Book Review: Soldiers’ Pay by William Faulkner (2/5)

23 Jan

I was in New Orleans for a conference a few years ago and found a bookshop that used to be home to William Faulkner. (I did a post about that trip and the bookstores I visited where you can read more.) It seemed only appropriate to get a Faulkner book there. I picked the one he wrote while living in that house. Five years later, I picked it up as an ebook to help me finish a reading challenge.


Cover image via Amazon

Soldiers’ Pay by William Faulkner

Summary from Amazon:

After the end of World War I, a group of soldiers traveling by train across the United States are on their way home. One is horribly scarred, blind, and almost entirely mute. Moved by his condition, a few civilian fellow travelers decided to see him safely home to Georgia, to a family that believes him dead—and a fiancée who grew tired of waiting.

This book rubbed me the wrong way at the beginning, but then grew on me. I didn’t like the introduction to the characters in the first two chapters. It seemed really abrupt and I was confused about what was happening, what the relationships were between people, and why names kept changing. Once we got to town and things were easier to understand, I settled in and could focus on the story. It ended up being a touching story about the affects of war and how we grieve as individuals and as a society in the wake of such an event. I wasn’t a big fan of how women were portrayed in this book, but I may be confusing that with how much I disliked Cecily. It felt like a chore to read this, which is why I’ve given it such a low rating.

Faulkner’s characters had good variety in their involvement with the war and their temperament in the wake of it. Not having lived through a war the same magnitude as WWI, it’s hard for me to say how credible I think they were because of their time period. I did think they were very caricature-like and that was a part of what I disliked. All of the women were weak and weepy or completely heartless. The men were either abrupt or distant. There wasn’t a lot of nuance to most of them and it because a little annoying for me to read their conversations and interactions.

Gilligan was my favorite character in the book because he always seemed to be the comic relief. That seems odd when I reflect on it, but it was my impression. He was kind and caring and was often able to diffuse any tension that arose between the characters, especially as it had to do with Donald. He was the kind of guy you would want on your side. He was also quite pitiful. He had no where to return to up on coming home, nothing that he wanted to do again. I felt bad for him as much as I liked him.

I couldn’t relate to any of these characters which made it hard to like this story. Cecily, the main female, is horribly vane and selfish. I’m not going to be mad at her that she didn’t want to marry someone she thought was dead, but she was so indecisive about it and I think it made life very emotional for a lot of people when it didn’t need to be. None of the other women are particularly likeable. Ms. Powers might be, but she comes across as scheming and heartless in the end and that made it hard for me to relate to her. Without a woman to relate to and without having lived through the war, this book wasn’t one where I ever got emotionally invested.


William Faulkner. Image via Wikipedia

I finally got invested in this book after Donald returned home and I could see how all of the characters were going to interact. Up until then, I honestly thought I was reading a collection of short stories. After that, I wasn’t a fan of the writing style, but I was able to follow what was happening much better and could start to get into the story and start to enjoy it.

The first chapter was infuriating for me. It took me a few weeks to read it because I kept getting frustrated and putting it down. I understand that the characters are drunk so it’s not supposed to be completely logical, but it was so scattered that I couldn’t follow. Jumping from there to Jones, I was about ready to quit. Jones remained my least favorite character throughout the book and every time he would show up, I’d just get angry. Once we had some other characters (who were more sober) and a plot, I was much better off.

PTSD and mental health for soldiers is a big topic today. It wasn’t when Faulkner was writing. He brings up a lot of issues that returning combatants see still today. Spending time away from family and loved ones is hard. It’s harder when during that time away, you’re enduring something so stressful and unique that those back home can’t understand what it was like. Jones, Gilligan, and Donald have dealt with it differently. Mrs. Powers has had to deal with her husband not returning home. Those that were waiting have to deal with how their loved ones changed. Emmy struggles the most, seeing how Donald is not at all how he was when he left. There is a lot of this book that’s still very relevant today.

Writer’s Takeaway: More than anything, this book taught me some things not to do. I felt like Jones had no reason to be in the book. He should have been cut. I felt like there was a lot of back-and-forth in the book that gave it a murky middle. That should have been cleaned up. The opening scene did not grab my attention. These are a lot of things writers are warned about and Faulkner fell into them. However, he ended up with a powerful message. He did enough things right in this book, but there were many things that could have been improved.

Overall, not one I’ll reread or recommend. Two out of Five Stars.

This book fulfilled the 1900-1919 time period of the 2022 When Are You Reading? Challenge. It was the final book in this challenge!

Until next time, write on.

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2 Responses to “Book Review: Soldiers’ Pay by William Faulkner (2/5)”

  1. whatcathyreadnext January 25, 2023 at 3:53 AM #

    You’ve eloquently set out the flaws in this book so it’s safe to say it won’t be going on my wishlist. On the other hand I don’t think it’s as necessary for me to relate to characters or to have shared their experiences as much as it seems to be for you. In fact that’s part of the reason I read historical fiction because it exposes me to things I’m unlikely to experience personally – or I hope I won’t in the case of war.


    • Sam January 25, 2023 at 4:35 PM #

      That’s a great point about historical fiction. I think I enjoy a book more when I can relate to a character, even if it’s because of something as small as having similarly aged siblings or a relationship like one I have. These characters seemed so unbelievable that I couldn’t find anything like that to relate to them. Happy reading!


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