Seven Stories and a Novel in a Paragraph — The Ambuscade of The Unvanquished
This adolescent opening paragraph has your characters, themes, and actions: everything you need to understand The Unvanquished — William Faulkner’s bildungsroman about restoring order following the Civil War.
Behind the smokehouse that summer, Ringo and I had a living map. Although Vicksburg was just a handful of chips from the woodpile and the River a trench scraped into the packed earth with the point of a hoe, it (river, city, and terrain) lived, possessing even in miniature that ponderable though passive recalcitrance of topography which outweighs artillery, against which the most brilliant of victories and the most tragic of defeats are but the loud noises of a moment. To Ringo and me it lived, if only because of the fact that the sunimpacted ground drank water faster than we could fetch it from the well, the very setting of the stage for conflict a prolonged and wellnigh hopeless ordeal in which we ran, panting and interminable, with the leaking bucket between wellhouse and battlefield, the two of us needing first to join forces and spend ourselves against a common enemy, time, before we could engender between us and hold intact the pattern of recapitulant mimic furious victory like a cloth, a shield between ourselves and reality, between us and fact and doom. This afternoon it seemed as if we would never get it filled, wet enough, since there had not even been dew in three weeks. But at last it was damp enough, damp-colored enough at least, and we could begin. We were just about to begin. Then suddenly Loosh was standing there, watching us.”
Read in retrospect, the opening lines of Ambuscade, the first of seven serial short stories, in William Faulkner’s novel The Unvanquished; powerfully allude to the major themes in the novel. The novel, like these lines, opens deceptively child-like, or in our current idiom- tween-like, but like so much of Faulkner it contains multitudes. This first story begins with two twelve year-old boys, best friends, brothers in all ways save biological, and the typical games and pranks boys would play. However, with Loosh’s sudden presence, the realities of the grown-up world dramatically and violently surface with the fear, destruction and the death of war, our Civil War. The adult world sneaks up, like Loosh, on that innocence of adolescence and confronts it, forcefully. The adolescents must face it, vanquish it, and, like putting back the wood chip pieces on the map, restore order. Order not of the old way, the antebellum South, but of a more civilized man, of citizens of the United States upholding the order envisioned by our founding fathers.
In this first paragraph, the two boys, main characters of the book, play. They’ve replicated a map of the War’s western theater, the front lines of which are closer than their boyhood perception understands, but for their play this is reality, it’s a living map — because it consumes water, it’s organic. The map illustrates the childhood imagination at play — rather than being satisfied with drawing a river, they want water in a ditch. Yet, before the play can begin in earnest, fact and doom suddenly face the boys.
The stage now is set for a prolonged and hopeless conflict — the lost cause of the civil war. The North will give them that common enemy to unite against, but in defeat lies the real work of restoring order to a land and people that’s greater than any momentary victory of defeat.
The South must come together against the North and only after they exhaust themselves against the enemy can the South start to work on restoring itself. Starting in Medias Res, the middle of the Civil War, order is already broken. The finale of the final story offers at least hope that the beloved county of Faulkner, Yoknapatawpha county, may at last be restored to order. Order to a land and a people purified through fire and blood. Order restored through casting out the current generation of men, whom the boys look up to like Gods, but like Greek gods — imperfect, prone to selfish jealousies, impetuous, argumentative, violently upholding a chivalrous code supporting an outright caste system.
Faulkner published The Unvanquished the year after Absalom Absalom and in Absalom he’s more directly critical of the South’s caste system, it’s chivalric code, it’s men with “great strength and valor, but without honor or pity”. Those faults lead to the inexorable defeat of the Confederacy, dooming their cause, the lost cause, from the beginning. The Unvanquished needs to be read with Faulkner’s rebuke of the antebellum life and the war period in Absalom, Absalom mind because it’s not as directly stated in The Unvanquished, but is revealed the novel’s actions.
Through the actions of The Unvanquished, we’ll see the boys grow into men, men greater than the current generation of soldiers and officers. But before that, as twelve year-olds, they hide from fact and doom beneath the cloth of Granny’s skirts, which is how the first short story ends — the two boys getting away with mischief, shooting a union horse from under a Union solider, and a Union officer letting them alone.
Like the Union officer, Loosh, is that fact, like the war itself. His presence not only a fact of war, but time. It’s time for the boys to put aside their games and face fact and doom. To cease the Sisyphean struggle of filling the dew-less, sunimpacted earth with water, not enough water to bring their pretend world to life, and instead take on the hero’s task to confront, without the shielding cloth, the realities of the earth, the world.
Loosh already hints at his departure, his soon to be found freedom, when he’s allowed to leave the narrator’s father service by the Union soldiers. The new found, but limited freedom of slaves and its contribution to disorder will also be another thread throughout the novel.
The Unvanquished begins innocently enough, to simply reflect that this innocence is swiped away, like Loosh disperses the woodchips, Vicksburg, on the dirt map, would be a too hasty reading. It’s not the loss of innocence and throughout even through the last scene, Bayard, the narrator, maintains a boyish quality. Rather it’s facing fact and doom. It’s restoring order. It’s that passive recalcitrance of topography, the land itself, that outweighs artillery — even after defeat, after attempted reconstruction, it’s the land that seeks return. Return to its normal resting place like the ground after the body is laid in rest for three months. Restoration of order, an order higher and older then Marse John.
We’ll meet Bayard’s father — Marse John — or John Sartoris in this first story. He comes back from fighting to do some chores around his farm and bury his family’s silver ahead of the advancing Union army. We’ll meet Granny, who begins her deadly deceit by lying to a Union officer. But mostly, this story like the first paragraph above, sets the stage, in an entertaining manner, for the bigger stories towards the end of novel. Over the next six stories and twelve years, the boys will not only grow up into men, but be tested with trials. The devices will move from dirt maps to the personification of the Greek furies.
The stories are accessible Faulkner and classic Faulkner. Easy to read, they grow and strengthen in meaning when read in reflection. The power of the novel goes beyond the criticism of Absalom, Absalom and provides hope for the land that resounds above artillery, the victories and defeats of the current day — hope in a higher order.