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.