As the story of Bayard's growth from childhood to maturity, The Unvanquished is centrally concerned with his moral development. As a child, Bayard is innocent of concepts of morality and honor: he shoots at the Union soldiers not out of principle but for the excitement and because he has witnessed adults doing similar things. Bayard's moral development is shaped most profoundly by his grandmother's death. For the first time, he undertakes a weighty adult responsibility, and he does so not just because it is expected of him but because of a personal, emotional commitment to obtaining justice for Granny. His decision not to kill Redmond represents the highest stage of morality: he goes against a powerful personal instinct and the wishes of his friends and townsmen in the name of an abstract higher good, a Biblical injunction against killing.
The novel also describes the old Southern moral code and how it changes or does not change during the war. The positive aspects of that code are the chivalry of Granny and Colonel Sartoris: the obligation to help the less fortunate, to protect children and put family above self. But others, equally traditional, are ignorant of the morality that animates the code, caring only about its empty formal qualities. Aunt Louisa and Mrs. Habersham respect the forms but not the meaning—the proper rules for conducting a wedding but not the necessity to be compassionate and forgiving. And Southerners like Ab Snopes and Grumby seem to have no code at all except the desire to get ahead and profit at the expense of others.
The racial questions that motivated the Civil War and many of Faulkner's books are mostly absent from The Unvanquished—no searching analysis of slavery or the humanity of black people. But race is necessarily a central issue in the novel, even more for a contemporary reader than in Faulkner's time. The racial insensitivity the book sometimes reveals—the stock black characters, the slaves contented with slavery, or the portrayal of Loosh, whose desire for freedom is depicted as unjustified and ungrateful—leaves us disappointed and uncomfortable.
But other parts of the novel challenge the prevailing racial prejudice of the era. The slaves' migration in search of the river Jordan is a haunting image of injustice and frustrated longing. In a very different light, Ringo's character, while initially stereotypical, ultimately moves beyond a standard racial type to become fully and unquestionably human. The benevolent treatment Ringo receives from whites might not be believable, but his intelligence, insight, and loyal friendship contribute to a black character as admirable as any white person in the novel. Faulkner was considered a liberal on racial issues in the pre-civil rights South, and while The Unvanquished is not as racially enlightened as his best work, it occasionally grapples with discrimination, using Civil War- era prejudice to illuminate an ongoing Southern problem.
The Civil War is more than a setting for the novel. It is an active presence, influencing the characters' values and actions as well as the plot. The battlefield is never depicted directly, but we can see the influence of the fighting in the characters' diminishing economic fortunes, in the devastation visited on the countryside and in the lasting defiance of civilians. But despite this appearance of realism, this is not a realistic depiction of what was an unimaginably gruesome and violent war. Instead it is primarily shown as a collection of heroic exploits by Colonel Sartoris and his men, who harass the Yankees but escape without punishment. At the same time, the war calls into question the received system of Southern values; since society's traditional means of enforcing order are gone, petty interlopers like Grumby and Ab Snopes can flourish. Bayard and the other characters are responsible for ensuring that the Southern system does not vanish as a result of the trauma enveloping society. The war thus creates the crises that test Bayard and allow him to develop into an adult.
The comic passages in the novel initially contribute to the atmosphere of idyllic childhood that Bayard enjoys in the first few chapters. War is nothing more than fun and adventure for him, and the humorous tone of his scrapes is reassuring, promising that nothing will go too seriously wrong. Even seeming hardships like the burning of the house do not seriously interrupt this mood of security. Only the climax of the novel dislodges the protections of childhood, and with them the gentle humor of the early chapters. Bayard's avenging of Granny and later of Colonel Sartoris are completely humorless; even the farce of "Skirmish at Sartoris" is laced with bitterness—a knowing, ironic humor rather than the winking comedy of "Ambuscade."
In "Retreat," Granny journeys to Memphis to find refuge for the family but more importantly, it seems, to find a place to keep safe her precious chest of family silver. She insists that the slaves carry it all the way up to her room, at considerable effort, for a single night before the journey; she sleeps alongside it in the wagon and protests vehemently when Loosh takes it at the end of the chapter. Her dangerous excursion in "Raid" is motivated by the desire to retrieve it. For Granny, the silver represents more than monetary value—it symbolizes continuity with the past, a physical form of the traditions she stubbornly attempts to maintain. When the war is over the silver can be unburied and life can proceed more or less as before, at least within the limited confines of the dinner table. Silver, inherited from ancestors and handed down as an heirloom, is a particularly good emblem of a family's respectability, pride and unbroken lineage. When Loosh steals it, in Granny's eyes he is directly assaulting the Sartoris family's integrity. The idea that a slave can own an aristocrat's silver epitomizes the topsy-turvy social conditions created by the war.
Verbena, a flower that typically produces a strong lemony scent, only appears in the chapter named after it, but it recurs constantly. Drusilla wears it in her hair; Bayard pins a sprig of it to his coat when he goes to confront Redmond, and walks through the town square enveloped in a cloud of its scent; Drusilla places its blossoms on Bayard's pillow as a gesture of farewell. She tells Bayard that she wears it because it is the only flower whose scent is strong enough to be detected above the pungent smell of horses and battlefields—the smell of courage, she says. Most literally, the scent of verbena becomes a symbol of Drusilla herself, so that when Bayard smells it as he walks toward Redmond's office, it is a sensory continuation of her incitements to violence from the day before. Like Drusilla, the flower is incredibly strong and impossible to forget—when Bayard thinks of her it uncontrollably invades his brain. Of course, a smell cannot be argued with or dissuaded; like Drusilla, it is emotional and inflexible rather than rational. More specifically, Drusilla associates its scent with courage and military heroism. That she leaves it on Bayard's pillow is proof that she admits the bravery of his action even as she disagrees with his refusal to commit violence.
The railroad appears in two important places in the novel. In "Raid," the railroad running by Aunt Louisa's home in Alabama was the site of the doomed locomotive chase that Drusilla tells Bayard and Ringo about; when the boys come to see it, its ties have been destroyed and the iron rails wrapped around tree trunks. In "An Odor of Verbena," the railroad is the business that Redmond and Colonel Sartoris enter into together; it is completed thanks to the colonel's incredible force of personality and his driving will. Perfectly straight railroad tracks running through an unruly wilderness are a symbol of human beings' accomplishments, of order imposed on nature. The completion of the tracks is a tangible triumph for Colonel Sartoris just as their destruction is emblematic of the South's crushed hopes. But at least the memory of the Confederate locomotive outrunning the Yankees lives on, a gesture of defiance and pride in the same manner as the colonel's taunting whistle while steaming by Redmond's house.