The Unvanquished


Having already begun the inextricably intertwined premier book of this civil war diptych (Absalom, Absalom), gives some perspective on this work of William Faulkner. This is, by far and away one of the most accessible of Faulkner's works. While there are some subtleties and complexities in the prose, the stream of consciousness approach is filtered through the mind of a highly educated adult, even in the early parts of the book which are told from the point of view of a child between the ages of 10 and 12.

The novel originated as a chain of short stories published during the time Faulkner was writing Absalom, Absalom, and people more knowledgeable about Faulkner as a writer and a person might say that this book is, in a sense, a inner response of Faulkner to the harsh portrayal of the south found in Absalom, Absalom. In The Unvanquished, the South comes out looking fairly good--not admirable in all respects and bearing the brunt of the responsibility for the horrors of the war. The main character, Colonel John Sartoris is, in some ways, the Civil War equivalent of a Mrs. Jellyby--his attention focused completely outwards toward the war and his own accomplishments within it, things at home are left to run more or less on their own, with the disastrous results which often follow when anyone shirks their primary responsibilities.

By turns poignant, touching, sad, hilarious, and horrifying (often within a ten-page stretch), the novel charts the progress of Bayard Sartoris (son of John), Marengo (his friend/brother/slave/servant), Granny, and a host of other characters familiar to those who have dipped into Faulkner's world before. We meet the ancestors of Quentin Compson, even if only peripherally, Colonel Tom Sutpen, and Ab Snopes, progenitor of the generally useless Snopes clan. In the trajectory of the stories we are able to compare and contrast the fates of Grumby (a man responsible for one major moment in the book) and Redmond (the man responsible for another, similar major moment in the book.)

The last chapter, "The Odor of Verbena," is often read as a separate short story and is a moving account of the real coming of age of Bayard Sartoris, made more powerful here by its juxtaposition with the story of Bayard, Ringo, and Grumby.

To get a sense of scope, in this one book, we learn about the Sack of Vicksburg and vicinity, the exodus of the Mississippi slave population with predictably disastrous results, Granny's mule trading--in which she confiscates, sells back, and reconfiscates a number of United States Army Mules through clever forgeries of an original licit document, Drusilla's stint in the Army in Virginia with Colonel Sartoris, her forced marriage to said Colonel as a result of the suspicious minds of the neighbors, and John and Drusilla's interference in the first (monumentall ill-conceived) reconstruction elections, Granny's assistance and support of the poor of Yoknapatawpha County, the utter destruction of the countryside as the Union troops withdraw from Mississippi, and a legion of other events. Most importantly one learns that, in Drusilla's words, verbena is the only scent that can overpower the smell of horses and courage.

The book is short, easy to read (for Faulkner), and powerful. It is the "up side" (and not much of one) of Faulkner's vision of the Civil War South. It provides an insight into how one can still find something to respect despite the fact that the war was fought for all the wrong reasons and for far longer than it need have done. (This point leads to a very interesting turn around in the course of the book in which at one point Bayard sees the wisdom of women as supporting and pushing the war effort forward, and toward the end sees that same wisdom as having given up on the war effort years before the men realized that they should have done so.) Read in juxtaposition with Absalom, Absalom it provides the positive print to the negative that is exposed in the latter work.

But the most powerful thing to come out of the book isn't about the South at all--it is about people struggling to be human and humane in the face of tremendous obstacles, difficulties, misunderstandings, and completely correct understandings. It is about the courage to defy expectations or fulfill them and how, where moral certainty is lacking, the circumstances must help us understand, how our circumstances help us feel the way to the (often incorrect) conclusion. It is a story about how we understand and fail to understand one another and how we can, despite ourselves and our surroundings, learn to understand each other better.

By all means, pick this up and read it. Faulkner is not so difficult as we might have come to believe from premature exposure in high-school or college. He is by no means easy and light reading; however, reading his prose is both a challenge and a deep pleasure and delight. It is a break from post-modernist brokenness and escapist fictional flights (against which, I should note, I have no gripe). Do yourself a favor and read it--not because it is good and classic and expected, but because it is enjoyable in a way that few other things are. There is here the enjoyment of accomplishment (having read Faulkner) and the enjoyment of a good set of stories well told, full of sound and fury, and yet signifying much. The tale told by an idiot is best saved for a time when one has become more acquainted with Faulkner by way of more accessible works.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on November 28, 2007 7:25 AM.

Faulkner's Humor was the previous entry in this blog.

Compare and Contrast is the next entry in this blog.

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