Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Shortly after Addie’s death, the Bundren children seize on animals as symbols of their deceased mother. Vardaman declares that his mother is the fish he caught. Darl asserts that Jewel’s mother is his horse. Dewey Dell calls the family cow a woman as she mulls over her pregnancy only minutes after she has lost Addie, her only female relative. For very different reasons, the grief-stricken characters seize on animals as emblems of their own situations. Vardaman sees Addie in his fish because, like the fish, she has been transformed to a different state than when she was alive. The cow, swollen with milk, signifies to Dewey Dell the unpleasantness of being stuck with an unwanted burden. Jewel and his horse add a new wrinkle to the use of animals as symbols. To us, based on Darl’s word, the horse is a symbol of Jewel’s love for his mother. For Jewel, however, the horse, based on his riding of it, apparently symbolizes a hard-won freedom from the Bundren family. That we can draw such different conclusions from the novel’s characters makes the horse in many ways representative of the unpredictable and subjective nature of symbols in As I Lay Dying.
Addie’s coffin comes to stand literally for the enormous burden of dysfunction that Addie’s death, and circumstances in general, place on the Bundren family. Cash, always calm and levelheaded, manufactures the coffin with great craft and care, but the absurdities pile up almost immediately—Addie is placed in the coffin upside down, and Vardaman drills holes in her face. Like the Bundrens’ lives, the coffin is thrown off balance by Addie’s corpse. The coffin becomes the gathering point for all of the family’s dysfunction, and putting it to rest is also crucial to the family’s ability to return to some sort of normalcy.
Tools, in the form of Cash’s carpentry tools and Anse’s farm equipment, become symbols of respectable living and stability thrown into jeopardy by the recklessness of the Bundrens’ journey. Cash’s tools seem as though they should have significance for Cash alone, but when these tools are scattered by the rushing river and the oncoming log, the whole family, as well as Tull, scrambles to recover them. Anse’s farm equipment is barely mentioned, but ends up playing a crucial role in the Bundrens’ journey when Anse mortgages the most expensive parts of it to buy a new team of mules. This trade is significant, as the money from Anse’s pilfering of Cash’s gramophone fund and the sale of Jewel’s horse represents the sacrifice of these characters’ greatest dreams. But the fact that Anse throws in his farm equipment should not be overlooked, as this equipment guarantees the family’s livelihood. In an effort to salvage the burial trip, Anse jeopardizes the very tools the family requires to till its land and survive.