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A Good Carpenter: Cash Bundren’s Quest for Balance and Authority

From: The Southern Literary Journal
Volume 46, Number 1, Fall 2013
pp. 48-60 | 10.1353/slj.2013.0020

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Near the end of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Cash Bundren lies in the office of Peabody, the town doctor, his leg broken and in a cast made of concrete. Peabody berates Cash, the oldest of the Bundren children, for allowing his father, Anse, to do something as foolish as pour concrete on bare skin. When Cash tells Peabody, “It never bothered me much,” Peabody corrects him: “You mean, it never bothered Anse much.” Cash, however, will not accept the criticism of his father. When Peabody sarcastically quips that perhaps Cash has been lucky by breaking the same leg he broke some years earlier, Cash counteracts the sarcasm by affirming the statement: “Hit’s what paw says,” he explains, proving for once and all his unyielding loyalty to the word of his father (162–163). To someone unfamiliar with the Bundrens, this affirmation of the traditional order of things may seem unremarkable, especially for a poor and uneducated family in rural Mississippi in the 1920s. To those familiar with the Bundrens, however, and with Addie Bundren in particular, such devotion to the authority of the father should raise questions. Even in death, Addie Bundren is a dominant character who, by rejecting patriarchal authority throughout her adult life, has subverted the masculine power structure under which the Bundren clan—and, for that matter, all of Yoknapatawpha County—appears to function, the power structure endorsed and expected by society. Addie uses the impotency of language to invert the patriarchal power structure of her world. Most critics have addressed Addie’s unique views on the impotence of language, yet few have shown how Addie uses that impotency to her advantage. Fewer still have shown how her theories of language carry over into the lives and the actions of her children, especially those of her oldest son Cash.

Even though Cash Bundren does not say much in As I Lay Dying, through his five monologues, as well as through the perspectives of the other characters, Faulkner portrays Cash as a man with an acute awareness of the balance of things, a man with a need to perfect imbalance. Many see Cash’s obsession with balance as characteristic of his skill in carpentry, as, quite frankly, his defining characteristic, yet such an interpretation relegates Cash to the realm of the minor character in a novel full of vibrant and unique characters, dismissing him in much the same way that his mother dismisses him: by viewing him as less complex than his more dominant siblings, Darl and Jewel; however, if we view Cash’s devotion to the ideal of balance as a reaction to the subversion of his mother Addie, we can pull him out of the shadows and appreciate him as a full, complex, and significant character.

Throughout her life, Addie Bundren has subverted masculine authority by defying its word. She manages one final subversion through her death. By defying the word of male authority in her life, Addie not only takes away the power of the father but also installs herself as the father figure in order to assert her own authority over the world in which she lives. This inversion of power is made possible by the very men from whom Addie subverts authority, for Addie’s power comes about through the laziness of men.

Addie’s initial rebellion against masculine authority comes not against her husband but against her father. Even before meeting Anse, Addie, working as a schoolteacher, feels contempt for her students and the need to make them aware of her. Having grown up hearing her father’s words—“the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time”—she comes to “hate [her] father for ever having planted [her]” (114). Addie sees her father’s philosophy as one of inherent laziness; treating life as a preparation for death implies an existence of non-action. What must one do in order to die? Nothing but wait. Addie abhors this belief and rebels against it by acting. As a schoolteacher, she experiences a sadomasochistic power surge when she takes action against her pupils by beating them: “When the switch fell I could feel it upon...



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