On Faulkner and Verbena

By Witt, Robert W. | The Southern Literary Journal, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

On Faulkner and Verbena


Witt, Robert W., The Southern Literary Journal


Many readers are puzzled by Faulkner's choice of verbena for the story "An Odor of Verbena," the last section of The Unvanquished. Verbena, at least the flowering variety, has no perceptible odor, yet Faulkner not only suggests that it does in his title but also grants the odor great prominence at various points in the story. Indeed, at times the odor becomes almost overpowering for Bayard Sartoris, the central character and the narrator. Many commentators have attempted to explain this seeming lapse in Faulkner's otherwise thorough knowledge of indigenous Southern flowering plants. Jane Isbell Haynes, for instance, maintains that although present-day hybrids have no fragrance, verbena at the time of the story (c. 1876) would have (360). Rather than a lapse, then, the story demonstrates Faulkner's knowledge of early varieties of flowering plants. Winifred Frazer, though, suggests that Faulkner has deliberately combined three varieties of verbena: the flowering border plant with no noticeable fragrance; lemon verbena, which has a pungent odor but no observable bloom; and blue vervain, a wild bush with insignificant blossoms but no fragrance. Thus we have the bloom, the odor, and the availability on the battlefield (179, n. 10). (Drusilla, Bayard's stepmother, wore verbena in her hair when she rode with his father's regiment in battle.) Haynes also concedes that the flower of the story may be a composite, but she sees it as a mistake rather than as an intentional narrative device (362).

All of this speculation about the variety of flower Faulkner intended, however, seems to miss the point. More than likely, Faulkner chose verbena because it has no odor. The reader, thus, is forced to realize that the odor is symbolic rather than literal. If Faulkner had used, say, a rose or gardenia he would have risked the possibility of readers taking all the references to the odor as literal and hence failing to understand the story. As Hyatt Waggoner long ago recognized, "We could not very well understand `An Odor of Verbena' without understanding in some degree all that is recalled to Bayard by the fragrance" (173). In addition, Frazer suggests that it was, after all, the "wealth of symbolic meanings" rather than the odor which probably influenced Faulkner (175). A recognition of the full significance of this complex symbol is necessary for a complete understanding of the story. Indeed, a failure to recognize this significance has led some commentators to misread portions of the story and others to miss some levels of meaning.

William Walker defines the symbolism by referring to the ancient folklore about verbena. The ancient Greeks and Romans saw it as an emblem of peace, good fortune, love, and enchantment, the Romans as a symbol of defiance (292). Faulkner, however, could not rely on readers' knowledge of such folklore, so it seems safer to define the symbolism by noting those qualities with which Faulkner associates the verbena. Perhaps the most obvious meaning of the fragrance, and that articulated by Drusilla, is courage. She says she wore it while fighting with the men in battle because it "was the only scent you could smell above the smell of horses and courage ..." (253).

Bayard, too, thinks of verbena as representing courage and refers to it as such early in the story. At the opening Bayard is reading a law book in his room at Professor Wilkins' house in Oxford when Professor Wilkins bursts in to tell him that Ringo, Bayard's boy, has arrived with the news that Colonel Sartoris, Bayard's father, has been shot. Bayard realizes that according to the code his family has lived by--indeed the code most aristocratic families of the old South lived by--he must now avenge his father's death. Bayard, though, has thought long and carefully about this matter and has decided that he must try to live by the commandment "Thou Shalt Not Kill" and hence reject violence. Although he is so resolved, he fears "the test of it" (247) and has dreaded this moment even though expecting it. …

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