is a 1931 novella by William Faulkner. Widely considered to be one of the twentieth century’s most important American authors, Faulkner originally published Spotted Horses
in Scribner’s Magazine
and later included it in his 1940 novel, The Hamlet
. In telling the story of a con artist who persuades his neighbors to buy untamable horses that wreak havoc on the community, Faulkner infuses a Southern slice-of-life narrative with a powerful moral parable, raising questions about man’s place in a universe governed by greed and chaos.
The first of three sections opens on the outskirts of Mississippi’s Yoknapatawpha County, a fictional locale where many of Faulkner's works are set. The townsfolk, including V.K. Ratliff, watch as an unnamed Texan brings forward a group of unruly but beautiful horses. Rumored to be owned by local big shot and known philanderer Flem Snopes, the horses are set to be auctioned the following day. The Texan downplays the beasts' riotous nature by maintaining a sense of composure around the animals, even when one of them comes so close to landing a devastating blow that it rips the Texan's vest in two. The horses are just lively, the Texan claims, adding that they'll break easily, though Ratliff is skeptical. Nevertheless, the auction begins in earnest when the Texan offers Eck Snopes a free horse if he starts the bidding.
At this moment, Henry Armstid and his wife pass by in a wagon. Jealous and enraged over missing out on a free horse himself, Henry stubbornly bids his family’s last five dollars, which his wife earned and saved so their children could have shoes in the winter. After Henry wins the bid, Mrs. Armstid begs the Texan not to accept the five dollars. Though he ignores her at first, the Texan—after observing more of Henry's foolish behavior—begins to feel compassion toward the wife and agrees to return the five dollars against Henry’s protests. But when Flem Snopes sees this, he steps in and intercepts the five dollars, confirming suspicions that he's the real mastermind behind the bad-faith auction, not the Texan. The Texan tells Mrs. Armstid she can retrieve her money from Flem the next morning.
After Flem and the Texan depart, Eck, Henry, and the other new horse-owners gather with a line of ropes to collect their purchases. But not long after the men enter the horses' enclosure, the animals go completely berserk, responding to the premise of submission with a riotous display of violence. After one of the men forgets to latch the gate to the enclosure, the scene's descent into chaos is sealed. The horses bust through the gate and slam into Henry, leaving him unconscious before charging at the wagons that had unwisely stopped for the auction. Moving on from the wreckage of the overturned wagons, one horse crashes through the front door of Mrs. Littlejohn's house. Too busy with laundry to be bothered with all this, Mrs. Littlejohn swiftly dispatches the thrashing beast by smacking it in the face with her washboard before men arrive to chase it off.
Meanwhile, Eck and his son follow their horse to a narrow bridge where it collides with two mules and a wagon carrying the Tull family. In the ensuing clamor, the mules free themselves from the wagon and drag Mr. Tull several feet, severely injuring the man. The horse finally escapes, with Eck and his son in pursuit.
In the second section, it is two days later. A group of townsfolk, including Ratliff, Eck, and Eck’s son, gather in Bump Snopes’ store to discuss the auction and its aftermath, and to debate the extent of Flem's involvement in the con. Some suggest Flem couldn’t be responsible because Eck, his own kin, bid at the auction and suffered greatly in trying to retrieve his horse. Others claim Flem is so unscrupulous there’s no one on Earth he wouldn’t con, including his own kin. Marked by absurd hyperbole and clever juxtaposition, the dialogue here contains many memorable examples of the strange and rhythmic Southern humor for which Faulkner is well known.
After Flem arrives, a desperate Mrs. Armstid follows to ask for her five dollars. Flem declines, stating that he gave the five dollars back to the Texan who disappeared. Instead, Flem offers Mrs. Armstid a bag of sweets for her children. Although she responds as if this is a kindness, Flem’s true intent is to brag to his friends about what a smooth operator he is, making a big show of laying five cents on the clerk’s table to pay for the sweets. The townsfolk react to Flem’s ability to erase a five-dollar debt with a five-cent bag of sweets with varying levels of disgust and awe.
The third section jumps forward in time to depict two court proceedings: Mrs. Armstid vs. Flem Snopes
and Mrs. Tull vs. Eck Snopes
. (Again, it was Eck's horse that severely injured Mr. Tull on the bridge). Here, Faulkner employs significant irony in the way each case is resolved. Because no one can prove Flem masterminded the auction — nor can anyone prove he still has the five dollars — the judge tells Mrs. Astrid she has no case, at least not against Flem. Meanwhile, because the Texan gives Eck his horse free of charge, there is no proof of ownership and thus no liability on Eck’s part for Mr. Tull’s injuries. In fact, the judge says the only property Mrs. Tull is entitled to by law is the horse that caused all the damage in the first place. In short, the judge rules that the only people with any legal responsibility for the two horses are the two women who most want nothing to do with them.
In the end, Spotted Horses
is a funny yet reflective tale that uses humor, irony
, and poetic language to raise questions about the nature of fate, who’s lucky and who’s not, and whether men make their own luck or if their fortunes rise and fall according to random chaos. On one hand, the unpredictable beasts of the book’s title support the idea that man is best off resigning himself to the whims of the universe instead of trying to control them — like Ratliff who stands aside while the horses rain devastation on his friends’ lives. On the other hand, the characters of Flem and the Texan suggest that man can indeed control his own fate and the fate of others, but only by being as cruel and uncaring toward humanity as the universe itself.