Introduction to Yoknapatawpha County


In his third novel, Flags in the Dust, Faulkner created a mythological Mississippi county and named it Yoknapatawpha (Yawknaw-puh-toff-uh), with its county seat in Jefferson. This particular novel, however, was not published during Faulkner's lifetime; it appeared posthumously in 1973. What did appear in 1929 was a heavily edited and much shorter version of Flags in the Dust, renamed Sartoris to emphasize the importance of one of the county's major families, the Sartorises.

The county of Yoknapatawpha and its county seat of Jefferson are based on the real county of Jefferson, Mississippi, and its county seat of Oxford. The name "Yoknapatawpha" is derived from authentic Native American names found on old maps of Jefferson County. In 1936, Faulkner drew a map of his fictional county, showing where various scenes from his novels and short stories take place, and he first included the map in Absalom, Absalom!, published that same year. The creation of this mythological county is one of modern literature's greatest feats.

Many of Faulkner's same characters are found in his various novels; a character who appears in a minor role in one novel might reappear as a significant character in another. For example, a Snopes appears briefly in the first novel of the Yoknapatawpha series, and Faulkner comments that this Snopes is one of an inexhaustible number of Snopeses who have invaded the county. Later in his career, the Snopes family becomes the subject of three different novels and many short stories. His other characters appear and reappear in varying roles, and, therefore, in reading more than one of his novels or short stories, we come to know a great deal about the diverse people who inhabit Yoknapatawpha County.

The Southern Aristocracy

The aristocracy of Yoknapatawpha County is represented by Colonel John Sartoris and his family, the General Jason Compson family, Major de Spain, and the Griersons. Because members of the Sartoris family appear more frequently than do the other members of the aristocracy, Colonel Sartoris best represents this class.

Sartoris appears as a major or minor character in many Faulkner short stories, including "A Rose for Emily," in which he tells Miss Emily that she does not have to pay the taxes on her property; in "Barn Burning," Colonel Sartoris ("Sarty") Snopes, named for the genteel colonel, is the only ethical Snopes in the entire county. Because Colonel John Sartoris epitomizes Southern values — gallantry, generosity, hospitality, valor, pride, honor, and a dedication to the protection of the region's ideals — in "Barn Burning," when young Sarty Snopes is called to testify before the justice of the Peace and gives his name as "Colonel Sartoris Snopes," the justice says, "I reckon anybody named for Colonel Sartoris in this country can't help but tell the truth, can they?"

Although the colonel is the most admired man in Yoknapatawpha County and best represents the values associated with the Old South, he is also one of the most difficult people to get along with. At the beginning of the Civil War, he is the first man to raise a regiment to fight the Yankees. But within a year, he is voted out of his command because of his arrogance and intolerance. He returns to Yoknapatawpha County and organizes his own troop of "irregulars." As the leader of this troop, he becomes somewhat of an instant legend; he seems to be always in the local vicinity or in the neighboring land, protecting the women and children left defenseless while their menfolk are off fighting.

Colonel Sartoris is also admired for his cleverness and ambition. Once, with only a few men, he unexpectedly rides upon an encampment of about sixty Yankees, but his innovative reaction is superb: Pretending to have a large number of troops surrounding the Yankees, he yells commands to make-believe lieutenants, demanding that the Yankees surrender. Afterward, he takes their food and their rifles, and he makes them strip down to their underwear. He then pretends to relax his guard, allowing the prisoners to escape in small groups. This way, they think that they have outwitted him and his regiment, never realizing that the colonel has only a few men with him.

Supremely self-assured and exuding confidence in everything he does, the absolute and undeviating loyalty that Sartoris inspires among the men in his regiment attests to his ability to lead with authority and respect. The fact that his arrogance causes his demotion in his official capacity does not detract from the fact that, as the commander of his own troop, he receives extraordinary loyalty and devotion from his fellow rebels.

The colonel also inspires men's confidences in matters other than wartime tactics. At the end of the war, he is broke and destitute, but he dreams of building a railroad. He is able to communicate that dream to others and convince enough of them to finance the project — not just once, but again and again — so that the railroad, and even the first engine, are built with capital from others. Although Colonel Sartoris himself has no money, he has a vision and a dream. Most important, he is a determined man who refuses to be vanquished — by anything or anyone.

The Snopeses

During his writing career, Faulkner wrote numerous short stories featuring members of the Snopes family. He also wrote a trilogy of three novels — The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion — that has the Snopes family as the central concern. Throughout the trilogy, he often revised his short stories about the Snopeses and included them in the novels.

As a class of people, the Snopeses are the antithesis of the highbrow society represented by Colonel Sartoris. Whereas Sartoris is refined and carries about himself an Old World gentility, the Snopeses are crass, poor, and ill-mannered. V. K. Ratliff, the narrator of "Spotted Horses," sums up the Snopeses' shady character with the deceptively simple saying, "Them Snopes," an expression that underscores the astonishment and exasperation of Yoknapatawpha County's citizens viewing the Snopeses' behavior.

The Snopeses are best represented by Flem, who in "Spotted Horses" symbolizes the rise of an amoral materialism that will eventually overpower all other moral values. He is the elemental and destructive force of invincible greed opposed to all other forces in Faulkner's fiction, and he accomplishes his ends with a perverse and distorted vitality. The Snopeses' ubiquitous inhumanity infiltrates every aspect of the community life, and their calculating and dehumanizing exploits leave their victims stupefied and in abject rage.

Singularly, the descendants of Abner Snopes, who in "Barn Burning" epitomizes the single-mindedness of his family, are inveterate liars, thieves, murderers, blackmailers, and the personification of every type of treachery. As a clan, they present an insurmountable and insidious example of the horrors of materialistic aggrandizement, and they accomplish their aims with complete, unshakable calm. They are so impersonal that their gruesome inhumanity must be viewed in a comic manner. When we cease to view the Snopeses with ironic and humorous detachment, we lose all perspective. In "Spotted Horses," it is almost impossible to define our reaction to Flem Snopes' audacious gift — "A little sweetening for the chaps" — to Mrs. Armstid, except to agree with Ratliff that if he himself were to do what Flem does, he would be lynched.

Flem and his spotted horses represent the infiltration of unorthodox behavior into a heretofore serene community life. The disorder that he causes forms the basic pattern of his strategy. He does not pit himself against the community in personal combat; rather, he incites diverse elements within the community to battle each other. His last name symbolizes everything unprincipled and amoral in society.