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SHELDON S. KOHN Zayed University “You’re Like Me”: Flem Snopes and the Dynamics of Citizenship in William Faulkner’s The Town ON THE FIRST PAGE OF WILLIAM FAULKNER’S THE TOWN, IN THE VERY second paragraph, Chick Mallison asserts himself, and by relationship and affiliation the other narrators in this novel, as the voice of establishment Jefferson: “So when I say ‘we’ and ‘we thought’ what I mean is Jefferson and what Jefferson thought” (3). Gavin Stevens soon thereafter excludes the Snopes family as Others with a we/they dichotomy: “when I say ‘they’ I mean Snopeses” (29). Since no narrator holds any qualms about speaking authoritatively, the reader faces considerable challenges throughout this novel in separating fact from speculation or projection. Many events in The Town are told secondhand—often reported but not witnessed, filtered through consciousness, preconception, and especially the social privilege and unspoken rules of the “we” group. Gavin Stevens’s chapters, in particular, seem marked by obsessive, unyielding antipathy to all things Snopes, especially to Flem Snopes. Gavin never understands, or perhaps simply refuses to understand, that Flem adopts and appropriates the social processes in Jefferson that have longbeenpracticedandmaintainedforthebenefitofestablishedpersons and families. While Gavin sees Flem as creating evil where there was before only virtue, Flem actually becomes a mirror, the most honest reflection of all that Jefferson really believes about civic virtue and justice.1 Faulkner’s narrative strategy in The Townhas led some critics to limit their views of Flem Snopes to the pronouncements of Gavin Stevens and V. K. Ratliff.2 These two characters are accepted and established 1 Woodrow Stroble describes Flem Snopes as a “crazed mirror reflecting man’s troubled nature” (210). 2 Social dynamics in Jefferson have long been established by the time the events in the novel occur. Members of Gavin’s privileged generation benefit from whatever ruthlessness their predecessors engaged in to create their version of respectability. 462 Sheldon S. Kohn members of the Jefferson social and economic hierarchy, with Gavin muchbetterplacedbybirth.NeithercharacterviewsFlemsympathetically, though Gavin remains unrelentingly harsh. Raymond J. Wilson, III, provides an excellent overview of criticism situating Flem as evil usurper in Jefferson, in line with Gavin’s view. For example, Wilson quotes Paul Levine as writing, “Society does not corrupt Flem Snopes; instead he corrupts society” (432). Wilson bases his reading of The Town on Flem’s ability to imitate the behavior of privilege in Jefferson, pointing out that critics have erroneously emphasized “the unique characteristics which they believe Flem inherently possessed” (432). Wilson would have us consider instead how “the steps of Flem’s climb reveal the moral shortcomings of Jefferson” (433). Frances Louisa Nichol reports, “Faulkner scholarship traditionally follows Gavin Stevens and V. K. Ratliff, two narrator-characters, in depicting Flem Snopes as an evil and inhumane barterer, despite Faulkner’s own explanations” (494). She also notes that Flem “merely follows the already-established rules of the game” (496). Mauri Skinfill warns that reading “Flem as a simply despicable capitalist is to miss the point of his social failure” (141). In a recent article focusing on Mink Snopes, Debra MacComb describes “Flem’s coldly calculated self-advancement in the New South” (345). Richard Godden creates much-needed critical space for reconsideration of the Snopes Trilogy through his “Anti-Ratliffian Reading” of The Hamlet. Godden argues that “While not simplifying Flem, critics have tended to narrow the focus of his complexity” (82). He adds that “Flem may be misread if he is too readily allegorized as the agent of something as generic as ‘capital’” (83). Godden correctly resists reading Flem backwards from The Mansion because to do so is “to embourgeoisify Flem too soon and too emphatically” (85). Ratliff.’s, and I would add Gavin’s, view of Flem is “partial, interested, and class based” (87). Godden concludes with a call for new views of both Ratliff and Flem: “Revision is overdue in that readers have generally found Ratliff persuasive, and as a result have tended to cast Flem as some species of capitalist, and to give him bad press” (114). One would hesitate to give Flem good press, for he is indeed as grasping and greedy as critics have noted, representing many of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 461-481
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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