51 pages 1 hour read

William Faulkner


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1931

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Sanctuary is a 1931 novel by American author William Faulkner. The book, set in Faulkner’s fictitious Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, follows the fall of a well-to-do college girl named Temple Drake at the hands of a bootlegger named Popeye. Popeye’s rape and abduction of Temple has many outward repercussions during the two months the novel depicts, affecting the lives of local lawyer Horace Benbow, bootlegger Lee Goodwin, and Gowan Stevens, Temple’s date, whose actions lead to her kidnapping. Supposedly published purely for financial reasons, the book was well received upon publication, even if the reviewers often found the subject matter of the book horrific. Both a crime fiction novel and an example of the Southern Gothic genre for which Faulkner is known, the novel explores themes that include the loss of innocence, the impact of social pressures, and the decline of the South through vice.

The book was adapted into the 1933 movie The Story of Temple Drake. Faulkner would go on to write a sequel to Sanctuary, Requiem for a Nun, 20 years later in 1951.

This study guide references the Modern Library’s 1958 edition of the book.

Content Warning: The source text centers on a violent act of sexual assault and includes graphic depictions of domestic violence and lynching, as well as alcohol addiction. The depictions of female characters in the novel are often based on misogynistic ideas. The source text uses the n-word, antisemitic language, and misogynistic language. Such language is reproduced in this guide only through quotations.

Plot Summary

Horace Benbow, a lawyer fleeing his failing marriage, returns to his hometown of Jefferson in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, in the spring of 1929. Arriving on the outskirts of town, he comes across a bootlegging operation run by Lee Goodwin at the Old Frenchman place, a former plantation house. He meets Ruby Lamar, Goodwin’s common-law wife; Popeye, a violent member of the bootlegging operation; and Tommy, another bootlegger.

Staying at the home of his widowed sister, Narcissa, Benbow watches disapprovingly as she walks with a young man named Gowan Stevens. Benbow and Gowan do not get along, and Benbow finds Gowan’s continual talk of how he learned to be a gentleman at the University of Virginia tiresome. Gowan departs to pick up a girl named Temple Drake from the University of Mississippi to attend a university dance.

Temple is the daughter of a rich and well-known judge. She is known for going out every night of the week with many different boys. Temple and Gowan go to the dance and make plans to go to a baseball game the next day. Gowan, however, drinks himself into a stupor, causing them to miss their train. He convinces Temple to ride in his car with him but insists upon stopping by the Old Frenchman place to buy more alcohol. Driving while already drunk, he crashes the car.

Two men lead Temple and the unconscious Gowan to the Old Frenchman place. Though Goodwin isn’t happy that they’re there, he lets them stay and drinks with Gowan. The men threaten and harass Temple, and Ruby tells her she should leave before dark. Gowan continues to drink, and Ruby ends up hiding Temple in the barn for the night. One of Goodwin’s men, Tommy, also tries to protect Temple from the other men, especially Popeye. The next morning, however, Popeye shoots Tommy and rapes Temple with a corncob, then kidnaps her and takes her to Memphis, Tennessee, to install her in a brothel run by a woman known as Miss Reba.

Ruby calls the police upon finding Tommy’s body, and Goodwin is arrested for the crime of murdering Tommy. Benbow takes up the case pro bono and tries to help Ruby and her child find lodging, as the town has ostracized her for having a child out of wedlock. Goodwin refuses to reveal Popeye’s presence at the Old Frenchman place for fear of retaliation, even though both he and Benbow suspect that Popeye committed the murder. Ruby eventually reveals Temple’s presence at the house that night to Benbow and explains that Gowan abandoned her.

Benbow begins to investigate Temple’s disappearance, traveling to Oxford to ask about her at the university. They and the papers say that Temple ran away and that her father sent her up north to visit relatives. Meanwhile, Ruby and her child have been thrown out of the hotel Benbow set them up in due to the Baptist church committee’s objection to her presence in town, and he must find alternate housing for them. Rumors have begun in town that Benbow is representing Goodwin because he’s having an affair with Ruby.

An acquaintance of Benbow’s, Senator Snopes, calls and offers Benbow information on Temple’s whereabouts for a price. Benbow agrees, and Snopes reveals that Temple is in a Memphis brothel. Benbow travels to Miss Reba’s and convinces her to let him speak to Temple. Temple tells him the story of her night at the Old Frenchman place and of her intense fear. Benbow is greatly disturbed by her story and becomes ill thinking about Temple’s experience and his own stepdaughter, who is of a similar age.

At Miss Reba’s, Temple begins to tear apart her room, throwing all the new clothes Popeye has brought her to the ground and breaking all the expensive toiletries she has been given. She sneaks out of the house, but Popeye catches her. It is revealed that Popeye is impotent and has been bringing a younger man, Red, to have sex with Temple while Popeye watches. Temple was planning to run away with Red. Temple and Popeye go to a bar, and Red arrives. Though Temple warns Red that Popeye is going to kill him, it doesn’t help. Popeye has his friends carry Temple out of the bar and kills Red. This enrages Miss Reba, and she tells all her friends about Popeye’s crimes, hoping to make them public and get him arrested.

Benbow finally resolves to divorce his wife. His sister, Narcissa, goes to the district attorney’s office and tells him about Benbow’s research into Temple, hoping that she can ensure that Benbow loses the case quickly and goes home to his wife. When the trial finally starts, Benbow is at first confident, as the prosecution has no hard evidence against Goodwin. On the second day of the trial, Temple shows up. She gives her testimony but lies and says it was Goodwin who raped her. She is escorted out of court by her father and brothers.

The jury declares Goodwin guilty, and that night, a mob lynches him, burning him alive. Benbow returns to his wife, his hopes of changing his life defeated. In a twist of fate, Popeye, on his way to see his mother in Pensacola, Florida, is stopped in Birmingham and hanged for a crime he did not commit. Temple and her father go to Paris for a new start, and the novel ends with them walking on a gray day in the Luxembourg Gardens.