As I Lay Dying is told by fifteen different narrators over the course of fifty-nine narrative sections. The first section belongs to Darl Bundren, who introduces us to his brothers Cash and Jewel and his dying mother, Addie. The Bundrens live on a rural farm in Mississippi in the 1920s. Jewel is reserved and introverted; Cash, a skilled carpenter, is obsessively building his mother the most perfect coffin ever.
In the first few sections of the novel, we hear narration from all three brothers as well as Anse, their father; Vardaman, their youngest brother; Dewey Dell, their only sister; and Vernon and Cora Tull, their wealthy neighbors. As Addie lies dying, Jewel and Darl embark on a trip for Vernon for which they will earn three dollars. They hope to return before she dies; they do not. Oddly enough, Darl narrates the scene of Addie’s death, though he is not present at the time.
After Addie’s death, the family embarks on a long and difficult journey to Jefferson, the county’s central town. The journey is made more difficult by the fact that the Bundrens are poverty-stricken, Cash has a broken leg from a former injury, Anse is a jerk who can’t wait to get a new set of teeth, Dewey Dell is unmarried and pregnant, and bad weather has devastated the bridge they need to cross. When they try to ford the river, the mules drown, the coffin is almost lost, and Cash re-breaks his leg. In the meantime, the young Vardaman, traumatized by his mother’s death, has decided she is just like the fish he caught and killed just before her death (in the sense that both were living, and now both are dead).
Meanwhile, we get a narrative section from Addie, who, yes, is still dead. Through her narration comes a bit of back-story: she doesn’t really like her husband, life, or children, except for Jewel, who is the illegitimate child of the minister, Whitfield. Jewel has always been a special bird, especially that time when he moonlighted for a month working a neighbor’s fields to buy himself a horse. Jewel has a thing for horses, but particularly the one that belongs to him and him alone.
Back to the journey to Jefferson. Anse decides that pouring cement all over Cash’s leg will help the break. He then mortgages everything he owns and sells Jewel’s special horse to buy a new team of mules. Jewel is not pleased. When the family rests for the night at the farm of a man named Gillespie, Darl burns the barn down in an attempt to cremate his mother. Jewel rescues the coffin before this can happen.
When the family finally arrives in Jefferson, Dewey Dell tries to get an abortion and is instead coerced into sex by a young guy pretending to be a doctor. Then her father takes the money she needs to use to get a real abortion and buys himself his new set of teeth. The town doctor explains that Cash’s leg was hopelessly destroyed by the cement cast. Vardaman realizes he can’t have pretty toys like the town boys because he’s poor. Darl is shipped off to an insane asylum when it becomes clear that he is responsible for burning down the Gillespie farm. Anse borrows shovels to bury Addie’s body and flirts with the woman who lends them. He then introduces her to his children as the new Mrs. Bundren.