Spotted Horses by William Faulkner, 1931
by William Faulkner, 1931
Throughout much of his career after his first Yoknapatawpha novel, Flags in the Dust (first published as Sartoris in 1929), William Faulkner wrote of his fictional county in freestanding episodes that he would later combine into novels. "Spotted Horses," first published in Scribner's Magazine in June 1931, was later incorporated into The Hamlet (1940), the first volume in the trilogy of the Snopes family. Although this long story, or novella, continued to appear with "Old Man," the divorced half of another novel, The Wild Palms (1939), there is reason to believe that Faulkner finally saw both of these shorter works primarily as important if possibly discrete portions of the later novels.
In either version "Spotted Horses" is the best example of Faulkner's tall tales, exercises in southern or southwestern humor that he first appreciated in the work of Thomas Banks Thorpe ("The Big Bear of Arkansas") or Mark Twain ("You Can't Pray a Lie" from Huckleberry Finn, for instance). At the same time the wild auction at the center of "Spotted Horses" reveals Flem Snopes's greed as menacing, since it victimizes both the dreams and the life savings of his fellow country people of northern Mississippi. But as it betrays them, the auction also allows them to betray themselves: the people of Frenchman's Bend are, without hesitation or encouragement, anxious to buy what they neither want nor can afford and what is of no use to them as well. In their instinctive reactions to ownership and status, most of the characters of "Spotted Horses" serve as embodiments of American capitalism at its most representative.
The entrepreneur is Flem Snopes, himself the poverty-stricken backwoods son of a manipulative con artist who gains employment through intimidating landowners by threatening to burn their barns. Buying his way into a country store and then taking ownership of it, the dissatisfied, ambitious Flem decides to climb to the highest social status in Yoknapatawpha and to the greatest fortune. To aid his career, the impotent Flem elopes with an unmarried pregnant woman and, returning from his Texas honeymoon, takes the opportunity to bring with him wild Texas ponies that he can sell to credulous country people like Henry Armstid. The wild horses become symbols of the country folk, clattering over wooden bridges and running through houses and down moonlit roads, unrestrained (and untrainable) properties that, when they have escaped, can not be tied in any legal way to Flem.
Flem is accompanied in his scam by a Texan who disappears with the horses after the auction and whom Flem holds accountable as the sharp trickster who robbed his customers and neighbors of their money and their pride. The situation of the Armstids is meant as metonymic. When Mrs. Armstid, gaunt in a shapeless garment and stained tennis shoes, comes to Flem for the five dollars that her husband gave for the horse he has lost, Flem unblinkingly tells her that the Texan has disappeared with all the money. When she stands there forlorn and unmoved, he adds that perhaps the Texan forgot to return the money. When she leaves, he offers her a small striped paper bag of candy for her children as an inappropriate and inadequate recompense. She retrieves her dignity by minding her manners, by thanking Flem for his thoughtfulness without a trace of irony, but Faulkner underscores Flem's crassness by having a store clerk, watching the scene, slap his thigh and see it as the clever joke of a clever salesman.
At once more assured and foolishly confident, Vernon Tull's wife sues Flem Snopes for damages. One of the spotted ponies belonging to Eck Snopes upset Tull's team, and her husband was injured when his team ran away. The justice trying the case asks Eck if the horse is truly his, and Eck, one of the more honest of the Snopes clan, confesses that it is. When he begins to ask the judge how much he owes Mrs. Tull, Eck is interrupted by her; she is so relieved to triumph at last against those who would cheat her that she pronounces that "at least forty men heard that Texas murderer give that horse to Eck Snopes. Not sell it to him, mind; give it to him." Such a remark causes the judge to question whether or not Eck is the owner and to decide that Eck had no horse he could claim as his, since at best he had received it by word of mouth. Thus, he is innocent of any damages. Moreover, if ownership can be transferred by simple pronouncement, the judge continues, then Eck himself could have transferred possession of the wild pony to Vernon Tull when he lay unconscious under the bridge. Still, the legal statutes provide the responsibility for any claim. Since the owner of the horse—if it is the Texan—will not or cannot assume liability and since Eck never owned the horse at all, the Tulls must themselves bear the costs of any damages the wild horse has incurred or will incur. When Mrs. Tull, now thoroughly outraged, turns all her anger on the justice, he dismisses the hearing.
Flem is unmoved by these complaints. In the first action against him, he is exonerated by the perjury of one of his own kin; while obvious, the perjury cannot be proven. In the second case the law itself comes to his rescue. The situation, then, is at once a tall tale and a story of victimization. In some ways it is the culture that is to blame; in other ways it is the ambition of Flem. But yet again it is the ambition of a Henry Armstid or a Vernon Tull. "The comedy of the situation," Cleanth Brooks writes, "and the gusto with which the whole episode is recounted provide the proper undercutting of any argument put too seriously or symbolism set forth too nakedly."
Of Faulkner's broad, exaggerated, and indulgent humor there can be no doubt: "A little while before sundown the men lounging about the gallery of the store saw, coming up the road from the south, a covered wagon drawn by mules and followed by a considerable string of obviously alive objects which in the levelling sun resembled vari-sized and -colored tatters torn at random from large billboards—circus posters, say—attached to the rear of the wagon and inherent with its own separate and collective motion, like the tail of a kite. 'What in the hell is that?' one said." The suddenness, energy, and wildness of the untamed horses—which the Texan and Flem promise will be easy to train—capture the telling of the tall tale just as Faulkner's language embodies the oral tradition from which such preposterous tales are derived. These "transmogrified hallucinations of Job and Jezebel," as the stranger, the anonymous Texan, calls the spirited horses, emphasize their ghostly qualities and the improbability of the animals and what is to happen with them. At the same time such hilarious references to the Bible speak of suffering and treachery. Their phantom quality, like the rail fence that cannot contain them, argues the underlying unruliness of mercenary dreams, and their breaking loose, confronting Ratliff as he is dressing and Mrs. Littlejohn as she is bringing laundry back into her house, suggests their essential wildness. "The horse," goes Faulkner's account, "whirled around without breaking or pausing. It galloped to the end of the veranda and took the railing and soared outward, hobgoblin and floating, in the moon. It landed in the lot still running and crossed the lot and galloped through the wrecked gate and among the overturned wagons and the still intact one in which Henry's wife still sat, and on down the lane and into the road."
"Spotted Horses" is one of Faulkner's most successful narratives in its ability tonally to combine the fantastic, the wildly comic, and the seriously consequential. While other stories sometimes combine these ingredients, for example, the Indian stories "Lo!" and "A Courtship" or the later story of Lucas Beauchamp and hunting for buried treasure, "The Fire and the Hearth," none of them quite reaches the exuberance or fantasy of "Spotted Horses." And with Flem always standing, brooding, over the tale, none has the same unsettling quality either.
—Arthur F. Kinney