The Hamlet (Text Key 225)


The Hamlet, Faulkner’s twelfth novel, the eighth of the Yoknapatawpha series, was published by Random House on April 1, 1940. But the origins of the story date back to the very moment that Faulkner began writing about his "postage stamp of native soil," as he once called Yoknapatawpha. In Oxford, his home town, Faulkner enjoyed long humorous and satiric exchanges with Phil Stone, his friend and mentor, about the rise of the poor white in the South. In 1926 or 1927, Faulkner wrote a long draft of what he probably intended as a novel, but this fragment, called "Father Abraham," was not published until 1983. The incomplete narrative introduced Flem Snopes and his clan, and featured the episode that became known as "Spotted Horses." Faulkner later incorporated Snopes references and material in Flags in the Dust (published as Sartoris in 1929) and other novels, and he dealt extensively with the Snopeses in a variety of published and unpublished or uncollected short stories, such as "Fool about a Horse," "Lizards in Jamshyd’s Courtyard" and "Mule in the Yard" (see these stories elsewhere in Digital Yoknapatawpha). Phil Stone mentioned a possible trilogy by 1927; Faulkner announced a Snopes trilogy as early as 1934, outlined another version to editor Robert Haas of Random House in December, 1938, and continued extensive changes as he "pulled together" the published text of The Hamlet from "mostly short stories" (including, in addition to the four already mentioned, "The Hound" and "Barn Burning"; see these stories elsewhere in DY). The last two volumes of the trilogy, The Town and The Mansion, were published much later (1957, 1959); what Faulkner called the "discrepancies and contradictions" between them and the first volume satisfied him that his material was still alive and still growing.

While some readers find The Hamlet "diffuse" or "episodic," the larger narrative is strung together on the story of how Flem Snopes, son of a barn-burning sharecropper, attaches himself to the economy of the Frenchman’s Bend region of Yoknapatawpha, learns the trades of the small businessman and property owner from Will Varner, and in short order becomes a shrewd, dishonest and merciless usurer and trickster. Having conquered Frenchman’s Bend, Flem leaves it on the novel's last page. He is bound for Jefferson, where his success has already been foretold. Faulkner's working title for the novel was "The Peasants," and it contains many of his most memorable rural characters. Compared to Shakespeare's Hamlet, The Hamlet is essentially comic, but for Faulkner the story of a low man's rise toward his idea of greatness is not without its tragic resonances. Our representation of the novel derives from the Vintage International paperback edition, ©1991; this edition uses the corrected text established by Noel Polk.

Dating the Story: The central action of The Hamlet covers five years, from Flem Snopes' arrival in Frenchman's Bend when Eula Varner is "not quite thirteen" (105) to his departure for Jefferson when she is "not yet eighteen" (402). Over the years scholars have suggested a number of different specific dates for this span, from the 1880s to the first decade of the 20th century. Faulkner himself, in a letter to his publisher in late 1938, said that "Book Four happens in 1890, approximately. Hence Civil War ended 25 years ago. Have recollection of dating War somewhere in script [i.e. manuscript] as 40 years ago. Please watch for it." Two decades later, however, after he had finished The Town, Faulkner told an audience at the University of Virginia that the auction of Texas horses in Book Four "happened" in 1907. Faulkner also told that audience that as the author "I have the right to shift [events] about in time." The later date does make the events of The Hamlet easier to reconcile chronologically with rest of the Trilogy, but for our representation of the novel we have chosen to follow, as much as possible, the chronological cues provided by the text itself.

Like Faulkner's own comments, the novel's text is inconsistent. It contains four specific references to historical events. Will Varner's reference (when Eula is eight years old) to "that world's fair they are talking about having in Saint Louis" (109) points toward the 20th century, since the Fair was held in 1904. The "Wallstreet Panic" for which one of the Snopeses is named that took place "a year or two ago" (293) must have been the Panic of 1893, pointing toward the 1890s. The narrator's reference at the end of the novel (when Eula is seventeen) to "the news of Sumter . . . thirty years ago" points toward the 1880s, since the attack on Fort Sumter that began the Civil War took place in 1861. But the most frequent textual pattern puts the late stages and end of the Civil War thirty years before the novel starts: the people of Frenchman's Bend have been pulling the Old Frenchman's mansion to pieces "for thirty years" and over the same period seeking the treasure the Frenchman reputedly buried "when Grant over-ran the country" in 1863 (4); Miss Rosa Millard, whose death in 1864 is described in The Unvanquished, gave Ab Snopes the coat he still wears "thirty years ago" (36). Using this pattern of references as our guide, we have chosen to date Flem's arrival in 1895, while acknowledging that this date is conjectural.

Except for specific years, the chronology of the novel's events is fairly well defined. It is "almost first of May" on the its first day (9), so we can say late April with confidence, though we say "late April 1895" with diffidence and recognize that others can argue it is late April in 1885 or in 1902 or in any of the years in between. Picking a year gives us a way to be as precise about chronological sequence as the narrator is throughout the rest of the novel, as he locates new events "three days" or "two weeks" later, and so on, and regularly provides references to specific months or seasons. If the five-year period of the novel remains uncertain, the sequential relationship among the events during that period is much more reliable.

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Random House
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New York
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Vintage International
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How to cite this resource:
Burgers, Johannes H., John Corrigan, and James B. Carothers. "Faulkner's The Hamlet." Added to the project: 2016.  Additional editing 2021: Stephen Railton.  Digital Yoknapatawpha, University of Virginia,

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