The Hamlet—along with the subsequent volumes of the Snopes trilogy, The Town (1957) and The Mansion (1959)—represents William Faulkner’s exploration of the social, cultural, economic, and moral life of Frenchman’s Bend, a small portion of his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. Frenchman’s Bend is a microcosm within a microcosm, a tiny but representative cross section of human life and the human condition. To achieve broadness of scope and vision, Faulkner constructs the work loosely, making it more a collection of interwoven stories than a tightly knit novel.
Faulkner employs three techniques to establish coherence within The Hamlet: relations among characters, repeated patterns, and common themes. In The Hamlet, characters resurface from story to story and, in many cases, narrate the stories themselves. Much of the action in The Hamlet is presented after the fact, often recounted by V. K. Ratliff, the sewing-machine salesman who is a central character in the book. In this sense, The Hamlet is a “spoken” rather than a “written” novel. It owes much of its character to the American tall-tale tradition.
The second technique employed by Faulkner to establish unity is repetition and variation in the stories within The Hamlet. Often, the same underlying theme or basic event will be repeated, with different characters adopting differing attitudes and getting different results. For example, the unseemly and inappropriate lust felt by the schoolteacher Labove for Eula Varner is repeated, in ironic and grotesque variation, as the true but equally inappropriate love Isaac Snopes has for a cow. This pattern of theme and variation is found throughout the novel. Flem Snopes, undertaking his usurpation of Will Varner’s dominant economic and political role in Frenchman’s Bend, adopts Varner’s dress style, becoming the only other man in town, besides Varner, to own and wear a tie. Flem imitates Varner’s mannerisms, speaking to the men on the gallery in front of the store in the same self-assured, oblivious fashion, and he finally even moves into Varner’s house, the Old Frenchman place. Thus, ironically, the repetition of Will Varner is accomplished, not through his son Jody, but by his successor, Flem Snopes.
In a similar fashion, practically every member of the Snopes clan apes Flem’s attitudes and actions, trying to emulate his rise in the world. The less spectacular results of these imitative actions result from a lack of innate ability, not from failure of the Snopes to imitate their more financially successful relative. The parents of little Wallstreet Panic Snopes are clear in their intentions, even if their choice of name is slightly off.
The final way in which Faulkner weaves together the strands of stories in The Hamlet is by reducing his thematic concerns to simple opposition: He contrasts economic enterprise with emotional life. In most cases, this contrast involves a simple opposition between trading and sex. Indeed, while the stories are never so simply presented, the underlying foundation of The Hamlet is the contrast and conflict between the rational, public sphere of economics and the irrational, private realm of sex.
Flem Snopes is the economic man incarnate, obsessed with material and financial gain. He is often described in discussions of Faulkner’s work as a scheming and unscrupulous villain, but this description is inaccurate. Flem Snopes is the most consistently and precisely honest character in the trilogy, if honesty is narrowly defined as abiding by the letter, rather than the spirit, of an agreement. Unlike the Varners, Flem does not cheat customers in small ways, such as by shortchanging them. He never allows himself to be “cheated” by acts of kindness or generosity. His schemes and machinations...
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are carried out for purely rational ends and through legally correct, if ethically questionable, means. No emotional considerations intrude into Flem’s calculations.
By contrast, Eula Varner is portrayed as the embodiment of pure female sexuality, capable, even before puberty, of arousing men to an irrational and uncontrollable degree of lust. Flem is described in precise and unemotional fashion, but the narrative, in Eula’s presence, becomes lush and unbridled, its imagery more animalistic, even bestial. Eula’s suitors are compared first to stampeding herds of cattle and later to dogs aroused by a bitch in heat. Her primal sexuality is humorous in its power and in the intensity of feeling it evokes in the opposite sex. It is an irony of The Hamlet that Eula is indifferent, almost unaware, of her power, unwilling or perhaps incapable of the self-consciousness necessary to understand what she does to males.
That Flem, of all men, should become Eula’s husband is perhaps the novel’s most ironic touch. One reason that Flem is so detached from human feelings is that he seems to have almost none of his own. He is not, unlike every other man in the novel, physically attracted to Eula. He has no desire for her body, and the text broadly hints that he may not even have sexual relations with her. The child she is carrying when they marry is not Flem’s. Their marriage is a matter of material gain and advantage for Flem. The symbol of a union of the rational and the emotional, the marriage is unsatisfactory since Flem denies the importance of Eula and therefore the emotional and sexual facets of human life.
Consistent with the novel’s pattern, this theme of rationality and irrationality is repeated in other stories. Most notably, it figures in the relationship between Zack Houston and Lucy Pate, where there is true passion on both sides and where this passion is transmuted, after years of suffering and tempering, into a real relationship. The marriage ends tragically, however, with Lucy’s accidental death, and it may be Faulkner’s suggestion that such a combination, while desirable, is unstable.
In The Hamlet, the rational is in the ascendant, and trading comes to dominate sex. The book is filled with stories and accounts of bargains, deals, barters, and exchanges that take on an almost ritualistic quality. The specific goods or monies that change hands in each case are less important than which party in the trade “got the better” of the other. Flem Snopes thrives in such an atmosphere, but he can hardly be blamed for having caused it; these conditions existed in Frenchman’s Bend before Flem’s arrival, and the Varners profited from them prior to the Snopes. The Varners’ weakness, and the weakness of all Flem Snopes’s victims, is that they mix the emotional and the rational, while he does not. In this sense, the story of Flem’s rise, which is the central motif of The Hamlet, is the novel’s greatest example of the repetition and variation of themes.