Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1258
The Snopes family, which comes out of nowhere after the Civil War, successfully completes the invasion of Frenchman’s Bend. Now Flem Snopes, son of Ab Snopes, a bushwhacker, sharecropper, and horse thief, is ready for the next goal, the domination of Jefferson, the county seat of Yoknapatawpha County. Flem is ruthless, shrewd, uneducated, and possessed of a fanatic belief in the power of money. The townspeople, who saw him when he took over Frenchman’s Bend and then left it under the control of other family members, are wondering about Flem’s next move. Among those interested are Gavin Stevens, a young lawyer educated in Heidelberg, and V. K. Ratliff, a good-natured sewing machine salesman, who makes up for his lack of education with a great measure of common sense. Stevens feels a moral responsibility to defend the town against the Snopeses, and Ratliff was once the victim of Snopesism when, thinking that it contained a buried treasure, he bought worthless property from Flem for a high price. Another who becomes an assistant in the fight against the Snopes infiltration is Stevens’s nephew, Charles Mallison, who watches the Snopes invasion from his childhood through adolescence.
Flem realizes that more subtle methods for conquering Jefferson are necessary than those he used in Frenchman’s Bend. The greatest advantage for him is his marriage with Eula Varner, daughter of Will Varner, chief property owner in that community. When Eula is pregnant, impotent Flem marries her after making a profitable deal with Varner, who despises Snopes but wants to save his daughter’s honor.
In a small rented house, Flem and his wife make a modest beginning in Jefferson by operating a small restaurant of which Ratliff was a partner before he lost his share in the business deal with Flem. Later, the restaurant is transformed into a hotel. The first hint that Flem is aiming even higher comes when he is appointed superintendent of the local power plant, before the people even know that such a position exists. As the new mayor of Jefferson, Manfred de Spain is not in favor with the town conservatives, but he wins the election in a landslide when he declares himself against an automobile ban imposed by the former mayor. Soon it becomes known in the town that Eula and the new mayor are lovers. No one sees anything, but everybody seems to know about the affair except her husband.
Shortly after the war, during which Gavin serves overseas, the president of Jefferson’s oldest bank is killed in an auto accident. De Spain, named president on account of the bank stock he inherits, resigns as mayor. The election of a new president makes necessary a routine check by government auditors, who uncover the theft of a large sum of money by a defaulting clerk, Byron Snopes, who fled to Mexico. An announcement is made that the money was replaced by the new president and that Flem has been made a vice president of the bank. Flem’s appointment indicates to his opponents a new phase of Snopesism: The search for money and power is now tinted with Flem’s desire for respectability. This new tactic also becomes apparent when he rids himself and Jefferson of some undesirable kinsmen, such as Montgomery Ward Snopes, who might destroy his efforts to make the name Snopes respectable. Montgomery returns from the war in France with a rich supply of pornographic pictures. A short time later, he opens a photographic studio and gives nightly slide shows for a large part of the male population of Yoknapatawpha County. Flem, not wishing to have his name associated with this shady enterprise, puts bootleg whiskey in Montgomery’s studio to ensure his arrest. When another Snopes, Mink, is jailed for murder, Flem fails to give him any assistance. There is also Eck Snopes, who does not fit into the Snopes pattern on account of his weak intelligence. Flem has no need to bring about his removal, for Eck removes himself. He is hired to watch an oil tank. While a search is being made for a lost child, Eck, trying to make sure that the child did not climb into his oil tank, takes a lantern and goes to look inside the tank. After the explosion, only Eck’s metal neck brace is available for burial. Meanwhile, the child is found safe somewhere along the road.
Flem’s new desire for respectability also makes him forget Wallstreet Panic Snopes, who dared to become a self-made man without his kinsman’s help. Wallstreet Panic, a successful grocer, introduces the first self-service store in Jefferson. Flem also dislikes the outcome of one of his family projects with I. O. Snopes, who is trained to tie mules to the railroad track in order to collect money from damage lawsuits against the railroad. When I. O. is killed during one of these operations, Flem hopes to collect the indemnity. I. O.’s stubborn wife, however, keeps all the money, and Flem, in order to avoid complications, is forced to pay off the man who supplied the mules. Flem also tries to live up to his new social standing by letting a professional decorator furnish his house.
In the meantime, Gavin, who was never able to rid himself of the attraction Eula holds for him, concentrates his reform efforts on Linda, Eula’s daughter. Linda, now in high school, does not know that Flem is not her real father. The lawyer loves Linda and tries to influence her to attend a northern college far away from Snopesism. Flem, however, needing a front of outwardly solid family life for his show of respectability, is opposed to the possibility of losing his control of Linda, especially since a will exists that gives the girl a great deal of Varner’s estate. So Flem disregards the pleas of his daughter because he still has one more step ahead of him to achieve the position he desires in Jefferson: his scheme to replace de Spain as president of the bank. When he fails in his first attempt to ruin the bank by instigating a run on it, he decides that the time comes to use his knowledge of his wife’s adultery as a weapon. Acting as if he just learned of the eighteen-year-old affair, and armed with a declaration from Linda that she will leave her part of her inheritance to her father, he visits Varner. Once more, in order to save the honor of his daughter and in return for Flem’s promise to destroy Linda’s note about the inheritance, Varner helps Flem to get rid of de Spain, and Flem became president of the bank. Hoping Eula will run away with him, de Spain sells his bank stock, but Eula, hoping to keep her daughter from ever learning of her affairs, remains in Jefferson. She commits suicide after securing from Gavin a promise that he will marry Linda.
Flem, having reached his goal, agrees to let Linda leave Jefferson. For a short interval, the ghost of old Snopesism comes back to Jefferson, when bank thief Byron Snopes sent his four half-Indian children to stay with his kinfolk. After a series of incidents in which the children terrorized Jefferson and Frenchman’s Bend, Flem himself makes sure that these last reminders of primitive Snopesism are sent back to Mexico. Meanwhile, he buys the de Spain house, and workers are busy transforming it into a mansion suitable for Flem, president of the Bank of Jefferson.
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