One of the main themes of Sanctuary is the impact on society of the decline of the power of tradition in the lives of Southerners in the early twentieth century.
Temple Drake, child of a prosperous judge, and Popeye, the orphaned child of a poor deserted woman and a syphilitic wanderer share the same deficiency. No spiritual tradition has been passed on to them by their parents or their culture. For them, personality is not an organic growth from within based on values learned and developed, but a group of possible roles they may try on or take off as impulse directs. Hollow at the core, they attempt gestures toward meaning as they try to take lovers. In the process, they cause or commit murders.
Horace Benbow, the protagonist, tries to uphold the version of the Christian tradition to which he still clings. To maintain his faith, he insists on several fantasies, the main one being that God, through His providence, maintains a kind of justice in the world. He believes that if he lives by "the rules," he will succeed and justify those rules. However, virtually no one else lives by any rules at all, except the rule of not getting caught breaking the law or the rule of respectability, of maintaining absolutely the appearance of living by traditional values. The young people Horace meets and the legal establishment he deals with — the lawyers, judges, and senators — all seem to live mainly by the first law of not getting caught. His sister and "the respectable women of Jefferson" live by the second law, which requires that one never extend aid to a person in trouble if that person is disreputable.
The persons in trouble are a family of bootleggers, disreputable people who serve the community by providing quality, contraband liquor, but who, when they are exposed, must be cast out.
Popeye and Temple meet by fatal accident at...
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