Themes

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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 the hideout of the Goodwins, the bootleggers. Popeye is attracted to Temple, eventually rapes her with a corn cob because he is sexually impotent, and abducts her, taking her to a brothel in Memphis. There he provides her with a "stud" and attempts to partake of sex by watching them have intercourse. When Temple begins to enjoy this too much, Popeye separates the lovers. When she insists on running away with the man, Popeye kills him. By mysterious means, Temple is then separated from Popeye and brought back to Jefferson, where Lee Goodwin is on trial for a murder Popeye committed to get at Temple. There she testifies that Goodwin committed the murder and raped her.

While Temple and Popeye are developing their relationship, Horace is trying to defend Goodwin from the murder charge. He is hampered by interests in both the respectable and the disreputable parts of his world. Narcissa, his sister, wants her brother clear of associations with disreputable people and wants him to return to the wife he has left in moral disgust. The local district attorney wants an easy conviction. Popeye and his forces want to protect him from legal pursuit. For all these reasons, Goodwin must be convicted.

Only Horace seems really concerned with discovering the truth and realizing justice. But, because he is blinded by the many illusions he must maintain in order to sustain his faith in traditional order, he fails to comprehend the forces arrayed against him. Goodwin is convicted of the horrible crimes Temple says he committed. The outraged town rapes and burns Goodwin.

On almost every level of society and in almost every character the central theme is illustrated....

(This entire section contains 767 words.)

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Without a sustaining tradition, society is a wasteland and life is a nightmare. The only potentially successful opposition to this terror comes from the small voices of the few characters who remain secure in the tradition, or dream of spiritual fulfillment, or commit themselves to love. Horace's elderly aunt, secure in the tradition, is an anachronism. A young boy who dreams of a higher life is last seen under the tutelage of the corrupt senator Clarence Snopes. The one woman committed to love is Lee's common-law wife, Ruby Lamar; her baby is presented as a double of Popeye.

In Sanctuary, modern American society seems doomed to self-destruction. The voices of salvation are weak. People of good will are trammeled by illusion. Power belongs to hollow men who can only temporarily ignore the despair and emptiness visible all around them. When, like Popeye, they see through to the void, they will let themselves die. Until they do, they will kill, directly and indirectly, as Temple and many other characters do.

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