Small America and Patriotism in William Faulkner's Two Soldiers and Shall Not Perish

by Ryan Gantz

In Two Soldiers and Shall Not Perish, author William Faulkner focuses on small-town, rural South and its relationship to a large-scale United States at war during World War II. In Two Soldiers twenty-year-old Pete Grier becomes inspired to leave his farm and family and join the army, with hopes to fight for his country against the Japanese. Pete’s younger brother, the eight-year-old narrator of the story, is powered by a similar inspiration coupled with strong brotherly love. The boy pursues his brother to Memphis for a day on foot and by bus, hoping to aid the war effort and stay with his brother. At the start of Shall Not Perish, Pete’s family receives notice that Pete has died on a ship bombed in the Pacific. This story, narrated by the same boy, traces the effect that the loss of a son to war has on the families of the South. In Shall Not Perish, Faulkner meditates on the mysterious ‘inspiration’ that drives men to fight for their country. Together, these two stories reveal the close connection between the simple elements of rural life, such as farm labor and familial love, and the patriotism for a vast America that appreciation of these simplicities helps to foster. The narrator that Faulkner creates begins to understand the importance of this connection, and begins to develop such patriotism within himself.

As Two Soldiers opens, the eight-year-old narrator first hears about the bombing of Pearl Harbor through the radio of a neighbor and the explanations of his brother Pete. Although Pete is twelve years older, the two are very close; as he lies by his brother’s side at night, the young boy senses thoughts brooding in Pete’s mind. We are told "he would lay there, a heap stiller than if he was asleep, and it would be something, I could feel it coming out of him, like he was mad at me only I knowed he wasn’t thinking about me," (82). After many nights lying awake, deep in thought, Pete tells his brother that he has decided to go to war, explaining "I got to go…. I jest ain’t going to put up with no folks treating the Unity States that way," (83). The boy recognizes Pete’s intentions as noble, agrees with a loving na´vetÚ, and quickly sets his mind on war with a similar determinism. When told he can’t fight, he offers to carry wood and water for the soldiers—to do whatever he can. This selflessness and fondness for his brother is heartwarming.

As Pete recognizes, his brother takes the news much more easily than do his parents. According to the boy’s narration, Pete has the most difficulty explaining his intentions to his father. Pap does not "see a bit of use" in his son Pete’s wanting to got to war for the country, although he himself fought in WWI (85). According to Father,

I was drafted and sent clean to Texas and was held there nigh eight months until they finally quit fighting. It seems to me that, along with your Uncle Marsh who received an actual wound on the battlefields of France, is enough for me and mine to protect the country, at least in my lifetime. Besides, what’ll I do for help on the farm with you gone? It seems to me I’ll get mighty fat behind. (85)

Mr. Grier farms sixty of the family’s seventy acres of land, having given ten to Pete. Early in the story we are told that Pete successfully seeds and works his part of the land on schedule, in great contrast to his father. As the narrator explains during the first few lines, "We was still sowing the vetch then that ought to been all finished by the fifteenth of November, because pap was behind, just like he had been ever since be and Pete knowed him," (82). Faulkner constantly emphasizes this point, mentioning four times during the story that father was behind.

Though Pap doesn’t put up much of a fight against his son, Faulkner has set up a clear contrast between these two men. Pete has stayed up late at night and has finally reached some critical mass where he has "got to go" to war. Pap is a man who only fought because of the draft, and who retains some degree of bitterness for the mere eight months he spent in nearby Texas. Faulkner wants us to see that this same difference between them allows Pete to keep up with his farming while Father falls behind. Desire to fight for America is here bound not only to work ethic but also to land.

Pete’s mother begs him not to go, but once she recalls her own brother’s determination to fight in WWI, and her mother’s choice to accept that determination, she stops resisting. The next day she aids him in his packing, saying, "You got to go, and so I want you to go. But I don’t understand it, and I wont never, so don’t expect me to,"(85). Maw’s claim not to understand why her son wants to fight for America seems to be exaggerated, partly by modesty and partly by fear that she will lose him to war. Though she may not fully understand the reasoning behind he son’s sudden inspiration, it becomes evident through examination of both stories that she does not deny its importance. In any case, within the confines of Two Soldiers, Maw clearly comes closer than her husband to understanding Pete’s point of view, but we cannot get a good sense of Mother’s work ethic until Shall not Vanish.

At the beginning of this second story, the family receives word that Pete has been killed, sunk along with his ship in the Pacific. The remaining three Griers grieve only one day for Pete "because it was April, the hardest middle push of planting, and there was the land, the seventy acres which was our land and fire and keep,"(102). The family grieves, but continues to work their land. There is no mention in Shall Not Vanish of anyone behind schedule with the farming. More than this, it becomes clear after only a few pages of the story that the focus of the narration differs from that of Two Soldiers; the system of values surrounding the boy and his family seems to have changed. The first change that stands out is an increased emphasis on labor and its importance, as we see when only one day is set aside to mourn the death of Pete.

Secondly, we see that whereas Two Soldiers was primarily concerned with the internal workings of one family, and the love of the narrator for his brother; Shall Not Vanish looks outward towards from within the family. The three Griers seem acutely aware of the many other families in their community and country who, like themselves, have lost a son. After Pete’s death, father begins bringing home newspaper clippings of "soldiers and sailors from other towns in Mississippi and Arkansas and Tennessee, but there wasn’t another from ours,"(102). Curiously, the Griers wait in apprehension for the day when another local family from their county loses a son.

The third difference between the stories that stands out comes as a change in Mother. In Two Soldiers Faulkner colors the boys’ mother as a traditional feminine character—not sexual objects like women in Sound and the Fury and Sanctuary—but emotional, crying and crying at the thought of losing her son, while filling a shoebox with food and helping him pack his things. In Shall Not Perish, Faulkner brings out a completely different side of Maw, and shows that she appreciates and partially understands the determination and inspiration in men like her son. When news of the death of a local pilot does come, Maw seems to become the leader of the family, and remains so for the entire story. Just as the family worked through the news of the loss of their own son, Mother chooses to complete her simple domestic task when she hears of the death of the son of Major de Spain, of Jefferson. The task was the making butter. The young narrator notices that "Mother didn’t stop the churn for a minute either,"(103).

Mother is at the heart of the value system at work in Shall Not Perish. She recognizes both the necessity of labor and the value of empathy with those who have had experiences similar to those of her own family. Throughout this story we see Mother constantly refuse to "stop the churn". Faulkner seems to endorse this refusal and Mother’s "keep on churning" philosophy. The boy narrator, too, recognizes this value system in his mom and comes to understand her intentions:

So Father and I found out that Mother not only knew all the time it was going to happen again, but that she already knew what she was going to do when it did, not only this time but the next one too, and the one after that and the one after that and the one after that, until the day finally came when all the grieving about the earth, the rich and the poor too, whether they lived with ten nigger servants in the fine big painted houses in town or whether or whether they lived on and by seventy acres of not extra good land like us or whether all they owned was the right to sweat today for what they would eat tonight, could say, At least this there was some point to why we grieved. (103)

It is with these intentions, this understanding of a common ground between all those who grieve—between all Americans—that the Griers visit the home of Major de Spain, on the day after he has learned of the death of his own son.

The Major has a different perspective on life in the county than the Griers; he is a southerner with longstanding confederate pride, but he is quite wealthy, and doesn’t live with land as his "bread and fire". When the family encounters him in a large, barn-like room, he is clearly overwhelmed by the loss of his son. He greets the Griers with an insult to the nation: "I remember now. You too were advised that your son poured out his blood on the altar of unpreparedness and inefficiency,"(107). Mother, the only character besides de Spain described during the course of this scene, wastes no time with this comment. Instead, she churns into the room and "didn’t even pause at the door,"(107). Mother advises de Spain simply to weep, and no matter what reply he makes her advice remains the same. Locking hands with the man around the pistol of his son, she seems to ask him to weep in order to experience and to triumph over the loss, as Mother herself seems to have done.

But Maw clarifies, telling the Major not to weep for the men who are determined to fight, but "for us, the old, who don’t know why" such men are so determined or why they become inspired (109). Mother names those men of her on bloodline who have headed off to war, each sure of his own reasoning. Mother identifies that mysterious reasoning as something strong, something that "came a long way" through many generations (110). And she believes that herself and Major de Spain have reason to weep because they lack that something, or even an understanding of that something.

The Griers spend the remainder of the day at a local museum looking at art. The narrator describes the variety of the paintings, made by all different people all across the country of the things, people, and places they love. As the family heads back to Frenchman’s Bend on a bus, these pictures of America, along with thoughts recent events, seem to fill the young narrator’s mind. As he watches the sun set, the boy comes close to understanding what it is that has driven his brother and so many like him to war, recognizing "there was only the last sunset spoking out across the sky, stretching all the places that the men and women in the museum whose names we didn’t even know had loved enough to paint pictures of them, like a big soft fading wheel,"(111). The boy, like his brother, is proud to be a part of something huge, a vast America made up of countless "little places quiet enough to be lived in,"(114). The something that mother cannot quite identify is a simple patriotism: a desire to protect the land where millions of people in quiet places sweat for what they love.

In the episode at the western show which the boy recalls while riding the bus, Grandpa appears almost as a characteriture of this American spirit: a man so proud he seems nonsensical. In the theatre, it is Father who calls Grampa a fool; he doesn’t experience this patriotism, but fights only when he is drafted just as he farms without determination. He never sees the connection between hard-working families like his own and the pride he should take in America. Though Mother may not fully understand the sentiment she does have faith in it, and that faith brings strength to herself and to her family.

The final sunset scene in Shall Not Vanish concludes a stage of growth for the narrator that began five months earlier in Two Soldiers, while Pete waits before dawn to catch the bus to Memphis. As he is thinking about Pete’s determination and approaching departure, the boy notices that the daylight "had started while I wasn’t watching" (87). The next day, the boy pursues his brother to Memphis, telling everyone that he meets "I got to get there today", with the same inspired determination his brother developed (89). The narrator’s pursuit is primarily fueled by love for his brother, but while he "wasn’t watching" he absorbed a bit of that patriotic something. The boy’s growing love for America is rooted quite simply in love for his brother.