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William Faulkner: The Unvanquished

This is novel is really seven separate short stories put together to make a single novel. They add up to seven episodes in the life of Bayard Sartoris, whose family has appeared sporadically in earlier Faulkner novels. This novel is also one of the easiest of his novels to read as it is generally narrated in a conventional linear narrative fashion. The early episodes are about Bayard Sartoris, his grandmother and the Civil War. Bayard is playing with a young slave boy, Ringo, when they hear about the imminent arrival of the Yankees. They get a musket and, on seeing a Yankee, shoot him and then run and hide. The Yankees come to the house but the grandmother hides them and the Yankees go away, though it turns out that the boys only killed the horse and not a soldier.

Other adventures have them transporting Granny’s valuable silver through Yankee lines and having it stolen but eventually recovering it. They then forge Yankee requisition orders and manage to make some money by requisitioning mules from Yankees and then selling them back, before they are caught. They manage to escape but when they try it on a Quantrill-like guerrilla leader, called Grumby, Granny is killed. Bayard and Ringo seek revenge and, eventually, after some adventures, get it.

The action continues after the Civil War, with a hotly contested election, involving a carpetbagger. Later on, Colonel Sartoris, whom we met in other novels, such as Absalom, Absalom, is killed by his business partner and Bayard’s honour requires him to avenge his uncle’s death. He does what honour requires but ends the cycle of violence. However, he loses Drusilla, his cousin whom he hoped to marry.

The novel is certainly not as fine as some of the earlier ones. Indeed, it can be seen as a fairly conventional Bildungsroman, as Bayard grows up from the boy shooting at the Yankee to man who ends the cycle of violence, while preserving his honour. It covers some of Faulkner’s other themes, such as the need for the South to change after the Civil War, with Grumby as an example of a man who is not representative of Faulkner’s Southern ideal. Racism and morality are also key, as in many of his other novels. But its origin as a set of separate short stories remains apparent and leaves it less satisfactory than many of his other works.

Publishing history

First published 1938 by Random House