Study Guide

"Marse" John Sartoris in The Unvanquished

"Marse" John Sartoris

An Officer and a Gentleman?

The vision we get of John Sartoris from his son Bayard's point of view is a little bit contradictory. Half of the picture is the heroic vision of a grand warrior, which is how Bayard saw him as a kid. The other half isn't so hot, though, and it's got the benefit of hindsight.

Take, for example, this sort of split-personality description, the first time John shows up in the novel for the reader to see:

Then I began to smell it again, like each time he returned... that odor in his clothes and beards and flesh too which I believed was the smell of powder and glory, the elected victorious but know better now: know 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)

Talk about Daddy issues. Let's pick apart Bayard's characterization of his father's outlook on life. Calling this aura a smell reminds us how important John's physicality is: he's a warrior, someone whose life depends on his own strength.

What Bayard originally thought was the smell of victory was, he tells us, really just the smell of determination. So even if John was on the losing side, he was not a quitter, and was ready to sacrifice everything in order to further his cause.

The only problem is that the cause is a lost one. So the weird determination is just to run himself into the ground, if we can believe Bayard. John's a fighter, but he doesn't seem to be too worried about results. 


Unfortunately, the view of John as a magnificent warrior is taken down a notch or two when we hear what the neighbors have to say about him. At first it seems that Sartoris is a wild and feared man. Uncle Buck tells Bayard, "all you got to say is 'I'm John Sartoris' boy; rabbits, hunt the canebrake' and then watch the blue bellied sons of b****es fly'" (2.2.20).

We're not exactly sure what "rabbits hunt the canebrake" means, but if it gets everyone running it must be pretty cool. Only problem is that Uncle Buck doesn't shut his mouth there. He keeps talking about Bayard's ole pop: "John Sartoris is a damned confounded selfish coward, askeered to stay at home where the Yankees might get him" (2.2.22).

And the rumors don't help either. The captain with Uncle Buck says that a prisoner told him "that Colonel Sartoris didn't fight, he just stole horses" (2.2.25). Ouch.

That's quite a difference from the portrait that Bayard paints of John when he's a little boy—a portrait of a mighty war hero. Here, Uncle Buck and the captain seem to think that he's not even really a soldier, just a horse thief dressed up as one, who doesn't take care of his family. We told you there were some Daddy issues here.