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Cash Bundren, the Underappreciated Hero

As I Lay Dying is rife with selfish and senseless characters. However, Cash Bundren stands out as a character whose dedication, compassion, and sacrifices contrast with the rampant self-interest in the rest of the novel. Cash is rational where the other Bundrens are not, and because of this difference, no one listens to Cash. Several times over, he takes care of the other characters’ well-beings to his own detriment. Despite this, he is still underappreciated by them.

Cash Bundren’s heroic actions, both physical and compassionate, are devalued by the other characters due to their selfishness. He is a morally strong person whose convictions lie in expressions of dedication. Consequently, Cash responds to these demands on his compassion with unfailing strength, beginning with his devotion to his family.

From the first, Cash Bundren is shown to be lovingly considerate in his own way; the first introduction to Cash is the sound of him crafting a coffin for his dying mother. He works all night in the pouring rain to finish it, refusing to stop for anything. “The rain rushes suddenly down, without thunder, without warning of any sort; he is swept onto the porch upon the edge of it and in an instant Cash is wet to the skin. Yet the motion of the saw has not faltered” (44). He is “tireless” in his efforts (44). Even when Cora Tull warns him that he will “catch [his] death” if he continues to work, Cash does not stop until he “drives the last nail” (46).

Cash shows goodness towards both his parents; despite Anse’s complaints about Cash, Cash only treats his father with respect and deference. Anse whiningly criticizes Cash for “making me pay for Cash having to get them carpenter notions when if it hadn’t been no road come there, he wouldn’t a got them” (22). Cash essentially sacrifices everything he wants on Anse’s whim. Anse digs through Cash’s clothes and steals eight dollars. “Cash aimed to buy that talking machine from Surratt with that money” (110). The graphophone Cash has coveted is sacrificed so Anse can buy a team of animals. Yet, in spite of all of this, Cash still attempts to save Anse from harm. When Cash is working on Addie’s coffin, he tells his father, “Why don’t you go on to the house, out of the rain? … You go on in… Me and Vernon can finish it” (45). He keeps his father’s well-being in mind, even if his father does not do the same for him.

Furthermore, Cash shows that he is always protective of his younger siblings and acts with their best interests in mind, particularly in one scene at a flooded river. When the Bundrens reach a river that has flooded over the bridges, they must cross the river on a ford. There, Cash demonstrates his heroic nature by attempting to save his family, even though his leg is broken and his family will not listen to his technical advice. First, he insists that “Dewey Dell and Vardaman and pa better walk across on the bridge” (72). Therefore, he saves them from being dragged into the flooded waters. He also attempts to save Jewel, saying “I tell you what you do. You ride on back and walk across the bridge and come down the other bank and meet us with the rope. Vernon’ll take your horse home with him and keep it till we get back… Three cant do no more than two can” (84). He basically tells Jewel to save himself while the two oldest brothers undertake the risk. However, he even tries to leave Darl out of it at the end. He tells him to “jump clear” off the wagon and save himself from the flood while Cash is still holding on to Addie’s coffin. “Darl jumped out of the wagon and left Cash sitting there trying to save it and the wagon turning over” (88).

Cash also takes care of his siblings in other ways. He shows concern for Dewey Dell, whereas others treat her like a housemaid.  Anse commands her to prepare dinner immediately after Addie’s death, and when she only makes vegetables, he tells her that she “ought to took time” to clean and cook the fish (36). However, Cash says, “Here sister […] never mind about the fish. It’ll save, I reckon. Come on and sit down […] You better eat something” (36). He offers her dinner while Anse is selfishly complaining about the food she makes, showing Cahsh's kindness. Cash is also the only one to notice that Vardaman is missing after Addie’s death. He alone asks, “Where’s Vardaman?” (35). He does not become angry at Vardaman when he is discovered asleep next to the coffin, with “the top of the box bored clean full of holes and Cash’s new auger broke off in the last one” (42). His kindness and patience do not wane even though Vardaman destroyed Cash’s work and broke one of his beloved tools.

Selfishness vs. Selflessness

A salient theme in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is selfishness versus selflessness. Various characters in the novel are motivated by either. Anse Bundren is a character who is very motivated by selfish reasons. He wants to go to Jefferson to get new false teeth, and that is more of a motivation than burying his wife. Dewey Dell is also driven by her desire to get an abortive substance in Jefferson. On the other hand, Cash is a very selfless character. He works to make his mother’s coffin at her request and even when he breaks his leg, he refuses to talk about it and simply works through the pain. He does heavy manual work with a broken leg without saying anything. This contrasts with Anse, who selfishly refuses to work.

Duty Over Love

In As I Lay Dying, duty seems to be more of a factor and motive than love. The Bundrens are basically taking Addie’s body to Jefferson to bury because of familial duty. Cash does his duty in making Addie’s coffin. Darl and Jewel do their duty in running an errand for Tull for three dollars. The Bundrens are poor, so this three dollar job seems to be more important than being there when their mother dies. The family is tied together by obligation, rather than any emotional tie. 

Sense and Insensitivity

Insensitivity and perceptions of insensitivity are themes that are repeated throughout As I Lay Dying. Darl makes Jewel go with him on the errand even though he knows their mother will likely die in their absence, just because he needs Jewel’s help loading. Jewel thinks the family is being insensitive to Addie’s death by making her coffin right in front of her. He believes he is the only one in the family who deserves to be with her when she dies.

Free Will and Victimization

Free will and choice versus victimization and the lack of choice is another theme. The most salient example of this is Dewey Dell, who “couldn’t help” but have sex with the farm worker Lafe. She speaks of the incident like she had no choice in the matter. The druggist who tricks her at the end also takes advantage of her. Other examples of this theme's manifestation are Darl being taken away to the asylum, the cement cast on Cash's leg, and the attempted religious comforts of Cora Tull. 

The Decay of Dying

Throughout William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, the significant theme of decay runs through the narrative and impacts the major characters. Several major characters and narrators go through mental and physical decay as the novel progresses, and the decay culminates in confinement of the decayed.

The most obvious example, of course, is Addie Bundren’s rotting corpse. As the Bundrens attempt to move Addie’s body to her hometown of Jefferson, Mississippi, they run into numerous obstacles. It takes a long time to bring Addie to Jefferson, and her body becomes obviously decayed. Various people on the way comment on the smell of her dead body. A group of people exclaim, “Great God […] what have they got in that wagon?” “Buzzards,” scavengers who are after dead flesh, follow the Bundrens all the way to Jefferson. Addie’s death is the catalyst of the novel, the reason for the journey to Jefferson and most all of the characters’ actions and thoughts. Her decaying body is a reminder of this throughout the narrative.

Cash Bundren’s worsening physical condition also marks the Bundrens’ journey to Jefferson. When they first set off, Cash has a broken leg from a “falling off a church.” When they reach a river which has flooded over and washed away the bridges, they must attempt a river-crossing elsewhere. This dangerous undertaking injures Cash further, and rebreakin "the same leg he broke when he fell offen that church.” A horse doctor then resets Cash’s leg, and he faints from the pain. Later, the Bundrens “stopped to buy some cement” to attempt to set Cash’s leg. Darl creates the cast, which actually causes Cash more pain and deterioration. “He lies on his back, his thin profile in silhouette, ascetic and profound against the sky.” The doctor Peabody tells Cash that he will walk on a hobble all his life, if he even walks at all anymore. He will “have to limp around on one short leg for the balance of [his] life—if [he walks] at all again.” “He has had two broken legs,” and his condition keeps worsening. The decline of Cash’s leg and overall health is threaded throughout the novel.

Another character who degenerates throughout the novel is Darl Bundren, Addie’s second son. Darl’s decay is mental rather than physical. Darl begins as the narrator with the clearest and seemingly most objective voice, but as the story progresses, his voice descends into madness. Darl desperately sets Gillespie’s barn on fire in an attempt to burn up his mother’s coffin. This act is seen as insane, although the Bundrens only commit Darl to the asylum in Jackson so they won’t have to pay reparations for Gillespie’s barn. However, there are indications that Darl’s mental facilities have actually deteriorated. His once-rational voice turns into perplexing nonsense. By the end, he alternates between speaking in third person and first person voices, referring to himself as both “I” and “Darl.” This tremendous change from the beginning of the novel highlights the decaying of the Bundrens throughout Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. 

At the end of the novel, the decay is confined. Addie is finally buried in Jefferson after numerous trials. The desperation and urgency of the Bundrens’ goal to bury her is enforced by the physically macabre details that follow them. Her body smells horrible, and they are followed by buzzards. Her body also goes through abuse when Vardaman bores holes into her coffin and they go through her face, as well as when her coffin falls into the river. All of this is resolved at the end when she is finally buried and supposedly “at peace.” Cash’s leg is finally fixed by Doctor Peabody, and Darl is institutionalized in a Jackson asylum. These events restrain the decay and supposedly resolve the story.