On Not Getting the Joke: William Faulkner’s Wild Horses

by Mara Naselli

In an introduction to a seminal collection of Faulkner’s work, published in 1946, Malcolm Cowley called William Faulkner’s story “Spotted Horses” “wildly funny”—“the culminating example of American backwoods humor.” The collection resurrected Faulkner’s career and made his work teachable, part of the American canon. Nearly forty years later Cowley called it the funniest story he had ever read. “I was lecturing at Stanford once,” Cowley recalled, “and a very bright young woman in the class said, ‘Professor Cowley, referring to ‘Spotted Horses,’ why did you say this story was funny? And I said, ‘I don’t know what funny is, but let me read you part of this story,” and I read part of it where the horses had broken loose and were running through the town and one sailed through the house over that boy, and the class was in stitches. And I said, ‘Now do you think it is funny?’ She kind of flushed and said, ‘Yes.’” Spotted horses copy

There isn’t anything more embarrassing than not getting the joke, but I admit, in this case, I don’t. The story teems with violence. A string of feral horses, tied together with barbed wire around their necks, is driven to Frenchman’s Bend in Yoknapatawpha County. They are beaten with wagon stakes, grabbed by their nostrils, fed enough corn to kill them, and move with such fury that no one can handle them. They are brought to town by a stranger in cahoots with Flem Snopes. Snopes, who arrived in Frenchmen’s Bend about thirty years after the Civil War, is so tricky, said one of his neighbors, he “don’t even tell himself what he is up to. Not if he was laying in bed with himself in the dark of the moon.” “Spotted Horses,” which was first published in 1931, set the writing of the Snopes trilogy in motion.

Humor needs tragedy, and the genius in “Spotted Horses” is the strong presence of both. “The hard and sordid things of life,” wrote Mark Twain, “are too hard and too sordid and too cruel for us to know and touch them year after year without some mitigating influence.” Twain might be saying that we need humor to withstand the cruelty in the world. Or, that we need humor to see it.

There are two ways to read “Spotted Horses,” as if it were one of those trick paintings that is both a duck and a rabbit at once. You can read the people or you can read the horses.

Some men, lounging outside the store, see a covered wagon in the distance, drawn by mules. It is followed by “a considerable string of obviously alive objects which in the leveling sun resembled vari-sized and -colored tatters torn at random from large billboards—circus posters, say—attached to the rear of the wagon and inherent with its own separate and collective motion, like the tail of a kite.” As the train of ponies approaches the store, the men can’t make it out. “What the hell is that?” one asks. A man named Quick answers: “It’s a circus.”

In my first reading I could hardly see anything but the animals—they are probably mustangs, a motley, garish spectacle. The horses rush, clot, bend, whirl, scatter, slide like a flock of hysterical birds. They huddle in “mazy camouflage” or “mirage-like clumps”; they have “harlequin” or “parti-colored rumps”; they are a “kaleidoscopic maelstrom of long teeth and wild eyes and slashing feet, . . . each wearing a necklace of barbed wire.” The herd’s confusion is described so relentlessly and with such specificity that in the first twentysome pages, I felt sick.

I lost track of the number of times Faulkner uses the word gaudy: “the horses stood in a restive clump, larger than rabbits and gaudy as parrots and shackled to one another and to the wagon itself with sections of barbed wire. . . . their mismatched eyes rolled wild and subdued, they huddled, gaudy, motionless and alert.” Their “blue-and-brown eyeballs” roll “alertly in their gaudy faces.” As the men advance toward the horses, their huddle “began to break into gaudy units turning inward upon themselves.” In the barn the ponies “huddled like gaudy phantoms in the gloom.”

The stranger, an old-fashioned horse trader from Texas, intends to sell these animals, though they have been so abused and mishandled, they are downright dangerous. In an attempt to show how they can “gentle,” he approaches the nearest one, which is standing hip-shod on three legs, to demonstrate how it can submit. The pony

appeared to be asleep. It’s eyelid drooped over the cerulean eye; its head was shaped like an ironing board. Without even raising the eyelid it flicked its head, the yellow teeth cropped. For an instant it and the man appeared to be inextricable in one violence. Then they became motionless, the stranger’s high heels dug into the earth, one hand gripping the animal’s nostrils, holding the horse’s head wrenched half around while it breathed in hoarse, smothered groans. “See?” the stranger said in a panting voice, the veins standing white and rigid in his neck and along his jaw. “See? All you got to do is handle them a little and work hell out of them for a couple of days. Now look out. Give me room back there.” They gave back a little. The stranger gathered himself then sprang away. As he did so, a second horse slashed at his back, severing his vest from collar to hem down the back exactly as the trick swordsman severs a floating veil with one stroke.

“Sho now,” Quick said. “But suppose a man don’t happen to own a vest.”

OK. Now that’s funny. The horse trader gets what coming to him. But I didn’t see it until a later reading because the horses and their confusion dominated my reading of the story. Horses have only their bodies with which to communicate, and Faulkner shows the reader their collective violence again and again. Look here, he seems to be saying. Do you see them? Do you see their terror, their “eyes rolling whitely and various”? Their mob-like huddling and sliding and turning inward on themselves? And who is this unnamed Texan, who trades on nothing more than his own overconfidence and chicanery to exploit a South crushed by war? Isn’t there something particularly American about the gaudy spectacle of parti-colored rumps, slashing feet, and the stranger’s “unflagging faith in his own invulnerability”? He’s cheating anyone fool enough to bid on these ponies, but he’s fully duped himself into believing he can strong-arm the wild creatures, grabbing their forelock and nostrils, into submission. To call it a circus—a mingling of spectacle and cruelty—suggests there something darker than the trick swordsman and his vaudeville gag.

The next day the men gather round the lot. The horse trader gets the bidding started by giving away a horse, and a newcomer arrives, just at the right moment. He is “a thin man, not large, with something about his eyes, something strained and washed-out, at once vague and intense.” He shoves himself into the crowd thinking there’s a deal to be had, and walks into the trap. “What? What’s that? Did he give him that horse?” His wife follows him. She is gaunt and shapeless. “Henry,” she says.

The Texan seizes on his name. “Henry’s going to get the bargain of his life in about a minute. Here, boys, let the missus come up close where she can see. Henry’s going to pick out that saddle-horse the missus has been wanting. Who says ten——” Henry’s now a prop the horse trader’s scheme. The wife tries to rein him in. “He ain’t no more despair,” she says. “And us not but five dollars away from the poorhouse, he ain’t no more despair.” Henry strikes her, and she rolls her hands into her dress.

When the bidding is over and done with, the folks sitting around the fence start looking a little like animals. The purchasers “had gathered as though by instinct” on the other side of the gate, not knowing how to catch the horses they just bought. Henry has a “mad look in his eyes, . . . a quality glazed now and even sightless.” His wife is in the wagon, “something inanimate, . . . waiting now in the wagon until he should be ready to go on again.” Flem Snopes, though, appears as if out of no where in his “small yet definite isolation,” the lone hunter, wearing a fancy plaid hat.

Eventually the horses break loose from the lot, unleashing all manner of havoc, and even running through the neighboring farmhouse. This is the passage Cowley read to his student. Faulkner himself also read it, in the spring of 1957, at the English Club at the University of Virginia. In the recording, available online, you can hear the audience laughing. The funny bits ping like well-placed punctuation marks, relieving strain of the preceding scenes. Violence has dissolved into good-natured humor. At the beginning of the reading, Faulkner took to the microphone and joked, “I can see now this is going to become a very bad habit with me, to stand up like this with a lot of nice people around who don’t dare say shut up and sit down.” The audience laughed. Then, just before beginning, he said, “This is about the horses.”