It has been at several years since I’ve read any Faulkner, but once upon a time I read a lot of him. Although my early high school summer reading of Absalom Absalom left me bewildered and grasping at straws as to what the heck I was reading, my exposure to the Sound the Fury as an undergraduate opened up a new appreciation for transitions in narrative voice and the subtleties of descriptive, poetic prose that I cherish to this day. Sound the Fury is a fantastic read (and I’m sure the more mature reader in me would concede the same to a rereading of Absalom) and following that introduction I gobbled up several more of Faulkner’s works such that I regret not being able to take a seminar on Faulkner that conflicted with one of my required classes.
Despite the establishment of an early love for Faulkner’s challenging and rewarding prose, I haven’t turned my attention to him for some time until most recently I was intrigued by employee postings at two separate bookstores I frequent championing Sanctuary as an underappreciated introduction to Faulkner. So, with this renewed attention I approached this book with an air of excitement to revisit an old love. Well, after having finished it, I can admit that my love for Faulkner thrives, but no longer a doting fan, I can admit that this isn’t one of his proudest achievements. Sanctuary is a good book, but there are so many more that are better. In the introduction to the book Faulkner admits this himself, acknowledging that he wrote Sanctuary primarily to make some money to support his grander writing exploits. There are some lovely narrative interludes but the story’s progression wasn’t compelling enough to capture my interests, especially since I know that Faulkner can do better than this.
Sanctuary is basically a crime novel, however unlike any run of-the-mill bestseller pulp novel, it approaches the subject of murder and rape from Faulkner’s seasoned perspective of social awareness. As is a common theme in any of Faulkner’s works, Sanctuary depicts the decline of the Southern aristocratic class, however in Sanctuary that decline isn’t a moral or economic decline specifically motivated by a character’s choices or social circumstances, it is a forced decline that comes about through the rape of a young aristocratic college student, Temple Drake, who was abandoned by her drunken suitor in a rural bootlegger house. Temple is left in the hands of a misfit who goes by the name of Popeye, who morally corrupts Temple, using her for his pleasure and whim in a whorehouse. There are a couple of murders mixed in the plot in addition to a bit of mystery that results in a botched murder trial investigated and defended by the lawyer Horace Benbow.
In any of his works, Faulkner’s narrative is often difficult to follow with long prosaic conversations that don’t depict the name of the speaker. This was to be expected, what I found disappointing was that the obviously terse and violent subject matter only existed as allusions that were only revealed as inferences such as the sound of a bullet only to be explained as a murder several pages later at the scene of a funeral. As a reader who has been bathed in the blood of Cormac McCarthy, I saw the potential for a powerfully grave and dark novel dwindle in the shadows of narrative allusion. I realize that this may have been a necessity due to the censors and sensibilities of the 1930’s, but as a reader in 2013 I found these allusions to violence as vague teases that limited my enjoyment of the novel’s potential.
Although there were deficiencies in the impact of the story, I did find that the novel’s strengths shone through the curt portrayal of racism and the social commentary that depicted a society divided within itself. Most notably was the conflict that Benbow struggled with to protect the common law wife, Ruby Lemar, of the accused murderer, Goodwin because Ruby and Goodwin shared a child out of wedlock. Benbow’s sister and the owner of a hotel refused to house Ruby because of her low moral station, yet Ruby proves to be one of the strongest characters in the book who is ostracized by a society unwilling to look beyond the judgments of social norms. The situation shared by Ruby and Goodwin would hardly raise an eyebrow in today’s complicated social structure, yet the novel’s depiction of their struggle provides a glimpse into the social expectations that shape a culture’s beliefs and behaviors.
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