Sanctuary, by William Faulkner

I wrote this post ages ago, but never posted it. I had more to say, especially about Faulkner’s treatment of women in the novel, and its connection with other Faulkner novels: the character of Temple appears in other guises in The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying and Light in August (just here a bit more extreme). I also read Light in August after this, but it was too long ago now. Maybe Absalom, Absalom! next, or the Snopes trilogy.

Once he’d finished The Sound and The Fury, Faulkner decided to try writing a book that might actually be popular and make him some money, so he wrote the first draft of Sanctuary and sent it off to his publisher, who replied, “Good God. I can’t publish this. We’d both be in jail.” so Faulkner laid it aside and wrote As I Lay Dying instead and published that; and only afterwards did his publisher return to the idea of Sanctuary and suggest maybe they should publish it after all; – but by then Faulkner had his own reservations and decided it needed revision.

It turns out what Faulkner thought might be more popular is something between The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Blue Velvet; – and, since in three months it outsold all his previous book put together, it seems this wasn’t a bad summation of his public’s taste. What his revisions from the first version were I’m not entirely sure (maybe, like with Sartoris, he merely cut out lots of tedious bits to do with Horace Benbow, and kept in all the more salacious material), because it is still quite extreme – and indeed, caused consternation among Faulkner’s fellow townsmen, who weren’t exactly pleased with his portrayal of them.

Sanctuary was the second Faulkner novel I ever read, and again I don’t think at the time I was very impressed by it. I also don’t remember too much about it; but what I do remember is that I was very confused reading it and felt I hadn’t taken the time and effort properly to understand it (I was a bad reader even back then). For a long time after I associated this vague state incomprehension with reading Faulkner, and conceived the notion that you really had to pay attention with him, particularly at the beginning; but reading it again, I do wonder partly at my confusion. For Sanctuary is a move away stylistically from anything before in Faulkner’s writing, and in particular the point-of-view experimentation of the previous two novels (I will note again, As I Lay Dying was really written after Sanctuary). Gone too are the long meandering sentences. The entire novel is written instead in simple sentences and in the third person, with only the occasional (usually descriptive passage) where Faulkner seems to forget this and drifts off into the baroque. Indeed, I think the novel is essentially intended as a sort of mass-market thriller. Where I do sympathise with my earlier self is in the central scene in Sanctuary – the rape of the character Temple – which is described so vaguely, and is so apparently contradictory to later elements of the story, that I was left bewildered as to what had actually happened – particularly by the time of the legal scene towards the end, and any sort of understanding of the character’s motivation at this point. In the end I had to resort to sources outside the text. It may be that this isn’t entirely Faulkner’s fault; perhaps he wouldn’t have been able to publish a clearer description of events (rather like my reading of Effi Brest, where I only realise there had been a sex scene about 100 pages afterwards, because otherwise nothing makes sense); – but in reality, let’s face it, it is just Faulkner being cryptic.

Based no doubt on its success, this was the first Faulkner novel to be made into the movie; and I’d kind of like to see what they made of it. The issue is not merely the material, but the outcome. If you’re accustomed to your thrillers turning out with the truth coming out and the guilty being found guilty, then you’re not exactly going to be too gratified with Sanctuary; for in Sanctuary truth is subordinate to the prejudice of society. In particular, the atypical reaction of the character Temple to being raped, and how she subsequently conducts herself, is far from what I – or most people – would expect; but on the other hand, people don’t always react in the way that is set down for them. The power of Southern society to force people to act in the way they do and not as their own personal morality dictates seems to me one of the main motive forces in Faulkner’s writing. This again is seen in the town’s reaction (and particularly his sister’s) to Horace Benbow’s willingness to defend the accused and to help his wife. Which is all to say, there’s a lot of similarities really between this novel and To Kill a Mockingbird; but Sanctuary is never going to be held up as a great moral novel and taught in schools.

If you’re wondering whether there’s a Snopes in the novel: well yes there is; he is a corrupt senator and appears in a series of comic scenes involving two yokels who move to the city and end up renting a room inside a bordello without realising it is a bordello – scenes which, frankly, have very little connection with the rest of the novel, and just seem to be an amusing idea Faulkner came up with and thought he’d stick in.

So relatively uninteresting then in literary terms, but fascinating in terms of Faulkner’s vision of the South and human inter-relations.

2 thoughts on “Sanctuary, by William Faulkner

  1. It’s very extreme, and says something about the true nature of “the mass market” that it was such a roaring commercial success. The senator sticks in my mind in particular.

    I only read this recently, and haven’t read Light in August in donkey’s years, but I recall (possibly wrongly) the latter being very strange as well. Perhaps that was just my impressionable nature at the time.

    I have a colourised version of Sound & Fury and have had 2 goes at it, but I can’t seem to read more then a page without being interrupted and hence hopelessly lost. I will keep trying.

  2. I didn’t find Light in August all that strange, but then I’m used to Faulkner now. There’s a relationship at its heart though which is downright Lawrentian. Again it also has elements of a thriller, and I found it much closer in fact to Sanctuary than I’d been expecting.

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