Critical Evaluation

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One of America’s greatest writers, William Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949. A prolific writer, he published through five decades, from the 1920’s into the 1960’s. Faulkner’s major subject matter was the complicated history of the American South, and his fiction deals with it with humor, irony, and sympathy. Fifteen of his twenty novels are set in Yoknapatawpha County, a fictionalized version of the land around Oxford, Mississippi, where Faulkner lived. His novels and short stories reverberate so that it is not only the South or the United States about which Faulkner writes but also all people concerned with what he called in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech the “old verities and truths of the heart . . . courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice.”

Faulkner’s tenth novel, The Unvanquished, is set in Yoknapatawpha County and deals with the Civil War and Reconstruction. The novel comprises seven titled chapters, six of which were published in magazines as independent stories before being revised for publication in the novel. The last chapter, “An Odor of Verbena,” was written specifically for the novel. Although the same themes, setting, characters, and some stylistic devices of this novel appear in other Faulkner works, The Unvanquished highlights adventure, sacrificing some of the complexity of Faulkner’s greater novels.

The style of The Unvanquished makes it one of the least difficult of Faulkner’s novels to read. Known for their complicated shifts in point of view and chronology, Faulkner’s novels are often demanding. The Unvanquished, on the other hand, is narrated by a single character, Bayard Sartoris. A bright twelve-year-old when the novel begins, Bayard’s age and intelligence also simplify the novel for readers. The plot is presented almost entirely in chronological order, so readers are able to follow the life of the Sartoris family during the Civil War and through the months following the South’s surrender. The last chapter jumps ahead about eight years into Reconstruction. Only the last chapter uses extended flashbacks that break the chronological order of the narrative. In the first six stories, Bayard ages from twelve to his mid-teens; the last chapter, covering two days, begins and ends with him aged twenty-four, but flashbacks present him at twenty and again at twenty-three.

Two rather typical Faulknerian stylistic devices, delayed information and repetition with variation, allow the narrative to function well as a novel despite comprising seven separate stories. Delayed information connects chapters while adding suspense to the novel. In the first chapter, the Yankee colonel who allows Granny to hide Bayard and Ringo tells her his name, but that name is not revealed to readers until chapter 3. Climactic scenes are sometimes recounted obscurely at first, only to be revealed in more detail later. For example, readers are left uncertain at first as to the fate of the ambushed Yankee in chapter 1 and of Grumby in chapter 5. Later passages clarify that the Yankee was not hit but that Grumby was killed and mutilated.

Repetition with variation also helps connect the different chapters. The stock pen built in the first chapter plays a crucial role in a number of the other chapters. The prayer and the soap used by Granny as an antidote for sin and swearing help provide humor and continuity of character throughout the novel. The odor of the Civil War soldier, perceived as “powder and glory” in the first chapter, is transformed in the fifth chapter into the odor of the raider Grumby, perceived as “sweat” and “grease,” and in the final chapter into the odor of...

(This entire section contains 1456 words.)

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verbena, a symbol of victory and peace. Parallel scenes help knit the novel and develop characterization. Bayard, the narrator, eagerly shoots at—but misses—a Yankee soldier in the first chapter, feels confused when he kills Grumby in the fifth chapter, and refuses to kill in the last chapter. The development of the novel parallels this character development, as readers see the society of the South changing through the character of Bayard, who moves beyond the violence of the past to break the chain of killing.

The Unvanquished is populated by a number of singular and powerful characters. As it is narrated by Bayard Sartoris as he grows into manhood, his experiences educate him by repeatedly testing his courage, judgment, and burgeoning maturity. He and Ringo, as young men, romanticize the struggles and especially the exploits of Bayard’s father, John Sartoris. The colonel’s own character is revealed with increasing accuracy through Bayard’s changing perspective.

Colonel Sartoris, to whom is attached a large degree of myth, is a reader of Sir Walter Scott, an author favored by defenders of the Old South. Even as The Unvanquished begins, the South is defeated, disintegrating at the end of a war Rosa Millard considers the foolishness of men. She too, however, represents the old ways, braving Union soldiers to fetch her property, dressed in her best, carrying cuttings of ancient roses. She approaches her task with courage but also with the decorum of her station in a lost South.

Bayard’s and Ringo’s adventures vacillate between accompanying this woman on her civilized mission to regain her property, and conspiring with her and Ab Snopes against the Union Army to steal and resell to them their own mules—dividing the booty among those in their community who have been devastated by the war. Finally, the boys respond with vengeance to the violence that takes Rosa’s life. In a war-torn South, then, they move from scratching out the movements of the Confederate Army in the dirt, to helping Rosa maintain some of the decorum expected of her station as a genteel, Southern matriarch, to outlawry and murder.

In the “reconstructed South” of the final chapter, when Colonel Sartoris is killed by his rival Redmond, Bayard has become a university student of twenty-four. He finds that it is not so easy to avenge his father’s death, even though Drusilla, with whom he is nearly in love, hands him dueling pistols and fully expects that he will act according to the old codes. The community, including some of the colonel’s own former soldiers, think that Sartoris was partly to blame for his own death, having pushed Redmond to desperation.

Bayard’s choice to confront Remond but not to shoot him—in fact, to allow Redmond to fire two shots at him—is his way of both acknowledging the codes of the past and showing that their absolutes are no longer viable. He has learned to abhor violence and to look at the world in a way that now acknowledges its complexities and moral ambiguities, even when it concerns his own father, whom he once considered the bravest and most daring of men. By aiming wide and allowing Bayard to live, Redmond demonstrates that this embrace of complexity is valid.

Powerful women also people the novel. Ultimately, all of them, in one way or another, reestablish the claims of community and social expectation. While Rosa has violated these in her outlawry, she has done so primarily for the welfare of her neighbors. Drusilla is among Faulkner’s women characters who dare to cross rigidly established gender lines, dressing as a man and finally riding with Colonel Sartoris as one of his “men.” When she returns, the women of the community insist that she dress like a woman and that she marry the colonel, having ridden and camped with him, to reclaim her respectability. The colonel agrees to marry Drusilla, even though he is not in love with her, acceding himself to the women’s insistence. These women repair at least this small tear in the social fabric, as is the case in so many of Faulkner’s novels, in which women decry and then fix what the menfolk have foolishly destroyed.

The Unvanquished grapples as a novel with the painful transition from the old way of life—however stained by the horror of slavery, however elevated as myth, however beautiful in some ways—to the new South, which must face defeat, deal with Reconstruction, and learn what to salvage from the past and what to let go. Ab Snopes, a thief and a man of so little honor he betrays Rosa, is a key to this transition. He and his values will become part of the new South, and the Snopeses will bring with them to town the kind of grasping and crass commercialism that represents the worst of progress. The Unvanquished presents the last moments of the crisis through the consciousness of a young man whose moral journey is representative of the journey that all those who wish to survive with honor in the new South must take.