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 the Collected Stories of William Faulkner, and both have been adapted into video productions.
The first of these two stories, published in the Saturday Evening Post in March 1942, stands as one of Faulkner’s most moving and most sentimental accounts of filial devotion. According to Edmond L. Volpe, “The tale is a slick magazine story that . . . sink[s] into a bog of sentimentality” (259–260). The period of the story and Faulkner’s intended audience are important factors to remember, however, when assessing the literary merits of the tale, since Faulkner wrote many of his short stories for the purpose of making money.
The reader sees the outside world creep even into the most remote parts of Yoknapatawpha Country through the radio waves; the younger Grier boy serves as the narrator, and he and Pete learn of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war while listening to the latest news reports outside the window of one of their neighbors who has a deaf wife, “so he run the radio as loud as it would run” (81). Faulkner uses one of his favorite short story devices in “Two Soldiers,” the nine-year-old narrator. He employs this technique in other character-based short stories as well, such as “That Evening Sun” and “Barn Burning,” in order to utilize na vet and childhood inexperience to create a limited narrative perception in the story that is memorable for the readers as they grow to understand what the narrator cannot. The unnamed narrator is motivated by but cannot understand or explain his deep love and devotion to his older brother, Pete, as he tries to follow his sibling, first to Memphis and then into the army to help him with the job of “whupping them Japanese” (84). The strong attachment felt between these two brothers, along with their mother’s love for her oldest son, are juxtaposed to the principles of patriotism and duty to the United States, concepts that Faulkner presents as foreign for many rural southerners who still hold a much stronger affinity for the long-since-dead Confederacy.
Almost immediately after hearing the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Pete begins to agonize over what he perceives as his untenable obligations. He is devoted to both his mother and his younger brother, and he is also described as the driving force behind the family farm. Even though his father is always “behind” with his duties and chores on the farm, Pete effectively manages his own 10-acre parcel of land while also helping his father with the rest of the farm. Pete simultaneously feels a strong obligation to go to war, an obligation that is not fully explained or understood by anyone in the story, though a detailed explanation of this duty is attempted in the companion story “Shall Not Perish.” After a few tense nights of pondering, Pete reaches his decision and simply states, “I got to go” (83). The narrator knows that his brother’s mind is made up and that no protestations will shake his resolve. The rest of the story serves as a presentation of the forms of opposition to Pete’s decision offered by the mother, the father, and finally the narrator.
Mrs. Grier cannot understand the resolution her son makes, as she looks at it almost entirely from the isolated perspective of the rural family unit. She is convinced that the Japanese must be evil if they attacked the United States, but then she confesses her opinion about her own son’s going off to save the country: “Them Japanese could take it and keep it, so long as they left me and my family and my children alone” (84). Her attitude is not surprising under the circumstances, but her strong voicing of this opinion in a World War II story may take some readers off guard. She concludes that Pete must go if he has to go, but then she adds, “Jest don’t ask me to understand why” (85). This admission is significant because she seems to have worked out the reason why he had to go by the time Pete’s death is reported in “Shall Not Perish,” and it is Mrs. Grier in that story who becomes the mouthpiece for a positive view of the world and the necessity of grief and sacrifice.
Mr. Grier is far more practical in his views, and his opposition to his son’s enlistment takes more pragmatic lines. Mr. Grier’s central question is, Why has Pete agreed to go off to war if he has not been drafted? He explains to his son, “You ain’t old enough for the draft, and the country ain’t being invaded” (85). Along with this set of rational justifcations, Mr. Grier believes that his family has already paid its obligation to protect the country, or at least paid enough to last for his lifetime: He himself was called up on active duty during World War I, and Pete’s uncle, Marsh, was wounded in the fighting in France during the same war. Mr. Grier is also worried about falling even further behind in his farmwork, a state of affairs that seems to come naturally to him, whether his oldest son is there or not.
The narrator also cannot bring himself to accept Pete’s plan, and so he decides to go after his brother. He walks the 22 miles from his house in Frenchman’s Bend to Jefferson and there demands a bus ticket to Memphis, where he knows Pete has gone to enlist. After pulling his pocketknife on the clerk at the bus station, the narrator is given the fare to Memphis by some sympathetic people who think he is an orphan trying to track down his only living relative. The narrator naively thinks he will run into Pete on the streets of Memphis, and then he will be able to join his brother and do chores for him while the elder serves in the army. The narrator eventually finds his way to the army recruiting station in the city, and after repeating the knife performance with an army lieutenant, this time with more painful consequences for the officer, the younger Grier is finally allowed to see his brother. The boy explains he cannot live without his brother because “It hurts my heart, Pete” (96). Pete is finally able to convince his brother to go home by explaining to him that he must take care of his mother and watch over Pete’s 10 acres of land. Begrudgingly, the narrator agrees to return home, and on the way back to Frenchman’s Bend he begins to cry, moved to inexplicable emotion by the separation from his brother and the strangeness of the urban world he has just experienced.
Certainly sentiment plays a large role in Faulkner’s story, but it does not overtake the tale entirely. The contrasting motivations that exist among the family members create a thought-provoking examination of what different people consider their most important duties and responsibilities in life. Faulkner simultaneously presents a nationalistic message, while effectively adding his unique and impeccable regional flavor to the story.
Faulkner, William. Collected Stories of William Faulkner. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
Two Soldiers. Directed by Chistopher Lapalm. American Film Institute, 1995.
Volpe, Edmond L. A Reader’s Guide to William Faulkner: The Short Stories. Syracuse N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2004.