A family prepares for their mother’s death, and journeys with the body to take her to her desired burial ground. Addie Bundren lies in bed, listening to her coffin being built by son Cash. Sons Darl and Jewel take the wagon into town to sell wood, not at home when she dies. The rains that all characters have been hinting at finally arrives, swells the river, washes out bridges. Lazy husband Anse relies on everyone else to get things done, but persists in taking her forty miles to be buried with her family. Darl is the most poetic character, eventually degenerating into madness along the journey. Jewel the hard-working and driven son who worked at night clearing stumps out of a field to raise money to buy a horse, which Anse steals along the journey to sell for mules. Jewel’s father is Whitefield, a man Addie had an affair with after Cash and Darl were born. Daughter Dewey Dell and son Vardaman came after Jewel and were Anse’s children, making up for Jewel.
The body deteriorates over the days of the journey, buzzards circling overhead. Crossing one river, the wagon is swept into the river, Cash breaks his leg. Days later they pour cement on it to set the bone. Dewey Dell sneaks off to the druggist in each town to acquire medicine to abort her pregnancy. The last pharmacist tricks her into thinking hair of the dog will treat her best. They drag their weary party into the town of Jefferson, Cash having lost his leg, Darl having lost his mind, Jewel having lost his horse, Dewey Dell having lost all hope, Vardaman having lost his mom. Anse borrows two shovels. When he returns them the next day, he acquires another wife. He also acquires teeth with the $10 he steals from Dewey Dell that was meant for her treatment.
In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I dont know what I am. I dont know if I am or not.