Thank you for visiting 2nd First Look! Check out our latest post on our Home page. You can also read dozens of more articles on film, television, music, literature, gaming, and the arts by clicking on the designated buttons. We'd love to hear your opinions so make sure to leave comments!


Two Soldiers

by Dave Gourdoux

William Faulkner at work
Two Soldiers is a short story by William Faulkner, written in 1942, shortly after the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor.  In 2003, it was adapted by Aaron Schneider into a forty minute film with the same name.  In 2004, Schneider’s film won the academy award for best live action short film.  

The film is good, but not as good as the story.  And trust me, I'm not one of those "the movie is never as good as the book" snobs.  I highly recommend both.   It's just that in this case, the story is nearly perfect.   So after debating whether I should review one or the other or both for this piece, I've decided to focus on the story.

Two Soldiers was the first Faulkner I ever read, and it remains one of my favorite short stories of all time.   After reading it, I devoured the rest of the stories in Faulkner’s amazing Collected Stories, including some of the best short stories ever written: Barn Burning, That Evening Sun, Dry September, and A Rose For Emily.  As great as those stories are, Two Soldiers and its sequel, Shall Not Parish, remain near the top of my list.  Two Soldiers is tight and taut, remarkably efficient with barely a wasted word (which is quite unusual for Faulkner).  It’s some of Faulkner’s best and most disciplined writing.

The greatest collection of short stories by a single author
 Two Soldiers tells the story of two brothers in rural Mississippi in 1941.   Their family is dirt poor and isolated from the rest of the world.  The nearest town is tiny Frenchmen’s Bend.   The story opens with the narrator, not quite nine years old, and his nineteen year old brother, Pete, outside, listening to a neighbor’s radio:
Me and Pete would go down to Old Man Killegrew’s and listen to his radio.  We would wait until after supper, after dark, and we would stand outside Old Man Killegrew’s parlor window, and we could hear it because Old Man Killegrew’s wife was deaf, and so he run the radio as loud as it would run, and so me and Pete could hear it plain as Old Man Killegrew’s wife could, I reckon, even standing outside with the window closed.
And that night I said, “What?  Japanese?  What’s a pearl harbor?” and Pete said “Hush.”

Faulkner goes on to describe the relationship between the brothers, and it's clear that they are both deeply in love with one another.   In their poverty and isolation, working on their farm and living in their shack of a house, they become inseparable.  Faulkner does a wonderful job of establishing this closeness, and revealing the depth of the characters and the complexity of their relationship in a few paragraphs.  An important technical point for those who care about such things:  Faulkner gives virtually no physical description of the narrator and Pete, or of any of the other characters in the story.  But upon the first reading, I had a vivid image in my mind of what they looked like, an image that has stayed with me now almost forty years later.  The point is that when the writing is this good, when the reader is invested in the emotional content and the internal machinations of the characters, we form our own image of them based upon their interactions with each other and the world they inhabit, and fleshed out by our own way of experiencing and processing the universe.  In other words, what's inside the characters is more important than what's on the outside, and that's where the connection with the reader is established.

Another important point:  the story is told from the point of the view of the narrator,who is never given a name (the film refers to him as "Willie").   The narrator is eight plus years old, and poorly educated and unworldly, yet he is smart and substantial.   What I mean by substantial is that the character has an innate capacity to get by; he is physically and mentally and emotionally tough.  Like the subject of most good stories, he is exceptional.  This is centrally important to the story, and a testimony to Faulkner's skill that he is able to manage all of these often conflicting traits so well.  He remains "in character" throughout the whole story, never presenting the narrator as more sophisticated than a backwoods nine year old would be, but also never portraying him as dim witted or slow.  Most importantly, he depicts the passion and the drive that makes his remarkable journey completely believable.

Pete feels the call of his country and decides that he has to enlist.  He tells his little brother about his decision one night as they lie in bed:

Then one night - it was the first time he said nothing to me except to jump on me about not chopping enough wood at the wood tree where we was cutting - he said, "I got to go."

"Go where?" I said
"To that war," Pete said.
"Before we even finish gettin' in the fire wood?"
"Firewood, hell," Pete said.
"All right," I said.  "When we going to start?"

But he wasn't even listening.  He laid there, hard and still as iron in the dark.  "I got to go," he said. "I jest ain't going to put up with no folks treating the Unity Sates that way."

"Yes," I said.  "Firewood or no firewood, I reckon we got to go."

This time he heard me. He laid still again, but it was a different kind of still.

"You?" he said.  "To a war?"
"You whup the big uns, and I'll whup the little uns," I said.

In this passage, through simple dialogue, Faulkner gives us an extraordinary amount of information.  First, there is Pete's sense of duty, the call to serve that he feels.  Then there is the innocence of his little brother, with no concept of the world outside of their little farm, of something being bigger or more important than getting in the fire wood.  Finally, just beneath the surface, the depth of the bond between the brothers is revealed, as the little brother can't fathom being separated from his older brother, and assumes that wherever and whatever war is, like everything else he's ever known, it will be experienced by the two of them together.

Pete tells their parents about his plans.  His father, who, like most of Faulkner's fathers, is portrayed as lazy and ineffective, rambles on about how he'd enlisted and served in Texas and that should be enough for their family.  His mother remembers her brother feeling the same call to duty in World War One, and though she doesn't understand it, she realizes there will be no stopping Pete, and that he will be heading out and interacting with the larger world.  The morning of Pete's departure to Memphis, to join the army, comes:

Then she said, "Don't never forget who you are.  You ain't rich and the rest of the world outside of Frenchmen's Bend never heard of you.  But your blood is as good as any blood anywhere, and don't you ever forget it."

Then she kissed him, and then we was out of the house, with pap toting Pete's grip whether Pete wanted him to or not.  There wasn't no dawn yet, not even after we had stood on the highway by the mailbox, a while.  Then we seen the lights of the bus coming and I was watching the bus until it came up and Pete flagged it, and then, sho enough, there was daylight - it had started while I wasn't watching.  

...  Then he (pap) shaken Pete's hand, and Pete looked at me a minute and put his hand on my head and rubbed my head durn nigh hard enough to wring my neck off and jumped into the bus, and the feller wound the door shut and the bus began to hum; then it was moving, humming and grinding and whining louder and louder; it was going fast, with two little red lights behind it that never seemed to get no littler, but just seemed to be running together until pretty soon they would touch and jest be one light.  But they never did, and even like it was, I could have pretty nigh busted out crying, nigh to nine years old and all.

Faulkner originally wanted to be a poet, but found that he was more of a story teller.  Passages like this, to me, merge the best of both.  It's more than the language he uses, it's the details he chooses to share, and the emotional weight and meaning he attaches to these details--the idea of daylight starting "while I wasn't watching," and the heartbreak associated with the fading of the bus's taillights.

After Pete leaves, the little brother spends the day working with his father and looking over the bird egg collection he shared with Pete.  He sets aside a special egg, a shikepoke egg, and his slingshot, stashing them in the barn.  After supper and a lonely evening without Pete, when he is sure his parents are asleep, he sneaks out of his bedroom and retrieves the slingshot and egg from the barn and heads out on the open road in the direction the bus went, intent on going to Memphis and finding Pete and joining the army with him, where he'll cut firewood and tote water for his big brother.   As the morning breaks, twenty two cold and hungry miles later, he walks into the town of Jefferson, and learns that Memphis is another eighty miles away.

He is stopped by a police officer, or "the law" as he calls him, who wants to know who he is and where he is going.  All he says is that he has to get to his brother in Memphis.  The officer puts him in the bus station under the watchful eye of the ticket clerk and tells him to wait while he goes and gets a Mrs. Habersham.   While they are waiting, he tries to negotiate the seventy-two cent bus ticket to Memphis by offering the clerk the shikepoke egg.   Eventually, the law and Mrs. Habersham (a social worker?) return, and they decide to put him on the bus, assuming he knows where in Memphis to find his brother.   Mrs. Habersham pays for his ticket and the law brings him a sandwich, and he boards the bus. 

The bus ride is a revelation.  For the first time, he sees the world beyond his family farm and Frenchmen's Bend.
I seen all the towns. I seen all of them.  When the bus got to going good, I found out I was jest about wore out for sleep.  But there was too much I hadn't ever saw before.  We run out of Jefferson and run past fields and woods, then we would run into another town and out of that un and past fields and woods again, and then into another town with stores and gins and water tanks, and we run along the railroad for a spell and I seen the signal arm move, and then I seen the train and then some more towns, and I was jest about wore out for sleep, but I couldn't risk it.  Then Memphis begun.  It seemed like, to me, it went on for miles.  We would pass a patch of stores and I would think that was sholy it and the bus would even stop.  But it wouldn't be Memphis yet and we would go on again past water tanks and smokestacks on top of the mills, and if they was gins and sawmills, I never knowed there was that many and I never saw any that big, and where they got enough cotton and logs to run um I don't know.

Finally the bus stops in downtown Memphis, and the city is bigger and faster and busier than he ever imagined.  He asks the bus driver where folks join the army and follows his directions.   Walking into the busy recruiting station, he demands that they tell him where Pete is.  A soldier behind a desk tells him to get lost, he becomes agitated, and in the process whips out his knife and cuts the soldier.  He is restrained by two soldiers when an officer intervenes; they find out that Pete is due to catch a train to Little Rock in about an hour.  The officer orders them to find Pete and bring him to his office, where the boy and the officer wait.

Pete arrives, dumbfounded by his little brother's presence in this other world.  Pete scolds him for pulling his knife.

"What did you do it for?"

"I don't know," I said.  "I jest had to.  I jest had to get here.  I jest had to find you."

"Well, don't you ever do it again, yoy hear?" Pete said.  "You put that knife in your pocket and you keep it there.  If I ever hear of you drawing it on anybody, I'm coming back from wherever I am at and whup the fire out of you.  You hear me?"

"I would pure cut a throat if it would bring you back to stay," I said.  "Pete," I said.  "Pete."

You can hear the desperation and the defeat in his voice.  More than anything, you can hear the love he has for his brother. 

Their brief reunion ends like this:

Pete taken a dollar out of his pocket and give it to me.  "That'll buy your bus ticket right to our mailbox," he said.  "I want you to mind the lootenant.   He'll send you to the bus.   And you go back home and you take care of maw and look after my ten acres and keep that durn knife in your pocket.  You hear me?"

"Yes, Pete," I said.

"All right," Pete said.  "Now I got to go."  He put his hand on my head again.  But this time he never wrung my neck.  He just laid his hand on my head a minute.  And then I be dog if he didn't lean down and kiss me, and I heard his feet and then the door, and I never looked up and that was all, me setting there, rubbing the place where Pete kissed me and the soldier throwed back in his chair, looking out the window and coughing.   He reached into his pocket and handed something to me without looking around.  It was a piece of chewing gum.

Again, it's the details Faulkner chooses to show and the external manifestation of what is going on inside the characters that delivers the emotional impact without getting too sentimental or gooey.    The simple kiss, the sound of Pete's feet and the door and the not looking up, the soldier coughing and looking out the window-- they all ring true, and not one word about what he was feeling or thinking is added--the scene Faulkner paints says it all.

Then he is driven to a Colonel McKellog's house, where he is taken in by the Colonel and his wife.  Note, those who are sensitive to such language, the narrator uses the "n" word when describing the Colonel's servants.   There's no denying that it's jarring, but there's also no denying that in a historical context, this is how people of the narrator's class from rural Mississippi spoke back then.  Anyone familiar with Faulkner knows that he was concerned with civil rights, and that a large part of his extraordinary body of work deals with the south's legacy of racism.   I mention it only so anyone new to Faulkner can appreciate the context in which this highly offensive term is used.

Although he's hungry from not having eaten all day, when the food comes, he finds that he can't eat, and decides that he has to go home immediately.   A car is ordered and arrives, with a soldier driving.   Finally he is on his way back home.  The story ends with:

Then we was running again between the fields and woods, running fast now, and except for that soldier, it was like I hadn't been to Memphis a-tall.  We was going fast now.  At this rate, before I knowed it we would be home again, and I thought about me riding up to Frenchmen's Bend in this big car with a soldier running it, and all of a sudden I begun to cry.  I never knowed I was fixing to, and I couldn't stop it.  I set there by that soldier, crying.  We was going fast.

The narrator, the little brother, has been away, has seen the big city, the larger world, and when he returns, he knows things will never be the same again.  He's changed, Pete has changed, and the changes have been swift and severe.  It's this sense of loss, the knowledge that the world he's known and the big brother he loves so dearly are gone, that he grieves for when he starts crying, and the knowledge that even the isolated and backwards country town of Frenchmen's Bend and his small house and family aren't beyond the reach of the larger world.  "We was going fast" can be taken as a metaphor that the life and world he'd known was vanishing quickly, in the time it took for Japan to invade Pearl Harbor.

Reading the story now, I can't help but think of the events of 9/11, and how far the impact of those planes hitting the World Trade Center was felt, and how much that day changed us all.  It's the same sense of loss, of innocence or whatever you want to call it, that I think Faulkner conveys in Two Soldiers.

Faulkner wrote Two Soldiers as a reaction to Pearl Harbor, in a fit of patriotism.  Critics complained it was overly sentimental and not on par with his best work, but I disagree.  Even at his best, even in the harshest passages of The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, Faulkner, in my view, remains what he'd always been:  a true and hopeless romantic.   The simple fact is that Faulkner fell in love with his two young characters in this story, just as he fell in love with the doomed Compson clan in The Sound and the Fury or the hopelessly flawed and tragic Bundren family in As I Lay Dying.  Faulkner is such a romantic, his love so deep, that he doesn't deny or overlook his characters' faults; he loves them in spite of, or even because of, their flaws, just as he loved his tortured and grotesque Mississippi and the south, just as he loved the failed idealism of his country.  And his love is so pure and naked that when we read him, it overwhelms us, and we forgive him his excesses of style and his frequent bombast because we recognize the shared humanity at the core of his vision.