The second book in Faulkner's "Snopes" trilogy, continuing after the events of THE HAMLET, Flem Snopes, his ambitions growing with his influence, leaves Frenchman's Bend behind for the more fruitful opportunities in the larger town of nearby Jefferson, the center of Yoknapatawhpha County; here, after his success navigating the hierarchies of a country hamlet, Flem proves himself equally capable of taking advantage of the industrial atmosphere of a growing city. After arriving in Jefferson, Flem immediately maneuvers to have himself set up as the supervisor of a newly-built power plant. But as before, Flem is unsatisfied with merely "working" and soon finds ways to steal valuable brass from the plant, which he uses to supplant his already considerable income. Eula, bored and unsatisfied with her husband's coldly calculating obsession with money and status, has an affair with a local luminary named Manfred de Spain. Flem finds out and is furious. Not only does the entire town begin gossiping about him and speculating on his "impotence" – though they don't know precisely who Eula cheated with – but de Spain himself already represented Flem's chief rival in his continuing climb up the social ladder.
But Flem makes no moves against de Spain or his wife just yet. He leaves the power plant and begins climbing the ranks of the local banking system, realizing that this is the most effective means of exerting leverage in a "modern" economy. Again, though, he finds de Spain positioned to thwart his rise: after the death of the old bank president, Flem becomes vice president of the bank; but de Spain becomes president.
Meanwhile, Flem's success is drawing more and more Snopes to Jefferson. Distant relatives of all kinds arrive to feed off the burgeoning "Snopesism" – which many of the residents associate with a new kind of capitalism: rational but heartless, with a single-minded drive that discounts all the old mainstays of southern gentility. De Spain is the classic southern gentleman. Flem is the new kind of American man. And Flem's ethos is gaining adherents, simply because he has proven just how coldly effective it can be. Many locals though – who either recognize this shrewd and ruthless threat to their way of their life, or have already suffered from Flem's manipulations – try to rally against Snopesism. But the tide rolls on.
Meanwhile, and contrary to all appearances, Flem has not forgotten his wife, or her betrayal. Through a complicated and subtle escalation of emotional manipulations against her, Flem succeeds in pushing the already imbalanced Eula to commit suicide. The town, who loved Eula, is deeply saddened. Flem then enacts his next step: he lets it be known that de Spain was the one having the affair with Eula, and lets the conclusion be drawn that her suicide is due to this taint on her honor. The town is outraged at de Spain and essentially exiles him. De Spain himself is devastated by it all; he had intended to run away with Eula and marry her, and her suicide took him by surprise. He is forced to sell his stake in the bank to Flem. In one swoop, Flem takes care of his cheating wife and chief rival, and makes his own position in Jefferson unassailable.
The novel ends with Flem seemingly on top of the world. And he is, for now. What he doesn't realize, an oversight which will come to haunt him, is that his daughter Linda Snopes now harbors serious doubts about her father and the manner of her mother's death – doubts which will soon find fertile ground for those plotting Flem's downfall.
Best part of story, including ending:
My favorite book in the Snopes trilogy. It's a stronger narrative, with more fascinating characters and tighter editing, and we begin to see the first real victims of Flem's unstoppable climb.
Best scene in story:
It's easy to forget that Flem is a real person, capable of real emotions and weaknesses. The scene where he first learns of his wife's infidelity allows us to peek into the real Flem, if only briefly.
Opinion about the main character:
Flem is the same old competent bastard as before. But he is no longer as untouchable as he would like to believe. Even though Flem is never more ruthless than he is here, he's also strangely a more human and deeper character than he is in either of the other books.