Existence Theme Icon
Family, Birth, and Death Theme Icon
Language versus Action Theme Icon
...escort Vardaman back to the Bundrens' home, where Cash is still working to finish Addie's coffin. Tull helps him with the finishing touches. The men finish the coffin before dawn and... (full context)
17. Darl
Family, Birth, and Death Theme Icon
Religion and Faith Theme Icon
Language versus Action Theme Icon
...is still on the road with Jewel. Cash continues to work diligently on completing the coffin, despite the rain. Cash tells Anse to stop helping him and instead to go get... (full context)
Mortality and the Nature of Existence Theme Icon
Language versus Action Theme Icon
Cash proudly finishes the coffin before dawn—and Cash, Anse, Tull and Peabody immediately bring the coffin inside. Darl shifts his... (full context)
18. Cash
Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty Theme Icon
Language versus Action Theme Icon
In a precise numerical list, labeled 1—13, Cash explains his decisions for making Addie's coffin on the bevel (on a slant). His most notable reasons are the fact that there... (full context)
20. Tull
Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty Theme Icon
Family, Birth, and Death Theme Icon
...to the back of the house and sees Cash filling up the holes in Addie's coffin. They place Addie in the coffin reversed—with her head in the narrow part meant for... (full context)
23. Darl
Family, Birth, and Death Theme Icon
Language versus Action Theme Icon
Darl describes the experience of lifting Addie's coffin with Cash, Jewel and Anse. It is revealed that the family member who had cursed... (full context)
25. Darl
Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty Theme Icon
Family, Birth, and Death Theme Icon
...he will catch up. The wagon leaves and the Bundrens head to Jefferson with Addie's coffin. (full context)
26. Anse
Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty Theme Icon
Family, Birth, and Death Theme Icon
...while the rest of the family rode together on the wagon with Addie in her coffin. (full context)
27. Darl
Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty Theme Icon
Family, Birth, and Death Theme Icon
...following days, and Darl suggests that Cash tell Jewel. Cash laments once again that the coffin is not balanced, and Darl again suggests that Cash tell Jewel all of these unfortunate... (full context)
31. Tull
Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty Theme Icon
...looking at the submerged bridge, wondering what to do in order to cross with Addie's coffin. (full context)
Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty Theme Icon
Family, Birth, and Death Theme Icon
...Dewey Dell and Darl's cold stares and Cash's meticulous look, as though Tull were the coffin Cash was trying to build carefully. Jewel does not move and looks with apparent anger... (full context)
33. Tull
Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty Theme Icon
Tull thinks about Anse's haplessness and the potential danger of crossing the river with the coffin. Anse challenges Tull again about his team of mules, but reasons that he is not... (full context)
34. Darl
Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty Theme Icon
Religion and Faith Theme Icon
...river's current. Desperate, Darl dismounts the wagon and Cash focuses on the safety of the coffin and his box of tools. The log ends up crashing into the wagon, but Cash... (full context)
35. Vardaman
Mortality and the Nature of Existence Theme Icon
Family, Birth, and Death Theme Icon
Language versus Action Theme Icon
From the other side of the riverbank, Vardaman witnesses Cash's valiant attempt to hold the coffin securely on the wagon and to keep it from falling into the rushing water. Dewey... (full context)
36. Tull
Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty Theme Icon
Family, Birth, and Death Theme Icon
...the misfortune of the situation, and explains how Jewel tightly gripped the rope keeping the coffin and the wagon within reach. Cash, however, was not able to swim and was rescued... (full context)
38. Cash
Family, Birth, and Death Theme Icon
Religion and Faith Theme Icon
Cash once again repeats the sentence, "It wasn't on a balance," referring to the coffin. He remembers telling the other Bundrens that if they wanted the coffin to be balanced,... (full context)
40. Addie
Family, Birth, and Death Theme Icon
Language versus Action Theme Icon
...was still alive, or is a posthumous monologue, somehow delivered by Addie's corpse inside the coffin). (full context)
42. Darl
Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty Theme Icon
Religion and Faith Theme Icon
The Bundrens strap the injured Cash on top of Addie's coffin. The family members try to talk with Cash about his health, but Cash merely mutters... (full context)
43. Armstid
Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty Theme Icon
Family, Birth, and Death Theme Icon
...Armstid's house, Darl notices the cloud of buzzards that is beginning to gather above Addie's coffin. While Anse is out with his horse, Jewel tries to make himself useful by getting... (full context)
44. Vardaman
Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty Theme Icon
Mortality and the Nature of Existence Theme Icon
Vardaman obsessively counts the number of buzzards, traveling in black circles around Addie's coffin. Vardaman listens to Darl ask Cash how his broken leg is feeling, and Cash replies... (full context)
49. Vardaman
Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty Theme Icon
...the barn is visible. Vardaman notices Gillepsie's son help Jewel, Darl and Anse move the coffin from below the apple tree outside indoors to the barn. Vardaman, as he promised to... (full context)
50. Darl
Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty Theme Icon
Family, Birth, and Death Theme Icon
Religion and Faith Theme Icon
...as the Bundren's mules. After saving all of the animals, Jewel then single-handedly rescues Addie's coffin from the fire. Dewey Dell protectively calls after Jewel, while Darl marvels in the sight... (full context)
51. Vardaman
Language versus Action Theme Icon
...leaves and the family asks where he is. Darl ends up lying next to Addie's coffin under the apple tree weeping. Vardaman fins Darl and comforts him by telling him that... (full context)
52. Darl
Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty Theme Icon
...that the family is just outside of Jefferson. Cash is lying on top of Addie's coffin with shards of cement all across his leg. Anse states that they must take him... (full context)
53. Cash
Family, Birth, and Death Theme Icon
Language versus Action Theme Icon
...Cash notices a woman in the window of the house. Finally, the Bundrens inter Addie's coffin in Jefferson's soil. The men from the mental institution then arrive to take Darl away.... (full context)