“… the highest destiny of a southern woman- to be a bride-widow of a lost cause-”
This was my first Faulkner novel since the Sound and the Fury beat me around the ears and told me that I didn’t know anything about writing. Faulkner is a master of tone and setting, and that’s why I wanted to revisit him, right now I need to feel some influence in those areas.
The Unvanquished is actually a collection of short stories that Faulkner worked on while he was working on Absalom, Absalom they were originally written to bring in some money for him while he was working on the other novel. These “pot boilers” were a common thing for Faulkner, and it is our great fortune that even those things he did just for money had all the elements of genius that his novels would have.
The stories are set in the Civil War, and the Reconstruction period, focusing on the Sartoris family and are told through the perspective of Bayard Sartoris. We start out with Bayard as a boy playing with his slave/friend Ringo. Race relations in Faulkner, with regards to Bayard and Ringo will need a more qualified expert than me. Bayard assumes the dominant role in the relationship, but we are given the sense through the book that this is only because Ringo lets him. Bayard acknowledges many times Ringo’s superior intelligence; he also says that he and Ringo had been born the same month, nursed together and were together so much that Ringo may have become white, or Bayard may have become black, but for me, the sense I get of the psychological superiority of Ringo comes when the game they’re playing is described. They play as opposing generals, and Bayard says that every two turns he has to play as the Union general and let Ringo be the Confederate so that Ringo will keep playing. This is not an idyllic or humanitarian relationship Ringo still sleeps in the floor next to Bayard’s bed.
Other characters include Colonel John Satoris, Bayard’s father, and Granny, who runs the house while John is leading a group of highwaymen that raids Union troops. Granny is a fairly stereotypical southern matriarch, she is trying to follow the orders of John, and trying to do right by her community, which loves her. When Union troops rob and destroy her property she gathers up her dignity and goes straight to the Union troops to ask for her property back, this they give her. When he sees how easy it was Ringo works up a way to get more from the Union troops and so Granny enters the black market.
The sweet southern woman who threatens her grandchildren with soap for swearing as a black market dealer in horses is a great juxtaposition as it puts her religious desire for honesty at odds with her instinctual desire to get through the war in as good a position as she can get.
We see Bayard on his way to becoming a man, and ultimately the story is about the vicious cycle of violence that this notion of southern honor can put people through. For all the pain that is inflicted on them, the southern spirit, and people, remain unvanquished, because for so much of the story it doesn’t just feel like the woman’s duty to be married to a lost cause, but the duty of all southerners, and in that I do feel truly southern.
Easy to read? No. Easier than the Sound and the Fury? Yes. Did I still miss things in my first read through that I realized happened after reading the Wikipedia page? Also true.