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White Trash in Faulkner

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Molly is currently an undergrad student majoring in Earth science and English and minoring in studio art.


William Faulkner’s The Hamlet and Absalom, Absalom! both focus on small towns in the South. These towns have, to use Kathleen Stewart’s words, “master narratives” and contain a “story of ‘America’”—a story which is impinged upon by an Other as Flem Snopes and Thomas Sutpen enter these towns. In The Hamlet, the Snopes family move in and Flem slowly but surely begins to accumulate wealth. In Absalom, Sutpen similarly enters a town and does all he can to gain respectability and wealth, albeit in a faster and more desperate way. Both men attempt to build families by marrying into respectability. Both men come from poor ‘white trash’ backgrounds and ultimately achieve wealth and other characteristics of status. Neither man ever truly enters into Stewart’s described “order of things,” however—despite their respective successes, they remain outliers in their towns and are generally disliked. This article examines the similarities and differences between these two men, especially in terms of what their characters may convey about race and class anxieties at the time—specifically anxieties surrounding ‘white trash’ and the inability to cleanly group whites into one privileged socioeconomic category. I analyze how the two men are received by the town, their historical backgrounds, how they go about attempting to assimilate, and their ultimate fates in each novel.

In Absalom, an entire section of the novel is dedicated to Sutpen’s past—where he was born, where he had traveled, and his entire life story prior to arriving in Mississippi. This provides the readers with a sense of his motivations and how he grew to be the man we observe throughout the story. Sutpen was born to a large poor white family in West Virginia, and at the young age of fourteen while working on a plantation, he experiences an event that essentially sets the course of his life. He learns “the difference not only between white men and black ones, but he was learning that there was a difference between white men and white men…” (183). Yet Sutpen simultaneously sees slaves “who wore every day better clothes than he or his father and sisters had ever owned and ever expected to,” (184). The inciting incident in his life is when he is sent to the main house on the plantation and is not allowed to enter through the front; he must go around the back. Sutpen, thoroughly hurt and humiliated, decides that he need “land and niggers and a find house to combat them with,” (192). He promptly leaves his family and moves to the West Indies to recreate himself, which ultimately fails when he learns that his new wife has black ancestry.

Sutpen’s class and racial anxiety is tangible: he views black slaves as inferior—they must be inferior for his own success—and black people are so low in his mind that he quickly leaves his new wife and their son upon learning of her heritage. Sutpen is so desperate to be removed from his young self, the version of his self that was turned away from the front entrance of the plantation house, that his racial anxiety extends into all parts of his life. As Sutpen accumulates his own slaves in Jefferson, he remains discontent: instead of simply owning slaves, he works them to such an extent in the building of Sutpen’s Hundred that townspeople view these black slaves as “legend” (27) as the building is erected in a mere two years. Sutpen physically fights his own slaves to further prove his worth—except the only person he so desperately needs to prove this to is his own self, as he does it twelve miles outside of town in the dead of night. His desperation to not be the lowest rung on the social ladder—as white trash was often viewed—is a key part of the novel.

In The Hamlet, unlike the fully fleshed backstory that Sutpen is given, the reader has almost no information about Flem Snopes’ past. When asked where his family is from, Ab Snopes simply replies “West” (9). Past that, there is no concrete information. Based on their initial tenant position in the town, it is clear that the family is economically poor, and thus Flem must have seen opportunity for gaining power and wealth. However, Flem’s lack of background forms a sharp contrast with Sutpen—the reader is unsure of why Flem does what he does. Sutpen clearly feels anxiety about his background and is desperate to gain respectability. He has obvious goals, and, despite the unique narrative framing of the story, the reader can gain access into the inner workings of Sutpen’s character. Flem seems more like a money machine; he slowly but steadily accumulates wealth and climbs the economic ladder of Frenchman’s Bend. Neither the characters nor the reader ever sees into Flem’s thought process, he is always presented from the exterior. His lack of morality is almost fear-inducing, especially to the other residents of the town, and his rise to power is a prime example of some very real racial and economic anxieties at the time. What happens when poor ‘white trash’ can gain wealth and power solely through their skin color, while still being morally unfit and unable to embody the characteristics of white elites?

Another key piece of background in The Hamlet is the fact that Frenchman’s Bend itself has, quite literally, no black characters; perhaps one black servant is mentioned throughout the course of the novel. These almost (but not quite) creates a raceless backdrop, in which the problems within the white race are brought to the forefront. Whereas in Absalom we can observe Sutpen’s self-hatred through his interactions with his slaves and those of mixed heritage, in The Hamlet we see—in Sutpen’s words—the differences between white men and white men.

Flem and his family’s initial arrival in Frenchman’s Bend is initially met with slight anxiety from the town. Flem immediately blackmails Varner into hiring him with the strong implication that if he is not hired, he will continue his family’s rumored tradition of barn burning. When Flem then becomes the clerk in Varner’s store, he keeps meticulous account of the payments. As two men from the town point out: “And folks don’t like it…Who in hell’s store do you think this is, anyway?” (63). Ratliff responds, “Well, we know whose store it is yet, anyway,” (63). The town observes Flem slowly moving his way from living under his poor, barn-burning father’s home to wearing “the only tie in Frenchman’s Bend country” (64) excluding Will Varner himself. He continues to lend money and build businesses until “even Ratliff had lost count of what profit Snopes might have made,” (74).

Flem’s newfound wealth, although it helps him create a home and family, does nothing for the rest of Frenchman’s Bend—indeed, it even becomes harmful, especially as he begins to financially extort people. Yet they are unable to stop him. Imagine, if Flem and the Snopeses were black: they would have been socially disallowed into the all-white community, yes, but moreover they would never have gained any significant wealth or power. Flem’s whiteness allows him to play the role of a white elite despite his poor background. He never truly embodies the aristocracy, however: he maintains the impropriety and immorality of ‘white trash.’ This is what creates the anxiety in the town: while Will Varner is a rich white, the townspeople know his morals and they know that he is ‘one of them.’ Flem, on the other hand, is not above swindling and tricking people. Even after he has made a significant fortune, he continues to play games with the town, most notably by deceiving townspeople into buying wild ponies and scamming Ratliff into buying useless land.

When Sutpen enters Jefferson, the townspeople almost immediately take action to attempt to remove him. They arrest him and “[arraign] him before a justice,” (36). They see him as “in a sense a public enemy…the affront was born of the town’s realization that he was getting it involved with himself; that whatever the felony which produced the mahogany and crystal, he was forcing the town to compound it,” (33). Whereas Flem is at first unassuming and later sneaky, Sutpen is bold and unafraid to announce himself and his goals. This creates a different kind of anxiety: Flem was almost intangible until it was too late and he had already accumulated his wealth, and thus the anxiety in Frenchman’s Bend was subtle and not enough to actually drive people to action.

Sutpen, however, invokes anxiety and even violence in the townspeople almost immediately. He flaunts his property and goods—which the town naturally assumes were stolen, as he does not appear to be a man of wealth—and brazenly grows Sutpen’s Hundred through trading and buying from Native Americans and thieves that the townspeople do not associate with. Similarly to in The Hamlet, Sutpen’s wealth has only the power to corrupt the town. Rather than investing it into the community, he uses it to his own advantage and, even after marriage, is only truly concerned with himself. This reflects much of the anxiety surrounding white trash: these lowdown people are able to gain wealth due to their skin color, but they still remain as irresponsible and even destructive as they were brought up.

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Once Flem and Sutpen are first established as property owners in their respective towns, they pick similar methods of assimilation to further their respectability and power. Specifically, both men marry into the most respectable family in their town: Flem Snopes marries Eula Varner, Will Varner’s daughter, while Thomas Sutpen marries Ellen Coldfield, who becomes his second wife. Again, the reader is able to gain access to Sutpen’s ideology on this matter while Flem’s motives remain to be guessed. Sutpen states: “I had a design in mind…To accomplish it I should require money, a house, a plantation, slaves, a family—incidentally of course, a wife. I set out to acquire these…” (212). He does not care about his wife as a person, he simply cares that she is able to play a role in his idealized future and allow him to join the upper class. When his first wife is discovered to be of mixed heritage, he immediately abandons her as she will disallow him from gaining status and power.

Sutpen goes on to have children with Ellen, thus mixing the blood of poor ‘white trash’ and respectable whites. The outcome is, in the long run, tragic: Henry murders Sutpen’s first son, Charles Bon, to stop an incestuous and miscegenous marriage between Charles and Henry’s sister Judith. This, too, reflects some anxieties surrounding poor whites, especially when they become involved in the affairs of the rich. Sutpen’s children, rather than being elevated to the rank and propriety of Ellen, become murderers and participants in incest. They wreak havoc and present a danger to the town. Sutpen also loses his heirs and the chance to pass on his wealth to a child who could actually be respectable.

Flem and Eula, on the other hand, have no children. Eula is the daughter of the wealthiest and most respected man in town, and Flem has the opportunity to assimilate and create a family with her, yet they remain sterile. Perhaps this reflects Flem being unable to truly and completely assimilate into society—he remains poor ‘white trash’ in character despite his ability to gain wealth. He lacks the characteristics of the actual elite, which are also paternalistic values: general decency, empathy, and fairness. Thus, he is unfit as a member of the upper class and, in turn, unfit to act as a father.

Flem and Sutpen meet very different ends. Sutpen, after returning from the war and finding his home in a state of disarray, begins to seduce the Wash Jones’ daughter, Milly. Wash is another example of poor ‘white trash’ in this novel, and by begin to court his daughter, Sutpen begins to show how desperate he is for an heir. He sets aside his own desire for respectability. Milly’s pregnancy leads to a girl, however, and Sutpen quickly rejects her and her child. Wash Jones attempts to reason with Sutpen and Sutpen thus whips him across the face. Consequently, Wash Jones “fixe[s] old Sutpen at last” with a “scythe” (230): he is overcome with hatred, both due to the treatment of his daughter and likely his self, and murders Sutpen. Sutpen thus ultimately dies at the hands of white trash, an end that he no doubt would have felt humiliated by.

Wash Jones, another poor white, seems almost more dignified than Sutpen in this moment. He cares for his daughter such that he is unable to stand by and allow her to be treated so poorly, and he reflects the desires of much of the poor white class to rise up and obtain greater wealth and equality. However, this moment is quickly forgotten: Wash goes on to murder his entire family the next day and is then killed by Major De Spain. This reflects what many likely viewed as the self-destructive nature of white trash, and the possibility of this destruction bringing down respectable whites with it: Wash almost kills Major De Spain with his scythe, too. Sutpen and Wash show a complete disregard for how these matters should be handled by the standards of society. While Wash Jones’ actions may be expected, as he was never obviously trying to rise to the upper classes, Sutpen’s actions further prove that he is unable to truly reach his aspirations because he has no regard for how wealthy whites act.

This paper only explores Flem Snopes in relation to the events in The Hamlet but analyzing the other novels in the Snopes trilogy may be of interest to this argument and may lead to different conclusions. In The Hamlet, Flem ultimately cheats Ratliff and then leaves Frenchman’s Bend for Jefferson with Eula. People in the town speculate on what he will do in the future when he returns. Thus, Flem is in stark contrast with Sutpen: he ultimately ‘wins.’ Flem achieves the position in society that he desired, and the town must pay for it. They are time and time again swindled and tricked by Flem, and as far as the reader can see, he feels no remorse. This is the consequence of a poor white being able to successfully rise to such power: destruction to the town.

Thus, both Flem Snopes and Thomas Sutpen manage to rise to power and gain the wealth that they crave. They both build homes, create families, and attempt to instate themselves into the towns. The two men go about this in notably different ways and reflect different anxieties surrounding white trash, as well. Flem represents a slow, creeping assimilation: he is sneaky and never gives Frenchman’s Bend anything tangible to use against him. He slowly but surely accumulates wealth and ultimately is successful in his scheme. Sutpen, on the other hand, represents a more desperate and destructive type of assimilation: the town almost immediately hates him as he does everything within his power to get rich, fast. He has no regard for how he is perceived, he simply wants to gain power.

Yet, both men ultimately fail at becoming the wealthy white elites that they so desire to emulate. Neither town ever accepts these outsiders from ‘white trash’ backgrounds. Flem, despite his more successful, long-term rise to power, continues to trick money out of people even when he no longer needs to. He is unkind to the people of Frenchman’s Bend and seems to have no empathy or consideration for them past finding a way to take their money. Sutpen—in addition to ultimately self-destructing—is unable to gain respectability as well. He respects only his self and shows no care for almost any other character in the novel. He remains just as uncivilized as poor whites were believed to be as he physically fights his slaves and throws aside ex-wives with no care. Thus, despite both men elevating their socioeconomic status, they are unable to gain the morality and chivalry associated with the upper class. The anxieties surrounding the poor whites’ rise to power is deeply felt in the towns in each novel; the communities never accept either man.

Works Cited

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! Vintage Books, 1936.

Stewart, Kathleen. A Space on the Side of the Road. Princeton University Press, 1996.

William Faulkner. The Hamlet. Vintage Books, 1940.

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