Bayard's telling the story with the benefit of years between him and the events, in the grand ole tradition of the Rooster from Robin Hood. That means that he's got some perspective. He's not trying to tell you what's happening as it happens, which could be a little stressful.
No, he's had the chance to mull over this stuff for years and decide just how he's going to present his story to us. Even at the end of the novel, where Bayard's already old enough to be off studying law, he still shows us the way that hindsight's 20/20:
It was just after supper. I had just opened my Coke on the table beneath the lamp; I heard Professor Wilkins' feet in the hall and then the instant of silence as he put his hand to the door knob, and I should have known. People talk glibly of presentiment, but I had none. (7.1.1)
That "should have," along with its great pals "could have" and "would have," is the great marker of regret. The Bayard in the novel, kicking back with an ice-cold Coke, is blithely oblivious to the bad news on the way; the Bayard-narrator, as he retells the story, knows about the terrible truth and lets us know that it's coming.
That distance has also given him time to get a little judgey, and Bayard lets his disdain for the violence that painted his childhood slip in every now and then. Take, for example, this description of his dear old dad:
Then I began to smell it again, like each time he returned… that odor in his clothes and beard and flesh too which I believed was the smell of powder and glory, the elected victorious but know better now: known now to have been only the will to endure, a sardonic and even humorous declining of self-delusion which is not even kin to that optimism which believes that that which is about to happen to us can possibly be the worst which we can suffer. (1.1.26)
Check out the use of tenses here (bet you didn't know that grammatical tense could carry so much emotion). Bayard starts out in the past tense to describe what he used to think about his dad, considering him a war hero, then moves into the present to say what he knows now.
And the present ain't as glorious as the past; nowadays he thinks of his dad as a deluded, even decadent figure. That attitude toward the past carries over to his entire society, and Bayard's tone lets Faulkner convey it.
You want excitement? You get it with The Unvanquished. Its main characters, Bayard and Ringo, are always getting themselves into trouble. Much like an episode of I Love Lucy, but with less chocolate and more actual danger.
A lot of the risky business that the boys get into influences the kind of adults they become. The story, which starts when the boys are just kids and ends when they are grown men, zooms in on key moments that kick them into adulthood, like Granny's death and Bayard's decision not to kill his father's murderer.
The novel was written in the 1930s, long after the Civil War, but the memory of the violence was alive and well in Faulkner's South. The setting is historical, and even though the story is fictional, the events surrounding it and the historical characters are real, making this a great example of historical fiction.
Also, it's impossible to ignore the war, with its booms and blasts, not to mention all the blood in the novel. Pretty much everything that happens is a direct result of the Civil War, so yeah, you could call this a war drama.
"Unvanquished" means not conquered or defeated; the whole novel is about the defeated Southerners during and after the Civil War. So what's Faulkner up to, calling it The Unvanquished?
Well, even though they were defeated militarily, their Southern spirit wasn't crushed. Their homes were burned down and their slaves and mules and silver taken away from them, but they continued to behave in keeping with the patterns and values of their way of life, which to them is still the right one. They may not be the vanquishers, but at least they ain't vanquished either.
The novel ends with a weird mix of climactic showdown and hint of romance, with Bayard returning home after facing down Benjamin Redmond, finding that Dru is gone, and smelling the verbena flower she left on his pillow. So it's a flowery ending (excuse the pun), with the scent "filling the room, the dusk, the evening with that odor which she said you could smell alone with the smell of horses" (7.4.36).
We could take it as a metaphor for the whole book; Dru's scent remains even after she's skipped town, just like the Southern spirit remains even after it should have been squashed by defeat in war. Pretty powerful, ain't it?
William Faulkner is famous for setting much of his writing in the fictional county of Yoknapatawpha (try saying that ten times fast), Mississippi. There's no mention of Yoknapatawpha in The Unvanquished, but it does take place mostly on the Sartoris plantation.
The thing is, the Sartoris family shows up in Faulkner's aptly named novel Sartoris, too, and there it is confirmed that they are from Yoknapatawpha county. So The Unvanquished nestles snugly into this literary universe, which spans many of his novels and short stories.
That gives the novel and characters a sense of continuation and being bigger than just this one book. If you like them, or want more, you can just keep on reading more of Faulkner's works.
General Sherman, the Union officer, is famous for having said that war is hell. If the winning side says something like that, then think of how the losers must feel. And The Unvanquished is all about the underdogs. The Southerners' lives are changed in every way. Many of them lose their homes and possessions; those who are slaves are freed; most of them radically lose economic and social standing.
The Civil War and Reconstruction is the time setting of The Unvanquished, and those political events permeate every single action in the novel. All of the physical movement—from the plantation to Memphis to Hawkhurst and back again, the hunts through the woods, etc.—is dictated by the events of the war or the fallout after it ends. But that sure doesn't mean the fight is over.
Faulkner is not famous for being an easy read, but The Unvanquished is not the hardest of his novels to slog through. That doesn't make it simple, though: the Southern dialect, both from white and black characters, is reproduced phonetically in the dialogue. This can be a little bit tough until you get the hang of it. Plus, you'll also need some context to understand what's going on, too.
On the one hand, Faulkner's style is pretty straightforward. You get your good old subject-predicate stuff without too many pesky clauses to trip you up. Check out these examples: "Then Louvinia came in. She had already undressed" (2.1.38); "Brother Fortinbride wasn't a minister either" (4.2.2); "Ab Snopes lived back in the hills too" (5.1.12); and "She was already beaten" (6.2.19).
Short, sweet, and to the point.
But Faulkner's not going to let us pin him down that easily. No, every now and then he throws in a real zinger, some crazy, flowery poetry, that sounds like somebody else is talking. The sentences are suddenly long and full of metaphors and beautiful images—a total contrast to the direct style that most of the novel is written in.
For example, take this doozy:
[H]e sat… with that spurious forensic air of lawyers and the intolerant eyes which in the last two years had acquired that transparent film which the eyes of carnivorous animals have and from behind which they look at a world which no ruminant ever sees, perhaps dares to see, which I have seen before on the eyes of men who have killed too much, who have killed so much that they never again as long as they live will they ever be alone. (7.2.20)
Whoa dude. That's a single sentence, and we even cut some of it! What a crazy contrast to the short and snappy sentences we rattled off earlier. The difference between the flowery, clause-loaded sentences and the to-the-point ones might make us think about the huge differences between, for example, literature (or all of art, really) and the horrors of war. What other effects do these contrasts have on your reading experience?
When John comes home the first time, knowing that the war isn't going well, he orders Louvinia to pack up the silver into a trunk and Joby and Loosh to bury it in the orchard. This is the first signal that John's nervous, and it lets us know that Loosh is right: the Union is closing in on the Confederacy.
When Granny decides to evacuate to Memphis, the trunk is utmost in her mind. The way she guards it, having the slaves dig it up and bring it to her room the night before they leave, reveals her suspicion, not to mention the distance between master and slave:
"I wish you'd tell me why you got to dig hit up tonight."
Granny looked at [Louvinia]. "I had a dream about it last night... I dreamed I was looking out my window and a man walked into the orchard and went to where it is and stood there pointing at it," Granny said. She looked at Louvinia. "A black man." (2.1.13-16)
Louvinia treats Granny with familiarity; there's not much deference or fear in her tone when she questions Granny. So when Granny explains that she must dig up the trunk because she doesn't trust the slaves, it puts a distance between her and Louvinia that might have been there before, but wasn't out in the open like this.
Later, when the trunk is re-buried and the Union soldiers show up to burn down the house, Granny would rather risk her life to save the silver than stay safe and hidden in the barn. It's Louvinia who holds her back. So Granny's after the silver, but Louvinia is more worried about human life.
When Granny finally makes it to the Union camp to try to recover her belongings, she lists the trunk first: "They took the silver and the darkies and the mules," Granny said. "I have come to get them." (3.3.4). The silver, which is a symbol of the family's wealth and their past life, is at the same level of (or slightly higher than) the slaves and mules.
The loss of these objects (and people, even though Granny talks about the slaves like they are objects) is the loss of their status, their past, and their way of life. The trunk of silver is just a substitution for her: since she can't go back to the past, she just tries to get back her silver and the memories it represents for her.
Verbena doesn't really show up much until the last chapter, where it's not only in the title but plastered all over Drusilla and every page. But first things first… what's verbena? Don't worry; we've got your back. Verbena is lemony scented herb with cute little flowers.
Verbena also has medicinal uses. In the novel, it's strongly associated with Drusilla, who wears it constantly and even puts sprigs of it on Bayard when she gets the chance. Which kinda makes us wonder whether she's depressed or hysterical, since those are some of the conditions verbena is used to treat.
The last chapter, "An Odor of Verbena," is about John's death and Bayard's decision to step out of the violent cycle. But what it's really about is his feelings for Drusilla. The scene is set:
We rode on, toward the house where he would be lying in the parlor now, in his regimentals (sabre too) and where Drusilla would be waiting for me beneath all the festive glitter of the chandeliers, in the yellow ball gown and the sprig of verbena in her hair, holding the two loaded pistols. (7.1.13)
So we've got it all: death, beauty, ceremony, and violence. The verbena in Drusilla's hair would be giving off a lemony scent, and Bayard's thinking of her odor gives us the feeling he's into her as more than just a cousin. Or, er, stepmother. He's got sensual memories of Dru, and the verbena is the maximum example of that sensuality.
Later on we find out why Drusilla uses verbena: "she said verbena was the only scent you could smell above the smell of horses and courage and so it was the only one that was worth the wearing" (7.2.1). So when she was doing the man's work of soldiering, she would pick verbena flowers so that she could smell a little less man-tastic. Our little rebel does have a touch of girliness after all.
That touch of girliness is very important for Bayard, and it's the verbena that makes it happen. He might see Dru as one of the boys, but that little detail makes all the difference. One night, soon before his father's death, he goes for a walk with her:
I just knew that she was looking at me as she never had before and that the scent of the verbena in her hair seemed to have increased a hundred times, to have got a hundred times stronger, to be everywhere in the dusk in which something was about to happen which I had never dreamed of. Then she spoke. "Kiss me, Bayard." (7.2.13)
The verbena is what makes Dru into a woman for Bayard. It makes her an attractive being, not a relative, a tomboy, or a maternal figure. She's someone he wants to kiss. (Take note, those of you who are in the market for a new perfume.)
In the final moments of the novel, when Drusilla is sort of losing her mind over John's death and her desire for Bayard to take revenge, she does a kind of ritual with the verbena that doesn't really have a clear purpose. She gives Bayard one sprig of verbena, tucking it into his coat lapel, and crushes one in her hand. She tells him:
"There. One I give to you to wear tomorrow (it will not fade), the other I cast away, like this—" dropping the crushed bloom at her feet. "I abjure it. I abjure verbena forever more; I have smelled it above the odor of courage; that was all I wanted." (7.3.11)
This little ceremony, giving Bayard her scent to wear, is a way of sending him off to do her work. He is the one who has to be courageous now, because she's renouncing her warrior's life. The only problem is that he doesn't want to be a warrior either, so she's not going to be too happy with him in the end.
She leaves without saying goodbye, but she does leave a gift for Bayard. On his pillow, he finds "a single sprig of it... filling the room, the dusk, the evening with that odor which she said you could smell alone above the smell of horses" (7.4.36). The odor is so strongly related to Drusilla that Bayard can pretend she hasn't left.
Also, notice that here instead of saying that it's the only scent that covers up courage, he says horses. That might be because he wasn't courageous in Dru's eyes. Verbena is a feminine scent, but it's stronger than the odors of war. In many ways the women of this novel are stronger than the war, too, so the symbol is fitting of Drusilla.
Bayard is the protagonist, because he's the one doing all the telling from his own point of view. The story is about his own, personal coming-of-age, and the different factors—like war, death, and revenge... you know, typical fare for any young kid—that make him the man he is today.
Speaking of the man he is today, the story is told from the adult Bayard's point of view, going way back to his childhood. That puts some elbow room between the telling and what gets told, which means we get some critical distance and Bayard is able to judge actions and events as an adult, even though he tries to remember what it was like as a kid.
The best examples of this way-back narration are when Bayard describes his father. Check out the way he talks about his dad seeming big to him when he was a twelve-year-old (we can tell that as an adult he realizes he wasn't all that big):
And that's what I mean: about his doing bigger things than he was... He stopped two steps below [Granny], with his head bared and his forehead held for her to touch her lips to, and the fact that Granny had to stoop a little now took nothing from the illusion of height and size which he wore for us at least. (1.1.26)
Bayard seems disillusioned: his father was a marvel to him as a kid—a giant!—but now he sees him as a defeated man who made grandiose gestures to seem bigger than he really was. And that's just one of the many amazing things that narrative distance can give you: it tells you how someone really feels about his dad without him having to spell it out.
After the Civil War has ruined all the main characters' lives and the Yankee soldiers have burned down their home and stolen their possessions (including some slaves), Granny, Bayard, and Ringo head out to recover what they have lost.
Bayard and the gang take off on their journey after getting some advice from wise old Uncle Buck. They see many other burned-down homes, pass hundreds of freed slaves who are headed north, and see the wonder of the destroyed railroad near the home of the strangely beautiful Drusilla. They fall into the river after the Yankees explode a bridge and lose their horses. Think that's bad luck? Think again: they run into a lucky cricket in the form of a miscommunication that has them taking back much more than what they lost.
The family runs a great mule-stealing scam, sometimes stealing and selling back the same mules to the Union army over and over. Unfortunately, before they can make all the money they need, the Union catches on and shuts down their operation.
Granny's death, the hunt for her killers, and the final ordeal (John's death) all require Bayard to grow up and take revenge. The final showdown with Redmond is frightening because Bayard is not prepared to kill the man. In fact, he goes in unarmed. What are you doing, Bayby?? Think of the children!
Redmond shoots at Bayard twice, but misses and flees. Which qualifies as a thrilling escape from death, if you ask us. The Princess (a.k.a. Drusilla) has taken off for Alabama, but Bayard is basically in denial about that fact because he can still smell the verbena flowers she used to wear. That is a twist on the Quest plot, but it does show us a new, long life stretching out in Bayard's future with fewer gunfights and more time sitting by the fire.
The novel starts out innocently enough, with Bayard and Ringo building maps of the battles that are raging around them. They don't think of war as all that scary or dangerous—they're just waiting for John (Bayard's dad) to come home and tell them stories about it.
The innocence of the boys juxtaposed with the serious butt-kicking the South was receiving at this point shows how young and naïve they are when the novel begins. It's setting the scene for a lot of growing up to come.
After Union soldiers burn down their house and steal their slaves, mules, and silver, the Sartoris family, headed by Granny, falls into a mule-stealing scheme (the Civil War-era version of a pyramid scheme) that not only gives them some extra spending money, but also makes fools of the Yankees.
Society is breaking down; Granny, a respectable Southern woman, has bent her morals to deal with the necessities of war.
Granny, like in every so-bad-it's-good heist movie, comes out of mule-stealing retirement for one last job, and it turns out to be deadly. The loss of Granny is also a turning point for Bayard, who must grow up immediately to face this loss of innocence. He's a man now. A man bent on revenge.
The war is over and the family is trying to reconfigure and rebuild after all of the destruction. Basically, John and Drusilla get married and simultaneously take over town politics. Guess which of those they actually wanted to do?
It would seem that with the end of the war, things would fall into a routine, which they do in a way. The problem is what that routine involves, which is what we see in the resolution.
You ready for it? John gets murdered while Bayard is away at law school, but instead of killing the murderer for revenge (as is customary), Bayard just faces him unarmed and miraculously survives. This unravels the revenge plot, which has been repeated throughout the novel. Bayard seems to be a new kind of Southern gentlemen, one who's tired of all the murder-shmurder and is ready to start a new way of life.
From the opening of the novel, when Bayard and Ringo make their map of Vicksburg, to Granny's death at the hands of Grumby, we get to our point of no return. Bayard, Ringo, and Uncle Buck have no choice but to track Granny's killer and get revenge.
Starting with the beginning of their hunt for Grumby and ending with the confusion of the pistol shots between Grumby and Bayard, in this section the characters are about as far as you can get from resolving things.
The boys nail Grumby's hide to the door of the compress, and the novel unwinds all the way to another revenge story, this one between Bayard and Ben Redmond after Ben murders Bayard's pop. Bayard's change in attitude about revenge during the time between Grumby's and Redmond's actions shows how much he has matured. Ta-da!