Book Review: The Unvanquished

The first book we read this semester in my class on William Faulkner was The Unvanquished. I’d read it before, in 11th grade, but that was before I had any real idea of who Faulkner was, or where the excellences of this book lie; thus I got a lot more out of it the second time.

The first thing worth noting is that The Unvanquished is among the most accessible of Faulkner’s works. It’s written in a first-person voice, but it’s not stream-of-consciousness, for the most part. It’s an old Bayard Sartoris telling the story of his youth. Thus it doesn’t have anything nearly as incomprehensible as, say, The Sound and the Fury. Also, it takes the form of a Bildungsroman, beginning with Bayard as a 13-year-old boy during the Civil War and ending when he is 24 years old, a man, living in the reconstructed South. This gives it a clear direction and thematic unity; the book is about Bayard growning up and learning to deal with the new order of things.

I don’t want to imply that I prefer The Unvanquished to Faulkner’s other works. It is more comprehensible; but in being more comprehensible, I think, it loses something of what I consider one of Faulkner’s greatest strengths, the ability to convey the mystery and often seeming randomness of life, and yet draw a kind of inexpressible unity out of it. That’s what I love about The Sound and the Fury, or Absalom, Absalom, or the Snopes trilogy. I don’t think The Unvanquished succeeds at it to the same extent; but that’s because it doesn’t really attempt to. It’s a more traditional novel.

But still a quite excellent one. It focuses on the conflict between ideals and the harsh realities of life – justice versus order – and how Bayard comes to understand this dichotomy as he matures. Why are justice and order opposed? Because often doing what is just, according to strict standards of morality, results in chaos, and thus may not be the correct action. In the first section of the novel, Granny Millard lies in order to protect Bayard and Ringo, 13-year-old boys who have accidentally angered the Union army. She feels bad about this, but does not repent, exactly; she would do it again in a heartbeat. This theme recurs throughout the novel; our heroes must lie for the sake of order, then steal for the sake of order, and finally even kill for the sake of order.

Faulkner does not condemn them for this. I think he sees their actions as necessary, because the Sartorises are the aristocrats, responsible for keeping order in society, and the war has caused chaos – the Confederate government no longer rules, but neither has the Union re-established order. So the Sartorises must establish order themselves. Thus, in a way, it isn’t wrong for them to lie, and steal, and kill.

This can be slightly disconcerting for those of us who would like to have a strict proscriptive morality. But, after all, such a thing is impossible; that’s why we can’t kill abortionists even though what they’re doing is a heinous evil. I don’t really like this solution – it seems to make “order” into an intrinsic good – but neither do I see any other solution.

The novel ends with Bayard refusing to kill a man in order to avenge his father, a turn which could be seen as a rejection of his earlier behavior during the war. But I don’t think it is. During the war, Bayard had to kill the outlaw because he was a threat to society; after the war, when government has been re-established, Bayard cannot be allowed to exact revenge, for that would be no more than murder.

Until this point, Faulkner seems to reject all ideals in favor of living life, but he ends with Bayard standing up for an ideal – why? The point, I think, is that we need our moral ideals, but we cannot stand up for them until law and order are established. Order comes first, and once we have order we can try to purify and sanctify it. It would be wrong to reject all moral values in favor of a merely pragmatic enforcement of order by the government, but likewise it would be wrong to attempt to create an ideal society from scratch.

In a way, then, Faulkner is making the same argument as Thomas More seems to be making in Utopia, who says that statemen perhaps cannot succeed in making government good, but they should try to make it less bad. The similarities are perhaps fitting; both are inspired by Roman pragmatism as opposed to Greek idealism.

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