Day 383: The Hamlet

Cover for The HamletWhen I got into The Hamlet a bit, I realized that a bastardized version of it had been released as a movie years ago called The Long, Hot Summer. But Paul Newman’s charming rascal is not at all the same animal as his original, Flem Snopes, a despicable man who rises in life using chicanery, cheating, and blackmail to wrest what he can from the poorest of the poor.

The Hamlet is part of a trilogy of novels about the history of the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, beginning shortly after Reconstruction. In particular, it is about the rise of Snopes, the son of an impoverished sharecropper. It begins when Jody Varner, the son of Frenchman’s Bend’s most powerful citizen, Will Varner, leases a property to Snopes’s father Ab, suspected of being a barn-burner. Jody thinks he’ll be able to cheat Snopes out of his yearly crop by alluding to his alleged crimes at the appropriate time. But soon he is more inclined to fear that Snopes will burn him out, so he offers Snopes’s son Flem a job as clerk in the Varner store as insurance.

Soon Jody has lost his own position as manager of the store to Flem Snopes and Snopes has apparently taken over Jody’s standing with his own father. Somehow Snopes begins accruing valuable property and gives away many of the jobs in the village, over which Will Varner has control, to Snopes cousins, whether they are capable of doing them or not. Eventually, he makes a deal to marry Will Varner’s young daughter, the voluptuous Eula.

Life among the Frenchman’s Creek sharecroppers is grim, and the story of the rise of this gray, tight-lipped, cold man is told through a limited third-person narration that moves from person to person. This narrative style creates a sort of plural viewpoint of all the village folk and is combined with the intelligent observations of itinerant sewing-machine salesman V.K. Ratliff, who alertly follows Snopes’s maneuvers and understands all his cheats–or so he thinks.

This novel is created from a series of tales, and it is really about how the tales of an area form its history. It is elegantly written, reflecting a formidable intelligence and education, and is sometimes grimly comic. It comments on the decay of the South in the aftermath of the American Civil War and the Reconstruction, as Frenchman’s Bend is a run-down little village built on the ruins of a once-stately plantation. The legend of gold supposedly buried on the grounds of the plantation plays a pivotal part in the story.

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