Tag Archives: Southern literature

Animal Husbandry and Doomed Mythic Marriage in William Faulkner’s The Hamlet

22 Aug
William Faulkner

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In Ike Snopes and Jack Houston, William Faulkner gives us pastoral heroes twinned in tragedy, their harmonized losses amplifying The Hamlet’s elegiac theme of a natural world sacrificed to commercial corruption. Each man achieves a profound spiritual “animal husbandry”; Ike marries a cow, while Houston marries as a stallion. And both characters run fatally afoul of the Snopes clan’s own distorted animal husbandry, a mercantilism in which the transcendent natural world is not beloved, but merely bought and “beefed.”

As often happens in The Hamlet, it is the decent bystander Ratliff who sets the novel’s marital theme into a moral framework. Chapter One of Book Three, “A Long, Hot Summer,” opens with Ratliff angrily pondering the recent forced wedding between the pregnant Eula Varner and the rapacious Flem Snopes:

What [Ratliff] felt was outrage at the waste, the useless squandering; at a situation intrinsically  and inherently wrong by any economy, like building a log dead-fall and baiting it with a freshened heifer to catch a rat… (page 176)

Eula’s marriage to Flem is perverse, unnatural, fiduciary. Flem Snopes, ceaselessly acquisitive and coldly asexual, is the man least able to husband Eula’s animal fecundity.

Not coincidentally, Ratliff immediately goes from musing on Eula as “freshened heifer” to learning of two additional, interconnected bovine dilemmas. On Varner’s storefront porch, Ratliff hears talk of a legal imbroglio involving widower farmer Jack Houston impounding Mink Snopes’s bull for pasturing fees. Then, an invitation is leeringly extended to Ratliff from the men and boys on the Varner porch to observe some furtive, unnamed farcical burlesque, which we learn later is the sexual union of the childlike Ike Snopes and a cow.

But rather than subjecting us to this peep show right away, Faulkner hurries us on to Chapter Two, in which we pass with Ike from local gossip and sordid mundanity into the realm of the mythic natural world. Here Ike Snopes, with no language other than Faulkner’s soaring lyrical rendering of his sensory experience, embarks on a classical courtship of his beloved. His pursuit elevates him from shambling, drooling, moaning “stock-diddl[er]” (222)into successful pastoral lover.

Ike pursues, cajoles, adores the cow, who is traditionally reticent, elusive, and beautiful. The pursuit turns conventionally heroic as Ike rescues the cow from the barn fire, shouldering her out of the ditch and towards the creek, where she finally rewards his ardor by allowing him to touch her:

She does not even stop drinking; his hand has lain on her flank for a second or two before she lifts her dripping muzzle and looks back at him, once more maiden meditant, shame-free. (page 193)

With the cow’s acquiescence, Ike’s pursuit becomes holy union. Not even Houston, the cow’s “legal” owner, can dissuade Ike. He skillfully elopes with the cow into the woods, where they eat together and he festoons her with flower petals, recalling Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn: To what green altar, O mysterious priest/Lead’st thou that heifer lowing to the skies,/And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?

This chapter concludes with a symbolic wedding night, the couple “nestling back in the nest-form of sleep, the mammalian attar. They lie down together.” (206) Ike has achieved literal animal husbandry. He both shepherds the animal, and is her mate.

Houston, the cow’s owner, interrupts Ike’s extended reverie twice; in fact, Ike and Houston encounter each other only twice in the novel. Both times, they meet in a vivid natural world of animals and animal imagery.

Houston has his own animal cohorts. He is repeatedly described as a widower with no family, but his uncannily wise dog, who mourns and attempts to avenge him after his murder, is omnipresent. In Houston’s first encounter with Ike, the dog drives Ike away not by barking but “shouting.”(185) The dog behaves as a sort of interlocutor, Houston’s animal intermediary. In Ike and Houston’s second encounter, in the creekbed, Houston approaches on a galloping horse he controls solely with his voice, bareback and “without even a hackamore,”(194) in an image of preternatural horsemanship. Where Ike is able to enter spiritual union with the cow, Houston seems to employ a kind of animist horse-and-dog magic.

Houston’s animism extends to his role in animal husbandry, a term with a double meaning for him as for Ike. But whereas Ike is an animal’s husband, Houston is the animal—-a headstrong horse-man tamed into good husband-ship by a plain and patient girl in “dove-colored clothing.”(227)

Chapter Two of Book Three says of Houston, at fourteen years of age, that he is “not wild, he was merely unbitted yet.”(228) Faulkner goes on to characterize Houston, in his return to Frenchman’s Bend and Lucy, as:

…the beast, prime solitary and sufficient out of the wild fields, drawn to the trap and knowing it to be a trap, not comprehending why it was doomed but knowing it was, and not afraid now—and not quite wild. (237)

A contrast to Ike and the cow, in Houston’s marriage courtship it is the female who pursues. Even gender-reversed, theirs is nevertheless a classical pastoral romance. Lucy, like Ike, pursues her beloved ardently. She cajoles, offering him the classic horse-bait of apples from her school lunchbox, and attempts to tame him through education, which he resists. A schoolyard wag even observes that Lucy “was forcing Jack Houston to make the rise to the second grade” (page 231), mirroring Ike’s shouldering the cow up the rise from the ditch during the barn fire. Ike is rewarded for his pushing with a torrent of cow manure; Lucy is rewarded for hers with thirteen years of resistance before Houston finally succumbs to her.

Interestingly, Houston’s rootless, “bitless” masculinity, his emergence in Yoknapatawpha County from the wild newness of Texas, even his surname, evoke the dangerous Texan horses that Flem Snopes and Buck Hipps inflict on Frenchmen’s bend a few chapters later. It’s as though bovines are Faulknerian shorthand for everything domestically female and fecund, while equines suggest masculine violence and chaos, as we see in Lucy’s death:

Then the stallion killed her. She was hunting a missing hen-nest in the stable. The negro man had warned her: “He’s a horse, missy. But he’s a man horse. You keep out of there.” But she was not afraid. It was as if she had recognized that transubstantiation, that duality, and thought even if she did not say it: Nonsense. I’ve married him now. (239)

This stallion-man transubstantiation is a mysterious and ambiguous one. Perhaps her dismissal of the stablehand’s warning suggests some tragic hubris on Lucy Houston’s part; she believes her taming of her stallion husband has inured her to any stallion’s violence. Perhaps Faulkner is suggesting that no husband is a good idea; after all, The Hamlet’s array of male spouses contains a wife-beater, a murderer, a despot, and a frog. Or perhaps Faulkner is suggesting that any romantic pursuit involves a degree of hubris, as well as risk of unbearable loss.

Houston’s mourning for his wife and instinctive understanding of pastoral love inform his decision to give Ike the cow. Although money changes hands, it is an unnamed and uncounted sum, more a ritual gesture than a commercial endeavor. Among the male characters of The Hamlet, Houston and Ike are the least mercenary; and where Houston has little interest in money, Ike has less than none, as Mrs. Littlejohn points out. “What else could he do with [the money]?’ she said. ‘What else did he ever want?’”(216)

But Ike loses his sacred cow to his cousin Snopeses, who conspire to purchase and slaughter “the partner of his sin” and feed her to him, supposing that this may cause him to “chase nothing but human women.” (223) As I.O. Snopes dickers with his cousin Eck over their relative financial contributions towards the beloved cow’s “beefing,” he refers to the act as “sacrifice to the name [we] bear.” (225) I.O. worries specifically that further public perusal of Ike’s love life may undermine the Snopes clan’s many financial and political dealings. Faulkner spares us the details of the beefing, but we do catch a glimpse of Ike some time afterwards, despondently clutching a wooden cow doll as emblem of his loss.

Like Ike’s cow, Houston can be seen as a sacrificial animal, Lucy’s stallion husband murdered by Mink Snopes over a three-dollar pasturing fee. In a final Snopesian insult to his and Ike’s shared pastoralism, Mink Snopes attempts to rob Houston’s corpse. The money on his person, which Mink does not recover, is Ike’s useless and dead money, the beloved cow’s bride price.

Works Cited

Faulkner, William. The Hamlet. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.

Keats, John. “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Class handout

A Divine Comedy: Satire and Salvation in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

22 Aug
Flannery O'Connor

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In a 1955 letter to Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, Flannery O’Connor describes a Connecticut dinner party at which she read the title story from her collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find. After her performance, a guest opined that “it was a shame someone with so much talent should look upon life as a horror story.”  Indeed, reduced to its barest plot points, A Good Man Is Hard to Find does read like the synopsis of a pulpy horror film: a trio of murderous freaks, led by an escaped convict called The Misfit, slaughter a helpless family of six on a Georgia farm road.

But Flannery O’Connor’s writing transcends simple horror, instead spinning a tale of miraculous redemption framed by dark slapstick comedy. The violence O’Connor sets into motion is brutal, but meant to shock us into spiritual awakening, much like the punch line of a joke is meant to shock us into laughter; indeed, if O’Connor’s is a horrific epiphany, it’s because it cannot be otherwise. As she states in her essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction:”

There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. (819)

O’Connor must reacquaint us with evil if she is to show us the price of a soul’s redemption. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” she uses satire to illustrate the active evil of murderers, the passive evil of grandmothers, and the alienation from the Divine that all evil holds in common. The terrifying moment of redemption she offers us is all the more precious for being both traumatically earned, and, in seeming contrast to the rigorously unsentimental satiric tone, profoundly compassionate. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is a blazing satirical attack on disbelief, but  with a fiercely empathetic heart.

A chief weapon in O’Connor’s satiric arsenal is the character of the unnamed grandmother. She is a stock archetype in Flannery O’Connor’s oeuvre; a fussy, manipulative, ridiculously old-fashioned Southern matron. Like Mrs. Turpin in “Revelation” or Julian’s Mother in “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” the grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is a living fossil of calcified Southern womanhood. The grandmother is obsessed with the outward appurtenances of a niceness the opposite of which isn’t cruelty, but commonness:

Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady. (138)

Not only is the old woman appearance-obsessed, but her worldview is so absurdly limited that she assumes everyone is equally superficial; “anyone” would infer her exalted status from the fake flowers pinned on her, even if she were a corpse. It’s an absurd image, as well as an efficiently ominous one, given what befalls her.

As with O’Connor’s other ridiculous matrons, the grandmother’s offspring often reject or ridicule her pretensions. Her family’s disdain prompts the grandmother to continually invoke a vanished age of better manners and, not coincidentally, entrenched Jim Crow-era Southern attitudes:

“In my time,” said the grandmother, folding her thin veined fingers, “children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else. People did right then. Oh look at the cute little pickaninny!” she said and pointed to a Negro child standing in the door of a shack. (139)

O’Connor immediately juxtaposes the grandmother’s pre-lapsarian “people did right back then” with a grossly reductive racial slur; manners may have mattered greatly “in [her] time,” but the dignity of fellow human beings of presumed lesser status clearly did not.

So intent is this woman on pursuing her romanticized sense of heritage that she succeeds in hijacking a planned family vacation to Florida. She had wanted instead “to visit some of her connections in East Tennessee.”(137) What these “connections” are we do not discover, but O’Connor’s use of “connections” rather than, say, “relatives,” suggests that the grandmother is drawn merely to her own relationship with Tennessee, rather than to any human loved ones there. Her Tennessee connections remain abstract, and her actual family couldn’t care less about them. Her eight-year-old grandson even dismisses the state as “just a hillbilly dumping ground.”(139)

Nevertheless, the old woman holds fast to her illusions, set to the tune of The Tennessee Waltz, replete with a gentleman suitor of her youth who owned Coca-Cola shares, and played against a backdrop of a dimly-remembered six-columned plantation house she visited once. On the family’s car trip through Georgia, the grandmother decides that this very plantation house is a crucial “educational” digression, and manipulates her family into trying to find it on a desolate rural back road. She even fabricates a wholly fictitious secret panel in the house which hides Confederate treasure, “not telling the truth but wishing she were” (143) in order to heighten the scabrous allure of the past. She is monomaniacal in dragging her offspring into a counterfeit plantation past along with her.

It is at this moment that O’Connor ratchets up both the character’s slapstick, and the story’s larger narrative irony. En route to her architectural delusion of grandeur, the mythologizing old woman suddenly experiences the “horrible thought” that the house is not on this Georgia road (which runs just past the darkly-named “Toombsville”) after all, but in Tennessee (if, the reader wonders, it ever existed). The old woman’s convulsive reactive twitch is a sharp burlesque of secret embarrassment. Its violence startles the cat she’s hidden in her valise, which attacks her son, causing him to drive off the road and crash. This visceral catastrophe is at once absurdly funny and decidedly fatal, as it renders the family helpless and exposed to the inevitable onslaught of The Misfit. Deepening the irony is the fact that had the family driven straight to Florida without the grandmother’s interference, they may have avoided the Misfit altogether.

The Misfit and his two accomplices arrive on the scene with preternatural efficiency in a “big black battered hearse-like automobile” (145), and the ensuing description of the men gives the reader little hope that they are genteel Southern gentlemen bent on chivalry. We meet Hiram, a spectre-like figure whose hat ominously obscures his face, and Bobby Lee, a grinning “fat boy” wearing a sweatshirt “with a silver stallion embossed on the front of it.” (146) Bobby Lee may be read as a perverse ironic reference to the Confederate heritage the grandmother so idolizes; another Robert Lee, the Civil War General, famously rode a silver gelding named Traveller throughout the war. It is as though the grandmother’s dream of the South has transformed into a grinning sweatshirt-clad nightmare.

As for The Misfit himself, he is described as gray-haired, bespectacled, and scholarly, as well as apologetically polite about his half-dressed appearance. This unassuming shabbiness somewhat recalls Dostoevsky’s down-at-heels Devil of The Brothers Karamazov. But the similarity ends there. Unlike Dostoevsky’s retiring, rather passively sardonic Devil figure, The Misfit exudes a commanding menace. We never see the Devil of Karamazov up to any sin of commission, whereas The Misfit efficiently dispatches the old woman’s family to their death in the woods at the hands of his henchmen.

Faced even with the murder of her entire family, O’Connor’s old woman still clings to her characteristic comical snobbishness, attempting to flatter The Misfit’s vanity by exclaiming “’I know you’re a good man. You don’t look a bit like you have common blood. I know you must come from nice people!’”(147) She thus subjects The Misfit to the same absurd superficial duality of niceness vs. commonness to which she has always held everyone.

She further entreats him to pray to Jesus, even calling Jesus’ name. This recitation is more like conventional superstitious piety than like prayer, however, another facet of her manipulation rather than a plea arising from faith, “almost sound[ing] as if she might be cursing” (151). And in any case, this facile evocation of Christianity renders The Misfit only more dangerous:

“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” the Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can…if I had been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.” (152)

The Misfit has made a choice arising out of the sin of despair; he refuses to make the leap of faith in Christ’s divinity and has consigned himself to “no pleasure but meanness.” It’s the tragedy of free will, the decision of a profoundly alienated human soul.

And with the story’s most transcendent touch of irony, it is The Misfit’s very despair that causes the grandmother’s sudden arrival at a state of Divine Grace. Grace isn’t visited upon her by the love of her family or her previous religious training, (which is likely Protestant, given that her grandson’s name is John Wesley (137), a seeming allusion to Methodism). It is The Misfit’s “face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry” (152) that moves her, suddenly, murmuringly, to truly empathize with him. She is no longer angling to survive her encounter, but has simply arrived, with the swift ineluctable mystery of a miracle, at a state where love and soulful connection transcend all obstacles, even that fatal distance between murderer and victim. She is simply dazzled by its truth, exclaiming “’Why, you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!’She reached out and touched him on the shoulder.” (152)

The Misfit seems to experience this outreach as a mortal assault, recoiling “as if a snake had bitten him and [shooting] her three times through the chest.”(152) Te still-unnamed grandmother dies with a smile on her face, gazing into heaven. At the cost of her life, her soul has been redeemed. And the Misfit has witnessed her Grace, firsthand. He acknowledges that had she faced the great cost of her soul before her final confrontation, she “would have been a good woman.” Afterwards, wiping his spectacles, The Misfit is pale and “defenseless-looking.” To the idiotic Bobby Lee, he amends his statement that there’s no pleasure in life but meanness, stating instead that there’s no pleasure in life at all.

I think this tiny shift in his apprehension of pleasure, bleak as it seems, leaves room for hope of The Misfit’s salvation. His last and only solace in the absence of the Divine, that of doing people harm, has been robbed of him by the grandmother’s final, transcendent empathy. A Good Man Is Hard to Find remains a comedy, not a tragedy, precisely because of The Misfit’s newly shaken state of despair, in which, perhaps, all is not lost.

Works Cited

O’Connor, Mary Flannery. “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” Flannery O’Connor Collected Works New York: The Library of America, 1988.

O’Connor, Mary Flannery. A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Flannery O’Connor Collected Works New York: The Library of America, 1988.

O’Connor, Flannery. “Letter to Sally and Robert Fitzgerald,January 1955” Flannery O’Connor Collected Works New York: The Library of America, 1988.