Characters Discussed

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Last Updated October 19, 2023.

Horace Benbow

Considered to be the main character of the novel, Horace Benbow is a lawyer in his early forties who has abandoned his wife and stepdaughter for seemingly superficial reasons. When questioned by his sister, he cites that he is sick of bringing shrimp home every week due to his wife's fondness for it. He is dissatisfied with his humdrum domestic life and yearns for escape.

Although Horace goes the extra mile to try and prove Goodwin's innocence, he is far from a moral, upstanding person. He struggles with the ambiguous sexual feelings he has for his stepdaughter, Little Belle. At one point, he imagines Little Belle to be in Temple's position, and the thought simultaneously disturbs and arouses him. Before the events of the trial, Horace had already made up his mind to go to Europe. However, Temple's false testimony and Goodwin's subsequent lynching thoroughly dishearten him. Faced with a cruel and unchanging world, Horace accepts his fate and returns to his wife and stepdaughter.

Temple Drake

At the beginning of the novel, Temple Drake is a seventeen-year-old girl who has dropped out from the University of Mississippi to party and run around with boys. She is described as an attractive, slender woman with red hair and long legs. Due to her upper-class background and her father's occupation as a judge, she tends to expect special treatment from others. Ruby calls her out on this as she points out that Temple can leave the plantation herself instead of expecting the men to cater to her.

Although Temple is the victim of the novel, Faulkner intended for her character to be a critique of chivalric notions and how white women's lives are valued more by the public. Because of her station in life, she is coddled and never held accountable for her faults—even though she revels in the same violence that has rendered her a victim. Her narcissism and callousness endanger multiple lives, even directly causing Goodwin's tragic fate.


Popeye, whose last name is never revealed, is the novel's main antagonist. Although his ties to the criminal underworld are not explicitly mentioned, it can be inferred from Goodwin's and Gowan's fear of him that he is a powerful figure. He also remains a mystery for most of the novel. Apart from being a man of few words, his perspective and personal motivations are never explored. In fact, it is only in the final chapter that the reader learns about his family and childhood. Rather than illuminate the reasons behind his cold-blooded and violent ways, his backstory merely implies that Popeye was destined to be evil from the beginning of his life.

Lee Goodwin

Lee Goodwin is a Black man who makes a living as a bootlegger—one who makes and sells liquor illegally. He is also squatting at an abandoned French plantation with his partner Ruby, with whom he has a sickly infant child. From Ruby's stories, it is clear that Goodwin has had a hard life, having been deployed as a soldier in the Philippines and then in France. He can be considered the actual victim of the novel, as he is framed for Tommy's murder and ends up paying for this with his life.

Ruby Lamar

As Lee Goodwin's common-law wife, Ruby is often found in the kitchen of the abandoned plantation house. She keeps her child with Goodwin inside a small drawer. At the beginning of the novel, Popeye is cruelly teasing Ruby for the wretched, subservient existence she leads. Indeed, Ruby has suffered for most of her life—sometimes at the hands of Goodwin himself, who...

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is abusive towards her. Although she does not suffer the same violent fate as Goodwin, she is shunned and considered the town pariah.

It can be argued that Ruby is the only character Faulkner paints with sympathy. Out of the cast, she is the only one who maintains her innocence. She cannot be faulted with any acts of violence or perversion—if anything, her unfailing loyalty to Goodwin becomes her undoing.


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The characters of Sanctuary are almost all disturbing. Temple Drake seems to swing wildly from, one personality to another, from a teenager terrified of sexual violation, to a vampire who will kill for sex, to a mechanical doll who will calmly lie for Popeye in court. Popeye looks like a child playing at being a gangster. He visits his mother annually, yet he exploits and kills without a twinge of conscience. Faulkner develops a detailed biography of Popeye in the last chapter to show the human side of his inhumanity, that his monstrousness has its source in the failure of his family and culture to teach him a way to achieve meaning.

Horace is disturbing because, although he wants what is good, he is crippled in many ways. His main deficiency shows in his inability to handle an incestuous attraction to his stepdaughter. He cannot let this attraction into his consciousness and deal with it there. Cling though he might to traditional values, he is unable to make them work. He cannot face what he believes is evil in himself and find strategies to control it. Likewise, he remains ignorant of the nature of evil in his world.