Wayward Girls: Teaching William Faulkner's Sanctuary and Larry Brown's Fay from a Feminist Perspective

Dr. Caroline Miles, University of Texas-Pan American

William Faulkner and Larry Brown, both writers from Oxford, Mississippi, have backgrounds as different as their prose. Brown grew up in a sharecropping family and wrote in an unpretentious bare-knuckle style, while despite his father’s failures Faulkner came from a family of successful and influential lawyers, politicians, and businessmen and remains widely renowned for his highly elaborate and experimental language.  Nonetheless, socioeconomic and stylistic differences aside, it proves useful to read these Oxford authors in dialogue. Like the authors themselves, the female protagonists in William Faulkner’s Sanctuary and Larry Brown’s Fay come from opposite ends of the class spectrum; Faulkner’s Temple Drake occupies a privileged position as the daughter of a prominent judge, while Brown’s Fay is dirt poor and unable to locate the transient location of her migrant family. The pairing of these two novels has facilitated dynamic conversation in my classes about the intersection of class and female sexuality, as well as about the nature of patriarchy both in the South and beyond. Teaching these two texts also reminds us that male authors, as well as female, can contribute to our understanding of gender. The ability of both these male writers to observe and represent the workings of patriarchy enables students to understand some of the ways in which gender operates in relation to class, race, region, and the female body.

Initially, students tend to focus on the differences between the two books, many noticing not only the differences in language but also how Temple Drake demonstrates considerably more autonomy than Fay. While they see Fay as passively swept along by forces beyond her control, they tend to recognize Temple as a complex conundrum simultaneously victimized and in control. Many students typecast her as a femme fatale figure, and typically students will define this female archetype as a medusa-like seductress or a beautiful but dangerous, even evil, siren who leads men astray. This becomes an opportunity to introduce other feminist readings of the femme fatale figure as standing for female independence, embodying defiance of traditional gender roles, and signifying male fears about the female body and female sexuality.

I find it productive to point out some of the passages in Sanctuary that emphasize the oppressive relationship Temple has with the men in her family. The following scene, for example, both suggests that a drinking man will potentially threaten Temple’s innocence and purity, and establishes Temple’s brothers as the tyrannical guardians of her sexuality:

. . . . Buddy—that’s Hubert, my youngest brother—said that if he ever caught me with a drunk man, he’d beat hell out of me. And now I’m with one that gets drunk three times in one day.” Leaning her hip against the table, her hand crushing the cigarette, she began to laugh. “Don’t you think that’s funny?” she said. (216)

Temple’s body language in this passage highlights her desire to rebel against the way in which her male relatives work to dominate her body, while the next image illustrates just how far her male relatives will go to ensure that her sacred sexuality remains contained:

My brother said he would kill Frank. . . . and my father cursed my brother and said he could run his family a while longer and he drove me into the house and locked me in. . . . I got in front of Frank and Father said ‘Do you want it too?’ and I tried to stay in front but Frank shoved me behind him and held me and father shot him and said ‘Get down there and sup your dirt, you whore.’ (218)

Ironically, under the guise of a narrative of female safety and protection, Temple’s upper-middle-class family creates an environment of violence, verbal abuse, and imprisonment, unexpectedly echoing the world in which Temple finds herself after arriving at Frenchman’s Bend. The difference, however, is that in the underworld of bootleggers and prostitutes, Temple manages to carve out a space, however disturbing and frightening, in which she can enjoy a degree of escape and excitement, a space that contrasts vividly with the monotony and futility of her upper-middle-class life captured in her perception of going to a football game in Starkville:

She said nothing, thinking of the pennant-draped train already in Starkville; of the colorful stands; the band, the yawning glitter of the bass horn; the green diamond dotted with players, crouching, uttering short, yelping cries like marsh fowl disturbed by an alligator, not certain of where the danger is, motionless, poised, encouraging one another with short meaningless cries, plaintive, wary, forlorn. (204)

The scene she describes here exudes boredom, artificial glamour, and staged stimulation and danger, an existence she avoids even before going to Frenchman’s Bend by sneaking out of school with lower-class town boys.

When Temple first arrives at Frenchman’s Bend, Faulkner describes her as frantic and restless, whirling and running as someone trapped in a dream or nightmare: “She whirled again and without a break in her stride and still watching the old man, she ran right off the porch . . . and saw Popeye watching her from the corner of the house. . . . Still without stopping she scrambled back onto the porch and sprang into the kitchen” (208). Temple continues for some time to run around in circles, ending up where she started: “She broke free, running. He [Popeye] leaned against the wall and watched her in silhouette run out the back door. She ran into the kitchen. . . . She whirled and ran out the door. . . . Running, she passed him—a dim, spraddled figure standing at the edge of the porch—and ran on into the kitchen and darted into the corner behind the stove” (213-214). On one occasion she leaves the house entirely only to turn around and come back again: “In the hall she whirled and ran. She ran right off the porch, into the weeds, and sped on. She ran to the road and down it fifty yards in the darkness, then without a break she whirled and ran back to the house and sprang onto the porch . . .” (223). I propose to students that the surreal nature of Temple’s movements at Frenchman’s Bend corresponds to a horror movie-type fantasy of displacing a tedious limited life with a world of incredible danger and sexual excitement.

The genre of the horror movie emerged at the same time that Faulkner wrote Sanctuary and was reborn at the time Faulkner published the novel. The genre both dramatized society confronting its deepest fears and challenged established perceptions. Critics have specifically linked the genre to the theme of female sexuality, reading Dracula, for example, brought to the stage in 1931, the same year that Sanctuary was published, as flouting sexual and gender norms and reflecting fears of the female sex in a Victorian era of repressed sexuality. I suggest to students that Sanctuary mixes the dreamlike quality of horror films from the 1920s with the themes of classics such as Dracula and Frankenstein reproduced in the 30s; by doing this Faulkner creates a shocking but fantastical picture of revolt against the control of women’s bodies.

I consider it important to also point out to students that Faulkner connects the regulation of Temple’s body not only to the confinement of women’s bodies in general but also specifically to race relations in the South. Faulkner infuses his descriptions of Frenchman’s Bend with darkness and blackness both metaphorically and literally. Faulkner refers to Tommy explicitly as “that black man” (207), a threatening presence hovering in shadows and dark corners outside the door of the room in which Temple  undresses, and refers to Popeye in racially ambiguous terms; Benbow thinks ‘[h]e smells black” (184) and his eyes look like “black rubber” (181). Faulkner also evokes blackness and darkness in his descriptions of the landscape; the “black, jagged mass of trees” (184) resemble a jungle that “lay like a lake of ink,” what was once “a kitchen garden” was “choked now with cedar and blackjack saplings, and “[t]he road was now a black tunnel” (193). In addition, Faulkner repeatedly describes Temple’s eyes in terms of blackness; “her eyes were quite black” (211), she “stood behind the chair . . . , her mouth open a little, her eyes quite black” (225), and “[h]er eyes were quite wide, almost black . . . her pupils like peas in two inkwells” (231).

Temple’s rape in this dark, black world, I indicate to students, insinuates the worst fear inherent in the South’s obsession with the purity and asexuality of southern white women—a white woman’s desire for a black man, and by extension interracial relationships. As Kathryn Lee Seidel asserts, “it was unacceptable to refer to or assume white women [in the South] possessed sexual desire, and, therefore, female sexuality was projected onto black women” (124). She continues:

After the war, when a southern gentleman paid chivalrous homage to a woman, he was no longer addressing just an ideal homemaker but the chief character of the plantation myth and the sanctuary [my emphasis] of values. Thus, in the years of Reconstruction, southerners were united by a desire to preserve white male superiority, to defend the symbol of that superiority, white woman, to keep blacks in their place in the hierarchy, and to punish those who violated the taboos. (14)

Temple, and the darkness that shrouds her, points to both her hidden unconscious sexual desires as well as in Deborah E. Barker’s words “the need to limit and control the desires of both black men and white women” (125).       At Frenchman’s Bend, race, female sexuality, and evil all coexist and become muddled in a world in which rigid class, and racial, barriers and hierarchies fail to exist. Benbow not only thinks Popeye smells black but that “he smells like that black stuff that ran out of Bovary’s mouth and down upon her bridal veil when they raised her head” (184).  The story of Temple Drake, then, can be read not only as a woman’s fantasy of unleashed sexual desire but also as a regions’ nightmare of the horror of what could only be conceived in the South as what Seidal terms Temple’s “dark sexuality” or “racialized sexuality” (124).

While a little raunchy and prone to trigger some blushing in the class, the descriptions of Temple’s encounter with Red after Popeye takes her to a Memphis brothel prove especially compelling in convincing students that whether real or imaginary, despite undergoing rape and kidnapping, the gangster underworld of Frenchman’s Bend and Memphis denotes a welcome and desired flight from her culture’s repression and sexual emptiness. When Popeye tells her to dance with Red, a man he selects to replace the corncob as a surrogate for his impotency, “she felt long shuddering waves of physical desire going over her, draining the color from her mouth, drawing her eyeballs back into her skull in a shuddering swoon” (343). She finds a room where:

She leaned against the table on her braced arms, watching the door, until Red entered.

He came toward her. She did not move . . . She began to say Ah-ah-ah-ah in an expiring voice, her body arching slowly backward as though faced by an exquisite torture. When he touched her she sprang like a bow, hurling herself upon him, . . . (344)

When she tries to get him to leave with her, Temple repeats “Please. Please. Please. Please. Don’t make me wait. I’m burning up. . . . I can’t wait. . . . I’m on fire, I tell you. . . .  I’m on fire. I’m dying, I tell you” (345).

I also point students to the idea that in addition to experiencing sexual pleasure, Temple also plays out the fantasy of exuding power by assuming the male gender: “I got to thinking a funny thing. You know how you do when you are scared. I was looking at my legs and I’d try to make like I was a boy.  I was thinking about if I just was a boy and then I tried to make myself into one by thinking” (328). The later scene in which Temple imagines literally turning into “a man” (331) and assuming a penis, implies Temple’s (and perhaps by extension all women’s) desire (conscious or unconscious) to acquire the gendered power related to the phallus. Temple begins to dominate Popeye and verbally abuse him, inverting the power relations between them: “You’re not even a man!” (339), she tells him, while flaunting her sexual desire for Red and mocking him for his impotency.

In contrast to Temple, students see Brown’s Fay, who drifts from man to man before resigning herself to prostitution, as a helpless and naïve girl, and much less of a femme fatale character than Temple even though she seduces men throughout the novel and ends up responsible for two people’s deaths. Curiously, some students at least will portray Fay as a character that men prey upon but at the same time argue that prostitution in general does not victimize women but rather provides an independent life to lower class women without many choices. Interestingly, Fay starts to become more cryptic than initially thought, and students begin to identify how class position impacts the bodies and actions of both Temple and Fay equally but differently. Fay has no male guardians shielding her virtue and chastity, but, quite on the contrary, men treat her as a sexual object, and Fay soon comes to view herself as someone who can get along by selling her body. While a desire to escape her class motivates Temple’s reckless actions, a lack of financial and emotional stability drives Fay into the arms of one weak and abusive man after another.

Many passages bring to light how Fay constantly reduces herself to her body by exchanging sex for either money or refuge. She allows men to continuously objectify her and use her for the purpose of sexual pleasure. When she meets Sam Harris, a Highway Trooper, she is seventeen and he is more than twenty years her senior. When his depressed wife commits suicide, she offers up her youthful body for the comforts and security of his middle-class life; “she would nod and smile in the rocking boat, unafraid of the dark or the water or any other thing simply because she was with him” (121). When she has to leave Harris because she unintentionally shoots another woman he has been sleeping with, she once again shuffles from man to man. When she meets Chris Dodd, who ends up raping her, she agrees to go out with him and “suddenly it seemed that everything in the world was right again, or at least better than it had been an hour ago. He probably wouldn’t mind going in somewhere and getting her some cigarettes” (185).

Later in the novel, Fay has a relationship with Aaron, a bouncer at a strip club. While Fay at this point in the novel resolves not to strip for money, Brown blurs the lines between the strip club in which money is explicitly and visibly exchanged for sex, and the world outside where women less explicitly exchange sex for material gain and security.  Aaron takes care of Fay in exchange for sex while the mentality exhibited by the men in the strip club reminds Fay of men she has known outside of it; as men in the strip club undress Fay with their eyes, it reminds her of Chris Dodd: “She wondered if Chris Dodd had ever been in here. He probably had. A son of a bitch like him would probably just love a place like this where he could look at naked women and think about raping them” (215). The following conversation depicts how men in the club view all women in the same way whether they are on stage stripping or not:

“Say you don’t work here?” the guy said again.
“No.”
“I be damn. I could have sworn I’d seen you up on that stage before. . . .”
She flung her hair off her face and whirled to face him.
“I don’t know you, mister. And you ain’t never seen me up on that stage.”
He took another sip of his drink and said, ‘Well hell, all you whores are all alike. Long as a man’s spending money on you you’ll talk to him.” (224)

The different forms of exchanging money for women remind us that Fay is no less objectified outside the strip club than within it; throughout the novel men diminish her to an object of sexual gratification, illustrating both that strip clubs and prostitution exist as extensions of more everyday and accepted power inequalities between men and women, and that the view of women as commodities that can be bought, sold, and traded pervades all of society even if less explicitly outside of strip clubs.

Fay comes to realize that she has replaced all past girlfriends of Aaron: “Reena and Gigi, probably that Wanda too. He’d gone through every one of them. And he’d go through her, too, if she let him” (432). The novel underlines how men discard women as they get older and exchange them in for younger models; as Reena points out to Aaron, “‘[y]ou don’t need it cause you got Fay now.’ She nodded her head to agree with herself . . . ‘She’s still pretty and young. She’s still got her body. She ain’t had babies yet. Not yet. Aaron, can I have some money to buy me something to drink?’” (455). Reena seems to worry that age will cut off her money supply, and Aaron clearly equates women’s worth with their looks that will inevitably end with the passing of youth: “And she [Reena] evidently didn’t even care about how she looked anymore. He remembered the good clothes she used to have and how she looked in them, how men turned their heads and watched her. Nobody would give her a second glance now. It wasn’t her fault” (453). The reference to the turning of heads echoes the images of Fay turning heads throughout the novel highlighting that Reena was once like Fay and that by the same token Fay will end up like Reena. Aaron’s description of Gigi also affirms this view point: “She would just go through a whole lot of men and then one day she’d be old” (360). His ruminations on Wanda make this same point again even more starkly:

She’d put on fresh lipstick and for thirty-three in that place she was not bad. She still had her figure and she knew about men. Then you’d get her talking in bed after it was over and she’d soften and you’d find out that she’d been raised in Alaska and that like some of them she pined to be in the movies and they meant the legitimate kind and they didn’t understand that the world was full of beautiful girls, or that buying them to make them do whatever under the sun and in the world you wanted them to on film took no more than money or drugs or the right promises or even maybe just helping them out of a spot of bad luck. (404)

This passage frankly admits that women are not only commodities but ones that exist in abundance and that can be obtained easily and cheaply.

While Temple rebels against and inverts cultural constructs of gender and her body in order to experience erotic enjoyment and assert some degree of power however limited and bizarre, from the beginning of the novel Fay struggles to expend and control the exchange of her body to survive materially. At some point I always ask students to consider the endings of the two novels. While Temple, unlike Fay, frees herself temporarily from patriarchal paradigms of the female body, importantly the conclusions of the two stories reveal more similarity than difference. The Epilogue of Fay implies that with Aaron and Sam Harris gone, and no other man to take their place, Fay has no other choice but to surrender to the more blatant form of exchanging money for sex –  becoming a worker in a New Orleans strip club:

One evening at the end of summer, just before the gas lamps came on, a girl walked on the streets of the Old Square in New Orleans and drew the looks of men as she passed. They would stop and look at her and walk some more and stop and look back again. . . .

On a cobbled avenue she saw the marquee in lights and when she got closer she looked at the women on the posters with brighter bulbs around their frames and they were wrapped in feather boas and sparkling sequins. . . . In front of the door there was a man in a striped coat and a flat-brimmed straw hat. He had a silver-tipped cane and he was hailing walkers to stop and in and see the girls. To this one he tipped his hat, called her by name. She handed him her empty cup, and then she went in. (491)

Unlike Fay, Temple’s social class rescues her from a sordid world of prostitution and takes her safely back to a life of upper-middle-class respectability. However, the last scene of Sanctuary that recounts Temple’s walk with her father through Luxembourg Gardens affords not only a particularly wonderful example to students of Faulkner’s writing, but also vividly suggests that her return to her father unquestionably signifies dying rather than salvation. Faulkner describes the gardens as gray with “that quality of autumn,” and Temple sadly watches “women” who sit “knitting in shawls” (398):

Temple yawned behind her hand, then she took out a compact and opened it upon a face in miniature sullen and discontented and sad. Beside her her father sat, his hands crossed on the head of his stick, the rigid bar of his moustache beaded with moisture like frosted silver. She closed the compact and from beneath her smart new hat she seemed to follow with her eyes the waves of music, to dissolve into the dying brasses, across the pool and the opposite semicircle of trees where at somber intervals the dead tranquil queens in stained marble mused, and on into the sky lying prone and vanquished in the embrace of the season of rain and death. (398)

Clearly, after the sensuous descriptions of Temple’s stay at the Memphis brothel, this passage insinuates a sexual death for Temple, a fate that de-sexes her and puts her in the same space as old women and dead queens. As her name suggests, she exists as a shrine to southern womanhood which equates southern women with white purity, obfuscating, as Deborah E. Barker argues, “the more common source of miscegenation in the South – white slave owners who violated black slaves” (124). Retrieved from the Memphis underworld and returned to her father and the authority he represents, Temple finds herself back in a sexual wasteland that recalls both T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock and the dried up discarded girlfriends of Aaron in Fay.

While students may not have read Requiem for a Nun, it is worth pointing out to them that in this sequel to Sanctuary, Temple has married Gowan Stevens and Faulkner continues to depict Temple as imprisoned and unhappy. Temple tells her story of spending six weeks in a Memphis brothel and falling in love with Red, a man who is killed climbing up a drain pipe to visit her. “Then,” she continues:

Gowan came to Paris that Winter and we were married at the Embassy, with a reception afterward at the Crillon, and if that couldn’t fumigate the American past, what else this side of heaven could you hope for to remove the stink? Not to mention a new automobile and a honeymoon in a rented hideaway built for his European mistress by a Mohammedan Prince. . . Only—we—I thought—we—I didn’t want to efface the stink really. (577) 

Faulkner refers here to all the American materialist middle-class trappings that obscure the racial and class injustices beneath and that alienate individuals from themselves and each other. There are two Temples in Requiem for a Nun, “Temple Gowan,” the respectable middle-class woman married to Gowan to efface her connection to the Memphis brother and who is “almost a type . . . only children of financially secure parents . . . alumni of the best colleges, South or East, where they belonged to the right clubs” (508), and “Temple Drake” who embodies and accepts both the good and the evil inherent in humanity and who prefers individual responsibility over social imprisonment.

Nancy’s act of trying to save Temple’s baby from what she interprets as Temple’s sin and corruption stems from her co-option by the state and by organized religion. She accepts an institutionalized fiction of morality, and sacrifices herself in an attempt to protect the bourgeoisie capitalist investment in the family.  While Temple turns to Nancy as a means to escape her entrapment in a middle-class marriage that her husband arranges out of a sense of obligation to protect her reputation, Nancy ultimately enforces that entrapment and epitomizes a conventional form of justice that refuses to allow for Temple’s individual choice. Nancy mistakenly assumes that Temple wants salvation and that her marriage is worth saving.

Because I work to direct class discussion rather than dominate it, each class will come to somewhat different conclusions. However, students typically acknowledge that both Temple and Fay find themselves ultimately trapped by patriarchal accounts of their bodies even as these accounts differ because of the conditions and characterizations of social class. Temple’s body remains the symbol of white southern purity that white men must protect at all costs while Fay never becomes anything other than a physical object of men’s sexual desires. These two novels, then, illustrate that patriarchal management of women’s bodies exists across class lines and neither Temple nor Fay can escape this control. The seedy underworld of the lower classes in Sanctuary exudes uncontained sexuality and provides Temple with a provisional world that exists outside of the narrative of southern white female purity that refuses to acknowledge her sexuality, however for Fay this world consumes her and sees her as nothing but a vehicle for men’s sexual pleasure.

 

Works Cited

Barker, Deborah E. “Moonshine and Magnolias: The Story of Temple Drake and The

Birth of a Nation.” Faulkner and Whiteness. 107-146.

Brown, Larry. Fay. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

Faulkner, William. Sanctuary. William Faulkner: Novels 1930-1935. New York: Library

of America, 1985.  179-398.

- - - .   Requiem for a Nun. William Faulkner: Novels 1942-1954. New York: Library of 

America, 1994. 471-664.

Seidal, Kathryn Lee. The Southern Belle in the American Novel. Tampa: University of

South Florida Press, 1985.

Watson, Jay ed. Faulkner and Whiteness. Oxford: University Press of Mississippi,

2011.

Contact

573.986.6155
cfs@semo.edu
Kent Library 406
Center for Faulkner Studies
One University Plaza, MS 4600
Cape Girardeau, Missouri 63701