Shall Not Perish by William Faulkner, 1943
The magic trick:
Using linked though distinct anecdotes to explore themes about Southern identity
“Shall Not Perish” is a very interesting way to end the Faulkner Week. Structurally, it is a kind of three-act play. Or, really, more accurately, it is a linked series of three one-act plays.
The first tells of the death of the narrator’s brother who was serving in World War II. The second details the funeral for Major de Spain’s son, also a fallen soldier. The third is a reminiscence the narrator drifts into while riding home from the funeral. He remembers his grandfather making a scene at a movie in town.
Each section could exist on its own free of the other two, but laid out as a connected series they work together to consider larger themes. In each, we see the narrator’s mother show herself to be a strong, wise woman at the head of the family and society. In each, we see the wounds of the American Civil War still fresh even after 75 years. In each, we see the South still angry and still proud. And that’s quite a trick on Faulkner’s part.
“He don’t deserve any beer,” Father said. “The old fool, having the whole town laughing…”
“Go get him some beer!” Mother said. “He’s going to sit right here in his own wagon and drink it. Go on!” And Father did, and Mother held the bottle until Grandpap got a good hold on it, and she sat holding his hand until he got a good swallow down him. Then he begun to stop shaking.
He said, “Ah-h-h,” and took another swallow and said, “Ah-h-h,” again and then he even drew his other hand out of Mother’s and he wasn’t trembling now but just a little, taking little darting sips at the bottle and saying “Hah!” and taking another sip and saying “Hah!” again, and not just looking at the bottle now but looking all around, and his eyes snapping a little when he blinked. “Fools yourselves! ”
Mother cried at Father and Pete and me. “He wasn’t running from anybody! He was running in front of them, hollering at all clods to look out because better men than they were coming, even seventy-five years afterwards, still powerful, still dangerous, still coming!”