“You needn’t bother to count them”: Faulkner’s Skirmishes at Sartoris
Charles A. Peek, University of Nebraska at Kearney
Scribner’s Magazine published “Skirmish at Sartoris” in 1935 (April). It is found in Uncollected Stories but more readily known as the sixth of the seven stories Faulkner included in 1938 in The Unvanquished. The “Sartoris” of the title is at once the name of the family Faulkner first conceived on the pattern of the genealogy of his own Falkners, the eponymous name of their plantation (now in ruins from the war andᾰas a microcosm of Reconstruction itselfᾰbeing reconstructed), and the embodiment of a contest, a skirmish between what has been and what might be. Just as “Father’s troop [is] like all the other Southern soldiers too” (215), so the place, the time, the event is a metaphor for the South, for what went wrong during its Reconstruction, for the failure of the war to change things. The power of the story, alone or as part six of The Unvanquished, lies in Faulkner’s depiction, at once comic and tragic, of the defeat of what might have been, and throughout it gains force by the discrepancy between the Bayard of fifteen who experiences the skirmish and the older Bayard who reflects on his own experience (somewhat in the manner of the narration of Quentin in “That Evening Sun”) and calling attention to his own omissions or defects of memory.
Its pairing of Bayard Sartoris and Ringo, both about 15 years old, and left at war’s end feeling “like we had to eat and sleep and change our clothes in a hotel built only for ladies and children” (217), along with Bayard’s repeated use of the term “nigger,” calls to mind Huck Finn and Nigger Jim from the novel in which Twain, too, explored why the war had not moved us any closer to that equality that is the failed promise of America. Faulkner had revised his earlier dismissal of Twain’s importance, and would come to call him the grandfather of our literature, often revisiting something of Twain’s project, as he does here, in Intruder in the Dust, and elsewhere.
On the surface, the plot is very simple. Through a series of three letters written in pokeberry juice on scraps of wallpaper by Aunt Louisa, we learn that Drusilla Hawk, in spite of the deaths of her father and fiancé (Gavin Breckbridge),“in the garments not alone of a man but of a common private soldier…had been a member of Father’s troop for six months, bivouacking at night surrounded by sleeping men” (220). Thus, Drusilla (the name itself is a play on the Greek for manly strength) had not only spurned “the highest destiny of a Southern womanᾰto be the bride-widow of a lost cause” (219), but also “showed neither shame nor remorse but actually pretended she did not even know what Aunt Louisa was talking about” (220). Once Drusilla had returned from the war, prominent Jefferson women (most notably Mrs. Compson and Mrs. Habersham), appropriately acoutred with parasols, shawls, and knitting, and led by Aunt Louisa (dressed in mourning), descend upon Sartoris to force her to marry Bayard’s father, John Sartoris (the name of the principal Sartoris alternating by generation between John and Bayard).
The role and lifestyle of women might have “unsexed” (217) itself from the “Southern principles of purity and womanhood” (222); but, as Bayard comments, “They beat her” because “she had let Aunt Louisa and Mrs. Habersham choose the game,” adding “she had beat them both until that night when Aunt Louisa went behind her back and chose a game she couldn’t beat” (232-33). It is this change in the game that occupies the foreground of Faulkner’s focus, and it is a change from the promising game of changes in identity to the defeating game of re-establishing the old order of exploitation. In all, as Nicolaisen points out, the games changes from the potential for to the refusal of freedom.
The simple, surface plot is the vehicle for complex investigations of this defeat, this change of the game. The texture of the story grows even richer as Faulkner draws analogies between this failure to redefine gender identity and the failure of the momentary promise to African Americans and further parallels these with whatever is wild or natural succumbing to the taming forces of society. Thus, the land itself, the women, and the African Americans become parallel colonized objects.
When Mrs. Compson comes out to Sartoris with the third letter from Aunt Louisa, she looks out of her surrey for Drusilla, and Bayard notes she looks as though she expects to see “not . . . just a thin sunburned girl in a man’s shirt and pants but maybe something like a tame panther or bear” (221-22). By the time Mrs. Compson is inside, seated in Granny’s chair, she looks “like she had finally seen whatever it was she had expected to see, . . . it had been the panther” (224). The reader can’t help note Bayard’s omission of the word “tame,” its absence signaling something untamed about Drusilla. At the introduction of the scene, then, Faulkner has subtly drawn the lines between wilderness and civilization, nature and society.
When, confronted by the delegation of women, Drusilla takes flight, she is described as being “like a deer” and “like a bird” (226). The sharp contrast of these images from the social images surrounding Aunt Louisa and the others is a kind of shorthand allowing the reader a swift perception of fundamental oppositions, the imagery itself establishing what Ming Xie describes as an “analogical correspondence between the natural object . . . and . . . the human emotion” (70). Here the emotion accompanies the reader’s perception of the inevitable doom of the natural worn down by a social order’s urge to draw everything into its ambit out of a pathological need for submission and order. What the delegation of women is doing to Drusilla stands metonymously for what the Southern mentality has done to its surroundings, a theme elaborated in “The Bear” as well. Imbedded within Drusilla’s fate is the fate of the land itself, giving a deeper dimension to Diane Roberts’s placing of The Unvanquished in “a post-plantation landscape” (239).
The final skirmish arises over the election in which the victory of Cassius Q. Benbow would threaten the old Southern order. As Patricia Yeager has written, “The failed wedding and failed election are shown to be, if not interchangeable, then interconnected” (220). Both remind us of the tragedy of a time when conditions were ripe for changes that do not come.
By the time Bayard pronounces “that’s about all” (227), the story, rather than ending, launches off anew toward the stolen election. Figuring that these were “strange times” (227), Bayard notes how his father, desperate to stop a Negro’s election, has fallen back on the promise, by “Lincoln himself . . . to send us troops” (228). Bayard adds ironically, “That, from a man who had commanded a regiment for four years with the avowed purpose of driving Federal troops from the country” (228), and, as irony always does, this irony undercuts myth, in this case the myth of the integrity of the Southern way of life.
Immediately juxtaposed to the hope John Sartoris has placed in a failed promise, the story shows us Ringo, himself placing faith in a promise. “I ain’t a nigger anymore. I done been abolished” (228), he announces to Bayard. Those who would read this as merely comic caricature apparently miss the profound way in which the first sentence shows that the idea of “nigger” is a mere social construction, and, in the second sentence, how the play on words points to how Ringo is indeed abolished (soon virtually disappearing as the major player he has been throughout The Unvanquished) by the failed promise of Reconstruction, the failure seen outright for how it came about in Sartoris’s theft of the election. Ringo may believe that the “war ain’t over. Hit just started good” (229), but the reader knows this declaration is a two-edged sword.
The skirmish over the election takes center stage when Denny and Ringo report how Sartoris and his band of men have killed the carpetbagging Burdens (see Light in August). “They kilt um!” they holler. “Who killed them?”Aunt Louis asks. “Drusilla and Cousin John,” she’s told. Aunt Louisa tellingly replies, “Do you mean to tell me that Drusilla and that man are not married yet?” (236), the formalities of the Victorian South apparenlty outweighing not only killing but also the microcosm of the history of southern elections and their persistent denial of the promises of American democracy. Once again the story insists, as Berg has noted, that the “Outcome of their ‘skirmish’ will determine the real fate of the south”(450).
Despite Drusilla’s ultimate defeat, the fact that she and John “forgot” (for the moment) to get married draws out the tears of the Jefferson women and they leave. Exit the chorus of weeping women. Enter the chorus of cheering men, who hurrah Sartoris, the chorus for whom, in the stealing of the election and postponement of the wedding, nothing has been lost and everything has been gained. Faulkner saves for the end the actual scene of the stealing of the election. George Wyatt draws up the ballots, the pokeberry juice on scraps of window shade echoing the letters from Aunt Louisa. He writes out all the ballots, handing them to the men who drop them in the ballot box. Then, just before the story says “And that’s all” (241), Wyatt announces, “You needn’t bother to count them. They all voted No” (241). Though the pronoun (them) at first seems to refer to the ballots, the prounoun “they” refers to those who cast the ballots, and clearly the “them” that we needn’t bother to count are those who, despite the momentary promise of emancipation, do not count. They neither get to vote nor get to count the votes (and would not for nearly another 100 years), and thus literally do not count. What the white men have all voted “no” to is the change that might have rescued the South from its own history.
As John Lowe has noted, Sartoris and his men bear an unmistakable resemblance to the Klan (434). Yet, significantly, the defeat of change and progress cannot be dismissed as just the work of rabble. The failure of the promise is not the work of the worst of society but that of those the story has presented to us as its heroes, truly tragic because, like all tragedy it results not from truly bad people doing truly badly but from good people doing what seems best to them to do. Nor can the failure be credited merely to individuals, for it lies at the steps of a Drusilla “forced into a kind of life which warpted and thwarted her nature” (Frazer 171) and a Sartoris marked by the disruptions of war. The social order of the south, the religion of the confederacy, stands as guilty as those who are its instruments, and far from a paean to the indomitable women of the South, precisely because they present a remarkable record of strength and endurance, the story (like The Unvanquished itself) becomes the story of the tragic loss of what might have been. At the story’s opening, Bayard tells us, “I think I know the reason” (215); the story he proceeds to tell provides us an understanding of the reason for this American tragedy.