The Reivers is about a stolen car, a stolen racehorse, a brothel, a stowaway, and some mules—all told to us through the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy. So we know we're going to have some fun with this.
The tone remains lighthearted throughout, as Lucius takes us on his childhood adventures and describes the people who fill his life. From the opening scene, when Boon tries to shoot Ludus for calling him names, to Lucius's internal battle between good and evil, everything we get is laced with humor. "If I've got to tell more lies, at least let it be to strangers" (3.61), he says, for example, in a childlike effort to justify his actions.
Yet we won't belittle the seriousness of parts of the novel. Lucius does encounter some pretty heavy stuff, such as sexism, racism, violence, and corruption. Perhaps playfulness is how eleven-year-old Lucius processes the world around him and makes sense of the things he encounters for the first time. Though he's narrating the events to us as an adult, we've gotta remember that he was a child back at the time they happened. His telling us the events as a playful eleven-year-old would is all a part of his process of understanding what actually went down with him.
Coming-of-age tales are often intertwined with comedy. Just think of things like The Graduate, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Breakfast Club, and even American Pie. They're all classic stories about growing up that have us clutching our sides each time we watch them.
So just what makes growing up so funny?
For starters, we don't always make the best choices when we're teenagers. (Or when we're adults, but that's another story.) At the time, the decisions we make may seem like pretty good ones, but when we evaluate them later, or from a more seasoned perspective, we might reconsider.
The Reivers, your classic, hilarious, coming-of-age tale, is all about making those decisions. Lucius chooses to help steal Grandfather's new car, he chooses to accompany Boon, and he chooses to lie through his teeth. "It has been my observation that," he says, "except in a few scattered cases of what might be called malevolent hyper-prematurity, children, like poets, lie rather for pleasure than for profit" (3.25). Great observation, Lucius.
Is Lucius, like all who grow up, wholly wrong in choosing to lie? Not necessarily, because we know that our choices lead to other decisions and other choices that wind up becoming some of the most transformative and educational experiences of our lives.
We're not saying go out and choose to act badly. But what we are saying is that all actions have an equal or opposite reaction (thanks Newton). When we chose to take a risk, it can yield great rewards. It can lead to new friends, new adventures, and new things to learn about ourselves.
Perhaps that's why growing up is so comedic. There's no sound logic behind why seemingly bad choices can sometimes bring good things. And that's pretty funny.
"Reivers" is an old Scottish word for "robbers." Which makes sense, since there's a lot of robbing and stealing throughout the story.
Let's see if we can get them all:
Wow, that's a whole lot of stealing. And we're not even talking about the abstract stuff, like the stealing of Lucius innocence, or the stealing of Miss Corrie's dignity. Basically, the act of taking what doesn't belong to you drives this entire story.
Do all characters participate in stealing in some way or another? Is there anyone who is truly innocent of it?
The slight stylization of the title—we've got reivers here, not thieves or robbers—gives the title a whimsical, old-timey feel, though. We can sort of tell, just based on the title, that nothing we're going to find in this novel is going to be that bad. This is a story about childhood and memory, and both the childhood and the memories are pretty sweet. Nobody ends up dead or in jail here (at least for long), so it's appropriate that our title is also a little innocent.
Lest we get all distracted by the chaos that accompanies the horseracing in Parsham, let's remind ourselves how Lightning was obtained in the first place. Remember Boss Priest's car? Oh, yeah, we seem to have forgotten all about that.
It's not really much of a shock when Grandfather shows up at the racetrack after Lightning's first—and only—victory. He reminds us that he's the reason all of this could happen in the first place, for without his car, there would be no racehorse, and with no racehorse, we wouldn't be where we are now.
Ned explains the situation, revealing that his cousin Bobo owes a lot of money to the owner of Lightning, whose real name is actually Coppermine. He convinces Boss Priest to bet on the horse in the final race so that he can win enough money to not only get the car back, but to also relieve his cousin from debt.
Well, tricky Ned strikes again, and he doesn't feed Lightning sardines before the race this time, so the horse ends up losing the race, along with Boss Priest's hefty bet. Ned walks away with a huge sum of money because he bet against Lightning, knowing full well that the horse would lose.
So why does Ned do this? He's a member of Boss Priest's family, but because he is black, he has no claim to any inheritance. In outwitting Boss Priest, he can finally get the best of him—and reap some kind of financial reward. It's a way to screw the system that screwed him, and maybe set things right for himself.
However, Boss Priest, being the moral compass that he is, forgives Ned, gets the car back, and returns home with Boon and Lucius. (Boon drives, of course.) And like a Shakespearean comedy that ends usually with a wedding or a large celebration, so too does this comedy end on a happy note. A bit of time has passed, and Lucius reveals that Miss Corrie and Boon have married and had their first child, named Lucius Priest Hogganbeck. Aww.
Childhood may have ended for Lucius, but the ending was pretty sweet.
Get out your maps, because we're taking a great American road trip. Lucius's adventures lead him from Jefferson, Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee, from his grandfather's farm to Miss Reba's brothel and Uncle Parsham's horserace track.
Let's dive in and see what this all means.
Rural Jefferson, Mississippi, where Lucius grew up, is a part of William Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County. A town known for its simple way of life—before the introduction of automobiles, that is—Jefferson parallels Lucius's own innocence before he embarks on his adventure with Boon. Lucius's family is long established in the town: they date back to the antebellum days, and Lucius's grandfather Boss Priest is a well-respected bank owner.
The sleepy town is certainly shaken up by the introduction of the automobile. Paved roads replace dirt paths, chickens are run over, and people are soon able to travel longer distances in shorter periods of time. It takes only a day for Lucius, Boon, and Ned to get to Memphis, where our setting changes from the simplistic farms to the rather complex and corrupt brothel.
Miss Reba's brothel is unlike anything Lucius has ever seen in Jefferson. It is a place where adults come to, well, do adult things. It's also where Mr. Binford is free to speak poorly of women, where Otis can have a peepshow business, and where men can treat women in ways that Lucius's father would never treat his mother.
Lucius continues to find obvious differences between his little hometown and the big city. For example, Memphis is the place where he's first introduced to greed and corruption, when Ned unrightfully trades Boss Priest's automobile for a stolen racehorse then has to smuggle the animal onto a baggage car.
Like Memphis, the racetrack is also the scene of crime, corruption, and gambling. It's an unlawful place where police like Butch use their guns and badges to abuse power in ways that those back in Jefferson, like John Powell, would never do.
The drastic changes in setting represent Lucius's journey into world of adults. Though Lucius is returns a comfortable setting back in Jefferson in the end, is he the same person he was before he left? He is not.
You may already know how tricky Faulkner can be, both linguistically and thematically. But you'll be relieved to find out that The Reivers is the simplest of all the author's works. It's actually very straightforward.
We totally heard that huge sigh of relief.
It's always clear who's speaking, as Faulkner uses character names rather than those tricky pronouns he usually uses that leave us piecing together who exactly says what. He sticks with one narrator the whole time and doesn't switch halfway through. He also provides adequate clues to allow us to read between the lines and string together the sequence of events.
Faulkner's language is easy to tackle here, as it offers an adult critique of human nature through the lens of a child. It illustrates the greed, corruption, and racism that abounds in Lucius's world, but it does so with a layer of comedic relief. We're left to discover a bit about the world as Lucius would have seen it for the first time, way back when.
Gather 'round and lend us your ears. This is a narrative, or a string of events that make up a story. And boy, what a good story this is.
The action really kicks off when Grandfather's Winton Flyer rolls into town. Lucius says of the car, "[Grandfather] bought the automobile, and Boon found his soul's lily maid" (2.22). When the vehicle enters the narrative, it brings along with it fascination, temptation, and a call to adventure, much like the white whale in Moby-Dick and the shark in Jaws.
As the story's narrator, Lucius details the events that follow exactly as they happened back in 1905. And he spares no detail. When the crew tries to sneak Lightning onto the boxcar, for example, he describes everything. "That's what we did. Though first Sam had to see the horse. He came in the back way, through the kitchen, carrying the horse blanket. He was in uniform. He was almost as big as Boon." And so on.
Lucius's descriptions make us like flies sitting on the wall, watching every little thing, since he's placed us right up front and close to the action.
Faulkner originally entitled the narrative A Reminiscence. It's a narrative that captivates our attention with its childhood excitement, but it also delivers a mature analysis that only an adult narrative could offer. Lucius's narrative is not wholly naïve and ignorant in its delivery, for adult-Lucius is well aware the role his innocence played at the time of the story's events.
Could you imagine having to hand-crank your car each time you wanted to use it?
Cars back in 1905 were quite different from cars as we know them today. Boss Priest's Winton Flyer has kerosene lamps for night driving and a roof that takes fifteen minutes to set up. And you have to wear special clothes to keep off the dirt flying up from the road.
And, believe it or not, this was considered progress.
Automobiles like Boss Priest's were noisy, dirty, and very inconvenient. At that time, it was much simpler to unhitch your horse and ride that around town instead. People believed cars were a fad that wouldn't last very long—though one glance at the roads today reveals how wrong they were.
The subject of much fascination, Boss Priest's Winton Flyer symbolizes modernity coming to an otherwise sleepy South. Specifically, it symbolizes modernity for the Priest family, as Boss professes that his bank will soon enter a new era by buying bonds for automobiles.
The transition to modernity isn't always smooth in this novel, as the Southern roads haven't yet been paved for cars, and chickens and other animals seem to always be getting in the way. However, as Lucius reveals in hindsight, cars would continue to frequent Jefferson well after his four-day adventures with Boon, and by the 1960s, almost all Southern roads would transform and modernize to accommodate cars.
But more than just a symbol for modernization, Boss Priest's automobile is also an object of desire, one that means something different to each character. For Boss himself, the automobile is a smart business move that will keep him in good standing with the powers that be in Jefferson. For Boon, the car is his soul mate, something that he never knew existed but now cannot live without. For Ned, the car is an opportunity to barter for financial gain. And for Lucius, the car is his passage to adventure and his vehicle into adulthood.
Lightning sure causes a lot of trouble.
First off, he's a stolen racehorse. He has to be smuggled onto a train and taught how to race. Then he loses his heat and goes and gets himself arrested.
Do you think this horse has any idea of all the ruckus he causes?
But boy, he sure is a thing of beauty, though. As Lucius laments, "Oh yes, I remember him: a three-year-old three-quarters-bred…chestnut gelding, not large, not even sixteen hands, but with the long neck for balance and the laid-back shoulder for speed and the big hocks for drive" (6.28).
Lightning is the opposite of the automobile. In a time when cars were still new, horses ruled the land. Cars were a symbol of modernity, while horses represented yesterday's way of life. Lightning represents a kind of natural beauty and familiarity that is absent from the creaky new technology about to change the entire landscape and way of life of places like rural Mississippi.
At the beginning of the story, Ned suggests that Boss Priest's car is worth the same as the most expensive racehorse in the county. Perhaps this is a bit of foreshadowing, as Ned will wind up trading the car for just such a racehorse.
But Lightning is more than just an average racehorse: his success is the glue holding a lot of people together. He's Boon's ticket to getting his beloved car back. He's Bobo's ticket to getting out of debt. He's Ned's ticket to getting back at Boss Priest for not treating him like family. He's Butch's ticket to seducing Miss Corrie. And he's Lucius's ticket to proving that he is no longer a child.
There's a lot riding on Lightning. Does he deliver on his promise?
When somebody has a piece of spinach stuck between his or her teeth, you can't help but stare. Minnie, the brothel maid, doesn't have something green stuck in her teeth: she has something gold—specifically, a gold tooth. And for all who are fortunate to see it, to really experience this tooth—well, they can't help but stare.
Minnie's gold tooth offers a bit of comic relief. Upon seeing the tooth for the first time, Lucius interrupts the story of how Ned traded the car for the horse by digressing and telling us about the tooth: "What I do remember," Lucius notes, "is the rich instantaneous glint of gold out of the middle of whatever Minnie said, in the electric light of the kitchen, as if the tooth itself had gained a new lustre" (6.1).
The tooth has a totally striking effect on Ned, too, for "it has stopped him cold for that moment, instant, like basilisk" (6.2).
Okay, so we know that the tooth is striking, but what's so special about it?
Well, like Lightning, it's also a prized possession that gets stolen. Otis sneaks into Minnie's room while she's sleeping, steals the tooth right out of her mouth, and hopes to sell it and make money. Though Otis is unsuccessful in selling the tooth, his attempts are just one more example of the selfishness and greed that Lucius encounters on his journey into adulthood.
"A mule aint like a horse," says Uncle Parsham (11.41).
Now, we at Shmoop aren't experts on mules and horses, but we're going to agree with Parsham: a rectangle is not a square.
So if a mule's not like a horse, what is it like exactly?
Well, according to Parsham, when a horse gets a "wrong notion" in his head, all you have to do is swap out the old idea for a new one. Easy, you brainwash it. But a mule is different. A mule can't be so easily brainwashed: it will hold two notions in its head at the same time, and the only way to change one of these notions is to act like you believe the mule thought of changing its own mind first.
Wait, so it's like Inception? Yes. But for mules. You plant an idea in the mule's mind, but you make him think it was his idea in the first place. Okay, got it, sweet.
"That's why you dont pet a mule like you do a horse: he knows you dont love him: you're just trying to fool him into doing something he already dont aim to do, and it insults him," Uncle Parsham warns (11.41).
So mules represent power, intelligence, and sagacity, and they play an important part in the story. Ned once taught mules to race like horses, and mules help free the Winton Flyer from the mud that threatens to engulf it back in Hell Creek.
Mules are also known for their stubbornness, much like Boon. Both get ideas in their heads and latch onto them; just think of Boon's desire to drive Boss Priest's automobile and get with Miss Corrie. However, though mules and Boon cannot be so easily swayed, they can be tricked into acting in ways contrary to their intentions. For instance, Butch angers Boon in such a way that Boon's decision to beat the cop feels like his own, even though it has been incited by Butch.
Like horses, mules are essential parts of the Southern landscape, representing yesterday's way of life. Though brilliant and useful creatures, they are just another entity of the past that will be wiped out by the time adult-Lucius tells his story to us.
Virtue and Non-virtue are like the angel and devil sitting atop each of Lucius's shoulders. His good senses tell him one thing, but his bad side tells him another.
Yup, we've got a classic battle between good and evil on our hands, folks.
Lucius constantly finds himself caught between Virtue and Non-virtue. He feels that Non-virtue is calling most of the shots and goading him into making bad decisions. Non-virtue is way sexier than Virtue.
"If Non-virtue still wanted either of us," he claims, "it was now her move. Which she did" (3.50-51). When Lucius agrees to help Boon steal his grandfather's car, he allows himself to be tempted by Non-virtue. The call to adventure is just too great, and Non-virtue claims him.
So are Lucius's actions the result of forces beyond his control? Is he really being controlled by Non-virtue? Or is he wholly responsible for his choices? What do you make of the fact that during the adventure, whenever Lucius is tested, he actually acts in a pretty virtuous way?
Nearly sixty years have passed between the time Lucius helped to steal Grandfather's car and the time he decides to tell us his childhood adventure story. "Even in 1905," he says, "the wilderness had retreated only twenty more miles; then two hundred miles by 1960" (2.7).
Lucius provides us with his views of the world as he would have witnessed everything back then as a child. This includes his childlike admiration for Boon, his shock regarding Miss Reba's brothel, and his excitement for collecting Pokémon Go characters.
Okay, just kidding. They weren't invented yet.
Lucius also tells us a bit about what he has learned in the time that has passed between his childhood years and his adult years. He seems to be a reliable narrator, revealing childlike wonder and amazement but also offering adult insights. "You see? I was doing the best I could. My trouble was, the tools I had to use. The innocence and ignorance" (3.36). In his narration, Lucius has the advantage of hindsight: he now understand the significance of the events that took place that memorable spring in 1905, even if at the time, a lot of it was over his head.
When we first meet Lucius, he is as vulnerable as a puppy. He's young and totally naïve when it comes to things like stealing and lying, not to mention sex. Lucius has limited life experiences, so when he falls for Boon's ploy, he falls hard.
Lucius is initially fascinated by Boon's call to adventure. It offers him a thrilling chance to travel to a place he's been before (Memphis) through a new means of transportation (the car). Though Lucius doesn't feel he is wholly responsible for his choices—Non-virtue appears to be dictating his fate—he is intrigued by the adventures that may await him should he choose to help Boon steal the car.
Reality sets in, and Lucius becomes frustrated with the fact that he has been telling more lies than he feels he is capable of telling. He is also frustrated that he will have to cover one lie with another lie, and continue on the bad path of lying.
Though Lucius isn't sure what he was supposed to expect from his travels with Boon, he does know that things have gone horribly wrong. His grandfather's car has been traded for a stolen racehorse, he's participated in smuggling, he's gotten into a fight with another boy, the horse has lost its races, and now the horse has been imprisoned along with Ned and Boon. Lucius certainly falls into a spiraling nightmare, but has he wholly made a mistake in agreeing to accompany Boon?
Just when it all appears to be too much to bear, Lucius finds his escape. The horse wins a race, Grandfather appears, and in no time at all, they all return home. Lucius learns about growing up, and is able to see that though the world can contain corrupt, it abounds in goodness as well. Lucius has fundamentally changed as a result of his formative experiences.
Lucius's other grandfather—not Boss Priest—passes away in St. Louis, and the family must go away to attend the funeral, leaving behind Lucius, Boon, and a shiny new automobile. Boon convinces Lucius to help him steal the car, and the two travel with a stowaway, Ned, to a brothel in Memphis.
Much to his horror, Boon discovers that Ned has traded the car for a stolen racehorse that he intends to race for money to buy the car back. Not only does this not make any sense, but they must also smuggle the stolen racehorse onto a baggage car in order to evade the police forces that are probably out looking for the stolen horse.
On the day of the race, the horse, named Lightning, loses its first heat and is quickly pulled off the racetrack by a policeman named Butch. The horse, along with Ned and Boon, are taken into custody because Butch has his eye on Miss Corrie and is using the arrest as a means to force her into a sex. She submits, and the horse, Ned, and Boon are released.
The freed horse races again and wins, but this time, Grandfather appears on the sidelines. Ned explains the situation and urges him to bet on the horse to win a second time. Grandfather does so, but the horse loses. Ned has not only fixed the race, but he has also bet against the horse and reaped the financial rewards, which means he gets to take a huge chunk of Boss Priest's money.
Grandfather explains to Lucius that the world abounds in sin and corruption, and discovering such things is all a part of the growing up process. At the same time, the world does have some good in it, as Boon and Miss Corrie marry and have a child they name Lucius Priest Hogganbeck.
Lucius's grandfather passes away in St. Louis, and the family must go away to attend the funeral, leaving behind Lucius, Boon, and a new automobile. Boon entices Lucius to help him steal the car, and the two travel with a stowaway, Ned, to a brothel in Memphis. Much to his horror, Boon discovers that Ned has traded the car for a stolen racehorse that he intends to race for money to buy the car back. Not only does this not make any sense, but they also must smuggle the stolen racehorse onto a train car in order to evade the police forces that are probably out looking for the stolen horse.
Ned trains the horse and Lucius as jockey, but the horse loses one heat and is disqualified from two when it is pulled off the racetrack by a policeman named Butch and taken into custody along with Ned and Boon. We learn that Butch has his eye on Miss Corrie, a newly retired prostitute, and he is using the arrest as a way to force her into a sexual situation. She submits, and the now freed horse races again and wins. Only Grandfather Priest is watching from the sidelines of the racetrack.
Grandfather appears on the scene but is rather calm. Ned explains the situation and urges him to bet on the horse to win a second time. Grandfather does so, but the horses loses. Ned has not only fixed the race, but he has also bet against the horse and reaped the financial rewards. Grandfather explains to Lucius that the world abounds in sin and corruption. They all travel back up to Jefferson, where Boon and Miss Corrie marry and have a son named Lucius Priest Hogganbeck..