Picking up The Unvanquished after putting down Absolam, Absolam felt like picking up some light summer reading. Imagine it: a tale told in chronological order by a reliable narrator. At this point in the project, it seems absurd.
But that is what The Unvanquished is, a straightforward story told by one narrator. And to be honest, it was kind of a breath of fresh air. It took considerable less brain space to get through and understand.
The Unvanquished has seven main sections, and is essentially a bit of an adventure story. It is a story of the Sartoris family who we first met in Sartoris (and the name has been mentioned in several Yoknapatawpha County books since then.) Another name that has appeared several times is Snopes, and the character Ab Snopes is a main character in this book.
Let’s take a step for a moment out of our chronological Faulkner project and consider what we know in the fullness of time. In the mythology of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, the Sartoris family represents the old South’s upright aristocracy and the Snopes family represents the new South’s shady, greedy, amoral capitalists. The Unvanquished is the first time this duality gets really played up. One wonders if at this time Faulkner had already created these characters or if they are simply coming more into focus as he writes these books. In The Unvanquished, the tension between the Sartoris and the Snopes is clearly defined, and it is getting better developed.
The Unvanquished is a story that takes place during the Civil War. The opening scene is of two twelve-year-old boys—one a black slave, one the son of the other’s owner—playing together in the dirt. The book not only takes place during the Civil War, but the Civil War itself seems to be a character. It ravages towns, leaving the characters to happen upon burned houses. It causes families to have to flee and take risks. It drives much of the action… which brings me to matters of race.
You cannot speak long on Faulkner without needing to speak on the issue of race. It’s a theme that shows itself repeatedly though Faulkner’s work. From time to time, the language Faulkner uses gets uncomfortable. But for his time Faulkner had progressive or liberal views on the matter of race; and it is the progressiveness of his thinking that makes The Unvanquished seem a bit out of sync with his other books. It is disappointing at times.
With the exception of Ringo, most of the black characters are stock characters without much depth. Many of the slaves seem to be happy and contented to be slaves. Although there are poignant moments (for instance a scene where the main characters meet a group of fleeing slaves) any discussion of race seems more than a bit off in this book.
Outside of the race issues, the book is quite good. I don’t like to go deep into story-lines, but here’s the gist of it. It begins as an amusing story how an elderly lady (the narrator’s grandmother) cons the union army out of thousands of dollars and horses. She ultimately meets her demise at the hands of a villainous confederate, and the story shifts into a revenge tale.
The Unvanquished seems to occupy an odd space in the order, following Light in August and Absolam, Absolam. If I had not known better, I would have assumed The Unvanquished came much earlier in his career. The style of writing and themes seem a bit less mature.
It is one of the few Faulkner novels with a driving plot. It is not Faulkner at his most enlightened, but I suppose it is nevertheless a fascinating (if sometimes uncomfortable) look at Civil War-era race relations.