Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Soldiers’ Pay portrays a world forever changed by the war, a world in which sustaining illusions have been shattered and old certainties dissolved. As in Eliot’s The Waste Land, the April of Soldiers’ Pay is a cruel month, a season of false renewal (the hollow Easter “resurrection” of Donald Mahon), unfulfilled desire (the breach between Margaret and Gilligan), and displaced sexuality (personified in Januarius Jones). Faulkner’s principal theme, however, is not the complete absence of meaning and the continual presence of despair, a fashionable theme of the 1920’s, but rather “the human heart in conflict with itself” (in Faulkner’s famous Nobel Prize formulation), the necessity of each individual’s struggle to create meaning in the absence of transcendental values. Though God may be dead, the eternal human verities of compassion, courage, pity, endurance, and sacrifice remain.

Faulkner’s concern for the individual’s struggle is reflected in the novel’s structure: At the center is Donald Mahon, and the novel unfolds according to a series of personal responses to him. The characteristic movement of each response is toward disillusionment. Though painful and enervating, disillusionment is a necessary prelude to a full and mature acceptance of self, nature, and society.

Moreover, the novel moves beyond despair in its richly comic and nonrealistic elements, in the festivity and symbolic resonances of its language, and in its final reference to an enduring black community, united in its faith in God. Though they feel the dust in their shoes, Gilligan and the Rector are fully responsive to the black congregation’s singing, to their expression of “all the longing of mankind for a Oneness with Something, somewhere,” and the novel makes it clear that they will endure.