William Faulkner, "Centaur in Brass"
December 19, 2012 § Leave a comment
One notable feature of Faulkner’s writing is that there are very few true “villains.” Yes, there are characters such as Light in August‘s Joe Christmas who do reprehensible deeds, yet their portrayals allow us enough insight into their characters that we feel sympathetic, at least in part, toward them. Faulkner’s thematic explorations into how history and place affect character motivations and actions tend to leave little ground for characters that are truly repulsive or “evil.” One possible exception might be the Snopes family. Ever since the first Yoknapatawpha novel, Sartoris (later revised as Flags in the Dust) in 1929, members of this family have come to represent souls who have been banished to the outskirts of polite society, left there to scrounge for themselves, largely outside the influence of others. Ab Snopes, the horsethief and resentful barn burner of The Unvanquished and “Barn Burning,” is shady enough on his own, yet it is his second son, Flem, who perhaps is the coldest, least sympathetic recurring character in all of Faulkner’s fictions, with the possible exception of Sanctuary‘s Popeye (yet even he has his moments of near-redemption). Flem appears briefly in Flags in the Dust and is referenced in the 1930 novel As I Lay Dying, before playing a central role in the “Snopes Trilogy” (The Hamlet (1940), The Town (1957), The Mansion (1959). He is described as having “eyes the color of stagnant water” and his small nose somehow manages to have the hooked appearance of a raptor bird. He is more shrewd than his father, having moved from a position of poverty toward a powerful position in Frenchman’s Bend, located in the southernmost part of Yoknapatawpha County.
“Centaur in Brass” (1932) represents Flem as a half-legendary character whose amorality baffles and annoys the townspeople of Jefferson, yet whose ability to turn a trade into something favorable to him has made him an object of grudging admiration. The anonymous narrator of “Centaur in Brass” certainly displays this as he recounts in the first quarter of this twenty page story some of Flem Snopes’ exploits: the way he went from being a country store clerk to having the former store owner work for him; the fashion in which he “won the hand” of that same store owner’s beautiful daughter, Eula; their elopement in Texas and return just in front of a pony trader who sells the locals unbroken ponies; Flem’s rapid rise to prominence, first in Frenchman’s Bend and later in Jefferson. There are hints of unscrupulous acts, such as the one involving Eula and the new Jefferson mayor, Major Hoxey:
Not impregnable: impervious. That was why it did not need gossip when we watched Snopes’s career mount beyond the restaurant and become complement with Major Hoxey’s in city affairs, until less than six months after Hoxey’s inauguration Snopes, who had probably never been close to any piece of machinery save a grindstone until he moved to town, was made superintendent of the municipal power plant. Mrs. Snopes was born one of those women the deeds and fortunes of whose husbands alone are the barometers of their good name; for to do her justice, there was no other handle for gossip save her husband’s rise in Hoxey’s administration.
But there was still that intangible thing: partly something in her air, her face; partly what we had already heard about Flem Snopes’s methods. Or perhaps what we knew or beleived about Snopes was all; perhaps what we thought to be anyway, when we saw Snopes and Hoxey together we would think of them and adultery in the same instant, and we would think of the two of them walking and talking in amicable cuckholdry. Perhaps, as I said, this was the fault of the town. Certainly it was the fault of the town that the idea of their being on amicable terms outraged us more than the idea of the adultery itself. It seemed foreign, decadent, perverted: we could have accepted, if not condoned, the adultery had they only been natural and logical and enemies.
Yet “Centaur in Brass” is not about Snopes adding to his list of triumphs. Instead, it is a tale in which the shrewd, almost reptilian, calculating Snopes gets the tables turned on him as he tries to make a profit by having brass parts from the power plant turned into a profit by having the two fireman, Tom-Tom (day) and Turl (night), portrayed as being guilty parties of stealing parts from the plant for their own personal profit. Yet these two firemen, after a heated confrontation leads to mutual awareness of what Snopes has done, manage to turn the tables on him, forcing him to pay for the purloined parts. It is a well-written inversion of the opening section of the story: the con man is conned; the menial labor one-ups the superior.
Revealing this does not weaken the story, as it is as much a fuller introduction to Flem Snopes’ character than it is a clever tale of deceiving the decepter. One thing is notable here, however. The Flem Snopes of “Centaur in Brass” is not quite as developed as he became in the later Snopes novels. We only hear of his exploits, but do not see them executed. There is not yet the sense of cold, almost malicious intent in his actions; here, he only is after a profit and nothing else. His wife, Eula, barely factors here, compared to her role in the novels. It is as though Flem Snopes were an idea that Faulkner had had for some time (viz. his appearance in Flags in the Dust), yet there were still questions of how best to flesh out this character. Despite this sketchy quality to Snopes’ character, “Centaur in Brass” is a very effective story because of its contrast of the legend and the reality of Flem’s character. We do not admire his behavior or his motivations, but there is something about the audaciousness in which he operates that captures the readers’ attentions, making them want to read more about this character and to try and understand just how this cold, calculating person operates. This, when combined with the contrasts noted above, make “Centaur in Brass” a story that loses very little when read multiple times.
Originally posted in April 2012 on Gogol’s Overcoat as part of a weekly “Faulkner Friday.” Novels reviewed from January-April will be reposted here on Fridays, while the short stories will appear on Wednesdays.