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Shortly after the conclusion of World War I, Will Falls, an ancient veteran of the Civil War, comes to visit old Bayard Sartoris in his Jefferson, Mississippi, bank, bringing a pipe that belonged to John Sartoris, Bayard’s father and a colonel in the Confederacy. John’s heroic ghost seems to fill the room as they reminisce.

The bank day over, Simon Strother, a Sartoris family servant, comes to drive old Bayard home in the family carriage and reports that Bayard’s grandson, also named Bayard, was seen arriving on a train that afternoon. Young Bayard is a Royal Air Force pilot along with his twin brother John. John died foolishly in the skies over France. Juxtaposed with young Bayard’s reported sighting is another story of the past, this one about a third Bayard Sartoris, who fought in the Civil War. Colonel John Sartoris’s brother died vaingloriously in the service of Jeb Stuart. His Civil War exploits, as did his brother John’s, became part of the Sartoris family legend. The repository of the Sartoris legends is eighty-year-old Aunt Jenny Depre, who keeps house for the Sartorises. The sister of John and Bayard Sartoris of the Civil War, she alternated between paying homage to and scoffing at the deeds of her brothers. A no-nonsense person with an acidic tongue, she attributed the violence and foolishness of the World War I generation of brothers to the same streak of Sartoris bullheadedness that ran through the Sartoris men of the Civil War.

Safely returned home to the care of Aunt Jenny and his grandfather, young Bayard still cannot find peace. He is filled with guilt over his brother’s death and is driven to self-destructive behavior. He foolishly tries to ride an untrained stallion and is thrown. Rather than return home, he becomes drunk with some country folks and then serenades all the eligible ladies in town, including Narcissa Benbow. He also races recklessly through the county in an automobile, running wagons off the road. Although warned to avoid the automobile because of a bad heart, the elder Bayard rides along, ostensibly to restrain his grandson’s recklessness but really, according to Miss Jenny, because, as another Sartoris male, he desires the same thrill of danger as his grandson. Narcissa is Jenny’s friend and formerly was in love with Bayard’s brother John. Visiting one day, she confides to Jenny that she was receiving anonymous and obscene love letters. For all of her ladylike decorum, however, she is secretly flattered by the letters. The sender, Byron Snopes, is a stealthy, animalistic bookkeeper at the Sartorises’ bank, who dictates his missives to a schoolboy, as if they were business correspondence. The boy blackmails Snopes into giving him an air rifle.

Narcissa welcomes home another returning veteran, her brother Horace Benbow. A noncombatant during the war, he served in the YMCA and learned glassblowing in Italy. Impractical and absent-minded, Horace finds that his love of beauty is a thin disguise for his cowardice. He adores his sister, even naming one of his glass vases after her, but he falls out of favor with her when he resumes an affair with Belle Mitchell, a discontented married woman.

A third returning veteran is Caspey Strother, son of Simon, who comes to believe that, given their equal status in France, blacks need no longer accept a servile position in southern society. Caspey’s war tales are exaggerated, and the only real wounds he suffered were in a crap game. Old Bayard regards Caspey’s notions of his rights as insolent. In the meantime, old Bayard develops a wen on his face, which, much to Aunt Jenny’s...

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exasperation, he allows Will Falls to treat with an ancient Indian remedy. Fearful that Bayard will get blood poisoning, she takes him to a pretentious but ineffectual specialist. Falls’s salve ultimately works perfectly, much to the dismay of Jenny and the doctors. Eventually, young Bayard has an automobile accident in which he breaks his ribs. Narcissa, with conflicting feelings of attraction and revulsion, reads to him as he recovers, although he has no interest whatsoever in books. The relationship develops further until they agree to marry. On the eve of the wedding, Byron Snopes breaks into Narcissa’s bedroom, steals the anonymous letters he wrote her, robs the Sartorises’ bank, and leaves town.

Simon gets into trouble with his church congregation, which entrusts him with money being collected to build a new church building. Simon gave the money away to a mistress, claiming, in imitation of his employer, that he lent the money out. He assures the congregation that the elder Bayard will restore the money, much to his employer’s outrage. Young Bayard finds a momentary contentment in marriage, Narcissa’s pregnancy, and the rhythms of seasonal plantation life. He and Narcissa watch the sharecroppers make sorghum molasses, go possum hunting with Caspey, and share Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends. Memories of his twin brother, however, drive him to despair again. Driving recklessly off the road one December day, he causes his grandfather to die of a heart attack. Ashamed of his conduct, he does not return home but escapes into the country to stay with the MacCallums, with whom he and his brother often hunted. This return to a wholesome life close to the earth reminds him of better times, but it cannot restore his spirits. On Christmas Eve he leaves the MacCallums’, spends the night and Christmas morning with a black sharecropping family, and then takes a train away from his home forever.

At the conclusion of the novel, Narcissa receives a letter from Horace, who went off to live with Belle. Jenny and she also receive, from various parts of the country, Bayard’s requests for money. Bayard eventually agrees to test-fly a dangerously designed airplane and is killed on the day his son is born to Narcissa. Jenny announces that the child’s name must be John, but in an effort to evade the Sartoris heritage of violence and self-destructiveness, Narcissa insists on naming the child Benbow Sartoris. Simon Strother is eventually murdered as the result of his adulterous affair. Jenny tends to Simon’s and the Sartoris men’s graves. Picking up the pieces left behind by the destructive Sartoris men seems to be her lot in life, a role that she stoically accepts.