By Matthew McEver
Sanctuary is considered one of Faulkner’s more “accessible” novels. Do not, however, equate accessibility with light-heartedness. Sanctuary speaks directly to human evil. On publication, one critic even called it the most brutal book he’d ever read. While Faulkner’s lyrical prose is certainly evident, I’d like to highlight his balancing act between brutality, shock, and dark humor. The hillbilly comedy, sexual witticisms, and morbid absurdity provide some of the novel’s finest moments because they spotlight the themes of hypocrisy, self-righteousness and propriety in the South.
Mississippi debutante Temple Drake is kidnapped and sexually violated by her abductor, Popeye. What makes this novel so Faulkneresque, of course, that Popeye suffers from erectile dysfunction and “consummates” his relationship with Temple by using a corn cob. What follows is a bizarre parody of a honeymoon as Popeye ushers Temple into the absurd world of Miss Reba’s Memphis brothel. Miss Reba plays matriarch, welcoming the couple, speaking as though Popeye were her son: “I been after him for, how many years I been after you to get you a girl, honey?” (144). With rosary in one hand and a beer in the other, Miss Reba toasts Temple’s loss of virginity.
Fonzo and Virgil’s Memphis visit is a humorous yet plausible rendition of two rubes visiting the big city—a comic counterpoint to Temple’s nightmarish experience. As though extending the honeymoon theme, the two mistake the brothel for a hotel – “Who ever heard of anybody just living in a three storey house?” (191). On finding an undergarment in their room, Fonzo assumes that Miss Reba is a dress-maker and a woman having a fitting must have left her underwear behind by mistake. When the two rubes actually visit another brothel, they fear that Miss Reba may discover the truth and throw them out. Fonzo’s alibi is, “We been to prayer meeting” (197) which is Faulkner’s way of having fun since “prayer meeting” can be a sexual euphemism.
After Faulkner lampoons a honeymoon, he lampoons a funeral. The funeral’s setting is not a church or mortuary, but a roadhouse. Some of the mourners want to hear the orchestra play a hymn, while others want to hear a Broadway show tune. Instead of reverence there is chaos, and the account of the tumbling corpse reads like slapstick. The following scene, with Miss Reba and friends, initially appears to follow convention as mourners return home and discuss the funeral but, of course, the setting here is a brothel—a setting that undermines all sense of decorum. Now learning of Popeye’s perversions, a haughty Miss Reba expresses moral outrage over the shame that he has brought onto her whorehouse. Like previous comic scenes in the novel, the burlesque funeral and ensuing tea party in the brothel are not intended as stand-alone comic diversions but as threads woven into Faulkner’s ongoing themes of hypocrisy and self-righteousness. Fittingly, Uncle Bud, the beer-swiping child, finds all of this hypocrisy to be nauseating and vomits.
The slapstick funeral anticipates the equally-mocking trials of Lee and Popeye (192). At Lee’s trial, Temple appears as a witness for the prosecution, behaves like a zombie, perjures herself, and is escorted away as if she were a bride at a wedding with no cross-examination. An eight minute jury deliberation results in a lynching. A voice from the mob, perhaps speaking for everyone, is not angered by the rape itself but by a wasted opportunity: “I saw her. She was some baby. Jeez. I wouldn’t have used no cob” (294). As the novel reaches its conclusion, Popeye’s trial echoes Lee’s. Popeye has an ineffectual lawyer, the jury deliberates for eight minutes, and Popeye dies for the wrong crime. The reader is as indifferent to this “injustice” as Popeye. When the minister offers to pray for the condemned, Popeye says, “Go ahead. Don’t mind me” (314) and Popeye’s chief concern, as the noose is fitted around his neck, is that his hair is in place.
Sanctuary explores evil and meaninglessness, yet it is unforgettably humorous, sometimes prompting nervous laughter and, rather than serving as diversions, the comic scenes in the novel organically flow out of Faulkner’s tendency to push depraved, impotent, and self-righteous characters to the limits. The novel anticipates what is now recognized as existentialist dark humor, particularly evident in the manner these characters fall into total apathy.
Faulkner conceded that Sanctuary was a commercial effort, a potboiler, “a cheap idea… conceived to make money,” proving that accessibility does not preclude thoughtfulness.
Faulkner, William. Sanctuary. New York: Vintage, 1993. Print.