In this, the first of Faulkner's "Snopes" trilogy, which follows the rise of the Snopes family in fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, Flem Snopes arrives in the small hamlet of Frenchman's Bend and begins his hard climb for position and power that will soon mark his family's long and influential place in the county. When we first meet Flem, he has just arrived in Frenchman's Bend with his mother, sister, and father, Abner Snopes. He is little more than a boy. And immediately he learns that the Snopes, like everyone else in the area, are under the thumb of the prosperous Varner family. The head of the family, Will Varner, and his son Jody run a busy general store that is essentially the commercial hub of Frenchman's Bend.
Abner, it turns out, has a reputation as a man with a prickly (and often, to others, incoherent) sense of honor, and has, in the past, been more than willing to burn down a barn or two to alleviate any perceived stain on this honor. Jody Varner is more than a little nervous having such a loose cannon around, but Jody's also no fool. When Flem asks for a job at the Varner store, Jody complies, so as not to run any risk of offending the elder Snopes. Flem proves that he's not only a competent businessman, but he soon also outstrips Jody's own position and, with Will Varner's blessing (Flem is bringing in money he never expected to see), is in effect running the store himself.
Meanwhile, Jody's sister Eula, who has both beauty and her family's money, fends off suitor after suitor. She finally falls in love with a boy the other suitors don't approve of, and after she gets pregnant with his child, the father is run out of town, leaving Eula a "tainted" woman with a bastard in her belly. This is where Flem steps in. With a hefty dowry from the Varner's, he marries Eula and adopts the child as his own. After this, Flem finds his prospects rising even higher.
But he's not satisfied just yet. The novel's climax comes with Flem speculating on a herd of wild ponies. He spends everything he has on them. To everyone else, this is reckless beyond belief and nobody expects him to make any money on them, let alone a profit. But Flem proves himself to be a savvier horse trader than anyone expected. He auctions off the whole lot and amasses himself a small fortune. He now has money, land, and influence in Frenchman's Bend – effectively usurping the role of the Varner family at the beginning of the novel. But Flem has greater ambitions.
The novel ends with him packing up his family and his fortune and setting off for the neighboring town of Jefferson. Jefferson is larger and more populous, with ever greater opportunities for the resourceful Flem Snopes.
Best part of story, including ending:
Only Faulkner can make a small-scale, focused story set in a single hamlet in rural Mississippi into such a sweeping epic of the changes overcoming both the South and the rest of rural America at the turn of the 20th century. The Snopes represent so much more than themselves, and yet Faulkner never forgets that they are still characters in whom our interest must reside for so many hundreds of pages. Not the strongest of the three books in the trilogy, but still magnificent.
Best scene in story:
The scenes where the ponies are being auctioned off, and the town sees unequivocally for the first time just how savvy Flem Snopes truly is, are both a perfect summation of his climb in this book and also a perfect launching point for his rising ambitions in the next two.
Opinion about the main character:
Flem Snopes is ruthless and cold and has an almost religious obsession with money, but he's never boring. And you never lose respect for his abilities, even if you occasionally lose respect for him as a human being.