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William Faulkner: Sanctuary

Faulkner claimed that this was his most commercial novel and that he wrote it solely for profit. It certainly was his most controversial novel, featuring extramarital sex, prostitution, a brutal rape and a brutal lynching. It starts with Horace Benbow, a lawyer, who has left his wife, living in Kinston, and has made his way to Jefferson, where his widowed sister, Narcissa, lives with her late husband’s aunt, Miss Jenny. When he stops for a drink of water in a stream next to what he thought was an abandoned house, the Old Frenchman, he meets Popeye, a vicious gangster. Popeye, however, is helpful and arranges for Benbow to be given a lift to town. The house, as it turns out, is the hiding place of a gang of bootleggers. The lead bootlegger is Lee Goodwin, and he is with his common-in-law wife, Ruby, their one year old son, Poppy, and Tommy, another gangster, as well as Popeye.

When Benbow gets to his sister’s house, he meets Gowan Stevens, a young University of Virginia graduate, who has proposed to Narcissa and been turned down. Stevens is a heavy drinker and has taken up with Temple Drake, the only daughter of a judge and nominally still at college though, in fact, she has dropped out (unbeknownst to her father). Stevens takes her to the Old Frenchman to buy some more liquor but crashes into a tree which Popeye had put in the road to hinder the police. The pair are taken into the house. Stevens is drunk and generally behaves badly. Temple is scared and is urged to leave by Ruby but does not. When Lee Goodwin finds the pair still there, he is annoyed and Van, another bootlegger brought by Goodwin, starts a fight with Gowan over Temple and easily wins. The men harass Temple but then have to leave to go bootlegging. The next morning Stevens sneaks away, abandoning Temple. Tommy hides Temple in the corn crib but, when Popeye finds them, he shoots Tommy and rapes Temple (with a corn cob as we later discover).

Popeye takes Temple off to Memphis, where she is ensconced in a brothel as his girl. Goodwin, finding Tommy’s body, reports it to the police but is immediately arrested. He will consistently refuse to condemn Popeye, fearing Popeye’s revenge more than the arm of the law. Benbow agrees to represent Goodwin and helps Ruby find lodging, though she is first driven out of the house he co-owns with his sister and then the local hotel, as she is deemed immoral. With information from the very seedy senator, Clarence Snopes, Benbow finds Temple and, with help of Miss Reba, the madam of the brothel, he learns of the rape from Temple. Meanwhile, Temple is having an affair with another gangster, Red. When Popeye finds out, he kills Red and Popeye and Temple again disappear. Temple, however, turns up at Goodwin’s trial, where she says that it was Goodwin who killed Tommy and raped her. He is immediately found guilty and, soon after, brutally lynched. Popeye is later arrested and hanged for a crime he did not commit while Temple ends up in Paris with her father. Goodwin goes back to his wife.

While a well-written novel and one that clearly shows brutality at its worst, this has generally not been considered one of Faulkner’s best works. The rape itself is made more horrifying by the use of the corn cob though we learn at the end that a childhood injury had made Popeye impotent, hence the corn cob. But though Popeye’s evil – partially explained at the end by his horrific childhood – may be the worst, none of the characters can be said to have many redeeming features. Narcissa cannot wait to get rid of Ruby, Stevens abandons Temple, Temple herself is clearly selfish and into any bit of fun she can get, Senator Clarence Snopes is corrupt, Horace, while he tries to help Goodwin, clearly has not been a good husband and there are implications that he lusted after his stepdaughter and, of course, the good people of Jefferson and even visitors to the town consider lynching an appropriate form of justice. In short, Faulkner does not have much to say in favour of anyone, except perhaps poor Ruby. However, I am inclined to agree with him that this is not one of his best.

Publishing history

First published 1931 by Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith