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William Faulkner: The Hamlet

The first of Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy is considered by some critics to be the start of the waning of his literary powers. I am not sure that I agree. Though this novel is certainly bitty and Faulkner may now and then try and overwork the humour, I think it works very well. What it does and does brilliantly is to tell the story of the rise of Flem Snopes, one of the many Snopes found in Faulkner’s novels and, in particular, in this novel. Faulkner’s achievement here is to have Flem Snopes as the main character but yet to have him appear only sporadically. When we see him, it is often through the eyes of another character, or in the distance or to have him appear and then to disappear almost at once. In short, as a character in the book he is almost marginal. As an influence on the plot and most of the other characters, he is the key character.

The story starts when Ab Snopes, whom we have already met in The Unvanquished, rents the farm at Frenchman’s Creek from Will Varner. Will learns that barns on farms rented by Ab have a habit of catching fire, so he hires Ab’s son, Flem, as a clerk in his store, to deter him from barn-burning. Flem goes on to do well as a clerk and then starts lending money at high interest rates and earns enough to buy a herd of cattle.

At this point we get a detour to Eula Varner, Will’s daughter and his youngest child. Eula is lazy. She does absolutely nothing, except eat. She won’t help in the house or do anything else. She is also disdainful of most people, her family included. Flem, for example, who comes to talk with her father and even eats at the house, is referred to as that man. However, she blossoms into an attractive woman at a very young age. She agrees to attend the one-room school only when her brother, Jody, eager to protect her honour at all costs, agrees to take her on the back of his horse, even though the school is only a short distance from their house. The school is run by Labove, a self-made man who has worked his way up to become a lawyer. He makes the mistake of falling in love with Eula (as does virtually every man in the area). When he makes a pass at her, she brushes him off like a fly. He disappears from the school, never to return. Eula, however, is courted by men. The first one, a drummer, flees town, battered and wounded. The second one takes her for a ride and they are attacked by a group of five men. The five men are beaten off, mainly by Eula. However, she ends up pregnant and the father disappears. Flem makes a deal with Will Varner to marry her but to get Frenchman’s Creek (and a few other goodies) in return.

Much of the rest of the novel consists of a few stories integrated into the novel about Flem’s rise and the seeds of his downfall. He and a Texan cleverly trick a bunch of the locals to buy some wild and dangerous horses. He tricks a few of them into buying Frenchman’s Creek. His cousin, Mink Snopes, in dispute with a local landowner Zack Houston, kills Houston and is arrested for murder. Flem, expected to help, does not. He will pay in a later novel. But, all in all, the shadow of Flem hanging around in the background, with the other characters, dependent on him, is told in masterful fashion by Faulkner.

Publishing history

First published 1940 by Random House