Study Guide

The Unvanquished

by William Faulkner

The Unvanquished Themes

Themes

"Ambuscade," the first of the seven stories that compose The Unvanquished, shows Bayard, then twelve years old and the protagonist-narrator of the novel, acting out the siege of Vicksburg with his black friend, Ringo, before Loosh, a slave and Ringo's uncle, sweeps their model aside, suggesting that Vicksburg had already fallen. With the fall of Vicksburg the North controlled the Mississippi River and had split the South in two; Gettysburg, another Southern defeat which occurred at the same time, was the last major attempt by a Southern army to invade the North and capture Washington, D.C. Like most retrospective first-person narrators, Bayard is split in two; with respect to the action, he is a character in its time and place, but as a narrator he is looking backward from maturity and able to determine the significance of action and events. What is dramatized in the story are the illusions of Bayard and Ringo, their hopes of Southern victory, and their belief in Southern heroism, particularly as it is embodied by Bayard's father, Colonel John Sartoris. These illusions are shattered at first by Loosh, and then by the decisions of John Sartoris and Bayard's grandmother, Rosa Millard, to hide the stock in a pen hidden from sight and bury the family silver. Finally, the appearance in the story of the Yankees themselves, whom Bayard and Ringo take a shot at, challenges their hopes. The slide in family values begins here innocently enough with Miss Rosa's attempt to punish the boys' bad language while she lies to the commanding officer about their whereabouts. Here the Yankees do not seem a threat, as the Union commanding officer, Colonel Dick, knows that the boys are hidden under Granny's skirt but sympathizes with her position humanely.

In the following story, "Retreat," the Yankees are not so generous, as they burn down the Sartoris house, steal the family silver with the help of Loosh, and fire on the boys in frustration when they fail to capture John Sartoris. A few pages earlier John, Ringo, and Bayard by luck and daring capture several Union soldiers in what seems a boy's adventure, but the destruction of the house changes the character of the war for the boys and Granny. All call the Union forces "bastards" and Granny, in order to get home from an aborted trip, steals horses just as the boys did earlier and John has with his irregulars. John's command is reminiscent of the guerrilla warfare of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, and because of the nature of his command, he has a price on his head as if he were a criminal rather than a soldier. Heroic valor in The Unvanquished undercut story by story; it exists, but Faulkner worries when courage is separated from value.

Race, just as in Light in August (1932) and Absalom, Absalom! (1936) is sympathetically treated. Loosh's dreams of freedom are clear in "Ambuscade," and his rejoinder to Granny about leading federal troops to the buried silver is telling: "Let God ax John Sartoris who the man name that give me to him. Let the man that buried me in the black dark ax that of the man who dug me free." While most of the Sartoris' slaves are loyal to the family almost as in feudal obligations, Loosh and many others later will leave their masters, for Loosh temporarily, to wander the roads in pursuit of freedom in what Faulkner characterizes as a religious revelation.

"Raid" tells of the journey of Granny and the boys to Hawkhurst, an Alabama plantation owned by Bayard's aunt and cousins, the Hawks, and a further journey by Granny to see Colonel Dick about the stolen stock and the missing family silver, before Granny, Ringo, and Bayard return home. Two powerful panoramic scenes occur in the story, one showing the destruction of the plantation homes that Granny and the boys pass on the way to Hawkhurst with white masters living in the slave quarters, and the other showing the mass migration of slaves who, like Loosh, pursue freedom and the northern soldiers with religious ecstasy. Despite nearly drowning in a river with the black people on the road, Granny is able to see Colonel Dick, who offers restitution. However, when Granny's oral descriptions of the missing slaves, mules, and silver are written down, the facts are confused: her two mules become 110, her two slaves become over a hundred, and the one chest of silver becomes ten. With Ringo taking the lead, this comic mistake develops into a series of swindles in which Union horses and mules are stolen by forged orders as Granny and the boys become thieves by choice rather than by accident.

The plight of the black people who see freedom as salvation is movingly presented, as many risk death for an undefined goal that the North has promised in the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation without really understanding the measure as anything more than a wartime stratagem. Drusilla's explanation of why she no longer needs to sleep is also moving. With war removing young husbands and houses looted and burned, the place and value of civilian living is lost. Drusilla responds to the war and the invasion of her country much like veterans from World War I; her traditional femininity is eroded just as, in a different way, Granny's traditional values are corrupted. Tales of the Lost Cause, even before the loss of the Civil War, are beginning to take place as Drusilla relates the 1862 Great Locomotive Chase to Bayard and Ringo in a style reminiscent of later heroic stories of Southern resistance.

"Riposte in Tertio" primarily is Rosa Millard's story. Summarized are the many swindles of horses and mules based on forged papers and the many times those same mules and horses are sold back to the Union army....

(The entire section is 2312 words.)