Faulkner, Dirty Harry, and My Disappointing Summer Break



2 comments
Art Remillard

Summers always begin with high ambitions, and end with crushing disappointments. Case in point: this summer—as a “side project”—I had hoped to read a handful of Faulkner novels. Yet last week, I managed to finish only one, The Unvanquished. I started here since, as Faulkner once remarked, it is “the easiest to read.” (I have the “lazy gene”—don’t judge me.) Born from a series of short stories, Faulkner introduces the names (Sartoris and Snopes) and places (Yoknapatawpha County) that populate his other novels. More significantly, The Unvanquished is an accessible entry into a central theme in Faulkner’s body of work, that people posses, as he summarized in his Nobel Prize speech, “a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

Indeed, in the novel’s opening pages, as the Civil War rages, we find the twelve-year-old Bayard Sartoris “playing war” with Ringo, his black slave-friend of the same age. This image of youthful ignorance represents a moral point of departure for Bayard, who would slowly resist many of the norms of the white “southern way of life.” When he first sees a “Yankee,” for example, he remarks with incredulity, “He looks just like a man.” The “stranger” is thus humanized, if only for a brief moment.

The final chapter punctuates Bayard’s moral transformation. His father, Colonel John Sartoris, had been a Civil War hero and a “redeemer” during Reconstruction. But Sartoris the Elder is murdered by his rival Ben Redmond. And Sartoris the Younger is bound by an Old South honor code to enact vengeance. Earlier in the novel, Bayard avenges his grandmother’s death, killing off the “murdering scoundrel” Grumby. But the war had since ended, and a new era was emerging. Even Colonel Sartoris, whose past was defined by death and warfare, tells his son before his murder, “I am tired of killing men, no matter what the necessity nor the end.”

So Bayard confronts his father’s murder, armed only with a “turn the other cheek” ethic, cultivated in part by his deceased grandmother. In a surreal series of events, the surprised Redmond stands, fires two shots into the air, and “went away . . . from Mississippi and never came back.” A gathering of bloodthirsty men witness Redmond departing, dumbfounded yet also aware that “maybe there has been enough killing.” They see in Bayard a new kind of courage, which is both counterintuitive and effective. Still, lingering in the background is Ringo, whose skin color puts him on the periphery of Bayard’s imagined sacred community of the New South. Ironically, Bayard’s moral code—and by extension the moral code of the New South—alienates his black friend, but acknowledges the humanity in his father’s murderer.

Alongside this irony, The Unvanquished left a powerful image of active non-violence in my head. Fortuitously enough, a day after finishing the novel, I watched Gran Torino. For those who haven’t seen Gran Torino, I will only say that Dirty Harry's film is sufficiently Faulknerian. Keep an eye out for two contrasting confessions at the end—one is perfunctorily delivered through a confessional screen to a pasty and persistent Catholic priest; and the other is passionately delivered through a screen door to his young and astute Hmong neighbor. These scenes in themselves capture the film’s close inspection of compassion, sacrifice, and endurance.

So perhaps my summer of crushing disappointment wasn’t so disappointing after all. Oh who am I kidding, of course it was.

2 comments:

Edward J Blum at: August 20, 2009 at 3:29 PM said...

summer lovin' had me a blast,
summer lovin' happened too fast...

Randall at: August 20, 2009 at 7:43 PM said...

Art, I'm with you on those summer plans that somehow don't quite work out. I am chronically over planning and under accomplishing things I have left undone.

Did finally purchase the Left Behind box set with the three films. Watched number one. Apocalypse Wow!

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