Southern Masculinity in Faulkner’s The Unvanquished
The narrator of Faulkner’s The Unvanquished is apparently an adult recounting his childhood. The first person narrator is a child at the story’s outset, but the narrative voice is lucid, adult. Telling the story of his childhood allows the narrator to distinguish for the reader what he believed as a child from what he “know[s] better now” (10). The difference affords an examination of dominant southern masculinity as it is internalized by Bayard and Ringo, and demonstrates the effects on the boys of the impossible ideal.
The initial indication that narrator Bayard may be an adult recounting his childhood comes with the past tense in the story’s opening line: “Behind the smokehouse that summer, Ringo and I had a living map” (3). Other summers have passed between the narration and the action of the story; this summer is “that summer,” not last summer or the summer before, presumably. Temporal distance is suggested in personal and episodic description, as well: “[Louvinia] used to follow us up and stand in the bedroom door and scold us until we were in bed…[b]ut this time she not only didn’t wonder where we were, she didn’t even think about where we might not be.” The differences in language between narrator and character are dramatic, as well. Bayard’s inadequate description of the railroad to Ringo (“only hearsay”), though not articulated in the narrative, is undoubtedly inferior to the narrator’s description of the railroad:
It was the straightest thing I ever saw, running straight and empty and quiet through a long empty gash cut through the trees and the ground too and full of sunlight like water in a river only straighter than any river, with the crossties cut off even and smooth and neat and the light shining on the rails like on two spider threads running straight on to where you couldn’t even see that far. (87)
As children, neither Bayard nor Ringo would possess the capacity for critical thinking necessary to employ the linguistic precision demonstrated above.Children think more abstractly, in grander and simpler terms. For example, they may take role models unreflectively; Bayard and Ringo play-act as General Van Dorn and General Pemberton, but they obviously do not understand why these men are their heroes. Based on what they have been told, and wholly independent of reality, the boys have constructed a General Pemberton that represents good and a General Grant that represents evil. By rule, Bayard plays the good guy twice for every single time Ringo gets to. The unfairness of...