In The Mansion, the last of William Faulker's Snopes Trilogy, Flem Snopes is killed by his
daughter Linda and his cousin Mink because he betrayed family and clan ties. Flem used his wife
Eula for his success and finally drove her to suicide. He also took advantage of his daughter' s love
for him and tried to deprive her of her property. When Mink, detained on a charge of killing Jack
Houston, desperately needed Flem's help, the cousin didn't even appear. They took revenge on him
for his betrayal. The story, though, as Cleanth Brooks pointed out (Brooks 227-28), can also be
read as of a class struggle: a capitalist Flem is killed by a communist Linda and a poor white, a
member of the exploited, Mink. First, I try to reinforce the reading by scrutinizing Mink's murder
of Houston, which occurred thirty-eight years before that of Flem. The details strongly suggest
that there were striking similarities between them--in fact, the latter repeated the former.1|
In the Houston case, a five-dollar bill was stolen to buy buckshot shells to kill Houston, in the Flem case it was a ten-dollar bill to buy a pistol to kill Flem. Thirty-eight years before Mink spent a night in Jefferson Station, now, in the Flem case, it took place in Memphis Station. In both cases the first shell didn't go off, and the second one killed the target.2 Mink spent thirty-seven and a half days building fences before he killed Houston, and thirty-eight years in the Parchman penitentiary before he killed Flem. Mink himself remembered the Houston killing when he was afraid the pistol to kill Flem might misfire (687). A railroad track before Jefferson reminded him of thirty-eight years before (693). At the critical moment when he rolled back the cylinder and fired again, he also recalled the past.
... again that faint something out of the past nudged, prodded .... Hit's all right he thought Hit'll go this time.... (702-3)What was the motive, then, of the Houston killing, which we seem to be strongly asked to refer to when we examine the Flem case? The direct cause was trouble over Mink's cow, but behind it there was a wide gulf between the rich and the poor, a class difference between the landed class and poor whites, which may have made Mink angry enough to kill Houston. He saw Houston as "a durn surly sullen son of a bitch that didn't even know he was lucky: rich, not only rich enough to afford a wife to whine and nag and steal his pockets ragged of every dollar he made, but rich enough to do without a wife if he wanted: rich enough to be able to hire a woman to cook his victuals instead of having to marry her. Rich enough to hire another nigger to get up in his stead on the cold mornings and go out in the wet and damp to feed not only the beef cattle which he sold at the top fat prices because he could afford to hold them till then, but that blooded stallion too..." (340).
Each afternoon ... he would walk up the muddy road ... to watch Houston's pedigreed beef herd, his own sorry animal among them, move, not even hurrying, toward and into the barn which was warmer and tighter against the weather than the cabin he lived in, to be fed by the hired Negro who wore warmer clothing than any he and his family possessed, cursing into the steamy vapor of his own breathing, cursing the Negro for his black skin inside the warmer garments than his, a white man's, cursing the very rich feed devoted to cattle instead of humans even though his own animal shared it; cursing above all the unawares white man through or because of whose wealth such a condition could obtain.... (340-41)Class envy was clearly part of what lay behind the Houston killing. Will Varner who economically controlled Frenchman's Bend began to fear that their strife might disturb the order. ("Varner ... was suddenly afraid, afraid for the peace and quiet of the community which he held in his iron usurious hand, buttressed by the mortgages and liens in the vast iron safe in his store" .) Mink was fully class-conscious. After he killed Houston, he said that Varner took sides with Houston and "[l]ikely Will Varner couldn't do nothing else, being a rich man too and all you rich folks has got to stick together or else maybe some day the ones that aint rich might take a notion to raise up and take hit away from you."(366)
Likely Will Varner couldn't do nothing else, being a rich man too and all you rich folks has got to stick together or else maybe some day the ones that aint rich might take a notion to raise up and take hit away from you. (366) Thirty-eight years later a symbol of "the rich," the capitalists, is none other than Flem Snopes, a bank president. The person who helped Mink kill Flem by getting him out of the penitentiary and providing money was Linda, a dyed-in-the-wool Communist, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War. The reading that a capitalist Flem is killed by a member of the exploited, Mink, and a communist Linda, can be reinforced by referring to the Houston killing.3 Though Linda's Communism should receive more emphasis, the Communism in Jefferson has another aspect. Two Finnish Communists, who later became Linda's comrades, tried to recruit proletariats in Jefferson.
The only means he had was to recruit, convert communists, and the only material he had were Negroes. Because among us white male Jeffersons there was one concert of unanimity ... against everybody they called commnuists now.... (523)So they tried to find their sympathizers among "Negroes."
... both of them were already well advanced outside the Jefferson pale, not by being professed communists: nobody would have cared how much of a communist the little one [of the two Finns] merely professed himself to be so long as he didn't actually interfere with local wage scales ... but Negro-lovers: consorters, political affiliators with Negroes.... But association of any sort was too much; the local police were already looking crosseyed at them.... (523-24)The remark is full of the mockery and bias of a "male white Jefferson," Charles Mallison. It shows that the Communism in Jefferson is hated because of its association with African-Americans. Linda tried to improve their educational conditions first of all after a meeting with two Finnish Communists. The scrawl "Nigger Lover" aimed at Linda appeared on the sidewalk in front of Flem's mansion where she lived. That Communists sought solidarity with African-Americans before anything else and that the white Jeffersons who socially and economically controlled Jefferson feared not the Communism itself but its association with African-Americans show both of them knew that the socio-economic structure (class structure) and the racism structure were closely connected--in fact, the latter supported the former. Given all this, let us re-examine the story with close attention to its race context. In the late 1950s, when Faulkner wrote the novel, racial problems in the South were again drawing national attention. Faulkner himself made comments on actual incidents and was deeply concerned about the matter.
Though repetition is the main narrative method in the two murders, the descriptions of Mink's relationship with African-Americans make a sharp contrast. Mink hated Houston's "Negroes" deeply because their better living conditions were better than his (see the quotation from 340-41 before). He vented his anger on them and other "Negroes" in various cases. For example, he cursed the "Negro" who refused to permit "a second stand from the bull" for his cow without payment in advance (338). Mink's relationship with African-Americans was depicted as that of confrontation and hatred in the Houston case.
But it completely changed thirty-eight years later.4 Mink was helped by various African-Americans on the way from Parchman, through Memphis, to Jefferson. When an African-American clerk in a grocery store at Lake Cormorant gave Mink a ride to the crossroads, he cordially said, "Much obliged" (566). He picked cotton with an African-American family before he entered Jefferson. Mink asked them to deduct the cost of supper from his pay, and the African-American said, "I dont charge nobody to eat at my house" (689). He was again given a ride to Jefferson, and said, "Much obliged" (692). An African-American boy showed him the way to Flem's mansion (695). Mink was guided by African-Americans to the Flem killing, as it were.
On the way to Memphis, Mink worked for Goodyhay, a lay preacher whose congregation was composed mostly of veterans and the war bereaved; Mink participated in their religious gathering. It is rather a strange episode, but the compassion shown there transcended racial difference--a black mother who lost her son put her arm around a white wife who lost her husband in the same battlefield--and is therefore deeply relevant to our discussion, for Mink was given ten dollars to buy a pistol to kill Flem by the congregation.
Linda, who got Mink out of the penitentiary, struggled to help African-Americans in Jefferson. While whites hated her as a "Nigger Lover," African-Americans loved and respected her. The African-American who picked cotton with Mink was among them. When Mink asked him if Linda lied about her hearing, he sternly replied, "Whoever it was told you she is fooling is the one that's lying. There are folks in more places than right there in Jefferson that know the truth about her..." (690). Mink asked over again,
"You mean, she can't hear nothing? You could walk right up behind her say, into the same room even, and she wouldn't know it?"The conversation foretells the actual murder scene, but here the man's respect for Linda should be worthy of notice. The very same African-American gave Mink a ride to Jefferson. (It is also interesting that Goodyhay's gathering was held in "a nigger schoolhouse" , for Linda tried to improve schools for African-Americans.)
From the development of the plot, if "Nigger Lovers" Linda and Mink were helped by African-Americans kill racist Flem, then the story about the socio-economic structure (class structure) and the racism structure which are inseparable in the South comes to a beautiful ending. But is this reading acceptable? Can Flem be regarded as a symbol of racism like the way a bank president represents capitalism? In this respect, Theresa Towner affirms that Flem is colorblind because he lends money to whites and African-Americans alike as long as he makes a profit (Towner 89). In reality, there is no sign that Flem tried to prevent Linda from helping African-Americans. He reacted to his daughter's Communism and stole her Communist party card. Gavin guessed that it was Flem himself who scrawled "Jew Communist Kohl" on his own sidewalk (547), but carefully excepted "Nigger Lover." (Because, as a matter of fact, "a crude cross soaked in gasoline blazed suddenly on the lawn in front of the mansion" , graffiti "Nigger Lover" would be written by some racists.) Narrators such as Gavin and Ratliff in the novel often use a racist rhetoric that tries to eliminate the whole Snopes clan based on blood relationship (for example, see 454).5 In a sense, Flem was discriminated against by white society in Jefferson. He can't be a symbol of racism, so his murder can't be the ending of the story about the racism structure. Instead, the episode of getting rid of Clarence Snopes by Ratliff and Devries, which is thought to have little relevance to the main plot, ends the story. The narrator intentionally used the phrase "shot him" at the beginning of this episode: "Ratliff eliminated Clarence. Not that Ratliff shot him or anything like that" (595).
Clarence Snopes was a true racist before and after he became the constable in Beat Two of Frenchman's Bend. Though he publicly criticized the Ku Klux Klan which he had been a member of to gain the liberals' votes in the State Senate election, his real nature didn't change at all. Now he announced for Congress. His opponent was Devries, a war veteran who had commanded "Negro" infantry and shared his fate with them. He lost his leg in battle and got many decorations. Devries' characterization reminds us of Goodyhay's congregation whose African-American son and white husband died in the same battlefield and of Linda who was also wounded in the war. A racist and opportunist, Clarence focused on the relationship between Devries and African-Americans and asked voters what course Devries would take, if he who had his own life saved by an African-American soldier and was deeply attached to "Negroes" should become a member of the House of the Representatives which was passing legislature to break down the barriers between the whites and African-Americans. "And that was all ... Clarence was already elected, the County and the District would not even need to spend the money to have the ballots cast and counted" (610). People in Jefferson themselves were prejudiced against Devries and called him a "nigger-lover."
To [people in Jefferson] ... Devries was a nigger-lover who had actually been decorated by the Yankee government for it. (611)The race, though, ended in Devries triumph because of Ratliff's tactics.
Devries showed humane sympathy that allowed him to rise above racial differences, just as Goodyhay's congregation who helped Mink, and was called a "Nigger Lover," just as Linda. His victory over a racist Clarence ends the story about the racism structure. Then the scene at the end of the episode, which caused Clarence's retirement, of dogs ready to discharge urine at Clarence at the annual Varner's Mill picnic can be read as a comical counterpart to Mink's shooting of Flem.
... the dogs was travelling on three legs, being already loaded and cocked and aimed you might say. (615)