Updated: Feb 26, 2020
As most of you may have noticed, I absolutely love the Southern Gothic genre of literature. After devoting an entire month to it this past October, I thought I would be sufficiently satisfied for a while, but this weekend I started to miss it. I reread The Unvanquished, but since I already wrote an article on the Faulkner introductory novel, I decided to research some critiques.
The Unvanquished is a rather divisive novel amongst Faulkner scholars. While many appreciate it as a novel that learns you in his stream of conscious, others find it over simplified and rather lackluster. One of the critiques that stood out to me was Warren Akin’s review, "Blood and Raising and Background: The Plot of The Unvanquished", because the author displays a great amount of disappointment towards the novel. He writes that while many celebrate the book as a fine piece of literature, he believes it to be unsatisfying and unconvincing, as the novel lacks in the proper development necessary to justify such an ending. While it is understandable that a reader would want more regarding Bayard’s development in the chapters preceding “An Odor of Verbena”, Akin’s critique is rather poor; muddled by contradictions and riddled with an inability to understand the messages Faulkner has left beneath the surface.
Akin’s thesis is that while it is tempting to use The Unvanquished as an introductory novel into Faulkner’s world, the novel’s structure is weak because “its credibility hinges on the credibility and seriousness of Bayard Sartoris’ decision not to avenge his father’s death with another death” (3). It is important to note; however, that Akin teeters back and forth between several main points, and at no point in his review does he forecast his organization. His review falls under the category of New Criticism because he focuses solely and objectively on the text and the development of its protagonist, Bayard Sartoris.
Akin supports his thesis by stating the two things that the chapters preceding “An Odor of Verbena” must provide in order to justify Bayard’s decision not to avenge his father’s death. His two requirements are:
“They must present compelling factors that would cause him
to adhere to the expectations of family and community
(thus making his decision not to revenge both difficult and significant),
and they must present even more compelling factors
that would cause him to see beyond the desires of family and community
(thus making his decision believable and significant)” (3).
He follows this by writing that the second half of his requirements remain unmet, as when Bayard decides to forego killing Redmond, readers are left without a clear reason as to why Bayard did this. Akin goes through a number of reasons that could have contributed to Bayard’s humane decision, using the endless list of reasons to prove that readers never truly know why Bayard chose to spare Redmond’s life. He refers to revenge as the “disease” that plagued the South, and points out the significance of this decision by stating that Bayard changed the course of history by going against the grain of his father, of his cousin, and of his colleagues who wanted him to kill Redmond.
Akin’s issue with the novel has nothing to do with its ending, but rather, with all the chapters leading up to the ending. He understands why Bayard chose to spare Redmond, but he opines that Faulkner does not focus as much on Bayard’s growth throughout the novel. He writes that the first few chapters are comical and light-hearted, and that readers do not receive the horrific realities of the war because to Bayard, it is all a game. Akin writes:
“…much of the first six chapters does not illuminate
Bayard’s decision because the nature of violence,
the correspondence between war and revenge,
and the valuable and harmful aspects of the Southern heritage
are explored with insufficient depth” (6).
What he fails to realize; however, is that Bayard was in fact a little boy, so Faulkner is giving us the experience of the war and the reconstruction through the eyes of a child. As I stated in my article "The Unvanquished", Faulkner is not a writer who plainly states a perspective. He doesn’t just give readers the message, he cultivates it from peripheries; he gives you angles and details, and leaves it up the reader to read into it what they wish. He takes away the eyes and forces you to hear and feel your way through his world because allowing you to see it is simply too easy. He leaves that for the Hemingways of the world.
Akin’s entire critique is weak, as he fails to see the method to Faulkner’s madness. He criticizes the scene in “Ambuscade” where Granny tries to outsmart the Union Colonel by convincing him that no children live on the plantation, so the boys who shot the Union horse could not possibly be there. Akin also criticizes the scenes in “Raid” and “Riposte in Tertio” where Granny and Ringo swap mules between Union troops. He believes each of these episodes to be unnecessary to the ending of the novel, and irrelevant to the development of the protagonist. Again, Akin fails to see that Bayard’s experiences with Rosa strengthen him.
Although Rosa is kind, she is also strong, as she does all she can to contribute to the war effort, as well as reconstruction, all while maintaining the values she holds so dear. Throughout the novel, Bayard is also exposed to his cousin Drusilla, and her rebellion against the traditions of antebellum women, all the while fighting for the preservation of the confederacy. He also experiences the “betrayal” by Loosh, who leaves the Sartoris family when he is freed, and takes his sweet wife, Philadelphy, with him. Each of these episodes may seem trivial individually, but when combined, they paint a picture of the South during a pivotal time in its history.
Bayard is a young boy throughout the first half of the novel, so he views the war as a game. Each episode is an experience that he cannot fully comprehend, but once Bayard grows up, he is sick of war and bloodshed because it is all he has ever known. Now that he is a man and understands that it is not a game, he can comprehend the magnitude of his decisions.
Reiterating what I wrote in an earlier article, what Faulkner does in The Unvanquished is give readers a different perspective of the war, a perspective from one who grew up in the midst of it, rather than by a man such as Colonel Sartoris, who grew up in the South’s hayday, and was eager to fight in order to preserve his way of life. His son; however, was born into a tumultuous time period. He was molded by it, and by the time he was a man, he was weary of it.
The chapters preceding “An Odor of Verbena” are not weak, nor do they fail to illuminate the readers on Bayard’s decision in the final chapter. Akin’s entire thesis is weak because he does not understand the support he uses to develop it. He makes no general assumptions, but he does not read between the lines and he fails in digging beneath the surface. He seems to ignore anything that is not plainly stated, and in that, he shows that he does not have a powerful grasp on Faulkner’s methods. Additionally, Akin goes on for pages before ever making a real point, which oddly enough, is the very thing he criticizes the most about this novel. In my opinion, the only strength in his review is that he considers The Unvanquished an introductory novel into William Faulkner, as it is the easiest of his works to understand. The strength of this review; however, end there.