Soldiers' Pay Summary
William Faulkner’s Soldier’s Pay is set right after World War I. After returning to the U.S., the soldier, named Mahon, needs assistance making his way back to his home in Georgia. When writing a summary or other paper on the novel, it would help to mention some of the major events that happen along the way to his getting home, as well as the hurdles he has to surpass in order to do so.
For example, Mahon was an aviator in the war, and he suffered terrible injuries. The head injuries, in particular, made it so that he doesn’t speak too often. He is also blind and has terrible scars. A veteran and a widow help him find his way home to a family that thinks he’s dead. The widow becomes interested in him, although Mahon is engaged already.
Silence and hidden emotion are important threads that move through the story, and it may help your cause to connect them to the events of the novel, or especially the events implied from before the novel. Mahon has been badly injured by the war in multiple ways—he is surely very different from who he used to be. A big part of the story is everyone coming to terms with that and trying to find hope despite all the death and decay.
A work of literary modernism influenced by T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), William Faulkner’s first novel, Soldiers’ Pay, brings “the lost generation” to Faulkner’s native ground. In describing the impact upon a small Southern town of the return and slow death of an aviator horribly wounded in World War I, the novel re-creates the mood of disillusionment, deflation, and spiritual malaise which was prevalent in postwar American society and art. Eliotic despair is substantially countered, however, by Faulkner’s insistence, often in rich, poetic prose, on natural cycles of renewal, on the essential decency, strength, and humanity of the principal characters, and on the faith and integrity of the blacks who have remained impervious to white society’s spiritual alienation.
The novel opens with an ironic epigraph taken from an “Old Play (about 19-?),” a fragment of dialogue about shaving between Achilles and Mercury cast as sergeant and cadet. The scene is a graphic undercutting of the heroic mood and an effective introduction to Joe Gilligan and Julian Lowe, a demobilized soldier and a young air cadet, respectively, whose opportunity for martial glory has been “cruelly” thwarted by fate: The Armistice had been declared before they could reach the Western Front. On a train heading south from Buffalo, they give vent to their frustration in drunkenness, dramatizing their essential isolation while casting themselves as “lost foreigners” in a “foreign land.”
Into this histrionic scene enters Donald Mahon, a young pilot with a ghastly scar across his brow. He is a symbol of the physical and psychic wounds inflicted by the war, while serving as a focal point of the characters who project onto him their unrealized aspirations. For Lowe, Mahon is the epitome of glamour and heroism, a dying pilot whose wings suggest both angelic martyrdom and, unconsciously, sexual achievement. “Had I been old enough or lucky enough, this might have been me,” Lowe thinks jealously. Yet the novel soon moves beyond Lowe’s adolescent romanticism (and, appropriately, he disappears after chapter 1, persuaded by Margaret Powers to return home—he reappears only through his semiliterate love letters to her) in order to explore the real costs of war, suffered by the soldiers and noncombatants alike.
If Mahon represents the wounded, dead, and dying soldiers, Margaret Powers, whom Gilligan and Lowe meet on the train, represents the women who become widows before their time. Margaret’s husband, Dick, whom she had married on an impulse, was killed in France before he could receive from her a letter saying that she did not love him. Entangled in a web of unresolved emotions, she sees in Mahon the image of her dead husband and thus an opportunity to expiate her guilt...
(The entire section is 1,814 words.)