Knight's Gambit: Gavin Stevens and Faulkner's Critique of the Cavalier Tradition

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Maureen Ryan

Advisor Department



Many readers and critics imagine Gavin Stevens as the character most resembling Faulkner in all of his apocryphal Yoknapatawpha, and while Stevens was once considered the most reliable Faulknerian spokesperson, ample scholarship has demonstrated that he is far more than merely the author's mouthpiece. However, much still needs to be done to define the role of this persona who seems so similar to Faulkner, yet differs in important ways; this project is an effort toward that end. Prior to Stevens's most significant appearances in the late fiction, two distinct types of gentlemen existed: tortured, failed idealists like Quentin Compson and domineering, swaggering figures like Thomas Sutpen. While critics believe that Faulkner's juxtaposition of such characters illustrates a dichotomy between the man of sensibility and the man of action, I propose that, in Stevens, Faulkner unifies these two paradoxical types to voice, at a fictional remove, concerns about people of his own class and even of his own ancestry. I utilize Faulkner's own trope of the knight's gambit, a tricky opening chess move in which a player sacrifices a minor piece for a better position, to analyze Stevens's evolving role in the late fiction in light of his position as county prosecutor. This examination illustrates how Stevens's embrace of a self-serving form of justice, or "justice as he sees it" ( RN 505-06), ensures his certain neglect of some characters and his likely abuse of others, regardless of his intentions. Faulkner's depiction of Stevens is the author's own knight's gambit; he sacrifices Stevens and his moral rhetoric to obtain a more advantageous position, one that allows him to depict the danger inherent in trusting leaders who place themselves above the law in the pursuit of justice as they see it, a concept that, in Stevens's case, all too easily and all too frequently becomes justice as it benefits him. Ultimately I determine that Faulkner's descriptions of Stevens's manipulations of the law, his misunderstanding of human beings, and his rhetorically high-minded pursuit of "not so much truth as of justice, or of justice as he sees it" ( RN 505-06) removes Stevens ideologically only a degree or two away from the most terrifying dictators of the 20th century.