The OF Blog: William Faulkner, Sanctuary

Friday, November 02, 2012

William Faulkner, Sanctuary

Despite the latter praise novels such as The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying (1930), it wasn’t until Sanctuary (1931) was published that William Faulkner began to receive the commercial attention that he desperately sought.  Although much was made of Faulkner’s later claim that he wrote Sanctuary solely to achieve commercial attention, this novel contains several layers to it that make it as much of a sensational read in 2012 as it was upon its initial publication over eighty years before.  What is noticeable, however, is that Sanctuary does not rely upon experimental narrative techniques in crafting a complex weave of human fears, doubts, violence, and hypocrisy that brings into focus the concept of what might constitute “sanctuary.”

Sanctuary opens with a Memphis-area lawyer, Horace Benbow, fleeing a troubled marriage and career to return to his native Jefferson, Mississippi (the fictional locale of most of Faulkner’s stories).  He stops at a watering hole, where he is confronted by the ne’er-do-well, Popeye, who is protecting a house run by a local bootlegger, Lee Goodwin.  As Popeye consults with a woman sheltered there, Ruby Lamar, several skeins in the overall narrative thread are woven together for the first time:
“He came here?”
“I found him at the spring.”
“Was he trying to find this house?”
“I dont know,” Popeye said.  “I never thought to ask.” The woman was still looking at him.  “I’ll send him on to Jefferson on the truck,” Popeye said.  “He said he wants to go there.”
“Why tell me about it?” the woman said.
“You cook. He’ll want to eat.”
“Yes,” the woman said.  She turned back to the stove.  “I cook.  I cook for crimps and spungs and feebs.  Yes.  I cook.”
In the door Popeye watched her, the cigarette curling across his face. His hands were in his pockets.  “You can quit.  I’ll take you back to Memphis Sunday.  You can go to hustling again.”  He watched her back.  “You’re getting fat here.  Laying off in the country.  I wont tell them on Manuel street.”
The woman turned, the fork in her hand.  “You bastard,” she said.
“Sure,” Popeye said.  “I wont tell them that Ruby Lamar is down in the country, wearing a pair of Lee Goodwin’s throwed-away shoes, chopping her own firewood.  No.  I’ll tell them Lee Goodwin is big rich.”
Several key events are foreshadowed here.  Here we are introduced to Ruby, who appears to have been a prostitute working in a Memphis criminal district.  We see her staying at Lee Goodwin’s place as a sanctuary from the “hustling” that she previously had to do.  Popeye apparently has connections to these same Memphis criminal elements, which is made even more explicit in the novel’s second half.  Goodwin’s place is another place of sanctuary, this time one for the runners and bootleggers who are evading Prohibition laws.  All this while Benbow, who comes to represent a sort of legality and morality in the midst of corruption, remains outside this room, shut off from his initial attempt to find his own personal sanctuary.

Faulkner quickly introduces the other key players in this human drama:  Tommy, the near-idiotic worker at Goodwin’s place; Lee Goodwin himself, whose character is much more complex than what might be suspected from a bootlegger who employs some local toughs to protect his illegal business; Narcissa Benbow Sartoris; Horace’s widowed sister with whom he stays upon his arrival in Jefferson; Gowan Stevens, a vainglorious self-labeled “gentleman” whose belligerent drinking lands him and others in trouble; and Temple Drake, daughter of the local judge and an Ole Miss student whose story becomes a crucial part of the story.

Each major character has their own idealized “sanctuary” to which they retreat when conditions become too rough for them.  Besides the already-mentioned ones, we have Narcissa retreating into a cocoon of social standing (in some regards, she is similar in attitude to Emily from “A Rose for Emily”); Gowan using his University of Virginia education as a crutch to excuse his rampant alcoholism and ultimate cowardice; and Temple, whose name hearkens to a concept of purity and chastity, both of which are belied by later events.  She is sheltered, first by her father and then by her social standing, and it is the stripping away of her own sanctuary that makes Sanctuary such a fascinating and unsettling read.

Sanctuary received a lot of attention upon its release for its depiction of violence and rape.  Faulkner does not skimp on showing how violence can result from individuals who either willingly choose to remove themselves from the dominant social structure or those who are forced out of that own sort of social sanctuary.  Popeye menaces others throughout the novel (near the novel’s end, we learn why he was rejected by society at a young age).  The quoted scene above hints at his connections to a criminal underworld vaster than just running moonshine during Prohibition.  He threatens Goodwin and Ruby, he leers at many women, he seems to have some sort of authority over the operator of a Memphis brothel.  We see two murders that he commits, each of which affect Temple.  Popeye is not just lacking a sanctuary, he is the destroyer of the illusions that others have about their own safe places.

Temple is the antithesis, at least at first, of Popeye.  She enjoys a good, sheltered life, yet she is constrained by this.  Her reputation for “loose morals,” however, is a problematic theme in this novel.  Although Faulkner never states directly (nor is it definitely implied) that Temple “deserved” what happened to her, there certainly are some interpretations of the novel that could support this assertion.  Those interpretations would take the readiness in which she hooks up with first Gowen and then later with a small-time gangster nicknamed “Red” and the seeming willingness she has to have sex with Red.  Yet I cannot help but think that Faulkner’s “fade to black” description of her rape was not intended to be a condemnation of Temple’s character as much as it appears to be a symbol of the ripping away of innocence and security in the harshest, most vivid way possible (the way in which she was raped, described only by a brief forensics admission in a late court scene).   In this light, Temple’s later actions are not meant to trivialize the horrific scene, but perhaps are best examined as a plausible attempt of a violated person to recreate a sense of sanctuary by any means necessary, even if it means violating previously-held social conceptions of honor, justice, and honesty.

These two characters, Popeye and Temple, lie at the heart of Sanctuary.  Popeye is a destructive, violent force that obliterates others’ previously held assumptions.  His assault on Temple and the subsequent acts that result from that horrific act serve as concrete metaphors for the dangers that lurk outside of personal conceptions of sanctuaries.  Temple’s violation and the changes it wrought in her life serve as another example of how sanctuary removal can affect people and how they interact with the world.  At first, her ultimate actions in the novel seem to be almost inexplicable, as she condemns the mostly innocent through perjury, yet when viewed in light of the other characters (minus Benbow, who serves to underscore the futility of honor and justice), her actions make a strong statement about the self-deceptions that people will do in order to preserve some sense of security in the world.

It is a troubling theme, one that convinced several readers at the time that Faulkner reveled in the sordid and violent acts of humanity, but yet there is another layer to this.  One could argue that in showing humanity at its worst that Faulkner was doing more than just making a point about the futility of the characters’ belief.  Yes, terrible things have happened and our delusions have been forcibly removed, but what next?  That is an issue that Faulkner explored in several subsequent novels and stories, including his 1932 novel, Light in August.  Here in Sanctuary, we see the horrors of existence in its full non-glory and with its devastating conclusion, Faulkner makes readers reassess their convictions in a way that may horrify but never titillate readers.  Humans are funny, fallible creatures and here, we see the worst, whereas elsewhere Faulkner covers the other aspects.  Eighty-one years after its initial release, Sanctuary still shines a powerful light on our views of life and security, making us blink and reconsider.  Its power cannot be understated and when read in light of his other works, its almost unrelenting darkness serves to highlight the other aspects of life that he explores elsewhere.  It is an essential, albeit unnerving, part of his authorial output and is a novel that readers ought to read if they think they have Faulkner “figured out” after reading a novel or two or some of his short fiction.

Originally posted in January 2012 on Gogol's Overcoat as part of a weekly "Faulkner Friday."  Novels reviewed from January-April will be reposted here on Fridays, while the short stories will appear on Wednesdays.


Scott B Robinson said...

I always found this one of the more harrowing of his novels, with Absalom, Absalom! alone outstripping it. I've never trusted those who are cruel to animals since.

Lsrry said...

It's a potboiler, but a Faulknerian potboiler, which I think makes it even more creepy to consider. Need to get back to reading his fictions, so I can review Requiem for a Nun, which is a semi-sequel to Sanctuary.

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