Motion Toward Freedom


A beautiful and moving passage from Faulkner in which he describes the movement of the emancipated slave population of Yoknapatawpha County toward the river, the crossing of which symbolizes for them freedom.

from The Unvanquished
William Faulkner

We began to see the dust almost at once and I even believed that I could already smell them though the distance between us did not appreciably decrease, since they were travelling almost as fast as we were. We never did overtake them, just as you do not overtake a tide. You just keep moving, then suddenly you know that the set is about you, beneath you, overtaking you, as if the slow and ruthless power, become aware of your presence at last, had dropped back a tentacle, a feeler, to gather you in and sweep you remorselessly on. Singly, in couples, in groups and families they began to appear from the woods, ahead of us, alongside of us and behind; they covered and hid from sight the road exactly as an infiltration of flood water would have, hiding the road from sight and then the very wheels of the wagon in which we rode, our two horses as well as Bobolink breasting slowly on, enclosed by a mass of heads and shoulders--men and women carrying babies and dragging older children by the hand, old men and women on improvised sticks and crutches, and very old ones sitting beside the road and even calling to us when we passed; there was one old woman who even walked along beside the wagon, holding to the bed and begging Granny to at least let her see the river before she died.

But mostly they did not look at us. We might not have even been there. We did not even ask them to let us through because we could look at their faces and know they couldn't have heard us. They were not singing yet, they were just hurrying, while our horses pushed slow through them, among the blank eyes not looking at anything out of faces caked with dust and sweat, breasting slowly and terrifically through them as if we were driving in midstream up a creek full of floating logs and the dust and the smell of them everywhere and Granny in Mrs Compson's hat sitting bolt upright under the parasol which Ringo held and looking sicker and sicker, and it already afternoon though we didn't know it anymore than we knew how many miles we had come. Then all of a sudden we reached the river where the cavalry was holding them back from the bridge. It was just a sound at first, like the wind, like it might be in the dust itself. We didn't even know what it was until we saw Drusilla holding Bobolink reined back, her face turned toward us wan and small above the dust and her mouth open and crying thinly: "Look out, Aunt Rosa! Oh, look out!"

And what happens next falls into the realm of tragedy or bathos as the Yankees, for inscrutable purposes of their own, destroy the bridge but fail to stem the tide of yearning. And then, a moment of redemption with a compassionate Yankee officer coming to the aid of Granny--an officer who allowed her to protect her two charges in a previous episode, even while he denied their existence.

This book is Faulkner, pure Faulkner, and yet immediately more accessible and comprehensible than say The Sound and the Fury or As I Lay Dying. And it is enjoyable--a visit to the roots that gave rise to the blossom of Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on November 26, 2007 9:29 AM.

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