William Faulkner’s “Two Soldiers” first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post (March 28, 1942), shortly after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. The story shows the impact of America’s entry into World War II on a poor family in rural Mississippi, but its primary focus is the tender relationship between two brothers, nineteen-year-old Pete Grierson and his eight-year-old brother. The little brother narrates the story, without mentioning his own name. By writing the story through this child’s innocent first-person point of view and in his poor country dialect, Faulkner creates a poignant dramatic irony that underscores the theme.
Pete and his little brother learn of the attack on Pearl Harbor while standing outside in the cold, listening to a neighbor’s radio through the window. The boy is confused by what he hears, but Pete understands clearly what has happened and what it means. He and the narrator return night after night to listen to the war news. Pete grows silent and worried; the narrator knows something is on Pete’s mind but cannot imagine what is bothering him. Soon Pete says that he must go to the war to defend the country. The narrator assumes he will be going to war with Pete, not just to tag along but to chop wood and haul water for the soldiers. Pete explains he must stay at home and help with chores. When Pete tells his parents he is leaving, his mother weeps for her son and his shiftless father frets about losing Pete’s labor on the farm, but both accept his decision. Pete leaves early one morning on the bus to Memphis where he will enlist.
Late that night, the young narrator takes several of his few possessions (a shikepoke egg, a slingshot, and a pocket knife), slips quietly out his bedroom window, and heads for Memphis to find Pete. He walks twenty-two miles to Jefferson on the first leg of his journey. Through the kindness of strangers, he is fed and put aboard a bus to Memphis, but not before he pulls his pocket knife on the station clerk who, he believes, is trying to stop him from finding Pete.
Arriving in Memphis, the boy is overwhelmed with the size of the city, but undeterred. Getting directions to where “folks join the army,” he finds his way to the recruitment center, expecting to see Pete at once. Instead, a soldier tries to run him off, a fight ensues, and the narrator cuts the soldier with his pocket knife. An officer intervenes and has Pete brought to his office. There the narrator finally sees his brother again.
Gently, Pete explains to his little brother that he must go back home. Pete gives him money for a bus ticket, tells him to keep his knife in his pocket, and kisses him goodbye, much to the narrator’s surprise. After Pete leaves, the officer looks away, clears his throat, and gives Pete’s little brother a piece of gum, implying that the pain of this goodbye has touched him. He then makes a call; moments later a woman in a fur coat (Mrs. McKellog) arrives to take the narrator home for supper.
The boy’s journey continues with a car ride across Memphis, a trip in an elevator that frightens him, and dinner with Colonel and Mrs. McKellogg. He is unable to eat, however, and insists on going home at once. Instead of putting him on a bus, Mrs. McKellogg calls for a staff car. Watching out the window as he leaves the city (and Pete) behind, the narrator begins to cry, unable to stop himself: “I set there by that soldier, crying. We was going fast.”
The central theme of the story is reflected in its title, “Two Soldiers.” Like his brother, the narrator possesses the characteristics of a good soldier. He leaves the safety of home to do what he feels he must do, despite the challenges he faces. He demonstrates courage, determination, and the willingness to fight to complete his mission. The title is also ironic, however, because the narrator is not a soldier; he is a child feeling the wrenching pain of separation, for reasons he cannot understand, from the brother he loves deeply. In this story of Pete and his little brother, Faulkner captures the pain of going to war that was being felt throughout the country in the months following the attack on Pearl Harbor.