Is The Unvanquished a racist novel? Is the depiction of black characters generally positive or negative? And even if there are positive portrayals of certain black characters, can that outweigh other, seemingly racist elements?
This question requires you to consider both sides of the depiction of race—the answer cannot be all one or all the other. The negative portrayals of black characters are easy to spot. First there are those black characters who are notable only for their ignorance or their destructive power: even the most racially sensitive reader would find it hard to argue that the illiterate Cassius Q. Benbow should become Marshal of Jefferson, and the novel in effect requires us to side with the forces of racism, even against our will. Other black characters seem to be criticized for desiring and pursuing their freedom. Loosh is shown as corrupted by his lust for freedom, but whether that lust might not be justified, or what treatment at the hands of the Sartorises' overseers may have occasioned it, is never explored. Finally, there are those black figures who are sympathetic in themselves but who represent the negative power of a pervasive cultural stereotype, like Louvinia, the beloved black mammy, or Joby, the aged but loyal family retainer.
On the converse side of the question are the positive or emotionally powerful depictions of blacks. The vast migration of slaves toward the river in "Raid" is notable for its empathy and tragic irony, depicting their plight with empathy and historical perspective. There are also individual black characters who are portrayed positively, especially Ringo. The novel's affection for Ringo cannot be denied: he is intelligent, funny, dedicated and just as brave as his white master. Ringo is a genuine role model and a truly honorable person. What's more, the Sartoris family treats him as close to an equal: he is a full partner in Granny's mule-stealing scam, and he is disciplined alongside Bayard and thus held to the same standards. But take this positivity a step further: By presenting Ringo in such a benevolent light, does the novel obscure the harsh reality of slavery? Would any slave really have been given such dignity and independence, and even if so, was that the typical condition of Southern slaves? Or does Ringo help the narrator idealize and justify slavery?
What is the novel's attitude towards religion? Is it a benevolent moral force or simply a form of hypocritical social posturing? And if religion is not a true moral force in this society, does anything else take its place?
Religion only appears infrequently in the novel, so it is important to discuss both major instances: Brother Fortinbride and the contrast with the fancy Memphis preacher, and Granny's repeated prayers. In both cases, the novel suggests that religion is only valuable when it is practical, humble, heartfelt and compassionate. The superficial structures and doctrines, however, do not matter. Brother Fortinbride may be less learned than his Memphis counterpart, but he is portrayed as far more qualified and appropriate for the occasion. The Memphis minister is armed with a degree and a book, but Brother Fortinbride preaches from the heart and goes straight to the root of the matter—Granny's devotion to the community, as measured in shoes and firewood rather than empty words. He understands, the novel tells us, that words are fine for comfortable times but that crises call for more profound measures. Similarly, Granny is less concerned with the niceties of sin and redemption than with the straightforward need to help the people around her, as she demonstrates in her defiant prayer near the end of "Riposte in Tertio." She still clings to the old forms of religion—praying when she has lied, kneeling in church and dressing in her Sunday best—but this is not the essence of her religiosity. If this were the extent of her devotion she would be no better than an outward Christian like Mrs. Habersham, who professes to care for Drusilla but is actually a malicious, insensitive gossip. Thus, the novel's critique of superficial religion and its preference for genuine homespun spirituality dovetails with its larger criticism of Southern social forms, of the empty rituals of Aunt Louisa and the respectable town ladies.
In one sense, the protagonist of The Unvanquished is not just a single young boy but an entire family. How does the novel depict families, both Bayard's immediate family and others? Is the family a nurturing, protective force, or can it be a destructive one?
This question proposes another opposition—nurturing families versus destructive ones—and it is again necessary to provide evidence for both sides before drawing a final conclusion. On the nurturing side, the most obvious example to point to is Bayard's immediate family, particularly Granny and Colonel Sartoris. Both adults appear distant, even frigid in the conventional sense, yet their unceasing devotion to the family and their ultimate affection for each other is evident in their actions if not their words—Granny's sacrifice so the colonel might have enough money to start over, or Colonel Sartoris's concern for Granny's well-being when she is lost on the road. By contrast, the best instance of a destructive or dysfunctional family is Aunt Louisa's—she does not care for her daughter's actual happiness, only that she not disgrace the family name. She is even willing to force Drusilla into a potentially loveless marriage to keep people from talking, when the excited gossip of the town ladies proves that people will talk regardless of what Drusilla actually does. Aunt Louisa is ostensibly the most conventional mother—for that matter, Bayard does not even have a mother—but her social role is no guarantee of her actual feelings.
Another fruitful approach might be to consider the difference between biological and extended or "alternative" families, and how Faulkner seems to prefer the latter. Bayard's family is not limited to his father and his grandmother, but includes several older black slaves, his best friend Ringo, even interested townspeople like Uncle Buck. They become Bayard's family not from their formal social ties but from the bonds of affection and mutual sacrifice. In a larger sense, the whole community might be considered part of Granny's family, since she performs the traditional paternal roles of breadwinning and of dispensing discipline. This leads us to further questions which might usefully be incorporated into an essay: Can a family really transcend racial lines in a society that is so racially polarized? Is there any meaningful difference between a family relationship and a friendship or a civic tie like that between neighbors?
Discuss the contrast between aristocratic and lower-class characters in the novel. What do these class distinctions tell us about Jefferson society or about the Southern moral order? Does Faulkner give a balanced representation of poor white characters, or are poor whites stereotyped?
The Unvanquished features several genuinely funny episodes. What is the function of such comic scenes in an essentially heroic, often tragic story? Are they simply intended to provide relief, or do they contribute to the broader meaning of the novel?
What is the purpose of making Bayard, initially a young boy, the narrator and central character? How would the book be different if the main character were an adult and the narrator an omniscient third person?
Although most of The Unvanquished is set during the Civil War, the action takes place not on the battlefields of Virginia or Tennessee but on the Confederate home front. What is the significance of a Civil War novel that never depicts the main fighting arena? And what does this focus on the home front allow us to see that would be absent or different in a battlefield story?
What is the effect of writing a novel about the Civil War seventy years after the war ended? How does that historical perspective influence the war's depiction?
Discuss the depiction of violence in The Unvanquished. Why do so many characters act so violently? Is there a unified motive for violence in the novel, or do different characters use violence for different ends?