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William Faulkner: Soldier’s Pay

Faulkner’s first novel has some of the faults you would expect to find in a first novel but it still clearly shows signs of what is to come. Like Hemingway‘s second novel, published the same year, it deals with the Lost Generation, the generation of Americans who came of age in World War I and who, in many cases, fought in that war. Hemingway’s novel, of course, deals with the expatriate Lost Generation, while Faulkner’s are firmly back in the USA, mainly in Georgia. But, even allowing for that, Faulkner’s novel compares favourably to Hemingway’s. Hemingway’s characters, interesting though they may be, are all fairly obvious and predictable. They are looking for the meaning of life and the men are looking to get laid and be macho. Some of Faulkner’s characters may fall into this pattern – the execrable Januarius Jones and the predictable George Farr, for example – but some of them clearly are more complex.

The opening and closing sections – both involving drunks – are clearly the weakest parts of the book. While Faulkner was clearly looking for a frame for his book and, also, for a way of getting his main characters together, the excessive drunkenness, while maybe typical of that generation in its attempts to escape real life, doesn’t seem to go with the rest of the novel. But this is a minor quibble. And, while I am quibbling, the character of Januarius Jones also does not seem to fit. The fat Latin teacher seems only to be interested in chasing and harassing the female characters and serves no other purpose than that, except, with his harassment, to temporally persuade Cecily Saunders to agree to marry Donald Mahon, something she backs out of the next day.

The story starts in a train with two drunken men returning from the war. They are Joe Gilligan and Julian Lowe. They meet two people. The first is Donald Mahon, believed dead by his family and fiancée, but only wounded (though very badly – he has a huge scar on his forehead and will turn blind). They agree to accompany him to his home in Georgia, where he is the only son of the local rector. They also meet Margaret Powers, whose husband was killed in the War (as we later learn, he was shot by one of his own men) and she also agrees to accompany them. Back home, his father is naturally glad to see him (though does not realise he is blind) but his fiancée, Cecily Saunders, is not so glad. She is dating the drunken, empty-headed but rich George Farr. When she sees Mahon’s scar, she faints. Before the War, Donald Mahon had been a free spirit and independent. He had spent a lot of time in the woods, sleeping rough, and had taken up with Emmy, a girl from a poor and abusive family who had left home. When he left for the War, he had persuaded his father to take her in as a housekeeper. However, when he returns, his memory has gone and he seems to remember neither Emmy nor Cecily.

Much of the novel revolves around who, if anyone, Cecily will marry, the role of Margaret Powers and what will become of Donald Mahon. Though it is a small Georgia town, the War hovers in the background, not just with the main characters but with others, including a mother who has lost her son and is both sad but quietly exultant that this loss has given her a certain status in town she never had before. Faulkner’s skill is to give us different representatives of the Lost Generation. There is Donald Mahon, the free spirit now destroyed and reduced to mouthing standard military phrases (Carry on, Joe! is his favourite). There is Julian Lowe who goes back to San Francisco but writes semi-literate letters to Margaret Powers about his plans which come to nothing. There is Joe Gilligan, perhaps most typical, unsure of what he wants or where he is going. And, of course, there are the parents who have lost sons and the women who have lost husbands or fiancées. All is told in Faulkner’s trademark impressionistic/modernist style so that you get the feeling not of a linear plot – though there is one – but, rather, of an overall picture of a small town which represents a generation.

Publishing history

First published 1926 by Boni & Liveright