V a r d a m a n -
My mother is a fish.
~ Above is page 841 of As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner in its entirety.
If you've never read As I Lay Dying, you're probably thinking something along the lines of "What? I don't understand." If you have read As I Lay Dying, it's possible you're thinking "I remember reading that, and I still don't understand. Faulkner's one crazy dude."
Indeed he is. "My mother is a fish," quite possibly the shortest chapter in literary history, is also quite possibly the most confusing and nonsensical. It's carefully stuffed in between another confusing chapter that presents itself only as a list of how to construct a coffin "on the bevel" and a relatively normal narrative chapter.
Stumbling upon this page consisting only of a chapter title, five words and lots of white space can make Faulkner's stream of consciousness prose and multiple narrative style even more very confusing. While I'm sure the intimidating yet simple "My mother is a fish" is packed full of all sorts of Freudmarxian-expostdeconstructural meanings, many readers only want to know what the hell is going on when they first read this infamous sentence/chapter.
The only real clue to this mysterious passage is that it is spoken, or thought, by Vardaman. At approximately ten years of age, he is the youngest child in the ridiculous Bundren family. As literary critic Joyce Carroll says of the one sentence chapter, "Faulker does not explain Vardaman’s sensory association. We only know it exists." Basically, trying to make sense of it a task left up to the reader.
The follow is my reading on what the sentence/chapter means simply in the context of the story's plot. Note that there is quite a bit of the aforementioned literary criticism on this topic, but I believe just constructing some meaning for "My mother is a fish" compatible with the story is hard enough.
So we have Vardaman, who is a very confused boy. He's just witnessed the painfully slow death of his mother, Addie Bundren. Like most children, he was very attached to his mother and concerned for her well being. Obviously, her death greatly upsets him, but unfortunately he lacks any sort of fundamental understanding of death.
Take, for example, how Vardaman nags his older brother Cash who is building a coffin for Addie: "Are you going to nail it shut Cash? Nail it? Nail it?" 2 Vardaman doesn't understand that his mother is now simply a body. This is further evident when he drills holes in the coffin (and mistakenly through the corpse's face) so she can "breathe."
With these examples, it is easy to see that he doesn’t know how to deal with death on a purely physical level, nevertheless on a mental or emotional level. Without comprehension of death in any meaningful way, he is not able to cope and mourn the loss of his mother.
So... That explains "mother," 1/5 of the sentence/chapter in question. Of the four remaining words, the other important one to consider is "fish." How does Vardaman link "mother" and "fish" together so tightly that he is able to think that one is the other?
In Vardaman's introduction to the novel, he shows his father, Anse Bundren, a huge fish he caught. He wants to show his mother, but she dies before he has the chance. Later, the fish gets cut up, cooked and "et." Since it's established Vardaman has an almost comical misunderstanding of death, he begins searching for things to explain the loss of his mother. Each member of his family is too wrapped up in their own problems and misunderstandings to explain the facts of life and death to Vardaman.
Since his mother and the fish died in a time span relatively close to each other, Vardaman sees some fuzzy connection. As he becomes more upset by her passing, his thought process in the chapters he narrates becomes more jumbled. It becomes apparent that, for lack of anything better, Vardaman begins to use the fish's death as a tool to mourn and understand his own mother's death. Both fish and mother were alive, but now they are not. It's as simple as that. To Vardaman, nothing else except for that fish shared any qualities with his mother. Due to his youthful ignorance and upset demeanor, he carries this connection to its extreme until the sole fact that both are dead outweighs all the obvious differences that we readers would see.
And so he thinks, "My mother is a fish." Well, to Vardaman, she really is. But what Faulkner's trying to say by isolating this thought and granting it its own chapter, well, that opens up a whole new can of worms.
1 -page 84 from the "First Vintage International Edition" (October 1985) of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying
2 - p. 67