Old Man by William Faulkner“Honor among thieves,” a once powerful statement even among those of us with casual morals, may be no more than a dated, shopworn relic in today’s me-first world.  Consider, for instance, the large percentage of federal criminal defendants who don’t hesitate to “roll” (a polite way of saying “rat”) in order to get a reduced sentence.  In many cases, such cooperation results in a sentence reduction of anywhere from 1 to 10 years, and it is not unusual for government witnesses to receive probation.  In recent high-profile securities fraud cases brought against top-level executives at several Wall Street firms, the vast majority of cooperating defendants have received no-time sentences, despite their involvement in insider trading schemes that cost investors staggering sums of money.

But there are still sub-groups of defendants who choose honor over rolling over. Tellingly, these tend not to be upper class, white collar criminal defendants. They’re from the less fortunate, less privileged, less-educated neighborhoods. They might be Mexican gang members, or African-Americans, or Armenian-Americans.  And they refuse to cooperate — not all of them, but a significant number– knowing full well that the result will be long Federal prison sentences. They’ve been busted, so they take the rap, and aren’t all that interested in squealing to get off easy. This honor among thieves approach probably surprises and no doubt frustrates plenty of defense attorneys, for whom honor is not exactly a high priority under tense legal circumstances.  Aside from some old school lawyers who simply refuse to handle cooperation cases, most criminal defense attorneys do not hesitate to urge their clients to turn whatever somersaults are required to receive shortened sentences.

The notion of honor among thieves is addressed brilliantly in William Faulkner’s 1939 classic, The Old Man, which portrays a convicted criminal who is able to cast off the tyranny of ego, look beyond narrow self-interest, and do the right thing for someone in desperate need of his help.  Faulkner’s main character, J.J. Taylor, is a Mississippi state prison inmate serving a long stretch at a work camp for taking part in a botched train robbery.  He seems to have made an adequate adjustment to prison life and has come to the conclusion that since he did wrong, his best option is to step up to the plate and serve his time like a man.  Only then, he feels, will he be able to walk out of prison with his head held high and resume his life with honor.

Faulkner skillfully uses a great crisis, in the form of a natural disaster, to put J.J. Taylor’s sense of honor to the test. When the great Mississippi River flood of 1927 throws the entire region into turmoil, J.J. is rousted from his daily routine of hard labor on the work farm and assigned to take part in flood relief efforts.  He and another convict are given a skiff and ordered to rescue a pregnant woman who is perched precariously in a tree on a small island as the floodwaters rise around her.  Now unconfined, and faced with a dangerous mission, J.J. refuses to simply flee. He accepts the assignment, setting out with his partner on the fabulously raging Mississippi– the “Old Man” of the story — to save the endangered woman.

Pitted against the mighty Old Man, after a series of misadventures, J.J. and his partner are separated.  The partner returns to the work camp, and J.J. eventually rescues the pregnant woman from her tree.  The Old Man is unrelenting, however, and for the next month J.J. and the pregnant woman are buffeted by the floodwaters, which are so maniacally exuberant that they actually surge both north and south, up and down the river.  J.J. and his ward hang on, however.  In a humorous twist, and much to J.J.’s dismay (he is far from a lady’s man), the pregnant woman grows very fond of him and refuses to leave him even when given the chance to grab a berth on larger, more stable rescue boats.  On an Indian burial ground covered with copperheads, she manages to give birth to her child, with the aid of J.J., whose role now has expanded from that of rescuer and companion to midwife.

J.J. and the young mother spend several weeks with a Cajun “river-rat” who lives in a shotgun shack built on stilts.  The Cajun teaches J.J., who has little marketable work experience, to hunt alligators for a living, and J.J. proves to be a competent pupil.  Then the Old Man once again intervenes and they are all forced to flee for their lives.  Once the Old Man’s fury finally begins to subside, J.J is able to hand off the woman and her child to a better-equipped rescue crew.  They have no interest in J.J., and he is free to go.  And so he does go, straight back to the work camp to complete his sentence, even though by this point no one was looking for him and he could have escaped, assumed a different identity, and gone on living free of the shackles of the work farm.

In this dramatic, harrowing, and at times comical tale of heroism, Faulkner is telling us that freedom without honor is no freedom at all. And he’s also telling us there’s honor to be found in unlikely places — even among scoundrels and thieves and criminals.  It’s a profound view of humanity, in which real value is not measured by the trappings of self-interest — education, wealth, possessions, etc., but rather through one’s actions toward fellow human beings.  Both in the event of horrific tragedies such as floods, mass shootings, terrorist attacks — or in the more pedestrian, everyday settings of workplaces, schools, and courtrooms — will we be looking out for ourselves first and foremost, rolling over anyone who happens to be in the way, or will we choose the age-old, time-tested honor of thieves? It’s something to think about.

See The Old Man by William Faulkner; www.amazon.com/THE-OLD-MAN-William-Faulkner/dp/B000AR8QOK

by Patrick H. Moore and BJW Nashe


7 Responses to Honor Among Thieves in William Faulkner’s “The Old Man”

  1. Jimmy Macias says:

    Great post! My first thought when reading it was of the infamous “Ten Commandments of the Mafia.” I wonder, how much of the refusal to “rat” can be related to a structured method of institutional control by the higher ups in the criminal organization. For example, building the unbetrayable romanticized Godfather like sense of “family” or threatening to harm blood relatives if one cooperates. Or is there an individual sense of honor that is independent of any organizational control? The social class distinction between those who talk and those who don’t may also be an indicator. Is there honor in the decision to not cooperate if you believe you have no other option? Just a thought…

    • BJW Nashe says:

      You make a very good point. No doubt fear of retribution keeps some criminals from cooperating. It’s too easy to romanticize about criminals’ sense of honor in general. But then, I imagine there are still cases in which criminals who are not part of a crime organization, per se, still maintain the honor of thieves, and refuse to cooperate. More information on this is welcome…

    • Patrick H. Moore says:

      I think what you’re talking about here in reference to the “non-rat” folks are subsets within the larger society, groups that for reasons of survival and self-identity construct their own mores and ethics, and part and parcel of this, because the group, like any group, must struggle to survive is the need to protect the group. Therefore, if I rat against my own kind, I am harming the group that gives me identity, a place to belong. The most extreme example of this that I’ve seem are the occasional cases where one family member cooperates against another family member…

      • Jimmy Macias says:

        The question then becomes, is there a truly tangible sense of honor when the reason for their refusal to cooperate is controlled by the group? In my opinion honor is found when the decision not to cooperate is independently reached by the individual, not through the controlling mechanisms of the group. Someone would then decide not to talk because of a personal ideal or principle. Instead of freedom without honor, I wonder if there is honor in a decision without actual freedom to make it. Again, just a rambling thought…

        • Jean-Olivier says:

          This is pretty deep. A lot of folks think that the more traditional the society, the less true individuality. Certain skeptics, on the other hand, assert that all so-called individuality is undercut by the group ethos in all it’s subterranean ways. I’ve seen many a defendant flatly refuse to “roll” and be at peace with his decision while I’ve seen myriad others jump on the “rolling wagon” and also seem at peace with their decision…

  2. Thank you for that sensible critique. Me & my neighbour were preparing to do some research about that. We acquired a good book on that matter from our local library together with most books exactly where not as influensive as your details. Im truly glad to see such facts which I was searching for a long time.

    • Patrick H. Moore says:

      Thank you for your kind words and I’m very pleased that we were able to help both you and your neighbor. And welcome to our Blog! We here at the All Things Crime Blog are very aware that it can be hard to obtain fast useful information on topics, even with the help of the internet. I had read “The Old Man” several times when I was younger but not for many years and I discovered that even with available online resources it was no easy task to find a good synopsis of the book without paying for it. So we are happy to be of service. Please visit us again soon!

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