The Right Tools for the Job:
Cash Bundren’s Tool Box in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying
Much is written about Cash Bundren, the carpenter in William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. While most essays
focus on Cash's nature and function within the novel, occasional articles also discuss the significance of
Cash's tools. For example, Michael Hardin, in "Freud's Family: The Journey to Bury the Death Drive in
Faulkner's As I Lay Dying," notes that "[t]ools are often associated with male sexuality and the phallus
because they represent the artisan's (pro)creative capabilities;” therefore, the loss of Cash’s tools in the
river crossing represents his symbolic castration (98). In his essay "Faulkner's As I Lay Dying," Tim Poland
posits that Cash's “entire identity is located in the fact that he is a carpenter,” and that “[h]is sole means
of expression is through his carpenter skills” (118; 119). Poland notes that when Cash loses his tools to
the flooding river, he simultaneously loses consciousness and the ability to speak. Thus, Poland links the
loss of Cash’s tools to the “submersion of Cash’s selfhood” (119). As Poland observes, it is not until the
tools are found that Cash regains both consciousness and speech (119).
That the tools function as more than just literal implements is also implied by the deliberate manner in
which Cash regards and tends them. H. H. Siegele, in his book Carpenters' Tools: Their Care and
Maintenance, discusses how tools become anthropomorphized in the hands and mind of an efficient and
A carpenter should take such care of his tools, that they will seem like intimate friends;
which is to say, that if a tool is properly cared for, it will always be on friendly terms with the
man who uses it. (36)
In Cash, we see such a careful carpenter. After days of crafting his dying mother Addie's coffin and
working outdoors throughout a rainy night to complete his task, Cash takes the time to tend his tools.
Although he must be psychologically drained and physically exhausted, Cash "gathers his tools and wipes
them on a cloth carefully and puts them into the box" (Faulkner 80). Later, during the family’s trip to bury
Addie, as he begins guiding the wagon across the swollen river, Cash "lifts his box of tools and wedges it
forward under the seat," thus commencing the dangerous crossing with "his arm braced back against
Addie and his tools" (147; 149). Cash thereby demonstrates the same concern for his tools as for his
mother's remains in the coffin he had built to protect them.
The people surrounding him recognize and respect the importance to Cash of his tools. After the
disastrous crossing, Vernon and Jewel go to great lengths to retrieve Cash's tools, then lay the tools next
to the injured carpenter in an attempt to revive and reassure him (163). As the family sets off to
Armstid's, Cash tries to speak, not to complain about his injuries or to inquire about the family's situation,
but to ask about his tools (181). To calm Cash, "Vernon got them [the tools] and put them into the
wagon. Dewey Dell lifted Cash's head so he could see" (181). Once at Armstid's, Cash's sole concern --
upon regaining consciousness after his leg is painfully set -- is his tools. Again, to comfort Cash, Darl
brings the tools into the room and places them under the bed "where he [Cash] could reach his hand and
touch them when he felt better" (186). Finally, Cash's tools are laid next to him in the wagon as a source
of solace when the family resumes their journey to Jefferson (191).
Cash possesses a total of nine tools: adze, auger, chalk-line, hammer, plane, rule, square, saw, and saw
set. Of these, Cash takes all but the adze and auger on the journey to bury Addie. Accordingly, seven
tools accompany the seven Bundrens on their trip. All seven tools are briefly lost in the flooded river,
which also nearly claims Addie’s corpse; only six are recovered, corresponding to the six living members
of the Bundren family. These parallels suggest that the tools serve a richer figural purpose in AILD than
just as symbols of Cash's consciousness, power of speech, or sexuality. A careful look at the attributes
and functions of the seven tools in Cash's tool box reveals a relationship between each tool and a
corresponding member of the Bundren family.1
Often, parts of tools -- themselves extensions of the human body -- are given names that correspond to
various parts of the anatomy. Where pertinent, such connections will be examined in this essay.
Furthermore, while the basic nature and use of the tools found in Cash's tool box have remained the same
since AILD was written over 70 years ago, improvements and innovations have been made to some of the
tools mentioned. Therefore, the tools discussed here are, as best can be determined, of the type used
during the 1920s, when the primary action of the novel occurs. This consideration is important in
exploring the possible correlation between the tools in Cash's tool box and the individual members of the
The square is a tool used most often for determining right angles (Brown 187). It is also employed to
produce a straight line for cutting off the end of a board (Hjorth 24). One type of square frequently used
by carpenters during the time frame of present action in AILD is the try square. The try square is made up
of a "steel blade set in a [. . .] wood or metal handle exactly at a right angle," with the handle being
shorter than the blade (Hibben 73). Try squares come in several sizes, with the blades of most of them
marked in inches (Hjorth 24).
The text implies that Cash's square most likely is a try square. Cash's square fits into his tool box -- which
is able to lie under the seat of the wagon and the bed at Armstid's -- indicating a relatively small tool. [In
contrast, for example, a framing square would have been unwieldy, with its shortest length, the tongue,
measuring fourteen inches (Hjorth 25)]. Also, when Cash is beveling one of the boards for Addie's coffin,
instead of using a tool to check his angle, he planes the edge, then "squints along the plank" to determine
the proper slant (Faulkner 79). This indicates that Cash's square is set at a rigid angle, unlike the sliding
T-bevel, a "try-square adjustable to any angle," with which Cash could more accurately measure the bevel
The try square, with its particular advantage of permitting precision when squaring material, resembles
Cash, with his low tolerance for ambiguity and insistence upon accuracy. These traits are evident from
Cash's earliest years. According to Jewel, "when [Cash] was a little boy," in an effort to please Addie, he
interpreted literally her wish for fertilizer and took "the bread pan and brought it back from the barn full
of dung" (Faulkner 14). Later, as an adult, when asked how far he fell from the church roof in an accident
that broke his leg, Cash answers, "Twenty-eight foot, four and a half inches, about" (90).
To yield precise measurements, a line should be squared "on both sides and both edges" of the board being
cut (25). In an analogous manner, Cash looks at all sides of an issue in an attempt to discern what is true
and correct. For example, he examines the incident, and implications, of the barn burning at Armstid’s
from several points of view. Despite his own heroic efforts in constructing and salvaging the coffin, Cash
"can almost believe [Darl] done right in a way" by setting fire to the barn in his effort to destroy the coffin
with its contents and put an end to the family's torturous journey (233). Cash also notes that Jewel, in
spite of being "too hard" on Darl, had a right to be upset about the attempt to incinerate the coffin
because it was also "the value of [Jewel's] horse Darl tried to burn up" (233). Although Cash believes "it's a
shame" that Darl will be locked up in an institution, he finally "reckon[s] nothing excuses setting fire to a
man's barn and endangering his stock and destroying his property" (233).
Descriptions of Cash emphasize characteristics that are reminiscent of the square. When he is introduced,
and throughout his construction of Addie's coffin, Cash is presented sawing boards. While sawing, his arm
is held at an angle that strongly resembles the right angle of the square. Similarly, after he breaks his leg
for the second time, his lower body will resemble the unequal blade and handle lengths of the square. As
Doc Peabody notes, Cash will "have to limp around on one short leg for the balance of [his] life" (240). 2
The plane’s primary function is to level out the surface of wood, and its uses include, among others,
reducing in size a board that is "a little thicker than you want it," and smoothing the rough edges of a
board that has been ripped, that is cut in width rather than in length (Hibben 64). In The Carpenter's Tool
Chest, Thomas Hibben describes the plane as "much like a chisel set at a fixed angle in a block of wood or
a steel frame" (63). It is most likely that Cash's plane had a wooden block, not a steel block that would
surely sink, given Vernon's suggestion about the plane that "'It'll float'" when he and Jewel were
determining what tool would help them find Cash's saw (Faulkner 161).
Even the simplest plane consists of at least three parts: the cutter, the wedge with which to hold and
adjust the cutter, and the block in which the cutter and wedge rest (Wildung 34). Depending on its
complexity, however, a plane may contain as many as 20 named parts, several of them adjustable (Siegele
33). Among these are the cap, toe, heel, and mouth; the bottom of the block of the plane (called the
stock) is known as the sole (Siegele 33; Hibben 65).
Intricate in its design, the plane can be complicated to use, requiring precise adjustment to insure uniform
trimming (Siegele 34). It is essential to properly regulate the amount of the cutting blade (cutter) that
protrudes from the mouth of the plane; if the blade sticks out too far, it can gouge, and therefore
damage, the wood (Hibben 65). In addition, when using the plane one must recognize the direction of the
grain of the wood being processed (Hjorth 55). As Herman Hjorth writes in Basic Woodworking Processes,
"Planing against the grain makes the surface rough, while planing with the grain [. . .] makes it smooth"
Like the plane in contact with wood, Darl demonstrates the ability to rub either with or against the grain
of other characters. As an example of the former, Darl's actions at his mother's deathbed help to restore
Cora Tull's "faith in human nature" (24). Cora even maintains that Darl "was touched by God Himself"
(167). Although Cora’s interpretation of Darl’s behavior is later ironized, it demonstrates his ability to
impress someone favorably, also reflected in Cora’s daughter Eula’s attraction to Darl (9).
On the other hand, his interactions with Dewey Dell and Jewel reveal his facility for alienating others, and
it is here that his mouth gets him in trouble. Darl torments Dewey Dell about the "bad luck" of her
pregnancy, and taunts her with his insight that Dewey Dell “’want[s] [Addie] to die so [she] can get to
town’” for an abortion (39; 40). He further upsets Dewey Dell by refusing to disclose whether he plans to
tell Anse about her pregnancy or to kill her lover, Lafe, for impregnating her (40).
Similarly, Darl torments Jewel with references to Addie's impending death, asking "'do you know that
Addie Bundren is going to die? Addie Bundren is going to die?'" (40). Darl continues to irritate and
provoke Jewel by alluding to Jewel's questionable parentage with statements such as "'Jewel . . . whose
son are you?'" and "’who was your father, Jewel?'" (212). Like the plane whose blade has been improperly
set, in these instances Darl's words cut too deep, causing Dewey Dell and Jewel to retaliate: Dewey Dell
informs Gillespie that Darl started the barn fire, and Jewel attacks Darl, then helps restrain him for the
Like the complex plane, Darl is the most sophisticated member of the Bundren family. He is certainly the
most worldly, as he is seemingly the only family member that has been outside the confines of
Yoknapatawpha County. Perhaps because of his exposure to the greater world, Darl is able to relay events
in poetic language, indicating his artistic soul (sole). For example, notice the internal rhyme when he
muses, "How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home" (italics mine) (Faulkner
81). In a beautifully alliterative passage, Darl recounts, "The lantern sits on a stump. [. . .] its cracked
chimney smeared on one side with a soaring smudge of soot, it sheds a feeble and sultry glare [. . .]" (75).
Accordingly, it is his voice that presents the "tableau" of Jewel and his horse, "savage in the sun" (12).
And his description of "the square squat shape of the coffin on the sawhorses like a cubistic bug” speaks
to his probable exposure to paintings by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque when he was "in France at the
war" (219; 254).
Additional examples of Darl's multi-dimensional character are woven throughout the text, reinforcing his
connection to the intricate plane. One such trait is revealed in his uncanny ability to relate incidents at
which he is not present, such as Addie's deathbed scene and Cash's completion of Addie's coffin (47-52;
75-80). In addition, Hamlet-like, Darl contemplates the enigmatic nature of being as he ruminates before
sleeping: "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" (80).
Finally, the reader becomes acutely aware of Darl's multi-faceted nature when he finally suffers a mental
breakdown and his mind fragments into more than one personality (253). Like an inexperienced carpenter
who does not understand how to properly adjust his plane, Darl has lost the ability to maintain his sanity.
According to Siegele, the hammer is, essentially, a tool used "for striking blows" (63). The carpenter uses
it most often to drive nails "through one piece of wood into another" (Hibben 52). The hammer consists
of a head, made of iron or steel, and the handle, commonly made of wood (52).
It is likely that Cash's hammer is a carpenter's hammer, or claw hammer, whose head incorporates a
slightly rounded face with which the nails are pounded (52). Opposite the face is the peen, fashioned like
a claw, with which nails can be extracted (Hjorth 186). This particular type of "bell-faced" carpenter's
hammer prevents the wood from being indented or scarred when the nail is pounded flat to the wood
(Hjorth 186; Hibben 52). In addition to the face and claw, the head of the hammer also contains the
sleeve and house (or eye) into which the handle fits; the neck, which connects the sleeve to the head; and
the poll, the flat surface between the face and the claw (Siegele 63).
Siegele suggests that "the hammer should be placed first when making a list of carpenter's tools" (63). In
the Bundren family, Jewel, though not Addie’s firstborn child, is her favorite. As Darl relates, "Ma always
whipped him and petted him more" (Faulkner 18). Beginning with this simple correlation, we can
associate the hammer with Jewel.
Of the tools in the carpenter's box, the hammer, according to Siegele, is one of the hardest working in
that it "has the widest field of usefulness" (63). In like manner, Jewel demonstrates the willingness and
ability to do many kinds of work. As Cora Tull recounts, "Jewel [was] always doing something that made
him some money" (Faulkner 24). Jewel's secretive efforts clearing forty acres "single handed[ly]" to earn
his horse indicate that he does not shy away from hard labor (135).
Jewel also exhibits physical characteristics that evoke images of the hammer. The wooden handle of the
hammer is proportionately larger than the head, depending on the type of hammer. Thus, the hammer is
primarily composed of wood. Appropriately, Jewel recognizes that of all the tools in Cash's box, the
"'[h]ammer's got the most wood in it’" (161). Like the hammer, Jewel is repeatedly described as being
composed of wood. He has "pale eyes like wood set into his wooden face" and walks "with the rigid
gravity of a cigar store Indian" (4). Jewel is "wooden-backed, wooden-faced," and "sits on his horse like
they were both made out of wood" (95; 122). After his horse is sold, Jewel rides on the wheel of the
wagon into Jefferson "as though carved squatting out of the lean wood" (231). Additionally, his strength
echoes the iron and wooden strength of the hammer. As the coffin is being moved from the house,
"Jewel carries the entire front end [of the coffin] alone" (98). Later, "he upends the coffin and slides it
single-handed from the saw-horses" (222).
Occasionally, the handle of the hammer shrinks and becomes loose within the sleeve. If this occurs and is
not corrected, the inattentive carpenter may strike a blow and have the head of his hammer, quite
literally, fly off the handle. People also fly off the handle, usually in anger. For Jewel, flying off the handle
is habitual, so much so that virtually all his speech, and much of his action, is peppered with profanity and
marked by fury. To his horse, he is overheard "cursing" with "obscene ferocity" and speaking "in a
whisper of obscene caress" (12; 183). When he talks to other characters, "Goddamn you" seems to be his
favorite retort, no matter what the stimulus. One can understand his angry rejoinder of "'Goddamn you. [.
. .] Goddamn you’" to Darl's taunting about Addie's death (94), but Jewel's response of "'You go to hell [. .
.] Goddamn you"' to Cash's suggestions about crossing the raging river seems unwarranted (146). His
volatile nature almost causes a tragedy when he attempts to strike a knife-carrying man at whom he
swears while on the road to Jefferson (229).
Jewel's recurrent pattern of striking blows is also reminiscent of the hammer’s function. It is difficult not
to feel sorry for his beloved horse as Jewel "strikes him across the face with his fist," "hammer[s] its head
with his fist," and "strikes it upon the face with the back of the curry-comb" (13; 149; 183). Later,
Armstid notes that Jewel, frustrated at being unable to move the wagon by himself, appears to be "fixing
to beat out the back end of the shed" (188). Occasionally, Jewel's hammering is productive, such as when
he three times strikes the wall of the burning barn with a stool, creating an opening that allows a cow to
escape the fire (221). But, for the most part, Jewel's blows, like those of the bell-faced hammer, leave no
The carpenter frequently needs to mark a straight line longer than the straight edge of a square will
allow. One way to accomplish this is by using a string or cord rubbed with a cake of blue chalk, known as
the chalk-line (Hibben 72).
To use the chalk-line, the carpenter anchors one end of the string with, for example, a nail, to the point at
which he wishes to mark one end of the material. Then, holding the other end of the string taut, he rubs
the string with the cake of blue chalk (72). Both ends of the string are then secured so that the string
rests above the "imaginary line" on the material to be marked (Siegele 20). The string is then snapped,
leaving a distinct line on the material (20).
The chalk-line is the only tool in Cash's box that requires two separate components in order to be used.
Faulkner doesn't mention the blue chalk cake; however, Cash's chalk-line is called "the blue string,"
indicating that the line has been chalked (Faulkner 162). In fact, the chalk-line has been so infused (dare I
say impregnated?) with chalk that even after being soaked in the river it still has the capacity to turn
Jewel's fingers blue (162). Fittingly, the color-saturated chalk-line relates to the pregnant Dewey Dell, who
conceived her illegitimate child after she, aptly, "picked on down the row" of cotton with Lafe (27).
In order to store the chalk-line in their tool box, many carpenters use a chalk-line reel around which they
coil the chalk-line (Wildung 45). Faulkner, however, does not indicate that Cash has such a device. Cash
most likely winds up the chalk-line into a ball around itself. Correspondingly, Dewey Dell is wrapped up in
the dilemma of her pregnancy. Her self-absorption is such that, as Darl suggests, she secretly yearns for
Addie's death so that she can go to town to seek an abortion before her condition shows (40).
Like the string accompanied by the chalk, Dewey Dell is also virtually always in the company of someone
else. When we first see her, she is tending to Addie, surrounded by the Tull women (9). Once Addie dies,
Dewey Dell becomes responsible for her younger brother Vardaman, who is, therefore, her frequent
companion. Dewey Dell sleeps with Vardaman, takes him with her to meet MacGowan, and, arguably,
even masturbates when Vardaman is hidden nearby (215; 248; 62). More significantly, Dewey Dell is
physically linked by an umbilical cord to the fetus she is carrying. Since this physical connection is not
severed by an abortion, the emotional ties of motherhood and the responsibilities of parenthood seem
likely to link Dewey Dell with her child for many years to come.
Furthermore, except for her plan to transport her Sunday clothes in a package disguised as Cora Tull’s
cakes, many of Dewey Dell's actions are prompted by the influence of others, usually men. Both Anse and
Peabody instruct her to fix supper on the evening of Addie's death (51). Later, at Samson's behest, she
helps his wife Rachel prepare food and beds (116). Moreover, it is Lafe who provides Dewey Dell with the
idea, information, money, and, presumably, encouragement to seek "something at the drug store" that will
end her pregnancy (202).
Finally, Dewey Dell is also easily "strung along." Lafe has done so, in both seducing her and inducing her to
terminate the pregnancy. And McGowan, with just the barest deception, convinces her that he is a
doctor, not a druggist’s assistant, and that his "treatment" will be her cure (248).
A saw is the tool used by the carpenter to cut material (often wood) to the proper size. There are many
types of saws; all consist of a flat steel blade -- comprised of a back, point, heel, and teeth -- attached at
one end to a wooden handle (Siegele 24). To cut the material, the blade, with the teeth on the bottom, is
drawn through the wood in a back-and-forth motion.
A good all-around saw, and the one likely found in Cash's tool box, is the crosscut saw, designed with a
handle that is bolted on, a flexible blade, and teeth bent and beveled at a specific angle so as to permit a
smooth cut across the grain of the wood (Hjorth 39). The bent teeth also allow for a saw cut wider than
the blade, thus preventing the saw blade from binding in the cut and the saw dust from gumming up the
cut (Hibben 57).
Siegele ranks the saw "a close second" to the hammer in importance among a carpenter’s tools (24).
Analogously, it can be argued that Vardaman -- Addie’s youngest -- appears to be his mother's second
most favored child. In the moments before her death, Addie, surrounded by part of her family, gazes at
Anse "without reproach, without anything at all," watches Cash "neither with censure nor approbation,"
and does not even look at Dewey Dell (47; 48). However, "all her failing life appears to drain into her
eyes, urgent, irremediable" as she searches, according to Dewey Dell, for Jewel (47). In like manner, just
as she is dying, Addie "looks at Vardaman; her eyes, the life in them, rushing suddenly upon them; the two
flames glare up for a steady instant" (48).
Vardaman, in spite of his youth, demonstrates a complex mind, at once fixed and malleable, reflecting
both the ductility of the saw's blade and the rigidity of its wooden handle. In an effort to distract
Vardaman from Addie's death, Dewey Dell tells him of the train set "behind the glass, red on the track" in
the Jefferson shop window (66). Concerns about the train permeate Vardaman's thoughts throughout his
journey. He frequently thinks of the train, "shining with waiting," and pesters Dewey Dell with his worry
that one of the town boys has bought it (100; 102). His desire for it makes his "heart hurt" (216). Once in
Jefferson, however, he readily yields to Dewey Dell's compensatory suggestion that he'd "rather have
Similarly, his impressionable mind, in grief at the loss of his mother, conflates the image of Addie with the
fish he has caught just prior to her death. In a related manner, Vardaman's mind is also susceptible to the
suggestions of others. At Darl's intimation that Addie’s corpse is speaking, Vardaman puts his ear to her
coffin; he believes that he “can hear her. Only [he] cant tell what she is saying" (214).
While Vardaman, "with his round head and his eyes round," does not physically resemble the saw's straight
edges and sharp lines, several examples of his phrasing in both thought and speech echo the repetitive,
back-and-forth rhythm of the saw (47). For instance, after frightening off Peabody's horses, Vardaman
cries to Cash, "'Durn him. I showed him. Durn him'" (56). And when Addie’s coffin is rescued from the
burning barn, Vardaman attempts to console Darl with the refrain, “’You needn’t to cry, [. . .] Jewel got
her out. You needn’t to cry’” (225). Occasionally, too, like the saw teeth that become bent and then bind
in the wood, Vardaman gets stuck in his phrasing. For example, when Jewel brings his horse home,
Vardaman implores, "'Let me ride, Jewel. [. . .] Let me ride, Jewel. [. . .] Let me ride, Jewel'" (136).
As Cash is sawing the wood for Addie's coffin, "the saw in the board. [. . .] sounds like snoring" (9). This
allusion to sleep further connects Vardaman to the saw. Vardaman is seen "laying asleep on the floor"
after he bores the holes in Addie's coffin (73). Later, at Samson's, Vardaman is sleeping "in the trough in
a empty stall" (117).
No matter what the project, the carpenter must have a means of measuring space and materials. To
provide the most accurate measurement, the carpenter uses a rule. Rules come in many sizes, types, and
materials, but the rule most likely in Cash's tool box is a folding rule, made of wood with jointed sections,
so that it can easily fit in the tool box or the carpenter's pocket (Hjorth 23). A disadvantage of this type
of rule appears over time with repeated use, however, as the joints become loose, causing measurements
to be inexact (Siegele 116).
The angles and folds of the rule call to mind Anse's physical characteristics. Anse's "feet are badly splayed,
his toes cramped and bent and warped," and his "wrists dangle out of his sleeves" (Faulkner 11; 31). But
even from an early age, Anse more resembles the loosened joints of a well-used folding rule. As a young
man, "he was beginning to hump [. . .] so that he looked already like a tall bird hunched in cold weather"
(170). With age, his appearance only deteriorates; Darl notes that "[s]ince he lost his teeth his mouth
collapses [. . .]" (17).
Like the worn rule that no longer gauges well, Anse is often perceived as faulty in his attempts to take the
measure of situations. As Peabody muses, "I knew that if it had finally occurred to Anse himself that he
needed one [a doctor], it was already too late" (42). More significantly, although Anse recognizes that
"It's fixin up to rain," he allows Darl and Jewel to take the load of wood to town (18). This bad decision
prepares the way for the series of disasters that follow.
That Anse is a poor "ruler" is also evident in the way he deals with his children. In one sense, he is an
ineffective authoritarian. Jewel disregards Anse's order to "leave that horse" at home, and, similarly,
both Cash and Dewey Dell insist on bringing their tools and "cakes," respectively, on the journey, thus
"deliberate[ly] flouting" Anse's wishes (100; 101). In another sense, Anse is a poor father because he
pursues his own needs at the expense of his children’s. Intent on getting to Jefferson to buy false teeth
and get a new wife, he selfishly and shamelessly pilfers money from "Cash's clothes" while Cash is
unconscious, includes Jewel's hard-earned horse as part of the trade for the replacement mule team, and
takes from Dewey Dell the ten dollars given her by Lafe for the abortion (190; 257).
The Saw Set
With use, saw teeth become dull and bent so that the saw no longer efficiently cuts wood; the teeth must
then be sharpened. In conjunction with sharpening, the saw teeth must also be bent "slightly outward" in
order to allow the saw cut to be wider than the thickness of the wood, thus preventing the saw from
binding and buckling in the wood (Hjorth 4). This adjustment process that allows the saw to work
properly is called setting, and the tool with which to bend and set the saw teeth is the saw set (4; 5).
There are various models, but most saw sets can be grouped into the categories of either plier-grip or
pistol-grip saw sets (Siegele 30). It is likely that the saw set in Cash's tool box was of the plier-grip
variety, a common type of that time (Hjorth 5). While the use of this type of saw set is somewhat
awkward, in that manipulating it distorts the natural position of the hand and arm, the plier-grip saw set is
not "cumbersome" in a tool box (Siegele 30).
That Addie functions as the counterpart to the saw set in the novel is evident even before she becomes a
Bundren. In her role as teacher, Addie endeavors to keep her students in line, and even “look[s] forward
to the times when they faulted, so [she] could whip them” (170). Addie also suggests adjustments to Anse
while courting, indicating he needs a “hair cut” and that he should “hold [his] shoulders up” (171).
Once the Bundrens are married, it is Addie who keeps the family functioning in a relatively cohesive and
controlled manner. As Tull notes, "She kept [Anse] at work for thirty-odd years" (33). And, as Anse
admits, "no woman strove harder than Addie to make [the children] right" (38). But, like the saw set –-
permanently lost in the river and thereafter no longer a part of Cash's tool box – Addie, at her death, no
longer serves as the pivotal member of the Bundren family. With her passing, as noted in previous
sections, the family unit weakens as members turn against one another.
Addie also possesses both personality traits and physical characteristics that allude to various aspects of
the saw set. Like the inherent power of the saw set to bend metal, Addie’s strong will is displayed in her
determination to be buried in her home town. Although she lingers in a limbo between life and death for
ten days, Anse recognizes that "Her mind is sot on [dying]" (italics mine) (43; 45). Later, Tull explains to
his fellow mourners that Anse is taking Addie to Jefferson to be buried because "Her mind was set on it"
(italics mine) (89). In addition, her "curled, gnarled" hands reflect the awkward position of the carpenter's
hand as he uses the saw set (51).
William Faulkner, “handy with tools and experienced as a [. . .] handyman of sorts,” personally performed
some of the renovation work at his beloved Rowan Oak (Blotner 657). His understanding of tools and
carpentry is also evident in his frequent use of carpenter's tools and skills as metaphors for different
aspects of the craft of writing. For example, when asked, "Do you deliberately use symbolism in your
works?" Faulkner responded: “The writer does not purposely use symbolism but does it instinctively. The
writer is like a carpenter. When he needs a tool, he just leans back and gets a tool he thinks will work.
He does not sit and think of which to use” (qtd. in Inge 166).
Did Faulkner "purposely" or "instinctively" correlate Cash’s implements and the Bundren characters? The
reader can never be sure. What is certain is that he reached into his tool box and gathered a collection of
extraordinary tools with which to tell his tale, one which joins the talents of Faulkner the artisan with the
genius of Faulkner the artist. 3
1 Most tools are made up of similar materials, wood and metal, even though they are fashioned and used differently. In a like manner, family members also exhibit resemblances based on shared genetic composition while displaying contrasted external and internal characteristics. While this essay attributes specific tool characteristics to specific characters, there exists some overlap of relationship between tools and individuals (for example, Addie also can be seen as the “ruler” of the Bundren family) that cannot, at this time, be fully discussed.
2 It is conceivable that Faulkner utilized a particular element of Cash's speech to also suggest the square. When Cash answers in the affirmative with the expression "'Ay,'" the angular appearance of the letters “A” and “y” on the printed page mimics the angle of the square (Faulkner 145).
3 I wish to thank Dr.Judy Everson for her invaluable comments on earlier drafts of this essay.
Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography.
Vol. 1.New York: Random House,1974.
William. As I Lay Dying. New York: Vintage International,1990.
Siegele, H. H., Carpenters' Tools: Their Care and Maintenance. New York: Drake, 1971.
Wildung, Frank H. Woodworking Tools at Shelburn Museum. Burlington: Lane,1957.