Faulkner's Vision of Community:
The Concept and Representations of "the People" in The Hamlet


     One of the major trends in recent Faulkner criticism is to recover the social and historical context which was once separated from the author and his works by the New Critics, and to reread Faulkner's text within and in relation to it. The Hamlet (1940), which depicts the social rise of Flem Snopes a poor white descendant of sharecroppers in an agrarian community, Frenchman's Bend, is no exception to this and has been actively reinterpreted especially through ideological analyses since the late 1990s. Matthew Lessig, for instance, analyzes the descriptions of the Snopes clan in terms of class struggle, focusing on the political debate between the liberals and conservatives in the South concerning the destitute condition of the sharecroppers in the 1930s. Richard Godden, on the other hand, traces the origin of the 30s radical class transformation in the South back to the agrarian revolt which ended in the aborted Populist movement at the turn of the century, and challenges the established images of Flem by revealing the continuous anger of the sharecroppers immanent in him.
     Although Lessig and Godden base their arguments on different historical backgrounds, they both approach the text in terms of class conflict between the ruling and the ruled, which is obviously inherent in the relationship between Will Varner, the biggest landholder governing Frenchman's Bend, and his son-in-law Flem, who was once a sharecropper on his own land. When it comes to the relationships of people in Frenchman's Bend as a whole, however, it seems rather impossible to divide them into the two opposing classes because within the community are people who are neither landlords nor sharecroppers such as Tull and Bookwright as well as a sewing machine agent V. K. Ratliff, who sit around on the porch of Varner's store. The very presence of those who are not to be categorized into this dichotomy would seem to suggest that Faulkner's interest was not solely in class confrontation. Each of the characters in the story does belong to a certain social group, but they do not always represent or act on their class interests. This would mean that Faulkner envisioned the community not only from the perspective of class but also in terms of another possible human relationship which would connect people beyond their class differences.
     Consequently, this paper aims to illuminate how Faulkner imagined "the community" when he was writing The Hamlet by examining the relationships among people depicted in the story. In so doing, it will first explore the historical context in which Faulkner was actually writing the novel.

     As Lessig and Godden have already pointed out, the class structure in the South went through a drastic change in the 1930s, when Faulkner was working off and on on The Hamlet. The immediate cause for this social upset was probably not so much the Great Depression itself as the New Deal programs. Historian Pete Daniel remarks that the Agricultural Adjustment Administration established in 1933 played the key role "in turning the South from sharecropping to agribusiness" (121), and as a result, a lot of sharecroppers were driven out of their rented land, eventually ended up being reinstated as laborers. It cannot be denied that there was class conflict as Lessig expounds, but this change in their social status would also point to the possibility of class mobility which would reorganize the existing relationships in the southern society at the time.
     This is not the only impact that the New Deal made upon the southern sharecroppers. According to John Louis Lucaites, a scholar in Communication Studies, under the direction of the Resettlement Administration or the Farm Security Administration created in 1935, a number of documentary photographs of rural poverty were taken around that time and published in various popular magazines such as Time and the Saturday Evening Post, eventually bringing national attention to the impoverished sharecroppers in the South (273-4). Taking notice of the ability of the photograph to present things in a visually concrete way, Lucaites observes that for Franklin D. Roosevelt, who advocated for the revival of "the American people" to overcome the Depression, the documentary photograph would be of particular importance as a means of embodying the abstract concept of "the American people" itself to materialize them as "a concrete and empirically verifiable phenomenon" (273). Now, the sharecroppers of the time not only belonged to their social class as themselves, but also came to represent "the American people" symbolically as they were framed in the pictures.
     Obviously, there was the political discourse in the States in the 30s that urged Americans to unite under the name of "the people" against the unprecedented economic depression, and it would be very likely that Faulkner, who was intermittently engaged in the novel during the decade, should have envisioned his own imaginary community of Frenchman's Bend from the standpoint not only of class but of "the people" as well. In this respect, it is interesting to notice that Lothar *Honnighausen, situating the author in the context of literary regionalism, describes Faulkner's "populist fascination with people" (198, my italics) as one of his regionalist features. *Honnighausen's use of the word "populist" here is noteworthy. Apparently, as the critic implies, the image of the people created under the New Deal should have been constructed in a positive way as "a collective experience" (199) to be commonly shared. It should be noted, however, that the populist discourses which call upon the solidarity among "the people" did not emerge exclusively in the 1930s. Since the failure of the Populist movement in the late nineteenth century, the South had seen many demagogues thriving on the social and economic discontent of the lower classes even before the Depression. In addition, the entire world also suffered social unrest caused by the prolonged economic depression, which gave rise to totalitarianism beyond the Atlantic.
     The typical reaction of upper-class Southerners to this populist climate of the times can be found in William Alexander Percy's memoir The Lanterns on the Levee, published a year after Faulkner's The Hamlet. As the son of a distinguished planter in the Delta, Percy disparagingly associates the political ascendancy of James Vardaman, a Mississippi demagogue who emerged in the early twentieth century, with "the rise of the masses" (153) under totalitarian states such as Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, and expresses his outspoken hatred of the poor white people who constituted the bottom of the southern social hierarchy back then. Thus, along with the affirmative image, there was a negative view on "the people" in Faulkner's own backyard which regarded them as the bedrock for dictatorship.
     Given that there were these completely opposite points of view on "the people" in the 30s, it would naturally follow that they affected Faulkner's creative imagination. How are they reflected in the author's vision of the community, then? Undoubtedly, Frenchman's Bend is depicted as an economically stratified society, but in what way could the perspective of "the people" coincide with that of class in the novel?
     Before moving on to Faulkner's text, let me call attention to political theorist Ernesto Laclau's discussion on populism which is helpful here in understanding the relevance of "the people" to class. As the term "populism" is used to describe various political phenomena, he attributes its elusiveness to the very ambiguity of "the people" it refers to, which is, according to him, "a concept without a defined theoretical status" (165). Then Laclau, noting the fact that the word "the people" has nevertheless been used recurrently in political discourse, points out the continuity of "popular traditions" in contrast to "the historical discontinuities which characterise class structures" (166). He goes on to argue that although "popular traditions" are premised on a "'people'/power bloc contradiction" which is distinct from class antagonism, these traditions "do not constitute consistent and organised discourses but merely elements which can only exist in articulation with class discourses" (167, italics in the original). From his meticulous theorization, it could be safe to say the following about the ontological relation between "the people" and the classes: "the people," though it refers to a non-class collective, has to be articulated in conjunction with some specific class in order to become an empirical existence, just as "the people" under the New Deal was articulated with the class of sharecroppers to be experienced as a concrete being.
     Now with this in mind, let me turn to the novel itself. Although Frenchman's Bend is a community consisting largely of poor white sharecroppers, they are hardly foregrounded in the story; rather, they seem to appear in the background behind the individual characters who belong to different ranks of society. Therefore, the following discussion will center on some distinctive characters each of whom seemingly represents the social class he belongs to, and examine how they could be "articulated" in an attempt to illuminate Faulkner's concept of "the people" and to derive from it his vision of community as well.

     Following in the wake of Laclau's theory, Will Varner is the one who holds the position of power over the people of Frenchman's Bend, reigning as "the chief man of the country" (5). Interestingly, however, their sense of being subjugated hardly appears in their aggressive and arrogant attitude toward Will, who has the whole judicial and administrative authority of the hamlet in his hands: "[They] came to him, not in the attitude of What must I do but What do you think you think you would like for me to do if you was able to make me do it" (6). Their behavior, with no servility in it, suggests that they do not deny Will the power but show some understanding because they come to him for advice in the first place. There can be found a reversal of the notion on their part that it is they who give consent to keeping Will in power, and it can be presumed that this conceptual sense of superiority over the man of power counterbalances their sense of being ruled and alleviates their hostility toward Will as a ruler. The same mentality can be found in their relationship to the son of Will, Jody. When they make some purchases at Varner's store, they know that Jody as a clerk will make miscalculations in his own favor, and in pointing them out to him, they also know that he will amiably correct the mistakes only to give them the short change: "But they expected this too, because he would give them credit for food and plow-gear when they needed it, long credit, though they would pay interest for that which on its face looked like generosity and openhandedness, whether that interest showed in the final discharge or not" (62-3). While keenly aware that they might be exploited, they choose to let him get away with his presumably deliberate miscalculation. Implied here is the villagers' tolerance which indicates a preference for an amicable relationship with the ruler to an antagonism against him based on their class interest because they resign themselves to their circumstances. This psychological closeness to those in control keeps the people from calling into question the actual power structure of the community, and leads to no explicit indication of class conflict in Frenchman's Bend.
     It is definitely Ratliff who plays a significant role in building up the villagers' sense of community prior to their class differences. As a sewing machine agent, he assumes the role of literally sewing up the gaps among the people of different ranks, "retailing from house to house the news of his four counties with the ubiquity of a newspaper and carrying personal messages from mouth to mouth about weddings and funerals and the preserving vegetables and fruit with the reliability of a postal service" (15). In this way, Ratliff circulates his own words to make individuals share his stories, and in doing so, tries to connect them through their imagination by creating an imaginary sense of communal belonging among them. His storytelling strategy is most clearly illustrated when he tells stories about Ab Snopes, who abruptly arrives at the hamlet as a suspected barn burner. To Jody, who contrives to take advantage of Ab to make extra profit, Ratliff tells how Ab had an argument with his former landlord, insinuating that he can never outwit him. To the people gathering at the veranda of Mrs. Littlejohn's hotel, on the other hand, Ratliff gives the episode of Ab's horse-trading with notorious Pat Stamper. He tells them emphatically how Ab got angry when the stranger Pat "had come in and got actual Yoknapatawpha County cash dollars to rattling around loose," and tried to face off with him with "the entire honor and pride of the science and pastime of horse-trading in Yoknapatawpha County depending on him to vindicate it" (38). In telling stories about Ab, Ratliff tells one to those in the ruling class as a warning against their ill treatment of the sharecroppers, while telling another to the ruled as a message which encourages them to put their priority on the interest of the whole community over that of the individual. By telling different stories to the people in different circumstances, Ratliff thus keeps them from sharpening their class consciousness, and helps them to develop a collective sense of belonging to the same community imagined through the shared stories.
     It is not until Flem Snopes becomes a clerk at Varner's store that social conflicts begin to surface in ostensibly peaceful Frenchman's Bend. When Jody comes to Flem to get him to sign a sharecropping contract, Flem refuses to be put in the subordinate position of a sharecropper, perceiving the contradiction of the sharecropping system itself: "Ain't no benefit in farming. I figure on getting out of it soon as I can" (25). Besides, unlike Jody, Flem "never made mistakes in any matter pertaining to money" (65). Richard Moreland points out that while Jody's miscalculation gives the villagers a chance to point it out to him which enables them to have a consolation for the actual exploitation by the sharecropping system, Flem, never making an error, exposes the realities of the exploiting system itself, and problematizes their own sense of consolation (144). In short, Flem's strictness in money matters reveals the actual cruelty of the ruling structure of Frenchman's Bend as well as the fact that the people's sense of unity is a mere illusion. The figure of Flem, who has now ascended to the ruling position, reminds us of the fact that the economic structure of this community is as exploitative as that of a colony when he sits before the ledgers making settlements with tenants: "Varner and Snopes resembled the white trader and his native parrot-taught headman in an African outpost" (67).
     From the discussion above, it can be said that the description of Ratliff suggests Faulkner's deep interest in what is called the "imagined community" which is created through the vicarious experiences shared by people united beyond their social classifications. In contrast, the portrayal of Flem suggests Faulkner's caution about his own vision of a community whose imaginative sense of solidarity might conceal the actual relations of domination at work. This reflects the author's acute insight into the reality of the contradictory power relations which perpetuate the wretched plight of the tenants. However, Faulkner characterizes Flem, who is of poor white origin, in the manner that does not evoke an image of "the people" that provides the common ground for people to unite. Note the way that Flem, whose face is "as blank as a pan of uncooked dough" (24), and the other Snopeses as if "cut with the same die" (177), multiply ominously in Frenchman's Bend. This could be associated with the way people, losing their individualities in a homogenous crowd, aggregate to become literally masses, and this is exactly an echo of William Percy's notion of the people as "the masses" in a totalitarian sense. Given that the image of the people evoked by Ratliff is hard to reduce to that of any one particular class because of its trans-class connection, Faulkner could be fascinated with the inclusive aspect of the notion of "the people." However, the negative representation of the ex-sharecropper Flem would be indicative of Faulkner's stiff resistance against the articulation of "the people" in conjunction with an existing class in order to produce an experience of substantial being. In the eyes of Faulkner in the South in the 30s, where the reorganization of class structure was rapidly under way, developing class consciousness among people for the common interest should have appeared as the extinction of individual existence within the uniformity of the group in which individuals are collectively amassed under the same consciousness. For Faulkner, the category of "the people" would be a possible human relationship in which each person could be connected with one another without yielding to the collective identity.
     Faulkner's rejecting attitude toward the people's articulation in conjunction with a specific social class can be found in the depiction of another sharecropper, Mink Snopes. The detailed history of Mink which represents not only his own personal life but one of "the contemptible teeming of his own earthkind" (261), speaks for the entire class of tenants and sharecroppers who lead their life in economic misery. Therefore, when Mink murders Jack Houston, who has the law on his side to claim compensation for letting Mink's yearling graze in his pasture, it could be possible to think that Mink does so as an ultimate form of resistance against authority on behalf of the ruled. However, Mink feels an impulse to leave "a printed placard on the breast" of the dead body of Houston "with his name signed to it" reading "This is what happens to the men who impound Mink Snopes' cattle" (242). This means that the author describes Mink's whole action not so much as righteous indignation derived from class consciousness but as his own "personal vendetta" (Fabijancic 84). Faulkner's inclination to isolate the figure of Mink from any social relations is most clearly shown when Mink finally ends up in jail in Parchman, far away from Frenchman's Bend. Thus, Faulkner, while delineating Mink sympathetically as an individual sharecropper, refuses to give him a role of representing the class interest of all his fellow sharecroppers.

     Again, given the social climate of the 1930s where the States was a defender of democracy stressing the values of American individualism against the threat of totalitarianism prevailing in Europe, Faulkner's notion of "the people" might have been rather bound by the national ideology of that era. However, the way Faulkner portrays Ratliff at the end of the story implies that the author was at least aware of the latent weakness of individualism itself.
     Although he has acted as a bulwark against so-called Snopesism, Ratliff changes his protecting attitude entirely when he witnesses the villagers act in their own self interest showing no consideration for others:
"[. . .] I wasn't even protecting a people from a Snopes. I was protecting something that wasn't even a people, that wasn't nothing but something that dont want nothing but to walk and feel the sun and wouldn't know how to hurt no man even if it would and wouldn't want to even if it could, just like I wouldn't stand by and see you steal a meat-bone from a dog. [. . . ] I could do more, but I wont. I wont, I tell you!" (354-5)
It is true that Ratliff has contributed to constructing a sense of solidarity as "the people" in the imagination of the villagers, but in the last instance, he refuses to put himself in the position of unifying and leading them. The strong refrain of "I wont" indicates that Ratliff gives priority to his own will over the interests of the community. Here can be found a glimpse of the author's vigilance against the representation by one person of the diverse consciousness of individuals. Ironically, however, as soon as Ratliff asserts himself by declaring his refusal to be a representative of "the people," he is tricked by Flem into digging in vain for the money which has been rumored to be buried. The novel ends when Ratliff literally loses himself, together with Bookwright and Armstid, driven by his own desire which is ignited by Flem. This ending suggests Faulkner's critical observation against individualism that following self interest instead of participating in building an imagined community might destroy the creative imagination of individuals without which they could not share their experiences. This fear is embodied in the inhuman figure of Flem, who does nothing but pursue social ascendancy. It is a reflection of the person who has been deprived of his creative thinking, only motivated by the principle of class society.
     From the way of his depiction of each notable character in The Hamlet, it could be observed that Faulkner basically based his vision of community on individualistic values, but at the same time, he supplemented it with the notion of "the people." For Faulkner, the idea of "the people" should be kept at a conceptual level so that each individual can use his imagination to connect with others without being lumped together into a collective being. As Laclau theorizes, if "the people" cannot become an empirical existence without being articulated with class, Faulkner's vision would be ultimately just an illusion. However, given the fact that the southern society became more and more class-oriented in the 30s, Faulkner's exploration of the concept of "the people" must have been rather challenging at that time, and in this sense, his vision of the people, though impractical and complacent, could not be easily overlooked.


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