Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1100
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 fact that he loves her and is encouraged by her mother. So, in the role of father protector and educator, Gavin reads poetry to Linda over sodas and feeds her dreams with college catalogs. Thus, because of his intense emotions, sense of morality, and traditional assumptions, Gavin is unable to deal either with Eula’s simple sensuality or Flem’s one-dimensional inhumanity.
In the final conflict between these two forces, Flem’s ruthless rationality overcomes Eula’s passionate free spirit. Being both physically and spiritually impotent, Flem can coldly and callously manipulate the sexual and emotional drives of others. Not only does he do so to thwart Gavin’s anti-Snopes efforts, but more important to his plans, he also uses them to gain control over his primary Jefferson rival, Manfred de Spain.
Flem learns of his wife’s affair with de Spain soon after his arrival in Jefferson, but he chooses to ignore it as long as it is profitable. It is even suggested that the two men work out a tacit agreement whereby Flem overlooks the affair in return for an appointment to the newly created job of power plant superintendent. De Spain’s influence is later instrumental in securing Flem the vice presidency of the Sartoris Bank. After eighteen years, however, when Flem decides to make his move for the bank presidency, he suddenly becomes the outraged husband. He uses the threat of scandal to provoke Will Varner to action, to drive de Spain from the bank, to push Eula to suicide, and to coerce Gavin into unwilling complicity. Neither integrity nor sensuality can stop Snopesism.
As Flem succeeds in his drive to monetary wealth, another goal becomes predominant—respectability. He learns from de Spain that in Jefferson one can become respectable without being moral—if one has the necessary money. So Flem systematically acquires all the requisite signs of success, and they, in turn, provide him with access to respectability. Only one last obstacle remains between Flem and complete social acceptance—the other Snopeses.
Consequently, it is Flem himself who finally rids Jefferson of the Snopeses. Using the same callous attitude and devious strategy on his kin that he uses on other victims, he eliminates all of the lesser Snopeses who might pose a threat to his new status: Mink, Byron, Montgomery Ward, I. O., and, finally, Byron’s brood of wild, half-breed children, “The last and final end of Snopes out-and-out unvarnished behavior in Jefferson.”
So Flem becomes respectable. Faulkner’s final question to the reader is this: Has Flem’s drive to social acceptance weakened and narrowed him to the point where he is vulnerable, if not to the morality of the Ratliffs, Stevenses, and Mallisons, then to the latent vengeance of Snopesism? Faulkner answers that question in The Mansion.
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