Summary and Analysis: "Spotted Horses" Introduction


"Spotted Horses" is one of Faulkner's finest examples of his unique type of local color. Critics familiar with American Old Southwest humor will recognize his indebtedness to this brand of tall-tale humor, which relies almost entirely on a liberally exaggerated oral narration. In the short story, Faulkner utilizes a sewing machine agent as the oral narrator to create an informal, chatty, conversational tone.

In addition to this narrative style, Faulkner uses other classical types and techniques of humor in his storytelling; here, he uses a traditional character known as the con man, someone who captures a person's confidence — from which we get the word "con" — in order to take advantage of that person's gullibility. There are many variations of the con man, but in all cases the con man's success depends on the greed of his victim; a good con man will know intuitively which approach of deception will be the most successful. For example, in "Spotted Horses," the Texan knows that Henry Armstid is not going to allow Eck Snopes to buy a horse for a mere two dollars, especially since the Texan has already given Eck a free horse.

In this particular short story, we have three types of con men: the sewing machine agent, the Texan, and Flem Snopes, and each of these con men displays his con artistry differently. The sewing machine agent is unassuming; the Texan redeems himself; and Flem is a schemer who lies adeptly.

The central narrator, a mild-mannered con man with something of a conscience, is a perfect narrator because, as an itinerant sewing machine agent, he himself knows the value of a con game. Because Flem Snopes once took advantage of him, he has a grudging admiration for anyone who is sharp enough to get the best of him. As a con artist himself, he recognizes and admires Flem's superiority, although he despises Flem's inhumanity.

The Texan is a traditional con man. He plays the game of selling horses and enjoys his triumphs, but he is not as vicious as Flem. When he sees how disturbingly calm and defeated Mrs. Armstid is about her husband's squandering their last five dollars, he attempts to restore the money. He responds to her human needs and tries to lessen the hardships and pain caused by her rashly impractical, abusive husband.

Comparing Mrs. Armstid's treatment by the Texan and how she is treated by Flem, the narrator reveals that Flem is a third type of con man, one who is mean, vicious, and unerringly inhumane. He does not soil his hands by directly involving himself in any dirty work. Instead, he sits apart from the entire transaction. His omnipotence and omnipresence, felt constantly throughout the story, are emphasized by the narrator's often-reiterated phrases, "That Flem" and "Them Snopes."

A key ingredient in Old Southwest humor is incongruity, or the juxtaposition of contrasting elements. For example, the narrator describes the Texas ponies in these terms: "They was colored like parrots and they was quiet as doves, and ere a one of them would kill you quick as a rattlesnake." The first two statements conjure a lovely, quiet image of beauty and peacefulness, but this idyllic image contrasts with the third statement-that the horses would kill a person as quickly as a rattlesnake would. To describe the animals as "ponies" is, in itself, absurdly incongruous because the word "pony" evokes a benign, sweet, lovable, and tame animal, which is the opposite of these wild, vicious, and untamable beasts.

Another quality of Old Southwest humor is exaggeration, which Faulkner certainly uses when he describes the horses' wild "cattymount" behavior. For example, our first glimpse of the animals involves the sewing machine agent's unexpected run-in with them at the beginning of the story: "Here I was this morning pretty near half way to town, with the team ambling along and me, setting in the buckboard about half asleep when all of a sudden something come surging up outen the bushes and jumped the road clean, without touching hoof to it. It flew right over my team big as a billboard and flying through the air like a hawk." Such observations create an unbelievability, which is characteristic of the tall tale. Certainly the agent's taking "thirty minutes to stop my team" after the horses jump over him enhances the tale's comic quality.

"Spotted Horses" was first published in Scribner's Magazine for June 1931. Faulkner included an expanded version of the story in his novel The Hamlet (1940). This expanded version includes as its last section a courtroom scene in which Mrs. Armstid sues Flem Snopes for five dollars, and Mrs. Tull sues Eck Snopes for damages sustained by her husband. Both suits are dismissed after neither woman can prove who owns the horses. The discussion in these Notes follows the text originally published in Scribner's, which is anthologized more often than the longer text.