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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Unvanquished!