Study Guide

Soldiers' Pay

by William Faulkner

Soldiers' Pay Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

A work of literary modernism influenced by T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), William Faulkner’s first novel, Soldiers’ Pay, brings “the lost generation” to Faulkner’s native ground. In describing the impact upon a small Southern town of the return and slow death of an aviator horribly wounded in World War I, the novel re-creates the mood of disillusionment, deflation, and spiritual malaise which was prevalent in postwar American society and art. Eliotic despair is substantially countered, however, by Faulkner’s insistence, often in rich, poetic prose, on natural cycles of renewal, on the essential decency, strength, and humanity of the principal characters, and on the faith and integrity of the blacks who have remained impervious to white society’s spiritual alienation.

The novel opens with an ironic epigraph taken from an “Old Play (about 19-?),” a fragment of dialogue about shaving between Achilles and Mercury cast as sergeant and cadet. The scene is a graphic undercutting of the heroic mood and an effective introduction to Joe Gilligan and Julian Lowe, a demobilized soldier and a young air cadet, respectively, whose opportunity for martial glory has been “cruelly” thwarted by fate: The Armistice had been declared before they could reach the Western Front. On a train heading south from Buffalo, they give vent to their frustration in drunkenness, dramatizing their essential isolation while casting themselves as “lost foreigners” in a “foreign land.”

Into this histrionic scene enters Donald Mahon, a young pilot with a ghastly scar across his brow. He is a symbol of the physical and psychic wounds inflicted by the war, while serving as a focal point of the characters who project onto him their unrealized aspirations. For Lowe, Mahon is the epitome of glamour and heroism, a dying pilot whose wings suggest both angelic martyrdom and, unconsciously, sexual achievement. “Had I been old enough or lucky enough, this might have been me,” Lowe thinks jealously. Yet the novel soon moves beyond Lowe’s adolescent romanticism (and, appropriately, he disappears after chapter 1, persuaded by Margaret Powers to return home—he reappears only through his semiliterate love letters to her) in order to explore the real costs of war, suffered by the soldiers and noncombatants alike.

If Mahon represents the wounded, dead, and dying soldiers, Margaret Powers, whom Gilligan and Lowe meet on the train, represents the women who become widows before their time....

(The entire section is 1033 words.)

Soldiers' Pay Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography. 2 vols. New York: Random House, 1974. Once criticized for being too detailed (the two-volume edition is some two thousand pages) this biography begins before Faulkner’s birth with ancestors such as William Clark Falkner, author of The White Rose of Memphis, and traces the writer’s career from a precocious poet to America’s preeminent novelist.

Brodhead, Richard H., ed. Faulkner: New Perspectives. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1983. One volume in the Twentieth Century Views series under the general editorship of Maynard Mack, offering nearly a dozen essays by a variety of Faulkner scholars. Among them are Irving Howe’s “Faulkner and the Negroes,” first published in the early 1950’s, and Cleanth Brooks’s “Vision of Good and Evil” from Samuel E. Balentine’s The Hidden God (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1983). Contains a select bibliography.

Cox, Leland H., ed. William Faulkner: Biographical and Reference Guide. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1982.

Cox, Leland H., ed. William Faulkner: Critical Collection. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1982. These companion volumes constitute a handy reference to most of Faulkner’s work. The first is a reader’s guide which provides a long biographical essay,...

(The entire section is 555 words.)