In Faulkner's short story "Shall Not Perish," why does Mother pick up the pistol?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "Shall Not Perish," William Faulkner tells the story of how two families grieve after receiving word that their sons were killed in World War II. Mother's family takes one day to grieve because they have a farm to run that they need to focus on so it will continue to outlive them. They then receive word that another boy was killed, Major de Spain's son.

Mother and the narrating boy go to visit Major de Spain, who is struggling with his grief. When they arrive, they find him standing at the end of a table with a

Confederate flag spread over it and the photograph of Major de Spain's son and the open box with the medal in it and a big blue automatic pistol weighting down the flag.

Mother recognizes that Major de Spain may kill himself over the grief, and she advises him to just weep as she takes the pistol away until she can calm him down.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"Shall Not Perish" was William Faulkner's sequel to "Two Soldiers," which detailed a young boy's love for his brother who enlists to fight in World War II. In "Shall," the family receives word that the brother has died, and they examine and accept their grief in different ways.

During the story, Mother and the narrating young boy visit Major de Spain, who has also lost his son in the war. He is sitting at a table draped with the Confederate flag, where his own father had served, and a pistol sitting in the middle of the table. He berates Mother for not staying at home to pray and love her remaining son, something he cannot do because he only had one. She goes straight to the table and grabs the gun:

"I can tell you something simpler than that," she said. "Weep." Then she reached the table. But it was only her body that stopped, her hand going out so smooth and quick that his hand only caught her wrist, the two hands locked together on the big blue pistol.
...
"When? When all the young men are dead? What will there be left then worth the saving?" 
"I know," Mother said. "I know. Our Pete was too young too to have to die." Then I realized that their hands were no longer locked, that he was erect again and that the pistol was hanging slack in Mother's hand against her side....
(Faulkner, "Shall Not Perish," archive.org)

The implication, never spelled out, is that Major de Spain was about to commit suicide over the death of his son. While Mother is no less grief-stricken about her own loss, she is more pragmatic; she has a family to feed and duties to perform, while de Spain is wealthy and has no other family. If she allows her grief to control her, others will suffer; she does not want to see de Spain die in a useless gesture, and so she takes the gun, holding it from him until she can counsel him into a more accepting state.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial