Thursday, July 16, 2009

134. The Hamlet – William Faulkner

June 2008
History: Published in 1940, the novel is the first of the "Snopes" trilogy.
Plot: Most of the book centers around Frenchman's Bend, into which the heirs of Ab and his family have migrated from parts unknown. In the beginning of the book Ab, his wife, daughter, and son Flem settle down as tenant farmers beholden to the powerful Varner family. As the book progresses, the Snopes move from being poor outcasts to a very controversial, if not dangerous element in the life of the town. Snopes eventually marries Varner's daughter Eula, and receives the town's famous old mansion as a dowry. He sells the mansion in a swindle which involves a rumor of buried gold coins. His low pursuits of money ultimately bring him real power. In contrast, V.K. Ratliff stands as the moral hero of the novel. Faulkner uses the eccentricities of the Snopes to great comic effect, most notably in his description of Ike Snopes and his carnal inclinations towards livestock. But the book also tells stories about other members of the Snopes Family. Mink Snopes kills a man, and hides his body in a hollow tree in the beginning of one amazing story. Mink's cousin Lump Snopes arrives, aware of the murder, and demanding a share of the money which murdered man was carrying. Lump hadn't realized there was money on the body, and now knows he must retrieve it. The man's dog circles the tree stump, determined to avenge his master's death. Lump pounces from the darkness, determined to find his own way to the money.
Review: Faulkner enjoyed writing about the Snopes family, and 17 years later revisited the characters for a sequel called "The Town" (in 1957). He continued the stories about the family's assorted rascals just two years later in "The Mansion." The Snopes characters also appear in some of Faulkner's most famous short stories. All three novels are often sold together in a collection called "the Snopes trilogy" - but it's this first novel the family's chronicles their unlikely rise to power begins.
Some of the chapters in "The Hamlet" were published separately as short stories - but they're fantastic stories. The shady art of "horse trading" was never demonstrated so well, and one chapter contains one of Faulkner's most disturbing passages - the fond romantic thoughts of the mentally retarded cousin, Ike Snopes...for a local cow. One unfortunate school teacher falls in love with the uninterested Eula Varner, though the object of his romantic doom has exactly one line in the novel - "Stop pawing me, you old headless horseman Ichabod Crane." It's almost poetic line, though one literary critic suggested there was an important symbol behind it from the world of literature. Ichabod Crane, also a schoolteacher, had disrupted a rural village with his intellect until he was driven away by a carefully-timed pumpkin shell.
Faulkner's great writing ability livens up every chapter in this novel, but his grand style seems sadly amused at the small town's unusual characters. Faulkner delighted in showing the South's grand traditions crumbling slowly into meaninglessness with the passing of generations. They're driven by a greed and desperation that Faulkner captures completely, giving it an almost redeeming poignancy. "The Hamlet" has its share of low lifes - but Faulkner's vision is nobler than that.
Opening Line: “Frenchman’s Bend was a section of rich river bottom country lying twenty miles southeast of Jefferson.”
Closing Line: “He jerked the reigns slightly, “Come up”, he said.”
Quotes: “He ain’t naturally mean. He’s just soured.”
Rating: Very Good

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