Thursday, December 02, 2010
Sanctuary by William Faulkner
The first thing that everyone knows about Sanctuary is that it is a ‘potboiler’, a crass piece of commercial exploitation. After all, didn’t Faulkner himself dismiss it as a ‘cheap idea’ and ‘terrible’? Well, no, he didn’t actually. Not exactly. Faulkner was a difficult character, at times a truculent interviewee, and what he says is often not at all what he means. It pays not to take him literally. And so he did, indeed, call the basic plot of Sanctuary a ‘cheap idea’ but this is at some remove from calling it a cheap novel. He also claimed to have written it in three weeks, while research into the original holographs suggests a much longer and more painstaking gestation. He even paid to make revisions to the galleys.
So the question remains, is this really only a potboiler, driven by commercialism and lacking in literary merit? I would suggest not. While the plot is undoubtedly sensational, it is not sensationalistic: Faulkner may stretch for impact – shock was a regular tactic of his – but one does not feel that this is gratuitous. And the principal reason for that, the factor which, for me, singles this out as a work of fine literature and not schlock, is the strength of characterisation which is revealed through the admittedly lurid plot. The plot of a potboiler merely drives the action to an inevitable conclusion in the most dramatic way possible; the plot of Sanctuary places the souls of its collection of characters, in the words of the Faulkneresque Cormac McCarthy, ‘at hazard’.
Andre Malraux makes a similar point in his contemporaneous ‘Preface for Faulkner’s Sanctuary’ when he states: ‘The plot is important in that it is the most efficient way of revealing an ethical or poetic fact in its greatest intensity. The worth of the plot is in what it engenders.’ I’m not sure I agree with Malraux’s definition of what, exactly, is engendered in Sanctuary – ‘destiny’, it feels to me, is too glib, too easy an explanation of the whirl of emotions and events that engulfs the characters in Faulkner’s fiction (although I do like Malraux’s identification of Faulkner’s insistent and consistent analysis of ‘the irreparable’) – but his initial point is well made.
The basic plot unfolds from an ill-starred date between Gowan Stevens and little rich girl Temple Drake. Gowan gets hopelessly drunk and abandons Temple to the clutches of a group of bootleggers and gangsters. Temple undergoes a night of terror, and flees, with the help of the simple-minded Tommy, to a corn-crib to hide. The impotent gangster, Popeye, finds them, kills Tommy and rapes Temple with a corn cob. He abducts her and places her in a brothel where she falls under his spell and has sex with another gangster, Red, while Popeye gains vicariously voyeuristic pleasure from watching them. Meanwhile, another bootlegger, Lee Goodwin, is accused of Tommy’s murder and placed on trial. Horace Benbow, an idealistic young lawyer, takes on the case and even tries to find accommodation for Goodwin’s lover and their ill daughter, despite their ostracism by the community. Events career to a bloody and terrible climax, and it is Temple, whose perjurious testimony in Goodwin’s trial seals his fate, who is at the centre of it and is therefore at the crux of the novel’s message.
Everything revolves around Temple, and this in itself reveals the astonishing depth of Faulkner’s writing. Temple is young, naïve, intellectually and emotionally unformed, and yet she is the pivot on which the entire novel swings. Men’s lives are altered irrevocably, and not only Goodwin’s. Firstly, less seriously, Gowan Stevens, the young man who takes Temple on the ill-fated date and who falls prey to hubris, becoming overcome with drink while trying to show off to the bootleggers how well he could handle it, and finally fleeing in shame, leaving Temple to her fate. Then Tommy, simple, decent, but still prey to the failings of men, whose desire to be with Temple (to do good, or to do bad, or to do both? We don’t know) leads to his death. Red, the one person with whom Temple appears to enjoy anything resembling a happy relationship, who is killed by Popeye in a moment of jealousy. And Popeye himself, the least convincing, perhaps, of the characters in the novel, at least until the unexpected coda which fills in his backstory and makes him appear more human. Here is a man, probably, whose life was fated to be violent and short, and so it proves. And finally Horace, a weak-willed man who has goodness in his heart but not the wherewithal to exploit it. Horace is an intellectual and and idealist who believes he can ensure that good will prevail but he is quickly overcome by the forces of evil – both outside and inside him – he so blithely underestimates.
And so each of these men is presented to us in all their flaws, and it is through their interaction with Temple that these flaws are progressively revealed. Does this mean, then, that Temple is a catalyst for evil? Some critics have indeed portrayed her in such a light, and she has not received a good press over the years, but this is not entirely fair. She is only seventeen, the daughter of a judge, a student at ‘Ole Miss’ and, therefore, likely to have had a sheltered, privileged upbringing. She rebels. How familiar is that story? Every single reader of this blog will be able, quickly, to identify someone who, as a youth, ‘went to the bad’. Most return at some stage, when maturity and responsibility wears us down. Temple does not, because she is not able to. She is thrust into a world she cannot understand, where passions override morality and strength counters argument. Those who can, take. Those who submit, provide. It is Darwinism shorn of any semblance of a restraining social order.
Seventeen-year-old Temple, a plastic coquette, is wholly out of her depth. She is a tragic figure, a child-woman abandoned in the harsh world of men, precocious enough to adopt the symbols of louche womanhood – dress, lipstick, pose – but guileless in their application, an innocent set unerringly on the path to destruction. It would be harsh in the extreme to point to her perjury, no matter how ruinous it is, or to her selfishness or apparent wantonness, and to dismiss her as an unredeemable character. Of these offences she is undoubtedly guilty, but could she be anything other? Could the path she takes, abandoned by Gowan, corrupted by Popeye, lusted after by Goodwin, used by Red, subjected to indifference or incomprehension by all around her except the halfwit Tommy (and even his motives are not straightforward), have led anywhere else? It is important to remember that Temple is guileless, barely more than a child, impressionable and riven by fear. That she has terrible taste in men is hardly a unique failing, and that she credulously believes the self-serving responses of those to whom she attaches herself is emblematic, not of complicity, but of naivete. Temple reappears in Faulkner’s later novel, Requiem for a Nun, and declares she ‘like[s] evil”, but just as it well serves a critic not to read Faulkner’s own words too literally, so it does for his characters. The spiritual sister of Tess Durbeyfield, Temple is more in need of love than revilement. But then, love – isn’t that just William Faulkner reduced to a single word? Love. Or perhaps, here, two words. Love abandoned.
And love reappears in the character of Horace Benbow, the ineffectual lawyer, but here too it is a stunted love, compromised, ultimately ruined. Again, Horace is a remarkably complex character. He it is who insists on representing Goodwin, in the full knowledge that he is unable to pay him for the service. He it is who continues to help Goodwin’s lover and her child in the face of ugly public opprobrium. Here, surely, is a decent man, another Atticus Finch battling on the side of decency against the grim forces of prejudice and Calvinist judgement? But no, Horace is a deeply flawed man, riven by doubts. He is a 'shrimp' before his large, domineering wife, whom he leaves in the course of the novel, only to return in humiliation at its end. And, more crucially, he is tormented by incestuous attraction to his own daughter, Little Belle.
Joseph R. Urgo makes a compelling connection between Horace’s reaction to Temple’s revelation of her rape and his own feelings for Little Belle: each is eroticised in his mind, and the linkage of his daughter to eroticised renditions of rape appalls him. He discovers, as Urgo explains, ‘a potentiality within himself which places him in collusion with a rapist.’ This revelation, Urgo further argues, explains Horace’s silence in court when Temple perjures herself and condemns Horace’s client: faced with the woman whose experience embodies his own mental guilt, he is ‘self-condemned’. At the last, he fails to provide any support for Goodwin, and from that moment his fate is sealed.
The final message is chilling. A taxi driver turns to Horace after the trial and subsequent murder of Goodwin and tells him, “We got to protect our girls. Might need them ourselves.” So there we have it: the taint runs deep, each of us has cause to question our motivations in life. It is a difficult message, but a serious one. And not the sort of impression your average potboiler would seek to leave you with.