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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 362

Soldiers' Pay is William Faulkner's first novel, published in 1926. It tells the story of a WWI veteran named Donald Mahon returning home to Mississippi who has suffered grievous wounds, and the interpersonal conflicts he encounters. Donald is blind, suffers from memory loss, and is nearly mute, and is therefore...

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Soldiers' Pay is William Faulkner's first novel, published in 1926. It tells the story of a WWI veteran named Donald Mahon returning home to Mississippi who has suffered grievous wounds, and the interpersonal conflicts he encounters. Donald is blind, suffers from memory loss, and is nearly mute, and is therefore accompanied by the discharged soldier Joe Gilligan, who acts as his guardian. Joe is a mature and steadfast older man who views Donald as the son he never had. Donald is engaged to Cecily Saunders, a beautiful but shallow woman who finds herself repulsed by the scarring Donald is left with. Their engagement is threatened not only by Cecily's fickle nature, but also the desires of the widowed war nurse Margaret Powers. She is very intelligent and independent, but her darker skin causes some amount of issues with the racist mindset of the American South. She is often referred to as a black women by those intending insult, but it doesn't stop men from being interested in her. One such character is the naive Julian Lowe, who dreams of being a heroic pilot and is therefore disappointed by the armistice.

More hometown characters include Donald's father Joseph, a clergyman, and George Farr, a gullible man in love with Cecily. Emmy is a housemaid at the refectory and is devastated when Donald returns with no memory of her. She had given her virginity to him, and his wounds and eventual death causes her such grief she submits to the immoral and lecherous Januarius Jones.

The web of interpersonal relationships grows and shifts and changes as the novel progresses, so I'll give a quick rundown one more time. Donald is engaged to Cecily, who seems to be interested in every man but him and eventually runs away and elopes with George. Even with his wounds, Donald is desired by Margaret and Emmy, and before his death, he ends up marrying Margaret. After Donald's death, Joe proposes to Margaret, but quickly recovers after she declines the proposal and moves on. Briefly, she is also pursued by Julian and Januarius (who in turn pursues every other woman in the novel), neither of whom getting anywhere with her.

The Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 631

Soldiers’ Pay reveals clearly the nature of Faulkner’s mastery of characterization, the genius with which he conjures in the reader’s mind vivid and convincing characters. His technique combines luminous detail with understatement: A few significant strokes are often sufficient to bring a character to life. This method invites the reader to become a cocreator of the character, allowing him to project himself into the narrative and to supply with his own imagination the missing details.

In addition, Faulkner brings the reader into the narrative by involving him in the points of view of the characters themselves: A character is seen primarily as others in the narrative see him. For example, Donald Mahon is not described from an objective, omniscient point of view when he first appears in the novel. Rather, the reader sees him as Julian Lowe first does: “He saw a belt and wings, he rose and met a young face with a dreadful scar across his brow.” Similarly, when Jones sees a photograph of Mahon as a boy, the narrative lets the reader in on his perspective: “The boy was about eighteen and coatless: beneath unruly hair, Jones saw a thin face with a delicate pointed chin and wild, soft eyes.” The subjective, impressionistic manner in which characters are rendered is also clearly demonstrated by Lowe’s description of Margaret Powers: He remarks on “her pallid distinction, her black hair, the red scar of her mouth, her slim dark dress,” a description which becomes even more quintessential a few pages later, where she is imagined as “tall and red and white and black, beautiful.”

The narrator does not restrict himself exclusively to the points of view of the characters, however, and reserves the freedom to add levels of description and symbolism which the characters themselves do not provide. The narrator, for example, compares Margaret Powers to an Aubrey Beardsley drawing, acknowledging that neither Lowe nor Gilligan could have made that connection. More typically, the narrator will compare his characters to animals, nymphs, trees, and flowers in an effort to enrich their symbolic texture. The Rector, for example, is once described as a “laurelled Jove,” whose “great laugh boomed like bells in the sunlight, sent the sparrows like gusty leaves whirling.” In his garden, the Rector is a kind of wood-god, whose arm lies “heavy and solid as an oak branch across Jones’ shoulder.” Jones himself is explicitly compared to goats and satyrs: “Jones’ eyes were clear and yellow, obscene and old in sin as a goat’s”; while Cecily is often compared to trees: “A poplar, vain and pliant, trying attitude after attitude, gesture after gesture. . . . She bent sweetly as a young tree.” As always, Faulkner’s technique is designed to render the felt moment of experience, the perceiving subject’s momentary impression: Jones’s “yellow eyes washed over her warm and clear as urine.” Cecily’s “voice was rough, like a tangle of golden wires.”

Faulkner is a master at rendering his characters’ exteriors; nevertheless, Soldiers’ Pay also reveals his growing technical mastery of psychological realism, his ability to individuate his characters from within. Each character is associated with a recurrent stylistic pattern, a verbal motif that is meant to express his most intimate desires, his most secret pains. Beneath the surface of the Rector’s embattled, pathetic optimism, for example, runs the poignant, silent refrain, “This was Donald, my son. He is dead.” Margaret Powers laments her dead husband and expresses her strained ambivalence with the recurrent phrase, “No, no, good-bye, dear dead Dick, ugly dead Dick.” George Farr’s memory of Cecily’s naked body becomes an obsessive image, rendered as “her body, like a little silver water sweetly dividing.” With such verbal motifs, Faulkner effectively reveals the dynamic of his characters’ inner lives.

Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 714

Donald Mahon

Donald Mahon, a flyer dying of wounds suffered in World War I. Wild like a faun in his youth, he was shot down and now is going blind, has lost most of his memory, is not fully conscious, and says little. His face is so dreadfully scarred that it shocks people, revealing their natures. He brings out the best in some and the worst in others. As the novel begins, he is coming back from the war by train to his home in a small town in Georgia, where he is engaged to a prominent Southern belle. At the end, his death, like the war, significantly changes the lives of some characters while not affecting others at all.

Margaret Powers

Margaret Powers, a young war widow on the train who nurses and, shortly before his death, marries Mahon. Tall, slim, dark, and pallid, with a mouth like a red scar, she is an independent woman of twenty-four, self-contained, unconventional, and the most intelligent, perceptive character in the novel. Some intend to insult her by calling her a black woman. Her compassion for Mahon is motivated to some extent by guilt about the way she broke off with her first husband, also a young officer, shortly before he was killed at the front by one of his own men. At the end, she declines a marriage proposal from Joe Gilligan and sets out on her own.

Joe Gilligan

Joe Gilligan, a discharged American soldier who serves as Donald Mahon’s guardian throughout the novel, regarding him as the kind of son he would have liked to have. An easygoing, talkative man of thirty-two, with a sense of humor and a capacity for self-sacrifice, he is almost the only person to whom Mahon speaks. He is a strong, mature man, and when Margaret Powers declines his proposal, he is not wounded for long.

Julian Lowe

Julian Lowe, an air cadet whose anticipation of glory as a flyer is disappointed by the armistice. On the train with Mahon and Gilligan, traveling back to his home in San Francisco, he naïvely envies Mahon. He is infatuated with Margaret Powers, whose feeling toward him is maternal, and throughout the novel he writes her ungrammatical love letters. His expectation of marrying her is frustrated, like his equally absurd dream of becoming a hero in the war.

Joseph Mahon

Joseph Mahon, the rector, an Episcopalian priest who is Donald’s father. A hopeful clergyman inclined to illusion, he sustains a faith that his son will recover and rise again. He grows increasingly realistic as Donald’s condition worsens, but he transcends disappointment. In the end, after the death of Donald and the departure of Margaret, he consoles Joe Gilligan and leads him to some inspiration from black culture.

Cecily Saunders

Cecily Saunders, the local belle engaged to Donald Mahon. A shallow flirt with reddish dark hair and green-blue eyes, she has a conventional perfection but is spoiled and petulant. She is jealous of Margaret (she calls her a black woman) and forces herself to kiss Mahon on the side of his face that is not scarred, but she cannot go through with the marriage. She consorts with other men and finally elopes with George Farr.

George Farr

George Farr, an ordinary, gullible young man in love with Cecily Saunders. Duped by the superficial, he suffers from jealousy and at last succeeds in eloping with Cecily, who continues to make him miserable.


Emmy, the housekeeper at the rectory. She is in love with Donald Mahon. A poor, loyal, and passionate young woman with a wild face and dark eyes, she gave her virginity to Mahon before he became engaged to Cecily and went to war. She is distraught that, as a result of his wounds, he has forgotten her. In wounded pride, she declines the opportunity to marry him offered her by Margaret after Cecily runs away.

Januarius Jones

Januarius Jones, a fat, coldhearted Latin teacher who pursues women like a satyr. Baggy in gray tweeds and the antithesis of Donald Mahon, he has eyes the color of urine and the morals of a goat. Margaret rejects him, whereas Cecily, to some extent his moral counterpart, teases him, and Emmy, as an escape from grief, submits to him.

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