The Unvanquished Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

One of America’s greatest writers, William Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949. A prolific writer, he published through five decades, from the 1920’s into the 1960’s. Faulkner’s major subject matter was the complicated history of the American South, and his fiction deals with it with humor, irony, and sympathy. Fifteen of his twenty novels are set in Yoknapatawpha County, a fictionalized version of the land around Oxford, Mississippi, where Faulkner lived. His novels and short stories reverberate so that it is not only the South or the United States about which Faulkner writes but also all people concerned with what he called in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech the “old verities and truths of the heart . . . courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice.”

Faulkner’s tenth novel, The Unvanquished, is set in Yoknapatawpha County and deals with the Civil War and Reconstruction. The novel comprises seven titled chapters, six of which were published in magazines as independent stories before being revised for publication in the novel. The last chapter, “An Odor of Verbena,” was written specifically for the novel. Although the same themes, setting, characters, and some stylistic devices of this novel appear in other Faulkner works, The Unvanquished highlights adventure, sacrificing some of the complexity of Faulkner’s greater novels.

The style of The Unvanquished makes it one of the least difficult of Faulkner’s novels to read. Known for their complicated shifts in point of view and chronology, Faulkner’s novels are often demanding. The Unvanquished, on the other hand, is narrated by a single character, Bayard Sartoris. A bright twelve-year-old when the novel begins, Bayard’s age and intelligence also simplify the novel for readers. The plot is presented almost entirely in chronological order, so readers are able to follow the life of the Sartoris family during the Civil War and through the months following the South’s surrender. The last chapter jumps ahead about eight years into Reconstruction. Only the last chapter uses extended flashbacks that break the chronological order of the narrative. In the first six stories, Bayard ages from twelve to his mid-teens; the last chapter, covering two days, begins and ends with him aged twenty-four, but flashbacks present him at twenty and again at twenty-three.

Two rather typical Faulknerian stylistic devices, delayed information and repetition with variation, allow the narrative to function well as a novel despite comprising seven separate stories. Delayed information connects chapters while adding suspense to the novel. In the first chapter, the Yankee colonel who allows Granny to hide Bayard and Ringo tells her his name, but that name is not revealed to readers until chapter 3. Climactic scenes are sometimes recounted obscurely at first, only to be revealed in more detail later. For example, readers are left uncertain at first as to the fate of the ambushed Yankee in chapter 1 and of Grumby in chapter 5. Later passages clarify that the Yankee was not hit but that Grumby was killed and mutilated.

Repetition with variation also helps connect the different chapters. The stock pen built in the first chapter plays a crucial role in a number of the other chapters. The prayer and the soap used by Granny as an antidote for sin and swearing help provide humor and continuity of character throughout the novel. The odor of the Civil War soldier, perceived as “powder and...

(The entire section is 1456 words.)