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Faulkner’s Drusilla Hawk and Her Metamorphoses

Stephanie Bradberry is an herbalist, naturopath, and energy healer. Her academic career includes teaching, tutoring, writing and editing.

In most of Faulkner’s novels, women have a subdued role. However, Drusilla Hawk is not like most Faulkner women. Drusilla has the ability to adapt to the changes that come with the Civil War, putting her in the same category as Caddy Compson—who lives by her own rules—and Granny Millard. During the war, Drusilla tries out different roles in society, becoming atypical for her time. Drusilla slowly changes who she is during the novel The Unvanquished, and at each step what previously defines Drusilla no longer is true. There are five main phases that Drusilla goes through. In each phase of her metamorphosis, Drusilla experiences a rough transition period, making it hard to define who she is. Therefore, Drusilla is a lot like the caterpillar that changes into a butterfly. Drusilla is a shape-shifter that goes through several metamorphoses to accommodate to life during the war; however, in the end, Drusilla cannot mold herself to adapt to what the future holds.

William Faulkner

William Faulkner


Before the war, Drusilla conforms to the beliefs that society expects women to uphold. There is a time when Drusilla used to wear dresses: “They had her dresses in [the trunks] that she hadn’t worn in three years” (200). These dresses symbolize that Drusilla was clearly a traditional woman at one point. The dresses help keep Drusilla bound to her duty as a chaste woman and future mother. Before the war, Drusilla was going to marry Gavin Breckbridge and live a “normal” life for the 1800s. Most likely, Drusilla was going to have a lot of children and live a stereotypical life. Drusilla seems comfortable with leading a domestic life-style before the war begins. When Gavin Breckbridge is killed during the war, Drusilla’s life changes drastically. Gavin’s death ends the traditional cycle of life for Drusilla.


Phase I: Gender Change

After Gavin’s death, Drusilla starts her transformation from a female to a male. The war is taking its toll on all, “even on the young girl who happen[s] to try to look and act like a man after her sweetheart was killed” (189). Drusilla is not able to cope with Gavin’s death in a traditional female fashion: with mourning. As Sherrill Harbison suggests, Drusilla takes on the role of masculinity which includes the chivalric code of honor and demanding retribution for injuries (292). Instead of grieving as women are expected to, Drusilla opts to uphold the male Southern code of honor and avenge Gavin’s death. To begin with, Drusilla quits sleeping. The main reason Drusilla stays up is to make sure she does not miss any of the action: “Who wants to sleep now, with so much happening, so much to see?” (100). Drusilla realizes that the old life is not for her any more. No longer is life worth living if it is not exciting and ever-changing. Sleeping will close Drusilla’s eyes to what the world has to offer and this is not an option for Drusilla.

The first stage of Drusilla’s transformation is complete when she gives up everything she used to hold true. By throwing away the “highest destiny of a Southern woman—to be the bride-widow of a lost cause” (191), Drusilla begins the final stages of her transformation. The thought of discontinuing her own life to uphold these beliefs is unbearable for Drusilla. Drusilla wants to break the traditional cycle of dullness and monotony. The beliefs that Southern men die for, “Southern principles of purity and womanhood” (193), is not enough for Drusilla. Dresses and parasols are a thing of the past in Drusilla’s eyes. Purity and womanhood becomes a hindrance to what Drusilla hopes for in life. For Drusilla and other women like her:

Living used to be dull […] Stupid. You lived in the same house your father was born in and your father’s sons and daughters […] and then you grew up and you fell in love with your acceptable young man and in time you would marry him […] and then you settled down forever more while your husband got children on your body for you to feed and bath and dress […]. (101)

Drusilla understands that the life of domesticity is not the life for her. She tries the respectable Southern way of living and it does not work. The cult of domesticity is not in Drusilla’s plans. Therefore, Drusilla needs a change, a drastic one, which will take her far from what she used to be.

Drusilla transitions into her next shape-shift by becoming more like a man. Bayard proclaims that Drusilla is the best woman rider around which puts her one step closer to her goal. Drusilla wants to ride in Colonel Sartoris’ troop: “ask [Uncle John] to let me come there and ride with his troop. Tell him I can ride, and maybe I can learn to shoot” (101). Like anyone applying for a new position, Drusilla goes through her qualifications and takes them one step further by saying that she can be flexible and learn. Michael Williams suggests that Drusilla’s story is a “survival version” of a progress narrative (5), the idea being that Drusilla does what it takes to survive. Drusilla even cuts off her hair to appear more like a man: “Her hair was short; it looked like Father’s would when he would tell Granny about him and the men cutting each other’s hair with a bayonet” (91). Cutting off her hair is Drusilla’s way of casting away her femininity. Because Drusilla’s hair appears jagged and cut by a bayonet, Drusilla appears as if she has gone through her own initiation into manhood.

Next, Drusilla casts away her dresses and other feminine apparel to look physically like a man, but she experiences a transition period. Drusilla becomes the hybrid of the Confederate woman, who Diane Roberts describes as a belle and a warrior (1). When Drusilla saves Bobolink (her horse) from the Yankees, she is still in her Sunday dress: “Dru stopped Bobolink and jumped down in her Sunday dress and put the pistol to Bobolink’s ear” (90). Drusilla’s action shows how she is still in-between stages. On the one hand Drusilla is a belle because she has on a dress. On the other hand, Drusilla is willing to kill her own horse—a gift from her fiancé—to make sure the Yankees do not prosper. However, Drusilla soon gives up all traces of femininity. Drusilla goes from having “short jagged hair” and wearing a “man’s shirt and pants” to being dressed in “garments not alone of a man but of a common private soldier” (191). Just like a caterpillar that goes through a metamorphosis to become a butterfly, Drusilla sheds her old clothing to take on a different form. Bayard confirms that Drusilla’s change is complete by saying that Drusilla seems more like a “tame panther or bear” (193). No longer are there feminine associations with Drusilla. Although she still looks like a woman, Drusilla no longer dresses like or has the soft appearance of a woman.

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Phase II: Change in Mentality

The next part of Drusilla’s transformation makes her mentally—and have the actions of—a man. Drusilla’s mother and Bayard realize that Drusilla “deliberately [tries] to unsex herself by refusing to feel any natural grief” (189). After Gavin and Drusilla’s father die, Drusilla shows no physical remorse. Instead, Drusilla decides to avenge their deaths. Drusilla masks her feelings to avoid seeming weak and conventional. In the midst of war, Drusilla changes herself to deal with such harsh circumstances. As mentioned by Diane Roberts, “During the Civil War the lady recreated herself to accommodate, even valorize hardship” (3). The description above fits Drusilla because she uses all means possible to survive in a world that has been turned upside down. After the war, Drusilla continues to do what it takes to help her old way of living survive. Drusilla even works with “Joby and Ringo and Father and [Bayard] like another man” (192). Drusilla’s actions help her prove that she is a man by building and using her hands to reconstruct what has been destroyed. As Williams suggests, Drusilla’s aim is clear like that of other cross-dressers (4). Drusilla knows the only she can be a part of the rebuilding and stabilization of Southern values is by appearing to be and acting like a man.

Drusilla reaches the apex of her transformation as she becomes bold, confident, daring, and violent. The encounter with the Negroes at the edge of the river shows Drusilla being strong and fearless in the face of danger. During the war, Drusilla also has violent tendencies: “I am riding in Cousin John’s troop not to find a man but to hurt Yankees” (191). Drusilla’s main concern during the war is to fight for what she believes in and protect the ways of the Old South. At this point, according to John Pikoulis, fighting is all that Drusilla understands and wants to do (215). There is no way Drusilla is going to give up on her beliefs. Bayard understands Drusilla actions because he has been taught that “women […] never [surrender]” (188). Drusilla will continue to fight for what she believes in even if it kills her.

Although Drusilla associates more with a man at this point, she still has not completely lost all aspects of her femininity. There are still vestiges. Despite Drusilla’s appearance, she is simply a cross-dresser trying to pass as a man but can never deny her “underlying ‘truth’ of biology” (Williams 4). No matter what Drusilla does, she will always be a woman. Because Drusilla is not a man, she needs something to aid her in her transformation to become a man. Verbena allows Drusilla to survive her metamorphosis. Robert Witt feels as though the meaning of the fragrance of verbena is courage (1). Drusilla does say that she chooses to wear verbena in her hair because verbena is “the only scent you [can] smell above the smell of horses and courage” (220). Verbena allows Drusilla to go beyond the courage of others and find her own in the face of war.

Sartoris Family Tree. Source:

Sartoris Family Tree. Source:

Phase III: In Flux

By the end of The Unvanquished, Drusilla must make two transformations: the first is that she must change from being a soldier to a civilian, and the second is that she must go back to being a female. Everything that Drusilla previously adopts during her man-like days comes to a halt as there is skepticism about her and Colonel Sartoris. The women in the town are worried about Drusilla’s “condition” (196) because she has been away for so long and surrounded by men. Drusilla can hardly believe what she hears and explains that she and the other men “went to the War to hurt Yankees, not hunting women” (197). At this point, Drusilla is unable to disconnect herself from other men. She has yet to realize that her manly world is slowly starting to disappear because the war is over. Drusilla must learn how to accommodate for her new life as the wife of her uncle. Colonel Sartoris tries to comfort Drusilla by saying, “‘What’s a dress? [...] It don’t matter […] Get up soldier’” (201). But Drusilla realizes that clothes have specific connotations and Drusilla knows that the cliché is true: clothes make the man. Drusilla wants to be like a man and therefore wears male clothing to be considered a man. Wearing a dress destroys Drusilla’s image and belief that she is a man. Williams makes an interesting point that Drusilla must now cross “over from her former civilian class boundary” (2). While Drusilla tries to acknowledge the change, Colonel Sartoris cannot help but treat Drusilla as she wanted to be treated earlier. When it is time for their wedding, Colonel Sartoris appoints Drusilla the voting commissioner to keep her in what is considered a male role.

When Drusilla and John are about to get married, Drusilla is once again caught between gender roles. The transition Drusilla must make for her new life is rough, which can be seen by all the mixed imagery. As Drusilla sets off for the weeding, she has on both the wedding dress and John’s riding cloak. The mixed image of the dress and cloak foreshadows that the wedding will be hindered because the dress is not in the forefront. Instead, Drusilla and John rig the voting as Drusilla comes out of the building “carrying the ballot box, the wreath on one side of her head and the veil twisted about her arm” (207). Carrying the ballot box gives Drusilla power that only a man would have at the time. However, Drusilla is still swathed in her wedding dress. The destruction of the dress, wreath, and veil at the end of the skirmish is metaphorically the destruction of everything women at the time hold dear. The dress cannot hold the manliness that Drusilla has inside and keeps dear to her heart. Williams mentions a point made by Mary Ann Doane, that “Women’s clothing […] especially the kind worn by a Southern ‘lady,’ are often described as a sort of bondage in themselves” (3). Doane’s point is consistent with the fact that the dress is completely torn in the end. Drusilla simply wants to break away from the bondage that marriage will put her under. Drusilla’s past self is almost trying to break out to start a new metamorphosis.


Phase IV: Trying to Maintain Balance

Drusilla’s last phase is simply one of confusion. Just as Drusilla is surrounded with mixed images when she is about to get married, she has a mixed appearance at the end of The Unvanquished. After marriage, Drusilla’s hair is still short, and Bayard recognizes that Drusilla is in a dress now but “would have worn pants all the time if Father had let her” (221). Drusilla has not completely changed who she is and still harbors some of her past behaviors. When Drusilla is in the garden with Bayard, she wants to race him to the house: “She was already running, the skirts she did not like to wear lifted almost to her knees, her legs beneath it running as boys run” (224). Bayard still connects Drusilla’s actions with that of men and boys. While Drusilla does not like the dresses she has to wear, she realizes she has no choice. At the same time, Drusilla basically rebels by performing un-lady like actions: running in her skirts. One last attempt for Drusilla to show that she will always remain part male is when she is walking with Bayard. Bayard explains that Drusilla, while holding his wrist lightly, “[discharges] into [him] with a shock like electricity that dark and passionate voracity” (235). The words Bayard uses to describe this incident are very powerful, just as Drusilla still is. And the description is quite Freudian. While Drusilla has the outward appearance of a female, she still has the driving force of when she was more like a man. As Williams suggests, Drusilla has changed into woman’s clothing but has “internalized the male code of violence and revenge” (5). However, Drusilla now has the delicate touch of a female while holding Bayard’s wrist. But deep within, Drusilla still holds onto the honor she believes in so much. Drusilla’s mixed actions show how she is caught in-between phases again.

Although there are hints that Drusilla will not completely conform to her new life, she does take on some of the expectations. For example, when Bayard comes to see his father, Drusilla waits for Bayard to draw the chair for her to sit down. Drusilla, if she had the choice, would not have sat down at all, but stood like a man. Another example of Drusilla’s living up to expectations is when she leaves the room so Bayard and his father can speak: “Then Drusilla and Aunt Jenny rose and left us” (230). Drusilla does the proper thing by not staying while John talks to Bayard. If Drusilla were still playing the role of a man, she would have been more defiant in staying out of the action. There is also the fact that Drusilla leaves it up to Bayard to avenge his father’s death: “Drusilla must have spoken twice […] the unsentient bell quality gone now […] ‘Take them. I have kept them for you. I give them to you’” (237). Drusilla realizes her role in society now does not allow her to dirty her hands with acts of vengeance. Instead, Drusilla must act as the bearer of the means for her will to be done. She gives up the physical manifestation of power.



The Importance of Verbena in Drusilla’s Metamorphosis

Drusilla’s association with verbena helps shed light on her metamorphoses. The verbena that Drusilla wears in her hair becomes an emblem for everything she stands for. There is much controversy about whether Faulkner made a mistake in picking verbena, a scentless flower. Gobble feels that Faulkner was familiar enough with Southern flowers that he knew “modern flowering verbena is scentless as a result of hybridization and that the verbena Drusilla would have picked […] would have had an odor, perhaps even a strong one” (1). Gobble’s point connects well with the fact that all the metamorphoses Drusilla experiences have left her presently scentless. Drusilla changes so much that she is no one person and therefore cannot be clearly defined as a single scent. Verbena is perfect for Drusilla because “it does not carry the connotations of ladylike gentility or sheltered femininity recalled by more traditional flowers (Gobble 1). Through her earlier shifts, Drusilla becomes less and less like a female and rejects anything associated with femininity. Therefore, Drusilla chooses to associate herself with a flower that can be smelled above everything else on the battlefield: a unique flower just like her.

Verbena also provides Drusilla with the courage and strength she needs to get through the war. In Virginia Tunstall Clay’s memoirs, she sends flowers and a message to a man she is acquainted with: “these chamomile blossoms are like the Southern ladies—the more they are bruised and oppressed the sweeter and stronger they grow!” (qtd. in Roberts 8). Clay sums up Drusilla very well. Drusilla begins as a blossoming flower that witnesses the horrors of the world and war through the death of those close to her. Only when Drusilla can break away from the oppressive life she is meant to lead does she grow stronger and sweeter. Drusilla releases the pollen—courage and strength she has built up—whenever she feels they are needed. When Drusilla is trying to convince Bayard to avenge his father’s death, Bayard says, “the scent of the verbena in her hair seemed to have increased a hundred times, to have got a hundred times stronger” (227). The overpowering smell of verbena is due to Drusilla releasing the courage and strength she has gained over the years. Therefore, Drusilla can douse Bayard with the courage he needs to face his father and Redmond.

Phase V: Priestess

Drusilla makes one last shift before the end of the novel: she becomes a priestess. The image that sticks out in Bayard’s mind is Drusilla as “the Greek amphora priestess of a succinct and formal violence” (219). No longer is Drusilla a flesh and bone person to Bayard, she is simply a vessel that contains violence. Gobble believes that Drusilla can be seen as the priestess for Mars and the “guardian of the martial spirit of the Old South” (2). Now that Drusilla has become a messenger for the ways of the Old South, she again has a mixed personality. Roberts feels as though Drusilla is “Mars in drag” and a “calculating Venus” (24). The duality of war and love is continuously seen throughout the last part of The Unvanquished and throughout Drusilla’s life. Drusilla wants Bayard to take the dueling pistols to kill Redmond: “Do you feel them? The long true barrels true as justice […] and fatal as the physical shape of love” (237). Some scholars believe this quote can be read as incest (Roberts 24). However, there is the underlying duality of love and war. For Drusilla, the only way she can express her need for war and violence is through passionate language. Even Drusilla’s emblem, verbena, reflects her duality. Drusilla chooses a flower that in the past stood for “war and peace, love and death, politics, and domesticity” (Gobble 1). The list combines everything that Drusilla stands for and has been a part of.

As a priestess, Drusilla must fulfill certain criteria. Gobble believes that Drusilla requires a blood sacrifice to keep her cult alive (4). Drusilla almost lives to see the trend of bloodshed continue. Because Drusilla is now a priestess, she must worship something. Cleanth Brooks thinks Drusilla worships honor and courage (Williams 5). Brooks continues that while worshiping honor and courage, “[Drusilla] has forgotten pity, compassion, and even her womanhood” (qtd. in Williams 5). If nothing else, Drusilla’s loyalty to upholding the beliefs of the Old South shows compassion. Pity is something Drusilla feels for herself because she cannot carry out the beliefs of Southern code herself. And as for her womanhood, Drusilla always has a piece of femininity left. Gobble agrees that Drusilla has not given up her womanhood; rather, Drusilla has relinquished it for something greater (3).

The failure to fulfill her duty leads to Drusilla being unable to cope with the new world the South is becoming. Once Drusilla has passed on the verbena to Bayard for courage, she realizes that Bayard is not going to kill Redmond: “Why he’s not— […] And I kissed his hand” (239). The idea of Bayard not upholding the Southern code is unfathomable for Drusilla. Therefore, Drusilla breaks into hysterics and cannot bear to look at Bayard. Despite all of Drusilla’s shape shifting, no form could have prepared her for this change in circumstances. In the end, Drusilla leaves the South. There is great debate as to why Drusilla leaves. The belief of Harbison is that Drusilla is completely defeated in the end, “stripped thus of her power, dressed in helpless ball gowns, she was left to empty the avenue of satisfaction more traditional for women” (235). Harbison writes Drusilla off too soon. Yes, Drusilla must try to live her dreams through Bayard while being forced to wear gowns, but that does not leave her helpless. Drusilla leaves simply because there is no place for her in what is becoming the new South. Lucian Lamar Knight sums up Drusilla’s dilemma well: “The Confederate Woman…It took the civilization of an Old South to produce her—a civilization whose exquisite but fallen fabric now belongs to the Dust of Dreams” (qtd. in Roberts 1). There is no more Old South for Drusilla to cling onto since all those who believed in it are dead or convert to new beliefs. Since there is no hope in accomplishing her goals, Drusilla must hand over her position by leaving one last sprig of verbena to Bayard who is the future.

In Sum

Drusilla’s constant shifts of gender roles and beliefs make her an interesting character. Drusilla is not the typical one-dimensional female character that Faulkner usually creates. The cross-dressing that Drusilla experiments with shows how gender is a social construct. All it takes for Drusilla to be considered a man is different clothing and new beliefs. Yet despite all of Drusilla’s efforts to fit in somewhere, there is no place in the new South for a transgressive, cross-dressing woman. Drusilla must unfortunately face her defeat and realize that she will forever be banished from the society that raised her because she tries to keep the old beliefs alive. Drusilla’s disappearance at the end of The Unvanquished proves that those who are different in current thought will always be ostracized.

Works Cited

Faulkner, William.  The Unvanquished: The Corrected Text.  New York: Vintage

            International, 1991. Print.

Gobble, MaryAnne M.  “The Significance of Verbena in William Faulkner’s An Odor of

Verbena.”  Mississippi Quarterly: The Journal of Southern Cultures (Fall 2000): 569. Expanded Academic ASAP. Web. 16 April 2003.

Harbison, Sherrill. “Two Sartoris Women: Faulkner, Femininity, and Changing Times.” 

Critical Essays on William Faulkner: The Sartoris Family. Ed. Arthur Kinney. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1985. 289-303. Print.

Pikoulis, John.  “The Sartoris War.”  The Art of William Faulkner. London: 1982. 118-34. Print.

Roberts, Diane.  Faulkner and Southern Womenhood.  Athens: U of Georgia P, 1994. Print.

Williams, Michael.  “Cross-dressing in Yoknapatawpha County.”  The Mississippi

            Quarterly (Summer 1994): 22. Expanded Academic ASAP. Web. 16 April 2003.

Witt, Robert W.  “On Faulkner and Verbena.”  Southern Literary Journal (Fall 1994):

73. Expanded Academic ASAP. Web. 16 April 2003.

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