Criticism often faults The Mansion for contradictions and discrepancies, hinting that William Faulkner’s talent was waning when he wrote the novel. Faulkner, who said his fiction was only about the “human heart in conflict with itself,” wrote that the discrepancies and contradictions resulted from his knowing the characters better, after living with them for thirty-four years. Critics are taking a closer look at Faulkner’s later works, seeing them afresh and discovering significant insights overlooked before. This novel shows society its own ugly warts.
The Mansion focuses on the plight of the downtrodden in the hands of the powerful; Faulkner depicts that society artfully. Far from being a faulty work by the Nobel Prize winner, The Mansion magnifies what Faulkner meant when he said, in his address to the Nobel academy, “I believe that man will not merely endure, he will prevail.” In this last novel of the Snopes trilogy, the reader learns, among much else, what Faulkner had learned about his most interesting “prevailer,” Mink Snopes.
The Mansion is divided into three sections: on Mink, Linda, and Flem. The book’s main character is Mink. The Linda section foreshadows her as a threat to Gavin, in some way Ratliff cannot fathom, and makes it believable in the end that she, not Mink, is the one who manipulates Flem’s murder. The section on Flem makes him a flat character who simply waits on Mink to shoot him. The novel debunks Gavin Stevens, the character critics have often championed as Faulkner’s most promising creation, exposing him as a willing pawn, manipulated (in ways Mink would never be) by Linda. He is also a self-confessed coward. From the first sentence to the last, The Mansion is Faulkner’s monument to Mink.
Physically, Mink, murderer of two, is “small, almost childlike.” Neither his physical appearance nor his physical actions endear him to anyone, but he is thoroughly complex in action, thought, and sentiment. While Flem is impotent, Mink is Faulkner’s most sexually potent male. The reader learns this in the first novel of the trilogy, and it resonates in the last when, in prison, Mink, thinking of the hardness of the land, recalls the “amazement . . . reverence . . . and incredulous excitement” he felt when he touched his bride, Yettie, on their wedding night. In the same moment, he regrets how their subsistence lifestyle, warring with earth, wore Yettie to “leather-toughness” and himself to “exhaustion.” Mink voices the regret he had when, looking at their two little girls, he saw “what was ahead of that tender and elfin innocence.”
In spite of physical smallness, Mink could do hard labor twenty-four hours a day: He paid off his fine to Houston by digging post holes and putting up a fence, simultaneously plowing and planting his own crops far into the night. At Parchman, the warden says Mink worked the cotton “unflaggingly,” harder than any man “of his stamp and kind” worked his own crop.
Philosophically, Mink is a self-contained man who lives by a personalized value system. He believes in an indefinite “them” and “they.” Life is a test by “them.” “They” make him account for any lie he tells, so he counts each lie, keeping rules and accounts carefully. He expects to beat “them.” To illustrate, Mink accepts an extra twenty-year prison term without complaint, because he had been warned not to attempt escape.
In prison, he merges “they” and “them” with “Old Moster.” He gains first a kind of bravado, then a tenacious faith that Old Moster plays fair with him. Mixed in with Mink’s philosophy is his relationship to the land....
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He expresses the Edenic view that sin makes humans earn their food by the sweat of their brows as they war with earth. He says the land “owned” the sharecroppers, passing “their doomed indigence and poverty from holding to holding.”
Mink lives tenaciously on the edges of life, a human being who prevails by remaining true to his inner voice in the face of whatever life deals him. His thoughts are often poetry; he holds to his rules religiously. He also abuses his wife and children verbally and emotionally (although Faulkner makes his heart belie these actions), and he breaks the most serious of laws—committing murder twice.
At each blow from life, Mink is forced to choose between his values and society’s values. From infancy he was on his own, developing his own hard-bought, self-examined, inner light. That evolving light was Mink; to hold to it was to hold to himself. Murder is indefensible, but it came after a lifetime of indefensible treatment perpetrated on those such as Mink by an indefensible society of Flems and Houstons, a society whose wealth is sustained by the Minks of the world. Two men take more than Mink can give and keep his own soul. The first is Jack Houston, the second Flem Snopes.
Houston took too much when, after Mink had worked off his debt to Houston, Houston tacked on a one-dollar pound fee (equal to two days of labor) because Mink figured a day from sunup to sunup (and so left his cow one night more at Houston’s) and the law figured it from sundown to sundown, making the pound fee legal. Mink paid the fee off, but for the shame of it, he killed Houston. Legally, he paid twice for that murder.
Not much was required of Flem, under Mink’s value system, but Montgomery allowed Mink to think that Flem decreed that Mink wear a girl’s dress in his attempted escape, and it was for that dress, more than anything else, that Flem is killed. Significantly, Faulkner’s ending of book and trilogy exonerates the Minks of the world, leaving them pardoned and peaceful. Near the end of his canon, Faulkner chose Mink as prevailer, because Faulkner had no illusions about human perfectibility. In their complexity, all his characters are wicked and wonderful. Faulkner obviously learned that “damned little murdering bastard,” Mink, was both.
The Mansion is not the work of a failing writer. Its complexity invites serious study; if it is a study that horrifies or causes critics to shake their heads at its implications, all the more reason to plumb its depths. If Faulkner ever presented any character who exemplified “the human heart in conflict with itself,” that character is Mink Snopes.