It was in the 1920’s that William Faulkner first conceived of the Snopes saga: a clan of crude, avaricious, amoral, unfeeling, but energetic and hard-driving individuals who would move into the settled, essentially moral society of the Old South and gradually, but inevitably, usurp the old order. To Faulkner, the Snopeses were not a special Mississippi phenomenon but a characteristic evil of the mechanized, dehumanized twentieth century that filled the void left by the collapse of the agrarian pre-Civil War South. Flem Snopes is the supreme example of the type, and the Snopes trilogy, of which The Town is the second part, is primarily a chronicle of his career and its implications.
Faulkner finished The Hamlet, the first book in the series, in 1940 (although several short stories appeared earlier), and not until 1959 did he complete the trilogy with The Mansion. In the intervening time, Faulkner’s vision of human morality and society became more complex and, although the original design remained intact, the quest of the Snopes clan became more devious and complicated, and “Snopesism” took on increasingly ambiguous meanings.
At the beginning of The Town, Flem arrives in Jefferson fresh from his triumphs in Frenchman’s Bend, but with only a wagon, a new wife, Eula Varner Snopes, and their baby daughter, Linda. The book traces his rise in short order from restaurant owner to hotel owner, to power plant supervisor, to bank vice president, and finally to bank president, church deacon, and appropriately grieving widower. The book also describes the life of his wife, Eula, her lengthy affair with Manfred de Spain, her relations to the community, and her efforts for her daughter—all of which leads her, at last, to suicide.
If Flem is the embodiment of ruthless, aggressive inhumanity and devitalized conformity, Eula is the essence of warmth, emotional involvement, sexuality, and freedom. Although their direct confrontations are muted, The Town is basically about the struggle between these two characters and the contrasting approaches to life that they represent. The story is told by three anti-Snopesian citizens: V. K. Ratliff, the sewing machine salesman who previously tangled with Flem in Frenchman’s Bend; Gavin Stevens, a Heidelberg- and Harvard-educated county attorney; and Charles Mallison, Stevens’s young nephew. Although they confirm the essential facts, each speaker has a separate interpretation of the events. Thus, the reader must sift through their different attitudes and conclusions to arrive at the “truth” of the book. Frequently, it is the ironical distance between the events and the characters’ interpretations of them that gives the book its bite and message—as well as its humor.
Mallison, who sees the events as a child but recounts them as an adult, is probably the most detached of the narrators. Ratliff is sardonic and realistic, but his bitter experiences with the Snopeses somewhat color his accounts. Gavin Stevens is the primary narrator and chief enemy of Flem, but the reliability of his statements is jeopardized by his lengthy, emotional, somewhat confused involvements with both Eula and Linda. Gavin is a well-educated, sophisticated modern man who understands the complexities and difficulties of human relationships; but, at the same time, he is an old-fashioned southern gentleman who clings to old attitudes and traditions. When Eula offers herself to him, it is not morality but romanticism coupled with self-doubt that stimulates his refusal. He insists on viewing her through a romantic haze that prevents him from reacting realistically in the most critical situations. “What he was doing was simply defending forever with his blood the principle that chastity and virtue in women shall be defended whether they exist or not.”
The same kinds of assumptions determine his relationship to Linda Snopes. Since he is nearly twice her age, he cannot imagine a sexual or marital arrangement between them in spite of...
(The entire section is 1,100 words.)