William Faulkner, Sanctuary

SanctuarySanctuary by William Faulkner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Faulkner claimed he wrote this brutal 1931 novel as a potboiler. Superficially, this is plausible: a lurid and violent criminal melodrama free of the overt modernist experimentation Faulkner’s other works from the period, The Sound and the Fury (1929) and As I Lay Dying (1930), Sanctuary could well be nothing more than a serious writer’s sell-out book for American literature’s “hard-boiled” era. Moreover, the tactic worked. This novel won Faulkner more fame and money than he had yet received for his fiction. Even the mitigating quality of the novel’s social seriousness as a critique of southern mores could be explained as giving the audience what it wanted, since the metropolitan readers who have always controlled American publishing tend to want gritty exposés of backward regions or submerged classes, all the better to allow them to enjoy vicious spectacles of rape and murder with a clean conscience, as if their attention were a form of charity.

Sanctuary’s complex plot begins with lawyer Horace Benbow fleeing his wife and his stepdaughter, with whose budding sexuality he is obsessed. On the way to his sister’s house, he encounters a decaying plantation run as a bootlegging site by Lee Goodwin. Goodwin lives with his long-suffering paramour, Ruby Lamar, and their baby, who sleeps in a box behind the stove, along with a mentally challenged man named Tommy. Finally, there is the menacing, mysterious, and almost inhuman Popeye, whom Benbow meets and with whom he has a two-hour staring contest at the novel’s opening:

He saw, facing him across the spring, a man of under size, his hands in his coat pockets, a cigarette slanted from his chin. His suit was black, with a tight, high-waisted coat. His trousers were rolled once and caked with mud above mud-caked shoes. His face had a queer, bloodless color, as though seen by electric light; against the sunny silence, in his slanted straw hat and his slightly akimbo arms, he had that vicious depthless quality of stamped tin.

As the novel develops, one of Benbow’s sister’s suitors, the alcoholic Gowan Stevens, takes Ole Miss coed and debutante Temple Drake to the plantation to get booze; Stevens promptly wrecks his car, and the couple is forced to stay among the dangerous bootleggers. Temple’s captivity takes up most of the novel’s first third, an eerie, slowly paced, ritual-like process of obsessiveness, as the predatory criminals circle the young woman, and Ruby attempts to help her despite her class-based contempt for the haughty debutante. Finally, in the moment for which the novel has been notorious since its publication—even though the event is never actually described—Popeye shoots Tommy, who has also been attempting to protect Temple, and then rapes her with a corncob. The remainder of the novel, which has not lingered in popular memory, is a double plot with two foci: Benbow’s attempt to exonerate Goodwin, who has been erroneously charged with Tommy’s murder; and Temple’s travails in the Memphis brothel where Popeye has imprisoned her.

Sanctuary has a reputation for misogyny that I think is unearned. It is a ruthless, unsparing description of a society organized around the rigorous control of young women’s sexuality, at every level from the criminal underworld to the judiciary and by every agency from male judges to female bawds. The novel’s elliptical narrative method, about which more below, means that it is never titillating or exploitative in its descriptions of sexual violence. Its portrayal of Temple herself and of what is implied to be her complicity in her own exploitation is understandably disturbing, and critics point to the animal imagery that surrounds Temple—including her masculinized animal surname—as evidence of Faulkner’s conviction of female sexual corruption and natural evil. On the other hand, Temple is also described over and over again as a child or child-like, while her father’s reclamation of her at the conclusion evokes her kidnapping by Popeye. Even the novel’s ostensible hero, Benbow, is inspired to help Temple because of his own sexual obsession with his stepdaughter, whom he imagines as Temple in a vision of violating sexual congress accompanied by an ambiguous organic response of his own, either ejaculation or vomiting, with the confusion between the two signifying less Faulkner’s misogynistic disgust than his attempt to analyze that very malady in the person of his protagonist.

If Temple’s and Benbow’s behaviors are at least partially explained by their social conditioning, so too is Popeye’s, when a concluding chapter flashes back to his troubled childhood. While his actions are not excused, Faulkner suggests that he, like Temple, had very little chance to become anything other than what he became. While Popeye is an ancestor of the inexplicably malignant murderer who will reappear in the works of Faulkner’s literary legatees—e.g., O’Connor’s Misfit, McCarthy’s Chigurh—as well as being replicated by any number of movie psychos, Faulkner furnishes social and psychological testimony in his vicious antagonists’ favor. Evil for Faulkner may be metaphysical, but it is articulated socially, not as an essential property of the individual. The social order is fate: hence André Malraux’s famous claim that Sanctuary introduces Greek tragedy into detective fiction.

All the same, let me not oversell Sanctuary as a reformist tract. If fate is fate, then there may be no reform possible. Faulkner borrows a caricatural energy from the sentimental reformer Dickens—particularly in the brothel scenes, where the obscenely vital madame Miss Reba and her dogs steal the show—but the novel’s master is the amoral and apolitical realist-aesthete Flaubert:

[Popeye] smells black, Benbow thought; he smells like that black stuff that ran out of Bovary’s mouth and down upon her bridal veil when they raised her head.

Faulkner moves the blackness signifying sexual abjection from the interior of the female body to the person of a male rapist, which certifies the novel as a critique of its society’s gender politics. But the reader has to work to unravel this meaning, which remains immanent to its dramatization and which may even have been beneath the author’s own conscious notice. There is no Harriet Beecher Stowe jeremiad summoning us to redemption, and in fact Faulkner contemptuously satirizes Christian moralism throughout the novel.

The whole novel functions in this dramatic rather than didactic way: chapters begin in medias res with scenes whose relevance we have to decipher. The tone, too, is wildly various, from the nightmare-slowness of the early chapters focused on Temple’s captivity to the venerable bawdy comedy of misapprehension, a tradition stretching from Greek pastoral to Beavis and Butt-Head, of the two bumpkins lodged in Miss Reba’s brothel, which they take for a hotel. Much crucial action occurs off-stage or is reported in vague dialogue. The reader becomes, like Benbow, a searcher for truth, and like Temple, a baffled navigator in a corrupt, labyrinthine world.

Sanctuary certainly lacks the hortatory sanctimony of Victorian realism, which many readers also enjoy today; it proceeds rather by defamiliarization or estrangement, as theorized almost contemporaneously by the Russian Formalist critics, themselves inspired by Tolstoy’s strategy of criticizing his society by literarily refusing to use its own customary names for its forms and objects but instead describing them as if seen for the first time. There is no guarantee in this strategy: it provokes the reader to think without telling the reader what to think. On the other hand, in giving the reader an object to contemplate—i.e., the novel—that aspires to the complexity of life itself, it may make readers much more supple and subtle thinkers than we would have been had we remained the proverbial choir addressed by the preachers of sentimentalism.

In this way, Sanctuary, a novel that envisions and offers no sanctuary whatever, is more than just an attempted moneymaker, as Faulkner knew. He wrote in a 1932 preface to the novel that he hoped it would be “something which would not shame The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying too much.” It does not.