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On William Faulkner’s "The Unvanquished"

William Faulkner is regarded as one of the great American authors of the 20th century. Born September 25, 1897 in New Albany, Mississippi, he would win the Nobel prize for literature in 1949, as well as the Pulitzer prize in 1954 and 1962. (Faulkner, 261) Faulkner’s ambition was to write poetry, but having failed in his early publications, he went on to write novels set against the background of the Civil War. Encouraged by Sherwood Winesburg, a novelist he had met in New Orleans, Faulkner wrote about what he was familiar with, that is, the South. Although Faulkner’s desire and talent was in writing novels, monetary interests forced him to write for periodicals like The Saturday Evening Post, which serialized several of the stories for The Unvanquished. Faulkner died in 1962, leaving a wealth of literature behind. (Faulkner, 262)

The Unvanquished is a bildungsroman about Bayard Sartoris, a white boy growing up in the South during the Civil War. The story is told from Bayard’s point of view, and details not only his life, but that of his companion Ringo, a young black boy Bayard’s age; Rosa Millard, Bayard’s grandmother or "Granny"; Drusilla, Bayard’s cousin; and John Sartoris, or "Marse" John, as Ringo calls him in dialect. Since the original publication of these stories was in serial form, they do not have a precise plot line, but they do present a general chronology of Bayard’s experiences as a young teenager during the Civil War. The story begins with Bayard as a na�ve boy who spends his days with Ringo, unaware of the harshness of the country at war.

Faulkner captures the spirit of youth in the early chapters of the story as he describes the small adventures the two boys share under the careful watch and guidance of "Granny". John Sartoris, Bayard’s father, is fighting the war. Faulkner’s ability to remember and relate, in simple language, what it is like to be a twelve year old boy is a strength of The Unvanquished, as in a scene where Bayard and Ringo feel the need to be the "men" of the house—

"We’ll have to watch the road," I [Bayard] said, Ringo whimpered.
"Look like hit haf to be us," he said.
"Are you scared?"
"I ain’t very," he said. "I just wish Marse John was here."
"Well he’s not," I said. "It’ll have to be us."

Most of the first three chapters of the story deal with the relationship of Bayard to his Grandmother, who makes him wash his mouth out with soap when he curses and prays whenever she sins. It is "Granny" who instills a sense of religion and honor to Bayard as she acts as a surrogate father to the boys. What is even more powerful, although never explicitly stated, is the relationship Bayard and his Grandmother have with Ringo, who is a black boy. The issue of race seems to be unimportant to the story, and it works well to show the understanding and impeccable character of Bayard’s Grandmother—to her, he is simply a boy. Faulkner shows even more of her qualities as she distributes money and mules to the poor and needy in her community. Her acquisition of the money is a comic relief in the story. Granny finds that she has a talent for forging Union officer’s signatures on stolen letterhead. She then writes up orders for the troops to supply her with mules, which she sells back to other Union troops. The irony is that she is outwardly pious and scrupulous, but she continues her "business" for some time. Tragically, it is her mule stealing that gets Granny killed, as she overrides her hesitation for one last ploy and is betrayed by Ab Snopes, a minor character. Granny is killed by Snopes’ partner, Mr. Grumby.

Bayard, Ringo and a man called "UncleBuck" set out to capture and kill Mr. Grumby. After more than a month, they eventually get their revenge, and Bayard has learned to kill without remorse. Curiously, Faulkner does not delve as deeply into Bayard’s killing as he does the pursuit, which he tells in great detail. True, Bayard learns about hardship, perseverance and revenge, but it is not until much later in the story where he deals with this important facet of Bayard’s life. In a reverse way, Faulkner shows the pragmatism of adolescence, and the matter-of-fact manner of the killing may be his way of demonstrating that Bayard did not really realize the consequences of his actions.

Another sub-plot that Faulkner introduces to The Unvanquished is the story of Drusilla, Bayard’s cousin. Drusilla’s fianc� is killed early in the war, and she decides to join John Sartoris’ forces and fight the Yankees. Faulkner devotes a good portion of the later chapters to her. Drusilla is a rebel, in more than one sense. She dresses in men’s clothing, cuts her hair short and joins the Confederate army. When the war ends and she returns home, she is vilified by her mother, and although Faulkner never gives the details, her mother forces her to marry John Sartoris. Drusilla’s mother serves as a symbol of the greater society as she pressures her daughter to conform to "norms". With hints of sexual scandal, she intimidates Drusilla into a marriage with John Sartoris, who is eerily acquiescent. Faulkner uses Drusilla as a secondary coming of age story within the main story. Drusilla never really changes herself, though, as a major character would in a typical bildungsroman. She merely goes along with her mother’s wishes and is reluctant to fight. Faulkner misses an opportunity with this relationship to explore the character and motivations of John Sartoris, but, unfortunately, we never get more than a glimpse of him.

The last chapter of The Unvanquished was written to tie up the story for publication as a novel, and it is by far the most introspective. An Odor of Verbena deals with Bayard’s self realization, as well as his relationship with Drusilla and his father. Faulkner’s style of writing is greatly elevated in this chapter, and it seems to come of age itself. Bayard becomes more collected and eloquent in his thoughts, and Drusilla’s character interplays with Bayard’s in a beautifully complex fashion. The chapter deals with the murder of John Sartoris by a lifelong challenger in business and politics. Bayard is forced to return home from law school and make a terrible decision about whether to kill his father’s murderer in an "affair of honor." Drusilla brings a genuine passion to the story as we learn of her secret love for Bayard and how she grieves over John Sartoris and the possible loss of Bayard. In a moment of self reflection, Bayard realizes the magnitude of his decision,

At least this will be my chance to find out if I am what I think I am of if I just hope; if I am going to do what I have taught myself is right, or if I am going to wish I were. (Faulkner, 215)

In the apex of the chapter, Bayard meets with his father’s killer, but refuses to kill him. Instead, he stands silent and motionless as the other man shoots away from him. It is at this moment that the reader knows that Bayard is no longer a simple thinking boy, but that he has developed a sense of right and wrong that his father never did develop, as Bayard postulates, "from too much killing."

Throughout the last chapter, Faulkner uses a motif of the scent of the verbena, which is a flower Drusilla constantly wears. She says it is because it was the only flower she could smell above the odor of war while she was fighting. The symbolism of the odor is that of self reliance and principle. The decision Drusilla made to fight the war was what she believed and knew to be right, as was Bayard’s decision not to avenge his father. While Drusilla’s decision caused her pain and grief, Bayard’s decision feed his mind with self awareness.

Although The Unvanquished is almost a novel of manners set against civilian life during the Civil War, it is best considered as a bildungsroman since it details the life of Bayard from na�ve boy to young adult. In excellent style, Faulkner gradually shows the reader how Bayard changes from a boy who is scared of his grandmother’s punishment, to an articulate student of law. The Unvanquished describes scenes that the reader can relate to over time because Faulkner captures the thought and feelings most adults remember about their youth. He shows how the patient guidance of adults like Bayard’s grandmother teach lessons to impressionable children, and how lives can be destroyed by the decisions people make. Bayard Sartoris has become a man, and he has risen above the level of his father.


Works Cited

Faulkner, William, The Unvanquished New York:
Vintage International, Div. Of Random House, Inc., 1991

West, James L. W., Class Lecture—English 261, Pennsylvania State University:
November 4,1996

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