Study Guide

The Unvanquished Themes

  • Admiration

    In the novel The Unvanquished, the narrator, Bayard Sartoris, unleashes some serious admiration for his Confederate officer father, John. With the passage of time, however, that admiration starts to dwindle, and instead of gushing with pride he's rather leaking disappointment based on the way things turned out.

    Even though the way he felt about his father doesn't last, Bayard recognizes that the trappings of war, like the shiny uniforms and weapons, not to mention the gigantic horse, all inspired boyhood admiration for his daddy-o. By looking back from a more mature place, however, he starts to see the tarnish along with the shine.

    Questions About Admiration

    1. It's pretty clear that child-Bayard admires his father; do you think he still has any droplets of admiration left for him as an adult? Why or why not?
    2. Where does admiration figure into the relationship between Bayard and Ringo? How do they show their admiration, or lack thereof, for each other?
    3. Besides the military uniforms, what other symbols do the characters use to inspire awe and admiration from their fellows?
    4. How does Dru's rejection of Bayard in the final chapter reflect the characteristics she admires and those she despises?

    Chew on This

    Bayard's his dad's biggest fan as a child, but doesn't respect the old man at all once he's grown.

    Even though Bayard's admiration for his father diminishes as he gets older, he still harbors a lot of respect for his dear old dad as an adult.

  • Warfare

    North and South, Blue and Gray, Union and Confederacy: the Civil War is what The Unvanquished is all about. It's from the perspective of the losers, which means it gets pretty violent, pretty quickly. We're talking burning down houses, killing little old ladies: the horrors of war are alive and well in this novel.

    The violence doesn't just end lives; it also changes the ways of life. Granny, for example, alters her whole moral system to survive. Not to mention the whole freeing-the-slaves thing, which took a lot of the plantation owners off of their high horses (and literal horses) and gave them a taste of life in a dirt-floor cabin.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. How does Faulkner's use of a real war, with real-life heroes, villains, and battles, affect the reading experience of The Unvanquished?
    2. Is there a real difference that you can find between the Northern and Southern soldiers? Who does Bayard seem to sympathize with more, and how do you know?
    3. Why do you think that Faulkner chose to focus his writing on the South during the Civil War, instead of during the Great Depression?
    4. How does the experience of war violence as a child affect the man that Bayard becomes?

    Chew on This

    There is no real difference between the Union and Confederate soldiers as individuals; Faulkner reveals the basic humanity that they all have in common.

    Even though Bayard is a Southerner, he seems to have a secret appreciation for the Northern officers during the war.

  • Slavery

    The Sartoris plantation, the main locale of The Unvanquished, is sort of a microcosm of the slaveholding south. There are the owners, John Sartoris; his mother-in-law, aka Granny; and his son Bayard. And then there are the slaves: Louvinia, the caring mother-figure; Loosh, the bitter one who can't wait for freedom to escape with his wife, Philadelphy; Joby, so old that it's hard to know much about him; and, of course, Ringo, a sort of version of Bayard who, if he had the chance, would probably run circles around his owner.

    Questions About Slavery

    1. What are the basic differences between Ringo's and Bayard's lives, and how many of them are a result of slavery?
    2. How does Granny's attitude toward the boys and John differ from her attitude toward Loosh and Joby? How does that make you feel about her as a character?
    3. Do you think that Bayard, John, and Granny can be held responsible for their unfair privilege as white plantation-owners, or is it just a part of their time and culture that they can't help?
    4. Why do you think Loosh finds it so easy to leave the plantation, while Louvinia stays on? What motivates each character in their decisions?

    Chew on This

    Louvinia and Ringo are so used to being slaves that they cannot imagine life as free people; in fact, the prospect scares the daylights out of them.

    Granny is cruel to many of the slaves, but seems to favor Ringo. That affection probably would have run out as soon as he got old enough to be called a man.

  • Courage

    It takes courage to ride a bike without training wheels or go to summer camp in the next state over. That's not exactly what the kids in The Unvanquished have to summon up, however. Whether it's Yankee soldiers burning down their house, pointing guns at them and their Granny, or trying to take them prisoner, they've got a lot on their plate.

    Bravery really has to take a starring role when the unthinkable happens, and the boys must grow up quickly so they can avenge their Granny. They leave home behind, go out into the big, scary woods, and face a big, bad villain. If that doesn't take courage, we don't know what does.

    Questions About Courage

    1. Who is the most courageous character in The Unvanquished, and why?
    2. Do you think that the boys are courageous when they face down Grumby, or foolish? Or both?
    3. How does the war affect the characters' courageous acts? Would there be fewer of them if the novel were set in peacetime?

    Chew on This

    Granny is the most courageous character in the novel because she has to set aside her ladylike ways, which is much harder than being a wild warrior.

    Bayard is the most courageous character in the novel for his crazy face-off, unarmed, against Benjamin Redmond.

  • Gender

    The difference between how boys are supposed to act and how girls are supposed to act is still a pretty stark line; people who cross it might find society looking at them funny or even shunning them. During the Civil War, however, the line was even darker, bolder, and maybe even had some cute dots running alongside it.

    When Drusilla, Bayard's cousin, puts on some pants, sits astride a horse, and goes off to "hurt Yankees," she's not only breaking taboos, she's mailing the pieces to their mothers! The good ladies of the South are completely scandalized, but we think it's pretty refreshing to see that gender roles aren't natural and set in stone; they're flexible and invented by society.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Do you think that Drusilla really prefers life during the war, or does she just say that to make herself feel better after her loss?
    2. What does Drusilla's mother think that she's been doing at war, and how does that differ from Drusilla's own account? Why does it matter?
    3. How does clothing influence Drusilla's behavior, and what does that have to do with gender roles in the novel?
    4. Why does Dru give Bayard the gun at the end of the novel, and why doesn't she kill Ben herself?

    Chew on This

    When Drusilla puts on a dress, she is defeated, because it is the ultimate symbol of femininity.

    The war gives people a chance to experiment with different gender identities because all of society is so mixed up.

  • Memory and the Past

    The Unvanquished is narrated from a point way past all the events it describes. We're digging into the narrator, Bayard's, memory and his version of history. The novel is filled with moments where he compares what he felt at the time with his new, revised, feelings about what happened.

    That contrast between past and present, between memory and life-as-it-happens, gives us a little insight as to why the unvanquished are, well, unvanquished. The Southerners in the story have their own version of the war and don't admit defeat, even after the war is long over.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. How old do you think that Bayard is when he narrates the novel? What clues lead you to that conclusion?
    2. What is the effect of the contrast between past and present in the way that Bayard narrates?
    3. Do you think that there's something special about the South that makes people hang on so tightly to the pre-war past? What does the novel have to say about that?

    Chew on This

    Bayard's distance from the events of the novel allow him to judge them as well as remember them.

    We can't trust Bayard as a narrator because so much time has passed since the war.

  • Duty

    It's common to associate duty with the military, and there's enough warfare flying across the pages of The Unvanquished to bring tons of soldierly duty to the front. But there's more to it than just that.

    In Faulkner's South, duty is more than something you're assigned along with your uniform. It has to do with tradition, with what is expected of men and women, and with being brave in the face of danger.

    The big kicker of the novel is the way that Bayard, the narrator, arranges it so that he's fulfilling his duty but rejecting the culture of violence and revenge that he grew up with. The fact that he can't just put his foot down and say, "No, thanks," to killing his father's murderer, but has to go face him, makes us think that duty is a powerful thing.

    Questions About Duty

    1. How do the Southern gentlemen and Dru see Bayard's duty at the end of the novel? What does he see as his duty? Are they similar or different ideas? What do you think he is obligated by duty to do?
    2. The novel seems to situate the characters' senses of duty as part of their Southern identity. Do you think that duty is universal or does it depend on the culture?
    3. Why does Bayard react differently to Granny's death than his father's? How does his sense of duty change over the course of the novel?
    4. How are duties divided up between men and women in the novel? Is there any overlap?

    Chew on This

    Bayard evolves from a vengeful teenager to a zen-master pacifist through the course of the novel.

    Bayard does not fulfill his duty to his father's memory when he goes unarmed to meet his killer.

  • Sin

    It won't get you into heaven, but sometimes being bad is necessary. Granny will tell you all about it. She's a prim and proper Southern belle, but she is reduced to mule-theft and all sorts of trickery when the Civil War reaches her plantation.

    In The Unvanquished, sin is ever-present, but Bayard treats it with a tongue-in-cheek attitude. Granny's sins are committed out of necessity, and her insistence on kneeling down and praying for forgiveness after every lie, theft, or curse word is kind of a silly ritual for him. However, it's serious business for her; she's completely frank with God about her reasons for doing what she does, and while she doesn't expect forgiveness, she does hope for it.

    Questions About Sin

    1. Do you think that Granny really feels sorry for stealing Yankee mules, or is she just saying that because she is supposed to? How can you tell?
    2. What is the worst sin committed in the novel, and why did you select the one you did?
    3. What is the significance of church for the different characters in the novel?

    Chew on This

    When Granny asks God for forgiveness, her real intention is to show the boys that what they are doing is wrong, but necessary.

    Granny always asks forgiveness for her own sins, but doesn't seem to expect others, like Ab Snopes, to do so.