He's a bitch: gender and nature in The Hamlet.
The misogynistic view of Faulkner centers in what some readers perceive as the defeat of all things feminine in his texts; indeed, many scholars believe that Faulkner fell victim to the dangers of sexual / textual politics that men writing the feminine face. (1) This position seems particularly reflective of The Hamlet, where men consistently seek to contain the women who threaten male social domination and the male competition that order the novel's action. Drawing on Nancy Chodorow's work, critics such as Noel Polk and Karen R. Sass argue powerfully that Oedipus lies at the base of this fear of the feminine; to oversimplify their arguments grossly, the novel's men express their maternal fears as sexual ones (171-74, 128-29). As these fearful men populating Frenchman's Bend suppress feminine voices, they also interpret the women around them and, as some feel in Eula's case, "do her at least as much violence as those attacking her" (Clarke 85).
This process of silencing Eula within the text, by means somewhat similar to those Minrose C. Gwin describes as silencing Rosa Coldfield in Absalom, Absalom/(Feminine and Faulkner 63-121, "Feminism and Faulkner" 58-61), allows for the wildly varying interpretations of her character. The Hamlet forces other characters, and, of course, readers to create Eula because she rarely gets to speak for herself; how readers interpret her, and how they interpret Faulkner through his depiction of her, depends upon which characters they trust. Faulkner does maddeningly little to help us decide whom to believe. (2) Readers of The Hamlet can trust no one explicitly; the novel's overwhelmingly male interpretation of Eula and the eleven speeches that she utters herself are all we have to work with. In a somewhat similar situation, Gwin shows that Rosa Coldfield "is framed by the male eye" and subsequently "shut up" ("Feminism and Faulkner" 60); nevertheless, understanding Eula seems to hold greater possibility. Faulkner fictionally illustrates the problematic nature of the male interpretation of Eula in The Town when Maggie Mallison declares that the women of Jefferson cannot forgive "the way the Jefferson gentlemen look at" Eula (42). The way men see Eula causes many of her problems because they consistently misunderstand her throughout the trilogy; this misinterpretation manifests itself in that when literary critics and the natives of Frenchman's Bend alike look at Eula, they invariably see nature. (3)
In light of such tendencies, Faulkner's association of The Hamlet's female characters with images of plant and animal life should not surprise readers. His application of similar metaphors to the novel's men, however, does give reason for pause. Critics commonly assert that Faulkner's narrators classify women in ways that objectify them and designate them feminine, and thus "other," from the masculine values male characters in Faulkner's novels revere. (4) While this holds true to a certain extent, that position only tells half of the story because Faulkner, at least in The Hamlet, undermines those aforementioned narrators in all sorts of ways. In fact, he often aligns his male characters with nature in ways that seem far more derogatory than the connections he establishes between nature and his female characters. While this practice could imply that he viewed the whole of the human race as somehow base or primitive, it seems more a case of counterbalancing the frequently misogynistic stances of many of the novel's characters. The men of Frenchman's Bend may connect the women of the novel with nature in derogatory ways, but Faulkner has his narrator impose a very similar agenda upon those men, figuratively leveling the playing field. In doing so, Faulkner implicitly questions those male representations of femininity that relate women to nature and encourages readers to look beyond the limits they impose.
Male characters in The Hamlet frequently equate women with animals; most obviously, and most objectionably, they delineate Eula as a literal bitch. Her brother Jody complains to his parents that "just like a dog," Eula "give[s] off something" powerfully attractive to men (821); therefore, those suitors chase a Eula that the narrator describes as a "scarce-fledged and apparently unawares bitch" (851). Later, when Will Varner discovers Eula's pregnancy, he refers directly to his daughter as "one confounded running bitch" (864). While these phrases label Eula a "bitch," Faulkner classifies the men of The Hamlet with similar terms, though to a very different effect. Ratliff describes Eula's suitors as "two-legged feice" (877), and the narrator describes them as "so many lowering dogs" (851). The narrator aligns Flem with a dog by stating that Eula "said Mr Snopes ... exactly as she would have said Mr Dog" (866). Mrs. Littlejohn controls Ike "as a dog is taught" (884), Jody pauses "in midstride like a pointing bird-dog" (1028), and Henry Armstid shakes "like a leashed dog" (1048). Despite the use of the pejorative "bitch," the references that connect Eula with a dog ironically emphasize her attractiveness and power; figuratively speaking, no one sees her as a "dog," and she is nobody's "bitch" because no man can dominate her. Faulkner's portrayals of male characters as dogs, however, accentuate limitations imposed by restraint and submission. It would seem that far more than Eula, Faulkner designates the men of The Hamlet as the novel's true "bitches."
One such figurative "lowering dog," Labove, pictures Eula somewhat differently when he pays homage to her regal properties with his description of her as feline, sitting on the steps of the school with "veiled eyes against the sun like a cat" (834). Like a cat, she remains calmly indifferent, even impervious, to her surroundings. In stark contrast, the connections that Faulkner makes between cats and the men of The Hamlet reflect frantic activity. For example, the narrator describes how Ike walks by "picking his feet up in turn like a cat standing on something hot" (886-87); a few pages later, when Ike actually does stand on the hot earth while attempting to rescue his beloved cow from the fire, he moves in a similar fashion (890). The Texas horse trader, Buck Hipps, swiftly moves "cat-light" through the pen of swirling ponies (999), and Will Varner deems himself "too old ... to be tomcatting around at night" (861). Faulkner characterizes Eula as a cat with regal properties, calmly deriving pleasure from sitting in the sun, while his male "cats" must frenetically chase the objects they desire like so many balls of yarn. He more powerfully accentuates Eula's effortless command when, in Labove's classroom, she becomes "the queen, the matrix" that Labove and the other students gather around like "a swarm of bees" (836-37). The drone-like Labove and his logical counterpart in this metaphor, the waspish Mink Snopes (954), appear powerless in comparison to Eula; despite their best efforts, Labove ultimately relinquishes his teaching position (847), and Mink futilely runs around the countryside trying to evade capture for Houston's murder before the sheriff finally arrests him (970). In their similarly fruitless searches for gratification and power, neither approaches the sort of inherent power that Eula possesses unaware.
Scholars generally acknowledge that two common Faulknerian animals, the horse and cow, respectively align with male and female. (5) The Hamlet, though, also renders this equation problematic. Sometimes, Faulkner's horses do represent masculinity; Gail Mortimer details how, in one such instance, the men of Frenchman's Bend "lose their good sense at the sight of a herd of wild ponies" which signify "the lost wildness of their unmarried youths" (55-56). However, partly to reflect their power, Faulkner also links Eula and another woman, Mrs. Littlejohn, to horses. Eula emanates "an outrageous and immune perversity like a blooded and contrary filly" (Hamlet 820), and Jody conducts his periodic inspections of her corset "exactly as he would have felt the back of a new horse" (854). The most telling association of Eula with horses occurs when she visits the county fair. She rides the "wooden horses" of the merry-go-round "time after time without even dismounting and still eating ... her long Olympian legs revealed halfway to the thigh" (850). This decidedly sensual, even masturbatory, depiction of Eula emphasizes her stamina as she rides the horse over and over again. Her choice of a wooden, or artificial, horse for this symbolical sexual activity, as well as her unconcerned display of flesh, accentuates her autonomy; she does exactly as she wants with no concern for public opinion or propriety. She does not need an actual man because, in contrast to Ike's apparent discontentment with his wooden cow, this pleasurable surrogate satisfies her until she chooses to become sexually active with Hoake McCarron.
Mrs. Littlejohn, the strikingly independent businesswoman who operates the local boardinghouse, even masters an actual, if somewhat diminished, horse when she whacks one of the runaway spotted ponies over the head with her washboard and yells, "Get out of here, you son of a bitch" (1014). As Polk observes, her sensible reaction contrasts to Ratliff's sexual fears as he runs "even from this diminutive masculine force" (191). In addition to the spotted ponies, to which Polk likens Ratliff's own "shaggy ponies" as "second or third cousins" (192), the novel contains several other examples of horses that represent diminished masculinity. In one such instance, McCarron asks Will Varner to set his broken arm and remarks, "a man aint so different from a mule." Varner agrees, but stipulates that a man usually "aint got quite as much sense" (Hamlet 859). While a mule's sterility, along with the physical support Eula provides during sex, calls McCarron's virility into question, Varner's analogy extends that inadequacy to include both mind and body. However, Faulkner also links Varner, the archetypal patriarch of Frenchman's Bend, repeatedly to his "old" and sometimes "fat" white horse (734, 752, 779, 783, 814). Later, after Flem beats Varner out of the Old Frenchman place, Faulkner extends the description to include the adjective "clean," and writes that Varner's horse "looked always as if it had just come back from the dry-cleaner's" (876). This curious comment seems a veiled authorial jab at Varner's masculinity; Flem literally robs him of it by figuratively taking him to the cleaners.
The novel's strongest statement about horses and gender, though, comes from Lucy Pate Houston and Jack Houston. When the stallion that Jack's stable hand calls a "man horse" kills Lucy, Faulkner seems to depict a straightforward masculine murder of the feminine (Hamlet 932). The horse, symbolic of the "bitless masculinity" (931) that Houston relinquishes when he marries Lucy, should logically return Houston to that "bitless" state after it eliminates her. Nonetheless, Lucy's death serves only to put Houston more powerfully under the control of the feminine. After she dies he eliminates all things female from his farm, even the hens (932). Later when, probably from necessity, he allows a cow back on his farm, he either has to have his stable hand milk it or get thoroughly drunk before doing so himself (904). Rather than freeing Houston from feminine control, removing the figurative bit so to speak, this episode shows how totally Lucy's death enslaves him. The narrator implies that Lucy does not fear the stallion because she identifies it with her husband's "bitted" state. She approaches the stallion, and her death, not recklessly, but with a simple absence of fear because "she had recognised that transubstantiation, that duality, and thought even if she did not say it: Nonsense. I've married him now" (932). Lucy thinks that her marriage to Houston gives her mastery over all things masculine, and, in some sense, it eventually does. In death, Lucy completely attains the control over Houston she initiated in life as she and the specter of the son they might have had haunt the house that Houston "built to please her" (932-33).
While Faulkner's depiction of horses in The Hamlet confounds traditional gender-based interpretations, his delineation of cows poses similar complications. Critics have remarked upon Eula's bovine nature for decades. Mortimer observes that while Faulkner sometimes associates Eula with other animals, "mostly Eula is bovine" (56). (6) Faulkner does depict the ultra-feminine Eula with such terms, but he also associates men with cattle in much the same contradictory fashion as he connects women with horses. Eula never walks home "singly"; she typically travels at the center of a figurative herd of cattle comprised mostly of males and a few "lesser girls" that she may use "for foils" (Hamlet 848). Faulkner makes this connection explicit in Eula's fifteenth summer, when a group of men "erupted into her placid orbit like a stampede of wild cattle, trampling ruthlessly aside the children of last summer's yesterday" (850). In contrast to her placidity, the male "cattle" stampede uncontrollably but soon come under Mrs. Varner's control when, two pages later, she "herd[s]" these Sunday-afternoon suitors "all in to eat the cold remains of the heavy noon meal" (852). In an apparent attempt to console the men, she effectively "slops the hogs" as she feeds the family's leftovers to this herd of suitors Eula has obviously rejected.
Faulkner's characters also significantly conflate other women and cows in The Hamlet; both Ab Snopes and Ratliff depict Ab's daughters, Eula's figurative sisters in that they all constitute the notorious "galmeat" that Ratliff later refers to (869), as cows. These characterizations, though, reflect even more tellingly upon the men's own characters than on those of Ab's daughters. For example, Ab literally treats his daughter like a cow when he hits her "across the stern with the end of the reins" to spur her into motion (742). Arguably, Ab could treat a horse the same way, but Ratliff identifies the sterns as belonging to cattle when, just before Ab hits his daughter with the reins, he thinks that Ab "druv them [the girls] out like a pair of heifers just a little too valuable to hit hard with a stick" (741). Ab's actions and Ratliff's comments liken the Snopes girls to cows, but the violence and thick-headedness which inform such behaviors make the two men seem far more animalistic than do the girls. When Ratliff visits Ab's farm a second time, he again envisions the Snopes girls "as the two cows, heifers, standing knee-deep in air as in a stream" (774). In fact, readers soon find that Ratliff equates most women with cows, even the one who leads him to I.O.'s room, whom he describes as "a big, strong, tranquil-faced young woman" (916). Besides Mrs. Varner, Ratliff sees only one other woman in the novel, Mink Snopes's wife, whom he does not conceptually or linguistically link with a cow. When Ratliff meets Mink's decidedly masculine wife he realizes with apparent surprise that she looks "big yet not fat, actually slender" (974). Faulkner ironically underscores Ratliff's dehumanizing tendencies when he writes that Ratliff, the character who most objectifies women by equating them with livestock, speaks "in a tone of absolutely creamlike innocence." Ratliff, anything but innocent in his categorization of women, could very well conceal a virulent misogyny, perhaps even from his own consciousness, behind the "shrewd" and "bland" face that hides so many secrets (742).
The connection, and differentiation, between the animal and human realms in The Hamlet culminates in Faulkner's portrait of Ike Snopes and his bovine paramour. Deborah Clarke echoes traditional critical opinion when she observes that the episode between Ike and the cow transfers Eula's feminine power to "this grotesque love story" and "marks the degree to which the dehumanization of the feminine has progressed" (88). While most critics, like Clarke, read the relationship between Ike and his cow as degrading to both human and animal, Mortimer states, in a more hopeful interpretation, that "Ike grows through his love for his cow to having new capacities as a human being" (57). She suggests that via "one of Faulkner's more innovative narrative devices for addressing the elusive truths about the nature of men's encounter with the female gender and its attendant anxieties and bewilderment" the cow replaces Eula in the narrative (56), but Faulkner further shows something far more complex than a simple substitution at work in this scenario. While the cow may replace Eula in one sense, in another, it also replaces Ike in that he essentially becomes like the cow he so desires. The narrator's description of Ike's "alarmed and urgent moaning" as he chases the cow while "drooling" makes him appear more like a cow than does the cow itself (Hamlet 885). Also, both Ike and the cow have "blasted" eyes (810, 885, 913), and make noises that Faulkner describes as "bellowing" (886, 887, 888, 889, 891). By employing such description, Faulkner's text objectifies Ike in much the same way the men seek to objectify Eula.
Ratliff shows how the men of The Hamlet systematically dehumanize Ike as they describe him as subhuman, a "creature" that Mrs. Littlejohn can somehow talk to (807), a thing "that wasn't even a people" (1031). To emphasize this process, Faulkner has these men simultaneously humanize cows. For example, when Houston chases his cow home he calls her a "damn whore" (893). I.O. similarly claims that after the group Lump assembles cures Ike of his obsession with the cow, Ike will only want to chase "human women" as opposed, ostensibly, to "cow women" (918). Actually, in his world, one that confuses animal and human, Ike cannot establish himself as human and not "other" because he truly cannot distinguish between the two. This lack of distinction first becomes apparent when Ike thinks that Houston's dog "shouted" at him (885). A few pages later, he similarly hears "the cow's voice" (889). Finally, when he flees the fire, his and the horse's voices "became one voice" (890). The language of these excerpts reflects the interchangeable manner in which Ike perceives the people and animals around him and thus dramatically obscures the line between self and other.
Ike's failure to differentiate between animal and human leaves him even more vulnerable to misinterpretation than the novel's female characters. Faulkner reveals the centrality of gender to such processes when the novel's men doubly "other" Ike; before they animalize him, they must first feminize him. Such a reading explains why the narrator peculiarly describes Ike's buttocks and thighs with the words "thick" and "female" (811, 888, 981), and compares his difficult thought processes to childbirth (895). Faulkner completes the dehumanization of Ike when Ratliff observes him sitting alone with his toy cow in the last stall of the deserted barn, "the blasted face turning and looking up at him" with "devastated eyes" as he emits a sound "hoarse, abject, not loud" (981). Ike, relegated to the back of the barn, becomes wholly isolated. If Clarke correctly interprets Ike's love for the cow as degrading to women, surely these scenes equally degrade the men that feminize Ike, view and treat him like an animal, and ultimately butcher the cow Mrs. Littlejohn so poignantly identifies as the only thing Ike "ever want[ed]" (912).
Faulkner subtly forces readers to adopt Ike's viewpoint in this section of The Hamlet, and by doing so, he transforms an act of bestiality into something that, while not exactly beautiful, at least becomes understandable. Readers sympathize with Ike's very real loss and mourn with him as he sits alone in the barn, dejected and deserted. However, this scene also functions to create something far more important than mere reader sympathy; it has vital implications for Faulkner's articulation of gender and nature. Ike's viewpoint, while limited, remains free from the prejudices and preferences that influence Faulkner's other characters, including his narrator. Ike's viewpoint, much like Benjy Compson's, shows all that he sees and inevitably makes us readers privy to information to which we might not otherwise have access; the trick lies in discovering how to sort out the mishmash of his perceptions. In this respect, Ike's failure to privilege human over animal seems the most salient feature of his mode of understanding. He simply does not register such difference, and Faulkner's inclusion of his amalgamated method of perception in this novel that abounds with the conflation of human and animal necessarily calls into question all such associations, and further encourages readers to look beyond them, as Ike does.
Richard Godden suggests that because nature plays such a dominant role in Ike's courtship of the cow, a sexual triangle forms between Ike, the cow, and the earth. He then expands that triangle to include Eula: "Ike has sex not primarily with a cow, but with a hole in the ground; and so, by association, that one strand of the hamlet's obsession with Eula involves a desire for intimacy with the soil, focussed through the Frenchman place" (94). While Godden innovatively includes Ike's cow in this configuration, critics have long since established the central link between woman and land in Faulkner's fiction. (7) This relationship definitely operates within the pages of The Hamlet, and control lies at the base of it as Faulkner's fiction depicts "white men's attempts to contain, regulate, and exploit the land, while they also try to contain, regulate, and exploit female sexuality" (Roberts, "Eula" 160). As Karl E. Zink first noted, "it is quite possible that the male's ambiguous fear and hatred and love of woman must be explained in terms of his fear and hatred and love of the old Earth itself, to which Woman is so disturbingly related" (149).
Eula, Faulkner's earth mother extraordinaire, inspires just such male ambivalence. Ratliff most obviously displays this dualistic attitude in the form of his simultaneous desire for and fear of Eula's sexuality. He connects his fearful desire to the land when he compares Eula to "the unscalable sierra, the rosy virginal mother of barricades for no man to conquer scot-free or even to conquer at all, but on the contrary to be hurled back and down, leaving no scar, no mark of himself" (Hamlet 877). Eula becomes an indomitable mountain Ratliff imagines no man can conquer because he fears her too much to attempt such action himself. In the same passage, Ratliff similarly likens Eula to a season by describing her marriage to Flem as a mythical circumstance into which "the gods themselves had funnelled all the concentrated bright wet-slanted unparadised June onto a dung-heap" (877-78). In Ratliff's analogy, Eula embodies nature as the lovely month of June, but Flem becomes a mere "dung heap"; while this image obviously illustrates Ratliff's fury at the inherent waste of Eula on Flem, it also connects Eula, as a commodity that her father may "waste," back to the ambivalent relationship between man, woman, and land that Zink first pointed to.
Labove likewise describes Eula in seasonal terms as she enters his classroom like a "moist blast of spring's liquorish corruption" which presumably causes him to worship her in "a pagan triumphal prostration before the supreme primal uterus" (Hamlet 835). Through Eula, Labove worships the "supreme primal uterus" which exists for him simultaneously as all of womanhood, life, sexuality, and even the earth itself. Labove more concretely connects Eula to the earth when he compares her to "fine land rich and fecund and foul and eternal and impervious to him who claimed title to it" (840). That imperviousness inspires Labove's desire to "leave some indelible mark of himself" on Eula through sexual domination; essentially, he wants to mark her physically as his territory (840). Labove's alignment of Eula with the land, though, appears curious when read through his definition of sex:
That's what it is: a man and a woman fighting each other. The hating. To kill, only to do it in such a way that the other will have to know for ever afterward he or she is dead. Not even to lie quiet dead because forever afterward there will have to be two in that grave and those two can never again lie quiet anywhere together and neither can ever lie anywhere alone and be quiet until he or she is dead. (842)
Labove sees sexual intercourse as a fight that one partner "wins" by symbolically killing the other; regardless of who emerges the victor, a sexual act binds each partner to the other in a "grave." He says that either he or Eula could emerge sexually dominant from such an encounter; the phrase "he or she is dead" implies that he does not know the outcome, but because Eula equals the earth for Labove, he already knows she would conquer him in such a pairing. Her supreme indifference ensures that Labove alone faces the danger of becoming "bound" in any way. The fact that he passively thinks that "something was going to happen" attests to Eula's dominance. He acknowledges that he cannot affect her in the slightest when he thinks, "there is nothing I or any man could do to her that would hurt her" (841); rather, he fears what the inevitable encounter with Eula will do to him. If that "something" that Labove fears actually happened, he knows that "he would be the vanquished" (841). Possessing Eula sexually would not free him as would the imagined axe-stroke he longs for (839); instead it would consume him, hence his likening of sexual gratification to a grave. Such an act of consummation, however, becomes totally irrelevant in that Labove's desire for Eula "buries" him more effectively than any sexual act ever could. He exchanges the promising future that he has struggled so hard to make possible for the unattainable dream of Eula. He knows, perhaps unconsciously, that he will not become Eula's first lover even from her earliest days in his classroom because he describes her virginity as a period of "static waiting" which a man that "she probably had neither seen nor heard yet" would "break into and disperse" (835). The futility of his desire finally consumes him, and although their final encounter makes Labove undeniably aware of Eula's indifference, he nevertheless makes a most unwanted sacrifice of himself. He metaphorically sublimates himself into that earth which doubles, for him, as Eula and exists, unquiet within her and obsessed by her in his self-defined earthly grave of sexual longing that only true death will end.
Faulkner similarly depicts other representative, though less dramatic, male burials in The Hamlet. When Mink shoots Houston, the narrator describes Houston as "the dead who would carry the living into the ground with him" (Hamlet 934), a particularly apt phrase, considering that the murder effectively ends Mink's life, at least within the scope of The Hamlet (1043), with its accompanying sentence of life in prison. These two burials foreshadow the novel's climactic figurative burial of Ratliff, Odum Bookwright, and Henry Armstid, as the three fall into Flem's trap by purchasing the Old Frenchman place from him. Faulkner reinforces the connection between Flem's plan and this symbolical burial when something "click[s]" in Ratliff's mind for the second time and he finally begins to discern Flem's manipulation just as Bookwright announces they have dug "down six foot," the traditional depth of a grave (1068). Their realizations take place as a new day begins. As Ratliff sorts out the truth, Faulkner writes, "it began to be dawn. In the wan beginning of that light he [Ratliff] put his shovel down and straightened up" (1068). On the next page when Ratliff lets Bookwright in on his discovery, the narrator observes, "Soon the light would begin to increase fast" (1069). While Ratliff and Bookwright metaphorically begin to see the light and climb out of their respective graves, Armstid continues to dig "himself back into that earth which had produced him to be its born and fated thrall forever until he died" (1069). Armstid, still under the earth's spell, indirectly (and comically) reinforces Labove's sexual rendering of the earth by telling Ratliff to "Get out of my hole" when he attempts to climb in and explain Flem's manipulation (1070). In fact, Armstid remains buried in that female ground, his trench, his "hole," even after the novel's conclusion. In the final line, Flem jerks the reins and tells his horse to "Come up" (1075). Faulkner's ambiguous usage and careful placement of this phrase make it equally applicable to Armstid, and although Flem implicitly commands Armstid to "Come up" out of his grave, Armstid fails to take that action within the pages of the novel.
While Armstid's burial with its accompanying insanity signals his intellectual death (Hamlet 1075), Eula, like the earth, continues to reproduce herself. Accordingly, Faulkner repeatedly compares Eula to food, specifically fruit. Eula literally becomes the fruit of the land with her "ripe peach" of a mouth, "hothouse grapes" for eyes, and general appearance which suggests "some symbology out of the old Dionysic times--honey in sunlight and bursting grapes" (848, 738, 817). The roots of this apparent fecundity, however, seem quite complex. Faulkner incongruously connects the general concept of fertility to the moon through Will Varner's remarks about the pear tree he observes in the faint moonlight. Varner speaks of the tree's potential for productivity, remarking that it will "make this year, sho" (1017). Varner then confusingly notes, "A moon like this is good for every growing thing outen earth" (1018). This statement seems rather odd because the sun, not the moon, nourishes plant life. His comment makes a bit more sense when he immediately tells how, to ensure she would have a daughter while carrying Eula, Mrs. Varner exposed her pregnant stomach to the moonlight "until it fulled and after" (1018). While Jack and Lucy Houston somewhat similarly rely on the moon to ensure conception, Mrs. Varner extends Eula's exposure to the moon throughout her prenatal development. Thus Faulkner structurally designates Eula one of the "growing things" Varner refers to; she literally grew out of the earthly womb of her mother, hyper-nourished by moonlight (1018). Michael Millgate notes that Varner's remarks associate Eula with "the forces of nature and ... the pagan deities" (191). Faulkner, though, encourages readers to take this lunar identification of Eula one step further when he describes her conception in "a little lost village, nameless, without grace, forsaken, yet which wombed once by chance and accident one blind seed of the spendthrift Olympian ejaculation and did not even know it, without tumescence conceived" (Hamlet 867). Sired by the gods and strengthened by the moon, Eula literally appears as a moon goddess to Ratliff and the men fetching Varner to set Armstid's leg when they observe her standing in the window "full in the moon, apparently blank-eyed or certainly not looking downward" (1016-17). Coldly impervious, this lunar goddess seems impartially posed to accept the group's worship. Ratliff inadvertently lends credence to the idea of Eula as moon goddess when he thinks that Eula's unborn child, which she and Hoake McCarron conceived out of wedlock, "aint going to look no more like nobody this country ever saw than she [Eula] did" (877). Ratliff probably thinks this in testament to Eula's exceptional beauty, but by comparing her own somehow supernatural conception to that of her illegitimate child's, he reinforces the possibility that the moon influenced Eula's conception as much as her parents in this novel which repeatedly connects the moon to fertilization. While the men of The Hamlet connect Eula with the earth, the text shows that she more accurately belongs to the celestial realm, or that she at least embodies some earthbound aspect of its glory.
In contrast, few male manifestations of moonlight exist in The Hamlet, and only one of those could possibly appear constructive. Dick Bolivar, the old man whom Ratliff engages to help divine the location of treasure hidden at the Old Frenchman place, has "a faintly luminous quality" to his beard, which looks "as if it had absorbed something of the starlight through which Ratliff had fetched him" (Hamlet 1051). Bolivar's talents could link him to Eula and the supernatural; if so, he only faintly reflects her nocturnal magic in the form of starlight. A more likely explanation for Bolivar's successful divining might posit that Flem, a far better judge of human desire than anyone else in the novel, somehow convinces Bolivar to lead the men to the false treasure. After all, we only have Ratliff's unsubstantiated opinion of Bolivar as a trustworthy man who cares nothing for money (1056). The Hamlet's only other references linking men to moonlight lack even the limited potential of the one to Bolivar; Faulkner first likens Jody's face to a "bilious moon" rising above the desk in Varner's store, and he later describes how Houston tragically avoids the moonlight that falls through his windows because it reminds him of his dead wife and unconceived son (846, 932-33). Though the men of Frenchman's Bend think of Eula and her aura of fertility in terms of the earth, as something to be owned or made to profit, Faulkner's text shows that she more accurately derives such power from the heavens, and, moreover, demonstrates that these men can only tenuously approach that power through their worship of her.
Clearly, Faulkner describes characters of both sexes in The Hamlet with terms that tie them to nature in all sorts of ways, and the traditional perception regarding Faulkner's women as natural forces erroneously simplifies his intricate connections between gender and the natural world. While that hardly qualifies Faulkner as a feminist, this complexity of characterization should, at the very least, allow us to reinterpret Eula as a more active and assertive character than the existing stereotype has allowed for. Faulkner provides the basis for such an interpretation himself when, early in the "Eula" section, he writes that two Eulas exist: "There was one Eula Varner who supplied blood and nourishment to the buttocks and legs and breasts; there was the other Eula Varner who merely inhabited them" (822). Faulkner's depiction of these two Eulas, the physical entity distinctly separate from the mental one, encourages readers to think of her as divided. (8) We can easily see the physical Eula acting throughout the pages of The Hamlet, but the other Eula, the secret one, remains hidden among the interstices of Faulkner's lines. In much the same way that Gwin hears Caddy Compson's sublimated voice from within the pages of The Sound and the Fury(Feminine and Faulkner 34-62), attentive readers can find a more active Eula concealed within the spaces of Faulkner's fiction.
Critics have long regarded Eula as a disruptive force. Trouard notes, "Nowhere in the novels does she appear without upsetting the patriarchal equilibrium" (286), and Polk elaborates how Eula's "manifest femaleness represents, even in its passivity" a "complete indifference to masculine hierarchy" (168). Eula's passivity, then, her power to disrupt, actually becomes a type of activity located within her femaleness, her sexuality. Eula accordingly takes control of her own sexual activity by choosing McCarron as her first lover. Trouard details how Eula "outflanks the Varner males by choosing the moment of her defloration" (288). Eula further appears the dominant partner in this pairing by supporting McCarron as they make love with "her own braced arm from underneath" (Hamlet 860). In other words, Eula not only decides to whom she will give her virginity, but also determines where and how it will happen. Moreover, as Clarke points out, the usual "order of the loss of virginity" reverses in this scene as McCarron bleeds first at the hands of his attackers before his sexual encounter with Eula even occurs (72).
Eula's sexual power seems equally apparent during her confrontation with Labove, but this segment also hints at other forms of power. When Labove attacks her, Eula defends herself physically. She first knocks Labove off balance, then topples him with "a full-armed blow in the face" (Hamlet 842-43). In addition to sheer physical strength, this scene reveals a previously undisclosed force of intellect. While Labove lies incapacitated on the floor, Eula demonstrates that, contrary to his belief, she has learned at least one thing from the five years spent in his classroom. She tells him to stop his animalistic "pawing" and then mocks him by referring to him as "You old headless horseman Ichabod Crane" (843). Clarke believes Labove's exclusively sexual view of Eula, which places her "beneath and beyond books," likely "accounts for his rage and humiliation when he realizes that she has, in fact, managed to imbibe at least some knowledge as she taunts him with deadly literary accuracy" (78). In other words, Eula might know a bit more than Faulkner's characters and readers give her credit for.
Clarke observes that critics have largely exaggerated Eula's "mindlessness," and believes that "with the possible (and admittedly major) exception of her marriage, she appears to get exactly what she wants" (73). But perhaps Eula gets what she wants even in her marriage to Flem. When Eula became pregnant, she "was in what everyone else but her, as it presently appeared, called trouble" (Hamlet 861). For Eula, pregnancy might very well present not trouble, but opportunity, in the form of a ticket to Jefferson. Eula must long to escape the rural Frenchman's Bend, a community which Faulkner himself said "couldn't have held her" (Gwynn and Blotner 31). While Eula appears to act passively in her marriage to Flem as the family "clapped her into her Sunday clothes" and "married her to him" (Hamlet 867), she must have agreed to the match or she simply would have resisted and triumphed with her all-powerful inertia; it makes little sense to believe that Eula marries Flem against her will when she does nothing else that she does not want to throughout The Hamlet. Eula knows Flem's nature; she has seen him every day and "knew him well. She knew him so well that she never had to look at him anymore" (866). Eula enters the partnership fully aware of what makes Flem tick, and while Ratliff might consider the marriage a "waste," readers should not assume that she shares his opinion. Flem's ambitions beyond Frenchman's Bend and his material desires could actually make him attractive to her as a prospective husband. Readers can infer that Eula likes nice things from the "near-silk" negligees she orders from catalogs (862, 867), and Faulkner likewise makes it clear that she leaves the village in "the first tailored suit ever seen in Frenchman's Bend," which Flem most likely purchases for her since "it would not be Will Varner that bought them now" (1071). Similarly, Flem proudly sports one of only two ties to be found in the community; Will Varner owns the other one, which he wears only to church on Sunday. Flem, though, wears his bow tie "or one just like it" until "the day he die[s]." This act seems emblematic of the larger sort of success he desires; indeed, he reportedly had the ties made "by the gross" after he "had become president of his Jefferson bank" (783). Like Flem, Eula hungers for something she cannot get from this rural community, and while the novel does emphasize the couple's apparent physical incongruities, with Flem playing the frog to Eula's princess (868), their similar ambitions make them far more compatible than appearances indicate. After all, Ratliff says that he only knows two men who "can risk fooling with" a Snopes (755); tellingly, he says nothing about women.
The narrator implies that Eula hides something as she leaves town "looking not at" the crowd gathered "and maybe not at anything they knew" (Hamlet 1072). Eula possibly takes with her the knowledge that she deliberately got pregnant and then married Flem to escape Frenchman's Bend. In The Town, Ratliff insinuates that Eula knowingly planned some type of escape by referring to her marriage as "that handkerchief Eula Varner dropped" (7), a premeditated act. While readers cannot definitely know that Eula acted with forethought, at the very least, she simply does not resist the marriage because, like the rest of Frenchman's Bend, she watched Flem ascend to power and saw marrying him as a chance to share in that. Such passive activity fits Eula perfectly; as she remarks to Gavin Stevens in The Town, "Nobody needs to have a scene to get what you want. You just get it" (282). While readers can and should view Eula's marriage as Varner's sellout, they must also acknowledge that she willingly participates in it and stands to gain something from it. After all, Eula leaves for Jefferson not in shame but "Olympus-tall, a head above her mother or husband either" (Hamlet 1071).
While such an interpretation of Eula as an active agent in her own life may venture too close to the Faulknerian gyneolatry Wittenberg refers to, it also serves to broaden the way readers view Faulkner's women by positing alternate motivations for Eula's actions. Maybe the recognition of such possibilities will facilitate the more reasonable and judicious interpretation of Faulkner and gender that Wittenberg endorses: "The male words may be the last words, and their viewpoints the most prevalent in the Faulknerian universe, circumscribing the women and limiting their options, but as the fiction makes clear at every level, men and women alike are poor frail victims of being alive" (336). While The Hamlet's men do, categorically, malign and objectify female characters, the text encourages readers to question such practices by turning many of those words against the characters who speak them. Even as Jody refers to Eula as a bitch, the narrator calls attention to his own animalistic "snarling" (850). Ratliff sees the Snopes girls as bovine, but the narrator similarly objectifies him by describing his "turkey's neck" craning to watch Jody operate the cotton scales (878). Labove likens Eula to many different animals, yet he has legs "haired-over like those of a faun" (839) and black hair "coarse as a horse's tail" (827). At one point, we actually see him "wallowing" his face, swine-like, against the bench Eula occupies in his classroom (840-41). Even Lump Snopes, one of the novel's most minor characters, has a "bright-pink mouth like a kitten's button" and "bright, quick, amoral eyes like a chipmunk" (878). The natural world touches and defines every character in The Hamlet, male and female alike; this fact should destroy the notion that Faulkner, at least in this novel, unfairly targets his female characters by aligning them with nature. His characters may engage in such practices, but the text of The Hamlet challenges them by applying many of those same metaphors to his male characters, and even points to the artificiality of all such descriptions through Ike's indiscriminate sensibilities.
In fact, despite the objectification she experiences, Faulkner ultimately depicts Eula as one of the most powerful characters in The Hamlet by assigning her powers of persuasion that rival even those of Will Varner. Polk establishes that the danger Eula poses to Frenchman's Bend lies in her total disregard for boundaries set by the patriarchal authority her father wields (167). Eula can circumvent Varner's authority because she understands both him and the uselessness of direct opposition to his will. Faulkner emphasizes the similar temperaments of the two when he writes that like her father, Eula "was incorrigibly lazy, though what was in him a constant bustling cheerful idleness was in her an actual force impregnable and even ruthless" (Hamlet 817). Eula's "laziness" actually functions as a form of resistance that enables her to command others to perform the actions that she simply refuses to take. Varner, however, gains his power not by disregarding all rules, but by suggesting the benefits of compliance with his rules. Varner's strict control of Frenchman's Bend makes him "the fountainhead if not of law at least of advice and suggestion," and the community responds to those suggestions "not in the attitude of What must I do but What do you think you think you would like for me to do if you was able to make me do it" (733). Eula and Varner similarly achieve indirect control of those around them by making others desire to acquiesce to their wishes; thus Eula becomes the only character other than Varner and, of course, Flem, who can compel the men of Frenchmen's Bend to do her bidding. Given Eula's power, I find it hard to believe that, as Clarke speculates, Eula disappears from the second half of The Hamlet "possibly at the point at which she marries Flem" and "enters into a legal contract regarding the dispensation of her body" (88). Actually, by marrying the only man who can outwit her father, Eula gains leverage over Varner, and though Faulkner does indeed make Eula less visible in the second half of the novel, her absence becomes an overpowering presence through Ratliffs worshipful descriptions. More importantly, Faulkner establishes Eula's legal independence in a second contract when Varner makes her a landowner and therefore ensures that she cannot be erased, even by her marriage to Flem. After marrying, Eula may lose her own identity and become "Mrs Flem Snopes" to Ratliff and the rest of Frenchman's Bend (Hamlet 980), and perhaps even to some of Faulkner's readers, but Varner deliberately deeds the Old Frenchman place to "Flem and Eula Varner Snopes" (866). Varner officially, and perhaps deliberately, hands over the keys of his ruined mansion, his diminished patriarchal power, to Eula and Flem, so that at the end of The Hamlet, Eula inherits her father's house equally with Flem in the eyes of the law. Such action suggests that perhaps Faulkner's women, though less visible than his men, remain no less powerful. While Faulkner may have claimed that he knew "very little" about women, his fiction often suggests that he, like Eula, probably knew a bit more than he let on.
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Clarke, Deborah. Robbing the Mother: Women in Faulkner. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1994.
Fant, Joseph L. III, and Robert Ashley, eds. Faulkner at West Point. New York: Random House, 1964.
Faulkner, William. The Hamlet. 1940. William Faulkner: Novels 1936-1940. Ed. Joseph Blotner and Noel Polk. New York: Library of America, 1990. 727-1075.
--. Selected Letters of William Faulkner. Ed. Joseph Blotner. New York: RandomHouse, 1977.
--. The Town. 1957. William Faulkner: Novels 1957-1962. Ed. Joseph Blotner and Noel Polk. New York: Library of America, 1999. 1-326.
Godden, Richard. "Earthing The Hamlet, An Anti-Ratliffian Reading." The Faulkner Journal 14.2 (1999): 75-116.
Gwin, Minrose C. The Feminine and Faulkner: Reading (Beyond) Sexual Difference. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1990.
--. "Feminism and Faulkner: Second Thoughts or, What's a radical feminist doing with a canonical male text anyway?" The Faulkner Journal 4.1-2 (1988-89): 55-65.
Gwynn, Frederick L. and Joseph L. Blotner, eds. Faulknerin the University: Class Conferences at the University of Virginia, 1957-1958. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 1959.
Kartiganer, Donald M. and Ann J. Abadie, eds. Faulkner and the Natural World: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1996. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1999.
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--."Women, Landscape, and the Legacy of Gilgamesh in Absalom, Absalom! and Go Down, Moses." Mississippi Quarterly 48.3 (1995): 501-21.
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LORIE WATKINS FULTON
University of Southern Mississippi
(1) I am drawing upon the theory that Toril Moi articulates in Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory.
(2) In the first book-length study of Faulkner's women, Sally R. Page warns readers of the dangers of identifying Faulkner's personal opinions about women with those of his male narrators (xxiii), and numerous others have similarly warned against trusting the opinions of putative fictional Faulknerian spokespersons. While at West Point, Faulkner even said, "I think that any book should have on the first page, 'The author declines to accept responsibility for the behavior or actions or speeches of any of these characters, because he is simply trying to tell you a story'" (Fant and Ashley 118).
(3) For example, in her analysis of nature in The Hamlet, Gall Mortimer demonstrates that, like Ovid, Faulkner often transfigures characters "into animals or plants that represent some salient feature of their personalities" (54). Mortimer cites a letter Faulkner wrote to Joan Williams in November, 1953, to show how that practice extended to his personal life: "People have attributes like animals; you are a mixture of cat and mule and possum--the cat's secretiveness and self-centeredness, the mule's stubbornness to get what it wants no matter who or what suffers, and the possum's nature of playing dead--running into sleep or its pretense--whenever it is faced with a situation which it thinks it is not going to like" (55, and Blomer 1477). In fact, when asked about describing an ideal woman, Faulkner even likened the process to imagining a tree: "the ideal woman which is in every man's mind is evoked by a word or phrase or the shape of her wrist, her hand.... And every man has a different idea of what's beautiful. And it's best to take the gesture, the shadow of the branch, and let the mind create the tree" (Meriwether and Millgate 127-28).
(4) Louise Westling explicitly connects such objectification to nature by showing how Faulkner usually depicts nature as female and uses metaphors accordingly to emphasize the animalistic natures of women and African Americans ("Thomas Sutpen's Marriage" 133-36).
(5) For example, Mortimer asserts that Faulkner's male narrators associate masculinity with "the wildness and fragility of horses" and Faulkner's women "are frequently likened to cows" (55), Victor Strandberg more elaborately suggests that for Faulkner, "the biopsychology of sex seemed most forcefully expressed through animal imagery, associating fertile women with cows (Dewey Dell, the Snopes girls), married men with domesticated animals like dogs or mules (Anse Bundren and Vernon Tull), and Superior Males with wild or imperfectly tamed horses (Jewel Bundren, Thomas Sutpen). Thus Houston's wild stallion 'represented [its owner's] polygamous and bitless masculinity' in The Hamlet (like the spotted ponies that run wild later in that novel), whereas domesticated men, useful plug horses that they are, head into the stall at evening" (29).
(6) The novel indisputably aligns Eula with a cow when the narrator describes her as "too much of mammalian female meat" (Hamlet 822). Likewise, and more specifically, Jody observes the constant, steady sound of her chewing and swallowing while she rides behind him on his horse (850), and Ratliff compares her to a "freshened heifer" (877). The scenes with Labove further characterize Eula as bovine by connecting her to Ike's cow. In a scene reminiscent of Ike's trapping his cow in the lot, Labove corners a "big, immobile" Eula in his classroom. Before Eula can react to Labove's attack by gathering her body "into furious and silent resistance," Faulkner likens her relaxed body to "fluid and muscleless ... miraculous intact milk" (842). While Faulkner's use of the word "milk" to describe Eula's relaxed body tenuously connects her to cows, the phrase "intact milk" seems more concrete; perhaps the milk remains "intact" or undisturbed, like Eula's relaxed body as she becomes, at least for Labove, a sort of representative cow. Faulkner strengthens this connection when, as Ike can smell his cow's approach through the mist, Labove can "even smell her [Eula], sitting there on the school steps, eating the potato, tranquil and chewing" (838).
(7) Westling even feels that the connection "is a premise that lies behind all of Faulkner's writing about Yoknapatawpha County" ("Women" 501).
(8) Judith L. Sensibar has examined Faulkner's relationships with women in his own life and describes "a pattern of splitting that Faulkner imposed on all the women he loved" (133). Eula, a character Faulkner regarded with pride (Selected Letters 400), evidences a similar splitting.
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|Author:||Fulton, Lorie Watkins|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2005|
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