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Unlike Sarty Snopes of “Barn Burning”, the narrator of The Unvanquished leads a somewhat existential life. Sarty takes an objectively moral stance when abandoning his abusive father. Conversely, Bayard Sartoris is faced with the “ambiguity and absurdity of the human situation” and is on a search for subjective truth (Kierkegaard). Though he acts on behalf of his family, he does things that he knows can be considered wrong. Additionally, he is asked to believe new information and take in experiences that are foreign to him. For him, it seems that “existence precedes essence” in his childhood. During this journey, Bayard describes instances in which his apprehension of information is primary, as is his need for empirical evidence.
As he is about to run headlong into the first Union regiment that he has ever seen, Bayard observes, “There is a limit to what a child can accept, assimilate; not to what it can believe because a child can believe anything, given time, but to what it can accept, a limit in time, in the very time which nourishes the believing of the incredible” (66). When he is given visible proof of the Union Army, it is overwhelming. The regiment that he encounters becomes tangible proof of the war.
Later in the book, he again reflects on the war. He catalogs the proofs that he has been given — injured and half-starved countrymen — but persists in his existential doubt. He notes, “So we knew a war existed; we had to believe that, just as we had to believe that the name for the sort of life we had led for the last three years was hardship and suffering. Yet we had no proof of it. In fact, we had even less than no proof; we had had thrust into our faces the very shabby and unavoidable obverse of proof…” (94). Because he has not seen the battles, he has difficulty acknowledging the reality of war.
Even as Bayard is faced with the idea of war, he recalls of himself and Ringo that, “What counted was, what one of us had done or seen that the other had not, and ever since that Christmas I had been ahead of Ringo because I had seen a railroad, a locomotive” (81). In the midst of an already chaotic situation, the childlike fascination with the locomotive is a bit illogical.
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"Bayard’s Search for Subjective Truth in Faulkner’s The Unvanquished." 123HelpMe.com. 18 Jun 2019
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Consistently, Bayard acts on behalf of his family and, by extension, the Rebel Army. He and Ringo shoot at a Yankee, help secure a regiment of soldiers, and aid in the sale of stolen mules. Granny continues to pray for the forgiveness of their sins and dutifully washes cursing mouths with soap bubbles. Even so, Bayard does not acknowledge his actions as sinful. He is acting in his own best interest and believes his actions are morally correct. Though his thinking does not reflect the nagging angst and doubt of some other existential protagonists, he practices subjective morality and lives in an uncertain and often absurd world.