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OPERA San Antonio Blog

A Contemporary Deal with the Devil

A great modern variation of the Faust story appears in William Faulkner’s novel The Hamlet (1940). The main character is Flem Snopes, a ruthless businessman in rural Frenchman’s Bend, Mississippi. Flem is an unbeatable trader. He “grazes up” the blacksmith stand and the crossroads store, and puts his shiftless relatives in charge. The locals fall victim to trying to get a bargain and buying everything he sells. The one who tries to “do something” about this force of nature is Ratliff, the sewing machine salesman. Ratliff has a dreamlike fantasy in which Flem Snopes matches wits with the Devil himself.

In the fantasy, Flem has sold his soul to the Devil, and has appeared in Hell to be punished. But there is a problem. He has pledged his soul as collateral on the bargain, and the soul cannot be located. Apparently the soul was very small to begin with, and was stored in a matchbox. But when they look in the matchbox the soul seems to have completely shriveled up, because there is nothing inside but a little smear. Because the Devil (called the Prince) cannot produce the collateral, Flem now has a claim against the Devil instead of the other way around. And what he wants is Hell itself.

Characteristically, Flem says almost nothing. He lets the adversary make all the moves, because the adversary always makes a mistake. So now the Prince shouts “What do you want? Paradise?” Flem says “Is it yours to offer?” And the Prince falls from his throne in despair. As Ratliff fantasizes in Mississippi accent:

And now the Prince is leaning forward, and now he feels that ere hot floor under his knees. “Who are you?” he says choking and gasping and his eyes a-popping up at him sitting there with that straw suitcase on the Throne… ‘Take Paradise!’ the Prince screams. ‘Take it! Take it!’ And the wind roars up and the dark roars down and the Prince scrabbling across the floor, clawing and scrabbling at that locked door, screaming…

Apparently you can’t lose your soul if you haven’t got enough soul to lose.

Faulkner’s comic version of this great story tells us that the real danger in human affairs is the soul-less man.

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