The Unvanquished is a bildungsroman, or novel of self-development. In such a novel, the main character grows from a child to an adult. The central preoccupation of such works is usually with what that character learns and how he or she changes over the course of time. This is certainly true for Faulkner's novel, especially since Bayard controls our perception of the world around him: we can see nothing he does not see. Thus, his personal and moral development is of profound importance.
At the beginning of the novel, Bayard enjoys an idyllic childhood despite the war, as depicted most clearly in "Ambuscade" and "Retreat." Bayard seems happy and relatively carefree—the first image in the novel is of him contentedly playing with his friend Ringo. There is no mention of his mother—an unusual omission—but Bayard nonetheless enjoys a warm and protective family, including his grandmother and Louvinia. (As a child, Faulkner was closest to his own mother, Caroline Barr, who was like a second mother to him; he dedicated Go Down, Moses to her.) We can clearly see his character traits, especially his courage, in his early exploits, but there are no harmful consequences to his actions: his gunshot only kills a horse, and Colonel Dick takes pity on Granny; he is rescued from his wild pursuit of the mule thieves by Colonel Sartoris, and Granny finds her way home unharmed.
The critical event in Bayard's life is, of course, Granny's death and his successful pursuit and capture of Grumby. Granny's murder matters not just because of her central role in his life but because he can plausibly be held responsible—knowing in his heart what would happen, he could have held her in place but did not. In this passage Bayard twice mentions his age, as if to emphasize the huge gulf between his life before the murder and after. In the next chapter, when Uncle Buck tells Grumby he is dealing with "children," the irony is palpable, for Bayard has obviously become a grown man.
As a grown man in "An Odor of Verbena," Bayard represents the possibility of a new moral order for the South. The traditional South, as represented by the Sartoris family, is caught up in a destructive cycle of violence and retribution, one that claims Granny's life and, in a separate cycle, Colonel Sartoris's. By confronting Redmond unarmed, Bayard retains the best part of that tradition—the concept of honor—while dispensing with the need to shed blood. It is a hopeful end to the novel for Bayard and his countrymen alike.
If Bayard represents the possibility of a new order in the South, Colonel Sartoris is the epitome of the old, the ideal man of the traditional system exaggerated to the point of stereotype. The list of his positive qualities is remarkably long: gallantry, intelligence, courage, honor, integrity, devotion to family, proud masculinity. Indeed, Colonel Sartoris would be too strong to be believable if his character were probed too deeply. However, we only see him through the eyes of a worshipful son, who understandably emphasizes his father's heroic qualities. Colonel Sartoris is onstage at relatively infrequent intervals—he is usually away at war, and makes a brief appearance in several chapters and none at all in others; only in "Skirmish at Sartoris" and "Retreat" does he have an extensive role. As a result, his character is more legitimately clouded in an aura of legend. Finally, the novel is narrated by an adult Bayard at a time long after the war, when the mundane realities of his father's memory have been supplanted by a mythology he has partially invented. If Colonel Sartoris were the narrator or the protagonist, his larger-than-life qualities would overpower the book and make it cartoonish; through the eyes of a boy and in small doses, his presence gives the war majesty and grandeur.
In her own way Granny is as heroic as Colonel Sartoris, but her heroism feels more intimate and human. Colonel Sartoris's greatness is that of blood and smoke and sabers, whereas Granny is never more heroic than when Bayard sees her silhouetted against the rain, a small old woman "little and light and dry as a stick." Granny is a constant presence in the first half of the book, and her triumphs are ordinary human ones. Moreover, her heroism emerges gradually, so that her character develops and blossoms while the colonel's is static: when she hides Bayard and Ringo under her skirts she is merely quick-witted, but when she walks up the road to the compress she carries the troubles and hopes of a whole family on her shoulders. In the middle of a war dominated by the exploits of men Granny represents an imagined ideal for women, brave and resourceful rather than helpless and soft.
Granny's death is a crippling blow to the moral order of her community, even though Bayard manages to set things right for a time by avenging her death. She confidently tells Bayard that no man, especially not a former Confederate soldier like Grumby, could possibly harm a defenseless woman, but even this central tenet of the Southern code has vanished with the war. More indirectly she is betrayed by Ab Snopes, a likeable ne'er-do-well who cares more for profit than for honor or morality. In the universe of Yoknapatawpha County, the Snopeses will only become more powerful and numerous with time, leaving the world smaller and pettier behind them.
The portrayal of Drusilla is noticeably wobbly. In "Raid" and "Skirmish at Sartoris" she is an uncompromising warrior with close-cropped hair, who hates the constrictions of femininity and wants nothing more than to be allowed to kill Yankees. But in "An Odor of Verbena" she is depicted as passionate and even lustful, kissing Bayard in the garden and trailing the scent of verbena behind her. Her britches have been traded for a yellow ball gown, her unadorned speech for a fanciful, even purple prose that allows her to describe a pair of dueling pistols as "slender and invincible and fatal as the physical shape of love." Unlike Granny, whose transformation is slow and believable, the break in Drusilla's character is sharp and difficult to account for.
In both incarnations, however, Drusilla seems at first to be unquestionably the strongest female character until her strength yields to reveal a child-like vulnerability. Drusilla is capable of defending herself with a pistol and of sleeping unprotected in a Confederate camp, yet she crumbles before her own mother and a trunkful of dresses. Her raw emotional volatility is no match for Aunt Louisa's manipulative tears or Mrs. Habersham's vicious courtesy; she is at odds with traditional Southern womanhood yet does not know how to protect herself from its encroachment. Her defeat in "Skirmish at Sartoris" is one of the most honestly heartfelt in the book, and an effective indictment of the hollowness of the old social (as distinct from the moral) order.