William Cuthbert Faulkner’s novel The Unvanquished
(1938) tells the story of a family struggling to survive in the Old South. Although the novel was published in the late 1930s, six chapters were originally published in the magazine The Saturday Evening Post
. Only one story wasn’t published before The Unvanquished
. Faulkner was an influential twentieth-century American writer. Aside from novels, Faulkner wrote poetry, novellas, screenplays, and poetry. Most of his work is set in the American Old South. In 1949, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The seven stories that comprise The Unvanquished
, “Ambuscade,” “Retreat,” “Raid,” “The Unvanquished,” which is also known as “Riposte in Tertio,” “Vendee,” “Drusilla,” and “An Odor of Verbena,” are told chronologically. The stories span the period between 1862 and 1873.
The central characters belong to the Sartoris family, which upholds Old Southern honor codes and traditions. They don’t like outsiders and they don’t want anything to threaten their way of life. They are not afraid to defend their territory or fight in wars. Most importantly, the family is very close. This bond will be tested throughout the novel.
When the novel begins, Bayard Sartoris’s best friend is a slave called Ringo. Bayard’s father is a Confederate Army serving officer. While he is off fighting, Bayard’s grandmother, Granny, runs the family. Finding war fascinating, the boys draw maps depicting various battles.
The first map they draw is the battle of Vicksburg. Loosh comes along and destroys the map, claiming that the war isn’t going so well. Deciding to fight their own pretend battle, the boys spend the morning in imaginary combat. Before lunch, Bayard’s father, John, returns home from the front lines. He asks Bayard to help him build a new livestock pen. He doesn’t want to talk about the war.
Bayard overhears John telling Granny about their defeat at Vicksburg. They decide to bury the family silver in the garden. Bayard is worried but he doesn’t say anything; he does not want to be punished for eavesdropping. However, when a Union soldier arrives on the property, Bayard accidentally shoots him. Granny hides both Bayard and Ringo when other officers come looking for the two boys. It turns out they didn’t kill the officer—they only shot the horse.
Meanwhile, Granny decides to move the family. John instructs her to take the silver and head for Memphis. John leaves again for war. The family sets off for Memphis, but they stop at a trusted neighbor’s house for supplies. Before anyone gets very far, Union soldiers appear and set fire to various properties. They burn the Sartoris’s house down.
Devastated, Granny sets off again. The family moves in with Bayard’s cousin, Cousin Denny, for a few days. Granny lost half her silver, and she plans to go back for it. She wants to leave the boys with Cousin Denny, but the boys insist on going with her. Union soldiers attack them, and the wagon blows up. They are all stranded in a river, clinging to the broken wagon.
Yankees help them get to shore. Granny says she is just looking to recover her silver and her own slaves. The Yankees accidentally give her too many slaves, but she takes them anyway. They also give her ten chests of silver, which is far too much. Naturally, she takes the silver and flees. The boys fear that God will punish them for taking what isn’t owed to them. Granny tells them to stop worrying because God is clearly looking after them.
The Yankees appear again. They give the family mules because this is supposedly part of the agreement. Granny takes the mules because she has a plan. She will sell the mules back to the Yankees and they won’t be any wiser. She will double their silver. Bayard thinks Granny is amazing, and Ringo is awestruck.
Although Granny wants the silver, she feels guilty. Reflecting on it, she decides she can’t keep it all. She goes to her local church and opens a collection tin. She puts all her silver in this tin. She asks every parishioner to come forward to take whatever money they’re owed. She also gives them mules if the parishioners need them.
Meanwhile, unruly soldiers called Grumby’s Independents turn up. They are destroying Yankee territory. They rape the women and steal the silver. They also kill and torture young boys so they cannot grow into soldiers. When Granny defends her territory, and the two boys, the soldiers murder her. Bayard finds her and is devastated.
The boys go looking for the soldiers, but they cannot find them. In the meantime, the town buries Granny and other victims. Hearing about the tragedy, John comes home. Before he reaches the boys, they set off looking for Grumby, the ringleader. John catches up with them, and together they nail Grumby to a door. Justice is served and they head home for now.