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Soldiers’ Pay:
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The following editions of Soldiers’ Pay are available for purchase online:

Soldiers' PaySoldiers’ Pay

Liveright Publishers


ISBN: 0871401665

Published 1996 (Reissue edition)

With introduction by Frederick Karl

Soldiers’ Pay

Garland Publishers


ISBN: 0871409356

Published 1954

Published February 25, 1926, by Boni and Liveright.

Faulkner’s first novel, Soldiers’ Pay, is about World War I and its aftermath, a war which had haunted Faulkner’s imagination as a would-be RAF aviator and which would continue to reverberate in novels to come.

The Story

The novel’s central character is Lieutenant Donald Mahon, a fighter pilot who was shot down in Europe and is believed dead, but who mysteriously resurfaces on a train bound for home. He has suffered a tremendous head wound, leaving a horrible scar where his forehead should be, and he cannot remember anyone or anything from his previous life in his hometown, Charlestown, Georgia.

The other characters gravitate toward Donald. On the train he meets Joe Gilligan, an Army private who never got to fight in the war, and Mrs. Margaret Powers, whose husband was killed in the war by one of his own troops, both of whom decide to accompany him home and to take care of him because of his sorry condition. In Charlestown, Donald’s father, the Reverend Joseph Mahon, an Episcopal minister, is surprised to learn he is still alive, as is Cecily Saunders, his fiancée, a flapper-type who has begun dating a young man in town, George Farr. Other key characters in Charlestown include Emmy, a servant for Reverend Mahon who is secretly in love with Donald, and Januarius Jones, a fellow of Latin at a small college who is fat and satyr-like and who continuously tries, and fails, to seduce the female characters.

The novel follows Donald’s slow degradation as spring slowly advances from April into May. All who see Donald, except his father, agree he is about to die. Cecily, who is stunned to learn her husband-to-be is still alive, agrees to see him, but she is shocked by his horrible scar. Eventually, as Donald’s condition worsens (he becomes blind), he receives his “soldier’s pay”: Cecily marries George Farr, while Margaret Powers, out of a sense of sacrifice and perhaps guilt over her own feelings toward her husband (whom she had intended to leave before she discovered he had been killed), marries Donald. Shortly thereafter, Donald dies.


Faulkner wrote Soldiers’ Pay while living in New Orleans in 1925, but much of the inspiration for the novel dates back to the time of the war. When the United States entered the war, Faulkner eagerly tried to join the U.S. Army as a pilot, but he was turned down because of his small size. Dismayed but undeterred, he adopted a British persona and joined the Royal Air Force as a cadet in Canada, but before he could finish flight training, the war ended, thus robbing Faulkner of the chance to achieve a hero’s status in the skies over Europe.

His lack of actual combat did not prevent him from assuming the stance of a war hero when he returned home to Oxford, however. He told stories of injuries he had sustained, stories which many assumed were suffered in combat. Faulkner did little to dissuade such beliefs. In the novel, both Joe Gilligan and the love-sick Julian Lowe were soldiers (or would-be soldiers) denied the opportunity to demonstrate their courage in battle. The character of Donald Mahon, as a returning war hero who dies from his wounds, serves as what may have been Faulkner’s unspoken longing. Also in the novel, one can note the often disparaging portrait of love and relationships--a pattern Faulkner may have appropriated from his own abortive romance with Estelle Oldham, whom he had longed to marry (and eventually would, in 1929) but who had married another man instead.

At the time he wrote the novel, Faulkner was living in New Orleans and under the tutelage of acclaimed writer Sherwood Anderson, whose wife Faulkner had met earlier in a visit to New York City. In New Orleans, the young Faulkner--who then still considered himself primarily a poet--began to write sketches and short pieces which were published in the Double-Dealer and in the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper. Under Anderson’s advice, Faulkner wrote the manuscript for Soldiers’ Pay, and Anderson agreed to recommend it to his publisher, provided he didn’t have to read it.

Structure, Technique, and Criticism

Like many other novels published around this time, including another first novel by Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (published the same year as Soldiers’ Pay), Faulkner’s first novel attempts to describe the “lost generation” following World War I. Though Faulkner’s novel is not nearly as successful a novel as that by Hemingway, with whom Faulkner would continue a kind of competition throughout his career, it does offer tantalizing glimpses of his style of writing which he would begin to perfect with The Sound and the Fury in 1929.

Some of the early reviews of Soldiers’ Pay found the novel mediocre. Thomas Boyd in The Saturday Review of Literature called it “an honest but slap-dash” book with “vague, abnormally behaving characters who waver uncertainly and fantastically.” Some other critics similarly dismissed the novel as a minor, derivative post-war novel. Most reviews, however, were favorable toward the novel. In The New Statesman, one critic even wrote, “I can remember no first novel of such magnificent achievement in the last thirty years.”

Certainly the novel is uneven: the opening chapter, in which “Yaphank” (the nickname for Joe Gilligan) and other soldiers are raucously drunk aboard a train, seems to belong to another novel, and similarly, the presence of Januarius Jones in the novel provides little more than a persistent comic foil who provides no real impetus to the main action in the story. Characters are largely flat and not fully realized: Cecily Saunders, for instance, flutters through the plot with unclear motivations and equally cloudy intentions, while the main character himself, Donald Mahon, is so far gone mentally that he cannot provide any real anchor for the disparate assemblage of characters. Stylistically, too, Faulkner reaches for results that seem, at this stage in his career, beyond his grasp:

Mahon was asleep on the veranda and the other three sat beneath the tree on the lawn, watching the sun go down. At last the reddened edge of the disc was sliced like a cheese by the wistaria-covered lattice wall and the neutral buds were a pale agitation against the dead afternoon. Soon the evening star would be there above the poplar tip, perplexing it, immaculate and ineffable, and the poplar was vain as a girl darkly in an arrested passionate ecstasy. Half of the moon was a coin broken palely near the zenith and at the end of the lawn the first fireflies were like lazily blown sparks from cool fires. A negro woman passing crooned a religious song, mellow and passionless and sad.
The result of such passages, as Michael Millgate points out in The Achievement of William Faulkner, is a tendency in the direction of artificiality.

Nevertheless, there is the promise of future greatness in the novel. We can see here an early example of the structural technique he will use later in such novels as Light in August and The Hamlet to give unity to a highly heterogeneous body of material. Also in the novel is a richness of allusion, an extensive set of symbolic associations between characters and natural objects and phenomena, and an insistent reliance upon “unrealistic” narrative language to give a particular emphasis to the subjects and themes deemed important by the author; all of these techniques would be employed later in Faulkner’s fiction.

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How to cite this page (MLA style):

Padgett, John B. “Soldiers’ Pay: Commentary.” William Faulkner on the Web.

This page was last modified on Thursday, June 26, 2008, at 10:31 PM CDT.
Copyright © 1995 – 2008 by John B. Padgett.
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