Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Soldiers' Pay is a 1926 novel by William Faulkner, set in Charlestown, Georgia. The novel is Faulkner's first published, and met with less success than his subsequent Absalom, Absalom! (1936). The story details the trip home of a severely wounded officer, Donald Mahon, who meets two other soldiers on a train south to his hometown of Charlestown, Georgia. Widow Margaret Powers, and soldiers Joe Gilligan and Julian Lowe, all heretofore strangers, meet Mahon on the train.
Joe and Margaret escort the amnesia-afflicted and wounded Mahon back to his family, where he is greeted with emotionally fraught ambivalence by his father, Rector; his housekeeper, Emmy; and his fiancée, Cecily. Mahon represents the conflicted emotions that surround the survivors of war; they are grateful for his return, but cannot help but be sobered by his mental illness and repulsed by his wounds. Eventually, Mahon dies, after recalling briefly a memory of his action in war. Before he dies, Margaret (by way of atonement for having lost her previous husband in the war) marries him on his deathbed.
Faulkner's novel is representative of the "Lost Generation" (a term coined by poet Gertrude Stein, and treated at great length in the novels of Ernest Hemingway) that was left in the wake of World War I. Soldiers' Pay's characters are revealed in the context of their reactions to Mahon, who is a litmus for manifold ways in which the members of this "Lost Generation" react to the effects of the war. To his father, Mahon is a tragic figure, wounded before his time; to Gilligan, his position as a fallen hero is venerable and almost enviable; to Margaret, he is a pathetic victim, alongside whom she chooses to martyr herself by marriage and imminent widowhood.