Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Flem Snopes's Knack for Verisimilitude in Faulkner's Snopes Trilogy

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Flem Snopes's Knack for Verisimilitude in Faulkner's Snopes Trilogy

Article excerpt

A recurring theme in William Faulkner's oeuvre is humankind's propensity to sacrifice private integrity to "respectability"(1) This theme is clearly drawn in his treatment of Flem Snopes, the poor sharecropper-turned-clerk, in the trilogy.(2) When Faulkner began writing the trilogy, he was, I believe, seeking to "find" in his Yoknapatawpha a few souls, such as Flem, who would be brave enough to combine private integrity with civic virtue. Faulkner, then, seems to be implying that Flem is not inherently evil. When Gavin Stevens, in The Mansion,(3) according to Ratliff, defines Snopesism as "a force and power that stout and evil as to jeopardise" Linda Snopes's soul (p. 137), he exaggerates or distorts Faulkner's intentions. Flem is not a "force" or "power" but merely one man adapting vestiges of the Old South's ability to manipulate the truth. When Flem is put through Faulkner's quintessential test, he proves to be a weak man who sees his goal as something more important than building self-integrity; he chooses to acquire a knack for verisimilitude in order to achieve his goal--to be president of the Bank of Jefferson.

Faulkner scholarship traditionally follows Gavin Stevens and V.K. Ratliff, two narrator-characters, in depicting Flem Snopes(4) as an evil and inhumane barterer, despite Faulkner's own explanations. Ratliff and Stevens are obsessed with Flem's wife and with trying to catch him in the act of skullduggery. They consider Eula Varner, Will's daughter, so individualistic that she deserves a man of integrity. Also, many critics confine their analysis to one or another volume of the trilogy, rarely dealing with the chronicle as a whole, making it difficult to gauge Flem's character correctly. Some overlook The Mansion, which is particularly significant in this regard.

In contrast to most critical interpretations of Flem, Faulkner himself, in his response to students at the University of Virginia, explained that Flem Snopes is a New South businessman who is driven, not by a legitimate demon but by "a petty demon to acquire wealth."(5) In fact, he emphasized that Flem, in order to reach his goal, must teach himself two things which the reader is forced to believe he does not have initially: "a certain amount of shrewdness about people" and "respectability." He cautioned that Flem "does not necessarily want respectability--it becomes a prerequisite" (Gwynn, p. 108). He went on to condone Flem's behavior, saying that this respectability is the "extra baggage" Flem takes on to reach his goal because he has no "inherited" lineage to fall back on (Gwynn, p. 119). Faulkner acknowledged, however, that Flem "did not have enough `grandeur of soul' to avoid acquiring contempt" from others because "he had to exercise his ability to use people" (Gwynn, pp. 97-100 and 108).

Though Flem demonstrates his ability to cope with most situations, he still faces a dilemma: "Snopes will evolve into ... an accepted type of Snopes ... or he'll have to vanish. That he will have to cope with his environment [tradition] or his environment will have to destroy him" (Gwynn, p. 283). By coping, Faulkner must surely mean that Flem will have to conform to "the old universal truths" (of love, honor, pity, pride, compassion and sacrifice) in seeking his own standard of behavior or he will be destroyed. Faulkner's purpose seems to be to place his characters in situations which test their private integrity or the degree--if any--of nobility a character possesses. Faulkner emphasizes that "mere conformity to society's artificially established codes and tradition has no moral significance."(6)

In the end, in his response at the University of Virginia, Faulkner concluded that Flem fails as an "individualist" when he is "bitten by the bug to be respectable" (Gwynn, p. 33), trading in his individuality, what Glenn O. Carey refers to as his "monster-like strength and cunning,"(7) for civic virtue. Though he adapts and reaches his pinnacle of success, his environment destroys him in the end because he chooses to affect a type of behavior imposed on him by his environment and has not sought to "discover himself, evolve for himself a moral code and standard within his capacities and aspirations,"(8) a what Faulkner aims for. …

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