At the height of World War II, William Faulkner wrote a pair of compelling stories exploring the viability and importance of America as a nation. Though the United States as a whole was his theme in these two wartime stories, the lens through which he conducted his exploration of nationalism was still the rural countryside of northern Mississippi that he knew so well and used so memorably throughout his literary career. Faulkner compares and contrasts the bonds of family relationships and the provincialism of region with the emerging sense of national pride placed at the forefront in America by the outbreak of war. “Two Soldiers” and “Shall Not Perish” movingly portray the experience of a Mississippi farming family, the Griers, over the time span of about a year, just before and after the young narrator’s brother, Pete, volunteers to join the army to fight for what he calls the “Unity States” (Collected 83). Though neither story is frequently anthologized, both “Two Soldiers” and “Shall Not Perish” appear in “The Country” section of Collected Stories of William Faulkner, and both have been adapted into video productions.
“Shall Not Perish” features the same narrator as “Two Soldiers,” but the younger Grier boy now seems wiser than his nine years of age would indicate, not so much because he has taken on more responsibility on the family farm, but because he has dropped the dialect in his narration and assumed an unconvincingly elevated narrative voice. What is also clear from early on in this story is that it is very different from most of Faulkner’s other short stories, including “Two Soldiers.” Faulkner rarely departed from realistic representations of plot and character in his short fiction, and he rarely experimented with narrative technique in this particular genre either, but he engages in both of these activities in “Shall Not Perish.” According to Edmond L. Volpe, “The story is rhetorical and stylized with little characterization and little action” (260). The benefit of Faulkner’s detour away from character and action is the presentation of a THEME that became more prominent in his work later in his life: the positive belief that he perhaps best expressed in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1950, “that man will not merely endure: he will prevail” (“Nobel” par. 4). This theme is a significant departure from most of Faulkner’s earlier, darker work.
The story opens with the news that Pete, the narrator’s older brother, has been killed in action. The news is no surprise to the family, since both the mother and the younger brother seemed to sense that Pete was going to give his life in this conflict. The news also arrives in April, “the harvest middle push of planting time,” so they allow themselves only “one day to grieve” (Collected 102), because for them the land is a vital part of their existence. The narrative voice from the youngest Grier tells of how the family has been able to endure on their spot on the earth because they and their ancestors had “done right by” (102) the land, and it has sustained them and will continue to sustain future generations.
When the family hears that Major de Spain, who lives nearby in Jefferson, has lost his son too, they go to his house to share the burden of grief with their neighbor and, as it turns out, to try to convince him that the United States is a country for which young men should be proud to die. The difference in wealth and social standing between the de Spains and the Griers is described in great detail, with the presence of many African-American servants standing as the primary symbol of affluence for the de Spains. Readers of Faulkner’s novels will recognize and will probably be a little unsettled by the descriptions of “Negroes,” as Mother Grier more politely refers them. De Spain’s black butler is particularly reminiscent of the slave butler on the Virginia plantation encountered by the young Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom! This difference in social status between the two families is bridged, however, by their common experience of losing a young son. Major de Spain first acknowledges this kinship when he cynically points out to Mrs. Grier, “You too were advised that your son poured out his blood on the altar of unpreparedness and inefficiency” (107). De Spain’s tone indicates his rejection of the idea of a united nation worth dying and fighting for, and he chooses to drape his son’s coffin in the flag of the Confederacy, a nation that neither the son nor the father even knew. Mrs. Grier, however, sees it as her duty to convince the major to “Weep” (108), in order to feel the emotion needed to unify a people in the way Mother Grier and other Americans desire. She further tells the major that this project of national unification “will take time . . . and more grief than yours and mine” (108).
After the family calls on Major de Spain, they visit a museum in Jefferson featuring regional paintings from different parts of the United States. The narrator again seems far outside the story as he alludes to a national sense of unity, describing “the pictures of men and women and children who were the same people that we were even if their houses and barns were different and their fields worked different” (111).
The final episode in this story also stresses the everpresent theme of unity, as the young narrator recollects an experience the family shared with his great-grandfather. The grandpap described by the boy is a typical Faulkner character: an aging civil war veteran obsessed with and haunted by the ghosts of the past and a firm believer in the myth of the lost cause. Grandpap would often fall asleep and dream of cavalry soldiers, and then he would shout out the names of men, both Southern and Northern, who participated in this great American conflict. On one particular Saturday the family takes grandpap to one of serialized western movies that had become popular and played in town each week; at the height of the action, with horses and riders charging across the screen, grandpap begins to shout, “Forrest! Forrest! Here he comes! Get out of the way!” (113). The father is embarrassed by this reaction, Pete finds it hysterically funny, but the narrator finds a way to internalize the incident into the nationalistic theme that has been emerging throughout the story; after all, the incident links two important legendary American literary figures, the haunted figure of the Confederate veteran and the implacable cowboy taming the Wild West and literally turning it into a nation. The narrator suggests that the actions of men such as these figures have been combined with the action of others, “North and South and East and West, until the name of what they did and what they died for became just one single word . . . America” (115).
Faulkner’s experiments in this story are partially successful, but many readers will be disappointed by the fact that the author seems to leave the memorable and believable narrator from “Two Soldiers” behind in order to make a larger political statement. Others, however, will applaud this story as a creative turn toward a positive and a hopeful outlook on life, so lacking in much of Faulkner’s fiction.
Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! New York: Vintage Books, 1986.
———. Collected Stories of William Faulkner. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
Volpe, Edmond L. A Reader’s Guide to William Faulkner; The Short Stories. Syracuse N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2004.