After teaching “Barn Burning” in my American Literature class a few weeks back, I determined to read The Hamlet, a Faulkner novel that had resided, unread, on my shelves for several years. “Barn Burning” barely introduces Flem Snopes, son of Ab Snopes, notorious and vindictive burner of outbuildings, while the novel begins to flesh the son out as a remarkably assiduous schemer and conniver.
The hamlet of the title is the wide spot known as Frenchman’s Bend, where everybody who is anybody hangs out on the front porch of the Varner store. One might accuse the Snopes clan, spearheaded by Flem, of precipitating the downfall of Frenchman’s Bend. I would like to suggest a different cause for the area’s ill fortune.
Near the close of the novel, we read of what appears to be a non-Snopes scheme. V.K. Ratliff and two colleagues seek to discover the buried treasure long rumored to rest at the Frenchman’s homestead. They skulk about in the night, spying on Flem. They employ the services of an aged treasure dowser, and they unearth three bags of coins. Immediately they determine to buy the property from Flem Snopes. Any alert Bible reader will associate this tale with one of Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom of God. In Matthew 13:44, Jesus compares the Kingdom with a man who finds a treasure in a field and then buys the field. In this case, the trio buy the field only to discover that they have been duped by Flem Snopes. Not only did he stage the digging to excite them, he hid the bags of money to whet their appetites further. In the end, Flem is further enriched while they are left having traded their most valued possession.
In The Hamlet, Faulkner describes a transition in rural life as sharp traders and schemers take a larger and larger place in everyday dealings. In Proverbs 21:30, we learn the heart of the English proverb “A fool and his money are soon parted.” When dealing with Flem Snopes, many fools are exposed. Even the otherwise sober and judicious Ratliff is exposed at the end as a fool, driven by his desire for wealth into the same sort of folly as he describes being the downfall of Abner Snopes.
Early in the novel we learn of Abner’s background and the origin of his propensity for barn burning. Will Varner enlists Flem as an employee in an attempt to outsmart the Snopes family. Instead, Varner simply provides the first foothold for Flem’s rise and his own decline. Along the way, we see men driven by greed at the horse auction. We see foolish pride cause Mink Snopes to commit murder, driving himself to the penitentiary and his wife back into prostitution. Eventually, we see greed bring financial ruin to Ratliff, Bookwright, and Armstid. Armstid, the weakest link of the trio, cannot or will not see his own defeat and closes the book with the memorable image of a deranged cripple endlessly digging for nonexistent treasure.
The rise of personal desire in this novel takes place at the expense of genuine community. Over the pages, a few glimmers of decency and self-sacrifice emerge, but largely we witness an increasingly atomized and self-absorbed cast of characters looking out for their own interests.