Study Guide

The Reivers Respect and Reputation

By William Faulkner

Respect and Reputation

Grandfather said: This is the kind of a man Boon Hogganbeck was. Hung on the wall, it could have been his epitaph, like a Bertillon chart or a police poster; any cop in north Mississippi would have arrested him out of any crowd after merely reading the date. (1.1)

And that's what we learn about Boon from the book's opening lines: he's the kind of guy who stands out in a crowd—and he's one who gets the cops' attention. Classic Boon.

Obvious (the pistol) not only to us but to Father himself. Because Father knew about it too. He had to know about it; our establishment was too small, too intricate, too closely-knit. So Father's moral problem was exactly the same as John Powell's, and both of them knew it and handled it as mutual gentlemen must and should: if Father were ever compelled to acknowledge the pistol was there, he would have to tell John either to leave it at home tomorrow or not come back himself. And John knew this and, a gentleman too, he himself would never be the one to compel Father to acknowledge the pistol existed. (1.9)

Lucius's father and John Power have a tacit, unspoken understanding of the pistol. John knows he's not supposed to have it, but he knows that Lucius's father knows about it. Lucius's father also knows that John knows that he knows, yet acknowledging it would get John in trouble—something it seems that everyone wants to avoid. So the two remain silent.

John and Father looked at each other for about ten seconds while the whole edifice of entendre-de-noblesse collapsed into dust. Through the noblesse, the oblige, still remained. (1.10)

Basically, when Boon runs off with John's pistol, the Gentlemen's Agreement vanishes.

"Ludus the safest man there. I seen Boon Hogganbeck"—he didn't say Mister and he knew Father heard him: something he would never have failed to do in the hearing of any white man he considered his equal, because John was a gentleman. But Father was competent for noblesse too: it was that the pistol which was unforgivable, and Father knew it, - "shoot before. Say the word, Mr Maury." (1.13)

So in the respect hierarchy, which ranks highest? The tacit understanding of the pistol, or understanding of racial customs? It seems that John's pistol threatens respect more than John's leaving out the "Mister" from Boon's title.

"Can't you see? And I aint even got any choice. Me, a white man, have got to stand here and let a damn mule-wrastling n***** either criticise my private tail, or state before five public witnesses that I aint got any sense." (1.30)

Boon doesn't like that Ludus insulted him by calling him a "narrow-asted son of a b****". But what seems to be even more irksome to Boon is the lack of respect he feels from Ludus, a black man—and therefore, according to Boon, his subordinate.

Ned…was a McCaslin, born in the McCaslin back yard in 1860. He was our family skeleton; we inherited him in turn, with his legend (which had no firmer supporter than Ned himself) that his mother had been the natural daughter of old Lucius Quintus Carothers himself and a N**** slave; never did Ned let any of us forget that he, along with Cousin Isaac, was an actual grandson to old time-honored Lancaster where we moiling Edmondses and Priests, even though three of us—you, me, and my Grandfather—were named for him, were mere diminishing connections and hangers-on. (2.25)

Ever heard of a skeleton in the closet? Lucius has grown up with the notion that Ned is his family's "skeleton". In other words, he's the family's secret, perhaps not someone they go about praising on their high horses. His reputation? Well, he's the illicit child of a white relative and a slave. The kicker is that he would have more of a right to Boss Priest's inheritance than Lucius if it weren't for the color of his skin.

"When is Boon Hogganbeck coming for yawl?"

"Pretty soon now," I said. "And you better not left Father of Boss hear you calling him Boon Hogganbeck."

"I calls him Mister in plenty of time for him to earn it," Ned said. "Let alone deserve it." He said, "Hee hee hee." (3.33-35)

Ned enjoys defying convention, referring to his white superiors, like Boon, by first name. And he doesn't really seem to care now, does he? Hee hee hee.

"Your coachman's in the kitchen, sir," [the waiter] said. "He says it's important."

"My coachman?" Boon said. "I aint got no coachman."

"It's Ned," I said, already moving (9.65-67)

In Parsham, the hotel staff assumes that the black Ned is the coachman. But Ned is far from being so low on the totem pole of respect; we all know the important role Ned plays in the horserace that ensues.

"What's it for, Whitefolks?" Ned said.

"It's for jail, son," the other man said. "That's what we call it here. I don't know what you call it where you come from." (11.1-2)

Butch and the other cops spout some racist sentiments and therefore show no respect for Ned. Toto, we're not in Jefferson anymore.

But a mule is a gentleman too, and when you act courteous and respectful at him without trying to buy him or scare him, he'll act courteous and respectful back at you—as long as you dont overstep him. (11.41)

Apparently mules are brilliant creatures, and even they are deserving of the same respect humans give other humans. The odd thing is that the mules seem to get more respect than some of the African American characters in this place.