Printer Friendly

'Absalom, Absalom!' and the Snopes trilogy: Southern patriarchy in revision.

In Absalom, Absalom! and the Snopes trilogy, Faulkner explores alternate versions of one story - the rise and fall of an ambitious poor white Southerner. Thomas Sutpen and Flem Snopes emerge from the multiple narrative views as opposing Southern types: Sutpen as the doomed patriarch of the antebellum South; Snopes as the caricature of the materialistic New Southerner. Nevertheless, their careers are strikingly similar. Both self-consciously imitate the paternalistic Southern gentleman, accruing the necessary domestic symbols - mansion, wife, and family. Both exploit and corrupt their families, and both are murdered by distant relatives whom they have also betrayed. Richard C. Moreland identifies Flem Snopes as a scapegoat or "structural Jew," whom the community associates with the evils of capitalism.(1) Sutpen is also scapegoated, most obviously by Rosa's "demonizing." Both serve to acknowledge the financial basis of Southern paternalism and to suggest the kinship of Old South planter and New South businessman. Moreover, by exposing the contradictions inherent in economic systems justified by paternalism, Faulkner also more radically challenges patriarchy itself.

As Faulkner works out the alternate Old and New South revisions of the story of the poor white boy who becomes a corrupt patriarch, he transforms the conflict between home and finance that has been traditional in Southern literature since the publication in 1832 of the first plantation novel, John Pendleton Kennedy's Swallow Barn. The Southern gentleman is stereotyped as a paternal master, deeply concerned with the individual welfare of his black and white dependents, even to the point of economic impracticality. The weaknesses of this defense of Southern agrarianism were ably exploited by Harriet Beecher Stowe and others; yet Southern tradition continued to dissociate the Southern gentleman from materialism and to present him as a benevolent patriarch.

In Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner revises this stereotype of the Southern gentleman planter, associating with Sutpen the dehumanizing financial values traditionally reserved for the Yankee or the New Southerner, such as Flem Snopes. In other words, rather than opposing patriarchy to capitalism, as in traditional apologies for the Southern plantation system, Faulkner locates the conflict of paternalism and materialism within Sutpen himself In this way, as Carolyn Porter argues, Sutpen epitomizes the inherent contradictions in Southern, and for that matter American, capitalism.(2) The common origins and parallel structures of the Sutpen and Snopes stories further establish Sutpen as a capitalist entrepreneur by linking him with Flem Snopes, the rapacious New South businessman.

The threatened deconstruction of the Old South myth is the source of Rosa's outrage and of Mr. Compson's irony in Absalom, Absalom! Their reactions, though, and especially the anxiety of Quentin and Shreve as they seek to untangle the story, are intensified by the implied attack on patriarchy. In the Snopes trilogy, Flem Snopes's cold-blooded entrepreneurship fulfills the expectations for a New South businessman. The narrators are shocked, though, by the lengths to which Flem goes in cheating others, especially in betraying his own family.

Both Sutpen and Snopes build their dynasties by exploiting marginalized minorities - blacks, poor whites, women, and children. By presenting these victims of Southern patriarchy literally as family members, Faulkner dramatizes the race, class, and gender conflicts of the South as a conflict of values within the "human family."(3) As these parallel texts reveal the evils within the economic system, then, they also expose the flaws inherent in the power structure of patriarchy itself as a system that privileges the father.

Faulkner's focus on patriarchy is evident in early explorations of this story, before it was more fully developed in Absalom, Absalom! and the Snopes trilogy. For example, in "The Big Shot," probably written in 1926,(4) Faulkner uses the mansion as the symbol of power and respectability for the poor white boy who is dismissed from its front door and for the self-made man who exploits the mansion as the symbol of patriarchy. In "The Big Shot," Dal Martin is the son of a white tenant farmer, who, like Sutpen, is sent as a child to the big house on an errand but is dismissed from the front door before he can deliver his message. His humiliation, like Sutpen's, is compounded by the fact that it is witnessed by a black servant. Both Martin and Sutpen hide in the woods to work out their feelings, and both decide to emulate the planter, on whom they spy as he lies shoeless in his hammock. Like Flem Snopes, Martin becomes proprietor of a country store before moving to town with his wife and infant daughter. Again like Flem, Martin subsequently erects a costly tombstone for his wife and lives with his daughter in a Southern mansion, complete with columns and stately trees. In the later versions of this story, however, Faulkner intensifies the conflict between paternalism and money-making. Martin fails because he is involved in political graft, but both Sutpen and Snopes fail because they apply financial ethics to family relationships.

Faulkner continued to link the two careers and to concentrate on the home and family as he worked concurrently on the Sutpen and Snopes material. After characterizing Sutpen and Snopes in separate short stories between 1926 and 1934, Faulkner sidetracked his project of writing a Snopes novel to work on "Dark House," the manuscript that became Absalom, Absalom! (Blotner, p. 828). Sutpen's dismissal from the front door of the mansion is essential to this novel; in fact, Michael Millgate speculates that it may have been the initial image.(5) As Faulkner cast about for an opening scene, he apparently first tried telling the story of Wash, Sutpen's killer, before settling on the scene with Quentin and Miss Rosa (Blotner, p. 828). In 1938, when Faulkner returned to the Snopes material, he began with "Wash" and with "Barn Burning"(6) the story that describes the dismissal of Sarty Snopes and his father, Ab, from the front door of a Southern mansion and the vengeful arson that follows.

The significance of these beginnings is not diminished by the fact that Faulkner ultimately rejected both incidents as part of the Snopes trilogy. In Ratliff's summary, which replaces "Barn Burning" in The Hamlet, it is Flem who experiences a dismissal similar to Dal Martin's and to Sutpen's. Faulkner also decided not to include "Wash" in the Snopes material; it had already been incorporated into Absalom, Absalom! In Faulkner's portrayal of Flem's murderer, however, he includes elements that he also developed in Absalom, Absalom! - specifically Mink's outrage at the violation of kinship bonds and the victim's identification with the South. This evidence indicates that Faulkner continued to associate the stories of Thomas Sutpen and Flem Snopes at the beginning and ending of their careers as well as to link the South to failed paternalism.

As he develops these alternate visions of the Southern patriarch, Faulkner echoes the primal scene of the boy's dismissal from the mansion, creating what Moreland calls "revisionary repetitions" (pp. 3-157). Faulkner underscores the common obsession of Sutpen and Snopes to establish themselves as patriarchs by repeating "got to have" and "had to have." He also stresses the inevitability of their failures to consolidate their family dynasties by repeating the words "doom," "fate," and "destiny."(7) In addition, as the titles "Dark House" and The Mansion suggest, the plantation house is a central image in both Absalom, Absalom! and the Snopes trilogy, firing the ambitions of the poor white, representing his empty dream, and symbolizing the flawed patriarchy of the Old and New South.

After Sutpen is dismissed from the front door of the Virginia mansion, he is determined to emulate the owner who lounges in the barrel-stave hammock in the front yard. He requires "money, a house, a plantation, slaves, a family - incidentally of course, a wife."(8) Following an abortive start in Haiti, Sutpen builds the requisite Southern mansion, the symbol of power, respectability, and family. But Sutpen's mansion remains an empty symbol. Miss Rosa equates Sutpen's hollow gentility to the emptiness of his house. As an apologist for the Old South, Rosa protests too much. She insists that "he wasn't a gentleman. He wasn't even a gentleman" (p. 14) and cites his failure to furnish his magnificent mansion: "a house the size of a courthouse where he lived for three years without a window or door or bedstead in it and still called it Sutpen's Hundred as if it had been a king's grant in unbroken perpetuity from his great grandfather - a home, position: a wife and family ... No: not even a gentleman" (p. 16). Even after Sutpen does furnish the house, it seems to resist occupancy, projecting "an incontrovertible affirmation for emptiness, desertion" (p. 85). The symbol of patriarchy, of course, fools no one about the real basis of Sutpen's power: "he obviously had too much money now to be rejected or even seriously annoyed any more" (p. 72). With this statement, Mr. Compson undercuts Rosa's rejection of Sutpen by suggesting that the community accepts money as a basis for social standing in the Old South.

Like Sutpen, Flem is also inspired by a man sitting in a barrel-stave chair in front of the Southern mansion (Edwards, p. 562) - Will Varner, the landlord of most of Frenchman's Bend. Flem follows Varner as the owner of the Old Frenchman's place, then moves to Jefferson, where, like Sutpen, he acquires the accouterments of his position - "a vice president's furniture in the vice president's house."(9) Eventually, Flem becomes bank president, the modern equivalent of the Old South planter: he even wears a planter's hat to the bank every day. Like Sutpen, Flem recognizes the value of the "physical symbol of all them generations of respectability and aristocracy."(10) He remodels the birthplace of the former bank president, adding the signature white columns of the picture-book Southern mansion. His mansion, like Sutpen's, also seems to deny occupancy: Flem uses only one room besides the dining room, where his one personal mark may be seen - the piece of wood that he has nailed into the ornate mantel to prop up his feet as he sits night after night, chewing air. Again like Sutpen, Flem's power is solidly based in finance and the community colludes in his materialism: "nobody could ever steal from him the respectability that being president of one of the two Yoknapatawpha County banks toted along with it" (Town, p. 347).

These hollow mansions, shored up by wealth, set the scene for the exploitation of family. Absalom, Absalom! stresses the racial conflict of the old South, while the Snopes trilogy focuses on the modern conflict of male and female. Still, both texts dramatize the conflict within a family context. Wesley and Barbara Alverson Morris claim that in Snopes's story "The all-important questions of biological relations in Sutpen's dynastic |design' are rewritten, debiologized, unsexed."(11) But the narrators do not succeed in depersonalizing the story to the extent the Morrises suggest. In both texts, Faulkner shows that exploitation corrupts the family - the abused wives themselves pervert domestic life. While Sutpen's wives mirror this dehumanizing abuse, however, Eula Snopes manages to assert a nurturing maternal influence that challenges Flem's power and that offers a positive alternative to the tragic outcome of Absalom, Absalom!

Financial and domestic images explain Sutpen's values and also suggest the inherent opposition of business methods and family relationships. Sutpen believes that he has paid his debt to Eulalia and Charles Bon, whom he has repudiated: he has balanced "his moral ledger" (AA, p. 297). This revealing financial metaphor is matched by a domestic metaphor that helps explain Sutpen's "innocence which believed that the ingredients of morality were like the ingredients of pie or cake and once you had measured them and balanced them and mixed them and put them into the oven it was all finished and nothing but pie or cake could come out" (p. 263). Both the accounting image and cooking metaphor elucidate Sutpen's fatal lack of family loyalty and love. His actions are determined by materialism, untempered by family feeling.

Sutpen's repudiation of Eulalia has far-reaching effects, corrupting Eulalia's maternity - at least in Quentin's and Shreve's imaginations. The Morrises argue that Quentin is caught in the oedipal conflict and ultimately accepts paternal authority (pp. 213-215). Certainly Quentin and Shreve's misogyny suggests a fear of the mother. Identifying with the son Charles Bon, these two narrators conceive of Eulalia as an unnatural mother, cold and passionate by turns and consumed by a desire for revenge so strong that it perverts her love for her only child. From time to time, Charles is snatched from his innocent child's play by his fierce and implacable mother, who has been plotting to use him like so much rich and rotting dirt" (p. 300), a recurring metaphor and one that is always highly significant in Faulkner's work. Inspired by hate rather than love, she grooms Charles for patricide. For Quentin and Shreve's Eulalia's face represents "all mother faces which ever bred" (p. 299), wreaking vengeance through her child on an equally universal - and exploitative - fatherhead. These conflicted narrators visualize the embodiment of an ancient struggle between motherhood and fatherhood, and Eulalia's individuality is subsumed by the symbol of embattled maternity.

The name of Sutpen's second wife, Ellen Coldfield, recalls the land metaphor, and Sutpen's treatment of her intensifies the association between the abuse of women and the exploitation of blacks. Sutpen "chose (bought her, outswapped his father-in-law, wasn't it) a wife after three years to scrutinize, weigh and compare ..." (p. 178). The women of the town point out that Sutpen had "come to town to find a wife exactly as he would have gone to the Memphis market to buy livestock or slaves" (p. 42). The terms of their outrage at Sutpen's treatment of a white woman reminds us that Sutpen engages in a practice legalized in the antebellum South, when human beings were openly scrutinized, weighed, then bought and sold.

Herself a victim of Sutpen's materialistic value system, Ellen shares her husband's perception of people as commodities to complete a domestic establishment. According to Miss Rosa, Ellen is ready to use Charles Bon to embellish her domestic arrangements. He becomes an "inanimate object for which she and her family would find three concordant uses: a garment which Judith might wear as she would a riding habit or a ball gown, a piece of furniture which would complement and complete the furnishing of her house and position, and a mentor and example to correct Henry's provincial manners and speech and clothing" (p. 75).

Rosa also embodies a perverse domesticity that ultimately proves dehumanizing. While Sutpen is projected as a principle of fatherhood, the "one ambiguous eluded dark fatherhead" (p. 299), Rosa has been raised by her spinster aunt to hate all males, especially her own father. She is the "indictment ... of the entire male principle" (pp. 59-60). When the aunt betrays this hatred by eloping with a horse-and-mule trader, Miss Rosa takes her place, appropriating her clothing and household duties. As Judith's aunt, Rosa ludicrously offers to teach her niece the self-taught housekeeping skills that she herself performs badly. She makes Judith a ragged trousseau, stealing the materials from the odds and ends at her father's store and clumsily sewing the dresses and whipping the lace from hoarded string and thread - all for a wedding that would never take place. Thus for Quentin and Shreve, Rosa virtually becomes the man-hating aunt who raised her. Shreve even renames her: he keeps calling her Aunt Rosa until Quentin finally stops correcting him. Rosa's hatred of Sutpen, however, extends beyond her own aunt's more generalized hatred of men, which did not stand up to the test of the horse-and-mule trader. Especially after Sutpen proposes that they mate and then marry if the child is a male, Rosa's hate causes her to negate her womanhood and finally even her individuality. Becoming a faceless and sexless symbol, she characterizes herself first as a man, then as a fetus and finally as "all polymath love's androgynous advocate" (p. 146).

In Absalom, Absalom! no woman is able to withstand Sutpen's corrupt system of values; their hatred of Sutpen is dehumanizing, as suggested by the sublimation of their individual identities. Even the fifteen-year-old Milly, Sutpen's last female victim, is killed along with her newborn daughter by her own grandfather, who is incited to murder by Sutpen's repudiation of her. In the Snopes trilogy, the wife is also exploited, but in that text Faulkner reverses the dehumanizing process observed in Absalom, Absalom!, making Eula more individualized as the trilogy proceeds. Moreover, Eula is able to protect her daughter even as she is destroyed. Thus, Eula projects a positive, female alternative to Flem's essentially male, mercantile values.

Like Eulalia, whose name she shares, Eula is bartered by her father. Again like Eulalia, the pregnant Eula is not socially acceptable and her taint is manifested in her child. Instead of repudiating Eula, however, Flem marries her anyway, thus gaining power over Will Varner, who would not have embraced Flem as a son-in-law under other circumstances. Like Sutpen, Flem cashes in the estate that is his wife's dowry. After burying bags of silver dollars in the garden, he sells the estate to Ratliff and two others, who are convinced that they have found the Civil War treasure. The garden, planted with silver dollars rather than seed, demonstrates Flem's perversion of natural fertility, a perversion also evident in his treatment of Eula. And just as he profits from the garden without fulfilling its potential for fertility, the impotent Flem also exploits the natural sexuality of Eula,(12) whom he possesses as he might own a fertile field, "the fine land rich and fecund . . . . "(13)

The association of Eula and the field suggests a resemblance to Sutpen's second wife, Ellen Coldfield, although Ellen is cold while Eula's sexuality is exaggerated. Both women are shown to be possessed by their husbands, though Faulkner associates Ellen with the abuse of blacks in slavery and Eula with the sexual exploitation of women. Thus, Rosa deems Ellen a slave to be evaluated and bought, and Ratliff interprets Flem's attitude toward Eula and her lover in terms of prostitution, reminding us that women are still bought and sold though slavery has been abolished: "Not catching his wife with Manfred de Spain yet is like that twenty-dollar gold piece pinned to your undershirt on your first maiden trip to what you hope is going to be a Memphis whorehouse" (Town, p. 29).

Sutpen is a conspicuous consumer of women, discarding Eulalia to marry the respectable Ellen Coldfield; Flem, a more economical man, merely recycles Eula, declaring her the apotheosis of domestic virtue. After driving her to suicide, Flem inscribes her tombstone with a portrait of her and this pious message: "A Virtuous Wife Is a Crown to Her Husband/ Her Children Rise and Call Her Blessed" (Town, p. 355). The fact that Eula was neither conventionally virtuous, nor for that matter the mother of more than one child, does not deter Flem from literally elevating Eula on a pedestal of maternal virtue, while burying the reality, her body, beneath it.

Eula violates conventional morality, unlike Ellen, Rosa and Eulalia, yet she emerges as a positive alternative to Flem's mercantilism. The infamous presentation of Eula in The Hamlet as a grotesque embodiment of fecundity is toned down in The Town and The Mansion so that Eula is presented more realistically as the trilogy progresses.(14) True, Gavin continues to view her as a Helen, or Semiramis, or Lilith, and the usually level-headed Ratliff dedicates his living room as a shrine to her memory. Still, Faulkner reminds us that Eula is a real woman, with domestic concerns. Gavin Stevens is surprised to find how small she is when he actually stands next to her instead of worshipping her from afar, and he reminds himself that she must talk about trivial matters to Flem, who is after all her husband.

Furthermore, Eula's adultery is presented ironically as a positive, though perverse, domestic relationship. As Gavin points out, Eula is monogamous in adultery, having remained faithful to De Spain for twelve years. In addition, Eula seems especially admirable in contrast to the sexuality which is financially exploited by the male Snopeses: Ike Snopes's love idyll with the cow, which is made into a peep show, and Montgomery Ward Snopes's selling of pornographic pictures. When Eula finally commits suicide to protect her daughter from scandal, she demonstrates a maternal love that offers hope for the future even as she is destroyed by Flem.

In both narratives, the children reflect the conflict of nurturing maternity and dehumanizing materialism that is dramatized by the antagonism of their mothers and fathers. Sutpen's children distort conventional gender roles, an indication of something unhealthy in their characters. Both Henry and Judith, for example, enact exaggerated responses to violence. Henry screams and vomits when he witnesses his father's gory fight with one of his slaves. But Judith craves violence, remaining a hidden witness of the fight. It is Judith who screams and falls ill when she is prevented from racing to church in a fast-paced carriage driven by one of the same slaves.

These extreme reactions - screaming and falling sick - are underscored by the violation of conventional gender roles in which the boy is expected to feel more attracted to violence, speed, and danger than the girl. The overturning of conventions is not in itself a symptom of perversity but serves to validate the suggestion of unhealthiness, especially since the narrators are personally committed to patriarchy and reject the feminine. Later, Charles Bon seems feminine to Quentin and Shreve as they imagine him lounging "about a bedroom in a gown and slippers such as women wore, in a faint though unmistakable effluvium of scent such as women used, smoking a cigar almost as a woman might smoke it" (AA, p. 317). Faulkner more typically uses adrogyny as a metaphor of wholeness and balance(15 as he shows in the Snopes trilogy, but in these characterizations the violation of conventional gender roles suggests aberrations.

Bearing out these sinister implications, each child perpetuates Sutpen's denigration of family[cent]tsabuses that continue to be complicated by race. Henry commits fratricide, killing his half-brother to prevent incest and especially miscegenation. In Quentin's and Shreve's imagination, Charles Bon reenacts Sutpen's rejection of him and his mother by becoming engaged to marry his half-sister Judith in spite of his octoroon wife and their son, Charles Etienne St. Valery Bon. The black and white half-sisters, Clytie and Judith, become mother surrogates to this carefully nurtured child, resembling Eulalia and Rosa in their mothering. Clytie, a "fierce brooding woman" (p. 197), dresses and bathes him, scrubbing him furiously and snatching him out of peaceful moments of play just as his father, Charles Bon, was also pampered and yet treated with savage passion. Judith, who regards Charles Etienne with "cold implacable antipathy" (p. 198), expresses her kinship with Rosa when she urges, "Call me Aunt Judith, Charles" (p. 208). Charles Etienne himself continues the distortion of domesticity by marrying a coal-black apelike woman who is illiterate and apparently mentally retarded, in mockery of the cultured mulatto women married to his father and grandfather. It is their idiot child, Jim Bond, howling among the ruins of Sutpen's mansion, who is Sutpen's last surviving heir.

Like Sutpen's children, Linda Snopes Kohl rejects the roles associated with her gender, but that rejection in Linda's case is a more positive expression of her character. Linda is a liberated woman: she wears men's clothing and swears, using a word that shocks Gavin; she bites her nails, keeps her hair cropped short, wears no makeup, smokes, and generally behaves in an unladylike fashion. Yet her rejections of the conventions of womanhood are part of a deliberate political assertion. Linda lives with Barton Kohl in New York, and it is he who insists on marriage; she participates in the civil war in Spain; she is a communist who works for the equality of blacks in Mississippi.

In spite of her unconventional appearance and behavior, Linda is sexually attractive to Gavin and to Charles, whose immature and cynical sexuality becomes focused on Linda. Furthermore, Linda has experienced a happy marriage with Barton Kohl; her repudiation of sexuality after her husband's death seems designed to protect her from unwelcome sexual advances. Although she denies her love for Kohl to Gavin, even Gavin knows that her denial is intended to make him feel loved. It is Linda who urges Gavin to marry since she wants him to have a fulfilling relationship like her own marriage to Kohl. Linda thus becomes an advocate for domestic happiness.

Still, there is something wrong with Linda. Physically, she has been maimed in the Spanish Civil War: she has lost her hearing, and she speaks in a harsh, quacking voice. Morally, there is also something amiss. It is hard to fault Linda for avenging her mother on the despicable Flem; nevertheless, she is an accomplice to the murder of her putative father, and her voice is compromised.

As Faulkner probes the sores of the antebellum South in Absalom, Absalom! Sutpen's desecration of the home is reflected by all the characters involved in his story. Even the modern, sympathetic relationship between the father and son narrators, Mr. Compson and Quentin, is undercut by the reader's knowledge of the Compson family from The Sound and the Fury (1929). The reader of Absalom, Absalom! must piece together the story from conflicting views as the narrators struggle toward a reconciliation with the Old South (Morris, p. 217). Furthermore, these narrators reject the feminine in their efforts to reify the patriarch. In contrast, the narrators of the Snopes trilogy cooperate, consciously attempting to resolve ambiguities and conflicts as they struggle to piece the story together for themselves and for the reader.(16) These narrators also tend to sympathize with Flem's victims and to be open to a new vision of family.

Ultimately, the destruction of Sutpen's family dynasty coincides with and epitomizes the collapse of the Old South. Flem's anti-domestic career is similarly mirrored in the miserable home life of the country people of Yoknapatawpha - the violent and ghost-ridden relationship of Mink Snopes with his wife, Houston's enslavement to Lucy, I.O. Snopes's comical bigamy, to mention a few. But Faulkner balances the many unhappy domestic scenes with scenes of united families, such as the Mallisons. Furthermore, other characters besides Eula show that Flem does not represent all of his community. At least some of Flem's survivors are nurturing and cooperative - in Faulkner's words, they "belong to the human family" (Gwynn and Blotner, p. 81).

In the Snopes trilogy, Faulkner projects a world of domesticity - a feminine world - that opposes the masculine world of economics. 17 This struggle is most vividly expressed in the image of Henry Armstid digging furiously in the soil for buried money, while his wife trudges hopelessly home to plow the fields and feed the children before returning with his dinner, her hands wrapped in her apron. Some characters manage to transcend this split between the male and female worlds in an affirmative way. Mrs. Mallison, Gavin's twin, intuitively understands her brother, especially in his relationship with Eula, bridging the gap between male and female consciousness. Gavin himself is a pompous bachelor who worships women as untouchable symbols throughout most of the trilogy, but he does finally commit himself to the reality of the female world when he marries Melisandre Backus. Mrs. Little John provides a sane domestic backdrop for the bidding on the spotted horses as she gathers firewood, fries ham, washes her clothes, and hangs them out to dry (Williams, p. 210). As the "man-tall, man-grim" (Hamlet, p. 201) Mrs. Littlejohn indicates, Faulkner creates characters who merge male and female traits positively in the Snopes trilogy. This contrasts with the sinister reversals of gender roles apparent in Absalom, Absalom! It is these characters who provide hope for a future that is not dominated by Flem Snopes's economic morality.

Judith Bryant Wittenberg discusses Faulkner's "masculinized" women and "feminized" men, but she overlooks V.K. Ratliff(18) even though Ratliff's virtue is expressed by his domesticity, which indicates that he is at home in the female world as well as in the male world of trade. Unlike Mink who exploits women for their domestic skills, Ratliff, a bachelor, enjoys cooking, housekeeping, and sewing. And though he is a shrewd trader, Ratliff rarely deals in cash, instead using the barter system as he travels from house to house peddling his sewing machines in his wagon. Moreover, Ratliff's function extends beyond selling sewing machines: he travels his beat, "retailing from house to house the news of his four counties with the ubiquity of a newspaper and carrying personal messages from mouth to mouth about weddings and funerals and the preserving of vegetables and fruit with the reliability of a postal service" (Hamlet, p. 13). His trading, then, serves communication between people rather than simple finance. In this way, he embodies the nurturing domestic values that Sutpen and Snopes, ironically, violate in their zeal to establish themselves as Southern patriarchs.

In both Absalom, Absalom! and the Snopes trilogy the narrators deconstruct the authority of the patriarch. Further, by providing separate voices, they undercut the author-ity of a single viewpoint or text. Still, both Absalom, Absalom! and the Snopes trilogy are patriarchal narratives in that the patriarch is the focus of the multiple narrators in each (Morris, p. 189). Further, the dominant voices in each text are those of white males - with an important difference. Absalom, Absalom! shows a discourse that marginalizes women, while the Snopes trilogy indicates the possibility at least of an opening for minority voices.

In Absalom, Absalom! Mr. Compson's view is validated by Quentin and Shreve, who struggle to identify with the Father. Thus, Sutpen's abusive patriarchy is paralleled on the narrative level by Mr. Compson's appropriating of Miss Rosa's voice, which is dismissed by Quentin and Shreve (and by most readers as well) as the unreliable testimony of an eccentric old maid (Morris, pp. 205-215). In the Snopes trilogy, all three narrators are white males, yet one is a child, whose voice is not subsumed by the voice of the father; the other two are empathetic to women, as has been shown. Women do not yet speak for themselves in this text, as minorities do in some of Faulkner's other fiction. In the Snopes trilogy, though, the minority discourse is at least acknowledged and repeated by Ratliff, who himself is an alternative to the Southern patriarch.

Faulkner opens the manuscript of "Father Abraham," the first story to deal with Flem Snopes by name, with a description of Flem as a successor to the Southern gentleman and as the representative figure of the democratic New South.(19) Like the country folk who tear apart the Old Frenchman's place for kindling wood and fenceboards, the Snopes clan as a group are the "heirs-at-large" (Hamlet, p. 3) of the Old South. The spiritual heir of Thomas Sutpen, Flem Snopes follows the course of Sutpen's career: dismissal as a boy from the front door of a mansion; a subsequent rise to wealth, power, and respectability - signaled by the acquisition of a mansion, wife, and family; and murder at the hands of a vengeful poor white who is outraged at a betrayal of family loyalty. Moreover, Flem's death does not signal the end of Sutpen's heritage - Snopesishness. Even at his funeral, new Snopeses are in evidence. But Ratliff is there also, another product of the New South. Ratliff's own domesticity, his service within the world of women and the poor, and most especially, his function as messenger for marginalized minorities, suggest a way out of patriarchal discourse and a new alternative to the social and economic structures of patriarchy.

(1) Richard C. Moreland, Faulkner and Modernism: Rereading, Rewriting (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990), p. 140. (2) Carolyn Porter, Seeing and Being: The Plight of the Participant Observer in Emerson, James, Adams, and Faulkner (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1981), pp. 210-238. (3) Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner, eds. Faulkner in the University: Class Confrence at the University of Virginia 1957-1958 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1959), p. 81. (4) Joseph Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1974), pp. 492-494. (5) Michael Millgate, The Achievement of William Faulkner (New York: Random House, 1966), pp. 159-161. (6) Malcolm Cowley, ed., The Faulkner-Cowley File: Letters and Memories, 1944-1962 (New York: Viking Press, 1966), p. 26. (7) Duane Edwards, "Flem Snopes and Thomas Sutpen: Two Versions of Respectability," Dalhousie Review, 51 (Winter 1972), 563, 567. (8) William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (New York: Random House, 1936), p. 263. (9) William Faulkner, The Town (New York: Vintage Books, 1957), p. 224. (10) William Faulkner, The Mansion (New York: Random House, 1959), p. 153. (11) Wesley Morris with Barbara Alverson Morris, Reading, Faulkner (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), p. 24. (12) Lyall H . Powers, Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha Comedy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1980), p. 156. (13) William Faulkner, The Hamlet (New York: Random House, 1940), p. 119. (14) David Williams, "Fall of the Goddess," in Faulkner's Women: The Myth and the Muse (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1977), p. 209. (15)Sergei Chakovsky, "Women in Faulkner's Novels: Author's Attitude and Artistic Function," in Faulkner and Women: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha 1985 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1986), pp. 73-74. (16)Charlotte Renner, "Talking and Writing in Faulkner's Snopes Trilogy," Southern Literary Journal, 15 (Fall 1982), 62. (17)Gary Lee Stonum, Faulkner's Career: An Internal Literary History (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1979), p. 168. (l8)Judith Bryant Wittenberg, "William Faulkner: A Feminist Consideration," in American Novelists Revisited: Essays in Feminist Criticism, ed. Fritz Fleischman (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982), pp. 330-331. (19)William Faulkner, "Father Abraham," Item 6074, Box 8, Faulkner's papers. The William Faulkner Collections, University of Virninia Library.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Mississippi State University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Special Issue: William Faulkner
Author:Dale, Corinne
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 1992
Words:5644
Previous Article:Through Rosa's looking-glass: narcissism and identification in Faulkner's 'Absalom, Absalom!' (Special Issue: William Faulkner)
Next Article:A Fable.
Topics:

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters