Summary and Analysis "An Odor of Verbena"


This is the only story to appear for the first time in the printed novel; that is, the first six stories originally appeared in magazines. Yet in general, critical terms, this is often considered to be the finest story in the novel.

The story involves a test. One of the oldest themes or subjects of literature involves the testing of a person's manhood. In "Vendée," Bayard's manhood was tested in terms of his successfully tracking down Grumby and avenging his grandmother's murder. Now he is faced with another, even more severe test-one against "which I had no yardstick to measure . . . and fear [was] the test of it." Bayard will now be confronted with a greater test of his courage than was involved in the barbaric act of avenging the murder of Granny. He will be called upon to confront his own father's murderer, knowing full well his father's dictum that he "who lives by the sword shall die by it." This expression, or variations on this expression, are frequent throughout the story. The concept of avenging, but not by the sword, will be Bayard's greatest test, and then "at least this will be my chance to find out if I am what I think I am or if I just hope; if I am going to do what I have taught myself is right or if I am just going to wish I were."

The story is divided into four parts: (1) the announcement of the death of Colonel Sartoris in Bayard's room, where he is living while attending the university, (2) a flashback to four years earlier, when the Colonel was involved in building the railroad, (3) Bayard's arrival home after his father's death and his confrontation with Drusilla, and (4) Bayard's confrontation with his father's murderer.

The title of the story is significant: for Drusilla, verbena is the only odor that can be smelled above the odor of horses and courage, and it is the flower that Drusilla wears constantly, until she forswears it when she discovers that Bayard is not going to kill Redmond.

When the story begins, some nine years have elapsed. Bayard is now twenty-four years old, and Drusilla and Colonel Sartoris have been married since "the evening when Father and Drusilla had kept old Cash Benbow from becoming United States Marshal and . . . Mrs. Habersham herded them into her carriage and drove them back to town . . . and took Father and Drusilla to the minister herself and saw that they were married." Bayard has been studying law at the university for three years, and he has been living with Professor and Mrs. Wilkins, friends of his late grandmother. The story opens dramatically; Professor Wilkins throws open the door to Bayard's private room and utters, "Bayard. Bayard, my son, my dear son," then says, ''Your boy is downstairs in the kitchen." Ringo had summed up what happened in a single, simple statement of fact when he arrived: "They shot Colonel Sartoris this morning. Tell him I be waiting in the kitchen." Bayard is, at first, concerned about horses for the two of them to ride back to Jefferson, but he then realizes that Ringo would naturally have taken care of such matters. He and the Wilkins go the kitchen and find Ringo waiting quietly. Bayard notices that somewhere on the way, Ringo cried; dust is caked in the lines of his face where the tears ran down. As Bayard leaves, Professor Wilkins awkwardly tries to offer Bayard his pistol, but Bayard does not accept it, and this rejection of Professor Wilkins' pistol should prepare us for Bayard's later rejection of Drusilla's pistols. Likewise, Faulkner is very careful here in setting the racial qualities against the older concept of revenge. The word "boy" is still applied to Ringo, even though he is twenty-four, the same age as Bayard, but, by custom, Ringo must wait in the kitchen, an act that suggests the vast social gulf that has come between the two now that they are both men. In the earlier stories, Ringo and Bayard slept together on the same pallet; they were inseparable. Color didn't matter; they joked about Ringo's being "abolished." Now, however, even though Ringo is chronologically a man, he is still a "boy"; Bayard, by contrast, is a young southern gentleman.

On the way back to the Sartoris mansion, Ringo says only one thing to Bayard. He suggests that they could "bushwhack him" (Sartoris' murderer), as they did Grumby. But then he adds: "But I reckon that wouldn't suit that white skin you walks around in." Once again, the difference between the white, twenty-four-year-old Bayard and the black, twenty-four-year-old Ringo is emphasized. It is also ironic that Ringo desires revenge for Colonel Sartoris; the colonel, it should be remembered, was the great stalwart of "the old southern order," one who would “keep blacks in their place."

During the forty-mile ride back, Bayard envisions what he will see upon arriving at the Sartoris mansion: Colonel Sartoris will be laid out in sartorial splendor, Drusilla will be there with a sprig of verbena in her hair, and she will be holding, proffering to him, two identical, loaded, dueling pistols. In his mind, he envisions her as a "Greek amphora [a classical two-handled Greek vase] priestess of a succinct and formal violence." Drusilla, then, consistent to her characterization throughout the rest of the novel, still represents an ancient concept as old as the Greek civilization; she embodies the need for formal vengeance, a concept that even Colonel Sartoris, ironically, had only recently begun to oppose.

Section two takes us back four years in time; Colonel Sartoris and a friend of his, Ben Redmond, are building the railroad and are still friends, Bayard tells us. (Being friends with the colonel is not easy, we learn later.) Aunt Jenny Du Pre (the colonel's sister) has come to live with them, and it is she who plants the flower garden from which Drusilla gathers her verbena to wear because, to her, "verbena was the only scent you could smell above the smell of horses and courage." In the opening of this second section, then, Faulkner emphasizes two important points of this last story in the novel: first, Colonel Sartoris was not an easy person to get along with; it was "easily a record for father" that he and Ben Redmond had been friends for four years. Second, Drusilla is associated with the odor of verbena — the only odor, she believes, which can be smelled above horses and courage. In an earlier story, "Raid," we saw Drusilla's total love for her horse Bobolink; later, we learned about her fighting on horseback against the Yankees, an act some would consider unusually courageous for a woman. Thus, her verbena represents courage-but in terms of violence and bloodshed. Ultimately, even though she totally disapproves of Bayard's refusal to kill Ben Redmond, she does leave him a sprig of verbena, symbolizing the courage which Bayard demonstrates when he confronts Redmond. Bayard's action does encompass a kind of courage for Drusilla, but it is a courage that she cannot accept or fully understand; it forces her to leave the Sartoris home, but not before leaving behind a sprig of verbena, with the intent of never seeing Bayard again.

At the University of Virginia, where Faulkner answered questions about his work, he was asked, "Why is that sprig of verbena left on Bayard's pillow right at the very end?" He responded:

That — of course, the verbena was associated with Drusilla, with that woman, and she had wanted him to take a pistol and avenge his father's death. He went to the man who had shot his father, unarmed, and instead of killing the man, by that gesture he drove the man out of town, and although that had violated Drusilla's traditions of an eye for an eye, she — the sprig of verbena meant that she realized that that took courage too and maybe more moral courage than to have drawn blood, or to have taken another step in a endless feud of an eye for an eye.

When he was asked why Drusilla then left the Sartoris home, Faulkner responded that Drusilla thought that even though it "was a brave thing . . . that sort of bravery is not for me."

Section two also informs and reminds the reader that shortly after the second battle of Manassas, a man named Sutpen was elected as colonel of the regiment that Colonel Sartoris had mustered. This fact further emphasizes that Colonel Sartoris is not an easy person to get along with. Furthermore, we also learn that Colonel Sartoris once killed "a hill man who had been in the first infantry regiment when it voted Father out of command." We are not told what provoked this act or how the colonel was exonerated of it, nor whether the grudge was against the hill man for voting him out or not. Bayard believes that his father did not hold a grudge against the regiment, but only against Colonel Sutpen, the man who replaced him. (Faulkner's novel Absalom, Absalom! recounts the entire story since Colonel Sutpen is the main character of that novel; a large portion of these stories was written at the same time that he was writing Absalom, Absalom! and published separately.)

Just as Colonel Sartoris was about to forgive Sutpen long enough to ask him to join the "night riders" (a euphemism for the Ku Klux Klan), Sutpen refused and said, "If every man of you would rehabilitate his own land, the country will take care of itself." After that statement, Colonel Sartoris challenged Sutpen to a duel, and Sutpen simply ignored him and walked away, an act which infuriated Colonel Sartoris.

From all this, then, we realize that Colonel Sartoris, while a hero to many people, is, in fact, a hot-headed, impetuous bigot. Even his son Bayard rejects most of his father's values. When Drusilla insists that Colonel Sartoris is working for the entire county, "trying to raise it by its bootstraps," Bayard cannot understand how his father can hold such ideas for the betterment of the country when he is guilty, at the same time, of "killing some of them." When Drusilla maintains that they were just "carpetbaggers," "Northerners," and "foreigners," Bayard can only retaliate by maintaining that the murdered men "were men. Human beings." Drusilla cannot fathom Bayard's humanitarianism. She maintains that there are only a few "dreams in the world," but there are "lots of human lives"; Bayard, in turn, cannot accept the concept that any dream could possibly be worth sacrificing human lives for. Later, Drusilla maintains that "there are worse things than killing men." In retrospect, ever since we first met Drusilla, there has been a strong aura of romantic fatalism, combined with an ancient concept of the godliness of vengeance associated with her.

Bayard then recalls last summer when his father ran against Ben Redmond for the state legislature. Redmond was Colonel Sartoris' partner in the building of the railroad, but the partnership had long since been dissolved. In fact, Bayard wonders how Redmond or anyone could tolerate "Father's violent and ruthless dictatorialness and will to dominate." Significantly, Redmond did not fight during the Civil War; instead, he held a government job, and Colonel Sartoris, who knew that Redmond was honest and courageous, would never let Redmond forget that he was not a soldier; he always found some excuse to taunt Redmond about never "having smelled powder." Finally, they did dissolve their partnership, and Colonel Sartoris bought out Redmond for such a ridiculously low price that they both continued to hate each other. And even after the success of the railroad, Colonel Sartoris was not satisfied; he continued to make absolutely needless allusions to and about Redmond. It finally became so serious that George Wyatt (one of the men who was in the colonel's troop of irregulars) asked Bayard to try and talk to the colonel, but Bayard never found an opportunity to do so. Later, when there was an election for the state legislature, Colonel Sartoris defeated Redmond so badly in the election that everyone thought that Colonel Sartoris would now leave Redmond alone, but such was not the case. The colonel continued to taunt Redmond.

Then last summer, just before Bayard returned to the university for his last year, Drusilla suddenly and unexpectedly told Bayard to kiss her. Bayard responded, "No. You are Father's wife." She insisted, however, and Bayard yielded, and afterward both agreed that he would have to tell his father what happened. That night, Bayard went to his father's office to tell him. Colonel Sartoris was still bemused by the overwhelming win in his favor in the race for state legislature, and when Bayard tells him what happened, Bayard realizes that his father not only did not hear what he said — he didn't even care if Bayard kissed Drusilla. Instead, he told Bayard how, in the past, he "acted as the land and the time demanded." Now, however, times are changing and Bayard needs to be "trained in the law [so he] can hold [his] own." The colonel now feels that it is necessary to "do a little moral housecleaning. I am tired of killing men, no matter what the necessity nor the end. Tomorrow, when I go to town and meet Ben Redmond, I shall be unarmed."

The colonel's entire speech is filled with many ambiguous statements. Faulkner seems to indicate that John Sartoris has no intentions of relinquishing the past or accepting a new order; rather, Colonel Sartoris has only decided to abandon violence and develop more acceptable, effective measures to appease the law while maintaining the southern privileges to which he is accustomed. Colonel Sartoris never concedes defeat; he merely concedes the need for a new strategy to preserve, among other things, racial inequality.

Thus, with this view and with the fact that the colonel has decided to train Bayard in law, we are further prepared for the fact that Bayard will decide not to "take the law into his own hands." The time has now come for a man to put aside personal vengeance and to yield to the orderly process of law and justice. As is often typical of Faulkner, we are never told why the colonel has to go to meet Redmond. We are never told what finally revoked Redmond to kill Colonel Sartoris. As is also typical of Faulkner, he is more concerned with the causes leading up to the act of violence than he is with the actual violence itself and, afterward, with the results which those acts of violence have on other human beings. In other words, Faulkner is more interested in the psychological states of mind of the people who react to the acts of violence, which will be the central concern of section three.

In section three, there are multiple reactions to Redmond's act of violence: (1) The most powerful, of course, is Drusilla's; she wants vengeance elevated to a sense of nobility. (2) The Colonel's troops expect simple revenge. (3) Aunt Jenny would not care if Bayard spent the day doing nothing — even hiding in the barn loft if he wants to. (4) Ringo expects Redmond to be bushwhacked but knows he can't participate.

(5) Redmond is apparently determined to meet Bayard, but not harm him. Finally (6), Bayard must confront Redmond unarmed, if he is to act according to his own code of honor.

In section three, we return to the present moment of the story. Bayard arrives back at the Sartoris mansion and sees not only George Wyatt, but most of Colonel Sartoris' old troop of irregulars all standing at the front of the house "with that curious vulture-like formality which Southern men assume in such situations." Faulkner's evaluation of these men in terms of vultures indicates that Bayard knows that every man there will expect him to take vengeance on his father's murderer. Yet, none of them know that Colonel Sartoris himself has rejected violence and, furthermore, that he conveyed this concept to Bayard-that the time for violence is over, and things must be settled in a peaceful manner. Again, Faulkner inserts the concept that he who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.

Bayard dismisses the men, assuring them that he can handle the situation. He then greets Drusilla and his Aunt Jenny and, after a pause, goes to his father's coffin and notes that the only thing missing is the intolerance in his father's eyes. It is at this moment, while Bayard is standing by his father's coffin, that Drusilla brings him the two loaded dueling pistols with "the long true barrels true as justice." She then raises her arms and removes two verbena twigs from her hair; one is for his lapel, the other she crushes and drops, for now she abjures verbena forever more. In language, terms, and imagery reminiscent of an ancient Greek tragedy, she stands before Bayard like a Greek goddess of Ancient Revenge and Vengeance. She even elevates the concept of vengeance to a sacred status reserved only for the select few: "How beautiful you are: do you know it? How beautiful: young, to be permitted to kill, to be permitted vengeance, to take into your bare hands the fire of heaven that cast down Lucifer." (Remember that as a woman, she is denied this right.) She then bends down in an attitude of fierce, exultant humility and worshipfully kisses the hand that is going to execute the vengeance. Then, as though a thunderbolt from Jupiter or Jove struck her, she realizes "the bitter and passionate betrayal" — that she has just kissed the hand of a person who does not intend to take vengeance. She becomes hysterical, screaming, "I kissed his hand" and then "in an aghast whisper: 'I kissed his hand!' beginning to laugh, the laughter rising, becoming a scream yet still remaining laughter." Her hysteria mounts until Aunt Jenny asks Louvinia to take her upstairs.

In contrast to Drusilla and the "vulture-like men," Aunt Jenny hopes that Bayard will not feel the need for revenge. Her eyes are just like the Colonel's eyes, Faulkner tells us, except that Aunt Jenny's eyes are lacking in intolerance; she is a wise and tolerant lady and she has seen enough of revenge and bloodshed. She prefers that Bayard reject such primitive ideas. Other people's concepts of bravery and cowardice mean nothing to her.

In section four, Bayard awakens to the odor of verbena ("the only scent you could smell above the smell of horses and courage"), and thus this section renews the question of courage: what constitutes an act of courage? When Bayard prepares to go to town to confront his father's murderer, Aunt Jenny tells him that if he wants to stay hidden in the stable loft all day, she will still respect him; her eyes show that she is wise and tolerant. Before leaving, Bayard mounts the stairs to Drusilla's room, but again she merely bursts out in hysterical laughter, repeating, "I kissed his hand."

As Bayard rides into town, Ringo catches up with him and when they arrive in town, Ringo wants to go in with Bayard to confront Ben Redmond, but Bayard will not permit it. As noted previously, in terms of "the old order" of the South, no black person could possibly be permitted to participate in an act of revenge against a white person. And it is ironic that Ringo desires a revenge that Bayard, the son, does not; the irony, of course, is that the colonel would not recognize Ringo or any black person as being a proper person to revenge his death.

When Bayard meets George Wyatt and "five or six others of father's old troop," they all automatically assume that Bayard, who at age fifteen revenged his grandmother's murder, will naturally revenge his own father's murder. George Wyatt even tries to force a pistol onto Bayard. Then in a moment of silent communication, something is sensed — unspoken — between Bayard and George Wyatt; Wyatt, like Drusilla, knows that Bayard is not going to shed blood. Bayard is going to confront his father's murderer unarmed. Wyatt doesn't understand since he knows that Bayard is no coward; he simply reminds Bayard that Ben Redmond is also a brave man.

When Bayard enters Redmond's office, he notes a pistol lying in front of Redmond on the top of his desk. Bayard watches as Redmond lifts the pistol to fire it, and he realizes that it is not aimed at him. Yet he stands there as Redmond fires twice and then walks out of the office, passes between George Wyatt and the throng of men gathered outside, and goes to the train station. He "went away from Jefferson and from Mississippi and never came back." When one considers courage, Redmond's actions here cannot be ignored; it would indeed take a brave man to walk through the crowd of Sartoris family friends, with all of them assuming that he had just killed Bayard Sartoris.

The men then rush into Redmond's office, and when they realize what has happened, they don't fully understand, but they tremendously admire the courage that it took for Bayard to act as he did — to face Redmond unarmed — and they admit that "maybe there has been enough killing" in the Sartoris family. This idea echoes and affirms Colonel Sartoris' concepts expressed at the end of section two of this story. Bayard and Ringo go back to the Sartoris plantation, and Bayard sleeps out in the pasture for five hours. When he arrives back at the manor house, Aunt Jenny tells him that Drusilla left on the afternoon train. Bayard goes to his room, and there he sees a single sprig of verbena lying on his pillow.

It is possible to say that Bayard did not avenge his father's death because he knew that his father had been a ruthless and power-hungry man, a murderer of innocent people, and a dominating, intolerant and dictatorial man. These statements are all true, and we know from Bayard's comments that he knows all of his father's faults, but from the first story in this novel, "Ambuscade," where there was an unabashed adoration for his father, to the moment when Bayard approaches his father's coffin with his breath panting, we know that there is a deep love between Bayard and his father — despite all of the colonel's faults. One could also maintain that Bayard knows that Colonel Sartoris, in his obsession with power, pushed Redmond beyond all bounds of endurance and that, ultimately, any man as threatened as Redmond was with humiliation would eventually strike back. This, too, might contribute to Bayard's decision not to avenge his father's death, but there is one more, far more important reason why Bayard does not kill Redmond.

Bayard's ultimate manhood is seen in his refusal to kill Ben Redmond. Most men of that time would have easily yielded to the pressures of the community. Bayard even tells Aunt Jenny that he wants "to be well thought of." And according to the code of that time, a son should avenge his father's murder. Ultimately, Bayard does not reject the code; instead, he rises above that code and follows the course of law and order that he has been studying for over three years at the university. In addition, Bayard is also following another code: "Thou shalt not kill." To follow this higher code means that Bayard placed his own life in serious danger: he knew that he had to go and see Redmond; he had to at least confront Redmond. Otherwise he could not have lived either with himself or within the community: "maybe forever after could never again hold up" his head.

In conclusion, even though others, especially Drusilla because of her ancient code of blood vengeance, cannot understand Bayard's actions, in the final analysis, even she acknowledges that Bayard's actions are not those of a coward: it takes a far braver person — unarmed — to confront an enemy than it does to kill someone in cold blood. Finally, after a bloody Civil War and a horrifying Reconstruction, Bayard's actions suggest that the South will enter into an era of law and order.