Analysis of William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished

Set during the Civil War and Reconstruction and composed of seven stories (five of which had been published previously in the Saturday Evening Post and one in Scribner’s), William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished has been viewed as both a novel and a short story cycle. The stories feature Bayard Sartoris, a member of one of the most prominent families in Yoknapatawpha Country as he grows in understanding and maturity. Taken together, they compose a bildungsroman that demonstrates Bayard’s increasing recognition of the tensions that have created and still permeate the New South and that have formed his own character between the ages of 12 and 24. Because the early stories are told from the perspective of a child, the full weight of the historical events—and the issues of race and gender interlaced with the theme of courage—is not apparent until the last story.

In the first tale, “Ambuscade,” the 12-year-old boys, Bayard, who is white, and Ringo, who is black, find the war exciting and heroic. The time is 1863, and they take turns playing General Pemberton and General Grant at Vicksburg. Bayard views his father, Colonel John Sartoris, as a hero, a giant, a man capable of defending the entire South against the Union forces. Loosh, one of the Sartorises’ former slaves, shows that he does indeed understand the injustice of slavery and the significance of the increasing number of Union victories. Bayard’s aunt, Rosa Millard, demonstrates her quick thinking and courage when a Yankee colonel arrives at the house, and she protects the boys by hiding them under her sweeping skirts.

The second story, “Retreat,” takes place one year later. Characters who will reappear in Go Down, Moses, appear here—Uncle Buck McCaslin, for example. Unlike Ringo and his family, who remain loyal to the Sartorises, Loosh continues to show his excitement about almost-certain freedom while Rosa, fearing reprisals against Colonel Sartoris for his attacks of Yankee bivouacs, takes Bayard and Ringo to the safer plantation, Hawkhurst, home of relatives in Alabama. Colonel Sartoris makes a courageous if foolhardly escape out the back door of his house, and the Yankees burn the Sartoris plantation. At 13 Bayard still sees his father—and the role of the Old South—in romanticized, idealized terms.

William Faulkner in Hollywood, CA, early 1940s. (Alfred Eriss/Pix Inc./The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

In the third story, “Raid,” the now-14-year-old Bayard, living at Hawkhurst, begins to comprehend the vast destructiveness of the war. His cousin Drusilla Hawke, who before the war could outrun and outride any man in the county, tells him she has lost her fianc . Life before the war, she says sarcastically, had been “boring” when a woman had merely to think of finding a husband and choosing silverware and having babies. In the next stories she will cut her hair short, ride with Colonel Sartoris’s troops, and fight the Yankees. The former slaves move toward freedom, and Loosh, who speaks for their point of view, points out to Rosa the injustice of one human being’s owning another. Rosa initiates her scheme in which, with the help of Bayard and Ringo, she outwits the Yankees by stealing their mules and then later selling the same animals to them.

“Riposte in Tertio,” the fourth story, features Ringo, who emerges as very intelligent, on an equal footing with Rosa as he strategizes and extends the mulestealing scheme. He is the first to understand—as the naive Bayard does not—that the poor white Abner Snopes has betrayed the family. Rosa, a sort of female Robin Hood, takes the money from the mule sale and distributes it to all the poor, black and white alike, in the county, even though everyone still adheres to the rigid separation of the blacks from the whites in the church where Rosa distributes the money. She is murdered by Grundy and his band of roving scavengers.

In the fifth story, “Vendee,” the 15-year-old Bayard, suffering a nearly overwhelming sense of grief and loss, avenges Rosa’s death by killing Grundy and severing the hand from his body, which he then nails to the door of Grundy’s hideout. The grim reality of Rosa’s death has removed all traces of naivet  and innocence, and Bayard loses the rose-colored perspective of his younger days. In the next two stories, he acutely observes and understands the unfolding events of the war’s aftermath.

“Skirmish at Sartoris” contains two pivotal events: the shooting incident arising from the election for town marshall, and the women’s concern that Drusilla marry Colonel Sartoris to save her reputation. Faulkner ties the two together in a superficially amusing way, but, ultimately, they have consequences of the utmost gravity. Yankee carpetbaggers (ancestors of Joanna Burden of the 1932 novel Light in August) have backed an illiterate black candidate for the office. Colonel Sartoris tries to persuade them to leave, and, when his efforts fail, he shoots and kills them. Meanwhile, Drusilla’s mother becomes hysterical because, in the confusion over the election, Drusilla and Sartoris have not yet taken their marriage vows. The post–Civil War racism, the violence, and the Old South’s attempts to maintain tradition despite defeat provide the complex themes in this penultimate story.

“An Odor of Verbena,” the last story, is generally considered the best of the collection. Everyone from Ringo to Bayard’s college professor to his father’s friends expects Bayard to avenge his father’s murder as he earlier had avenged Rosa Millard’s. Bayard, however, displays a newfound wisdom and a different kind of courage: He believes that enough killing has occurred, and he therefore faces his father’s murderer unarmed. He has listened to advice from Drusilla, his father’s widow, who advocates revenge, and from Jenny Du Pre, his father’s sister, who counsels a cessation of violence.

Although critics have written frequently about the themes of war and racism in these stories, they have said far less about the role of women. The title of the collection, The Unvanquished, refers not just to the soldiers, but to the women who refuse to accept defeat—and Drusilla Hawke is Faulkner’s heroic woman throughout much of the action. After losing her fianc  at Shiloh, Drusilla suffers bitterness and insomnia, but she hardens herself to the present and determines to seek vengeance of the Yankees by enlisting in John Sartoris’s cavalry and riding off to war. Later, when her mother, horrified at Drusilla’s riding and bivouacking with men, insists that Drusilla and John Sartoris marry, the spirited Drusilla responds, “Can’t you understand that I am tired of burying husbands in this war? That I am riding in Cousin John’s troop not to find a man but to hurt Yankees?” (220).

There are moments of humor as her mother berates her for having fought with men and worn trousers, and for having thrown away “the highest destiny of a Southern woman—to be the bride-widow of a lost cause” (219), but the humor dwindles as Drusilla is forced into a marriage that she does not want. She is truly “beaten” by those dresses: Her cousin Bayard tells us that she still would have worn pants all the time if she were allowed, but she is forbidden now by her husband. Entrapped in a loveless marriage, Drusilla is robbed of her natural courage and exuberance and becomes a thwarted and unhappy woman, who, at the end of the novel, has lost at age 30 both fianc and husband. Bayard refuses her advice, yet her tribute to his moral courage in refusing to fight—signified by the sprig of verbena she leaves on his pillow—is a magnanimous gesture. Bayard compassionately contemplates “how the War had tried to stamp all women of her generation and class in the South into a type and how it had failed—the suffering, the identical experience—was there in the eyes, yet beyond that was the incorrigibly individual woman” (263).

In the end, Bayard’s most important lessons have originated with women: Rosa Millard, Drusilla Hawke, and Jenny Du Pre, who prevailed in the end in her plea to end the tradition of violence. As Bayard notes, the women have never surrendered. Thanks to them, he, like Isaac Mccaslin of Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, is able to look objectively at the tortured and complex history that has formed him.

Faulkner, William. The Unvanquished. Reprint, New York: Vintage Press, 1966.
Grimwood, Michael. Heart in Conflict: Faulkner’s Struggles with Vocation. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.
Harrington, Evans, and Ann J. Abadie, eds. Faulkner and the Short Story: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1992.
Matthews, John T. The Play of Faulkner’s Language. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982.
Snead, James. Figures of Division: William Faulkner’s Major Novels. New York: Methuen, 1986.
Sundquist, Eric. Faulkner: The House Divided. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.
Werlock, Abby H. P. “Victims Unvanquished: Temple Drake and the Women Characters in William Faulkner’s Novels.” In Women and Violence in Literature: An Essay Collection, edited by Katherine Anne Ackley, 3–50. New York: Garland, 1990.
Weinstein, Philip M., ed. The Cambridge Companion to William Faulkner. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

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