Published in 1936, Absalom, Absalom! is considered by many to be William Faulkner's masterpiece. Although the novel's complex and fragmented structure poses considerable difficulty to readers, the book's literary merits place it squarely in the ranks of America's finest novels. The story concerns Thomas Sutpen, a poor man who finds wealth and then marries into a respectable family. His ambition and extreme need for control bring about his ruin and the ruin of his family. Sutpen's story is told by several narrators, allowing the reader to observe variations in the saga as it is recounted by different speakers. This unusual technique spotlights one of the novel's central questions: To what extent can people know the truth about the past?
Faulkner's novels and short stories often relate to one another. Absalom, Absalom! draws characters from The Sound and the Fury, and it anticipates the action and themes of Intruder in the Dust. Further, Absalom, Absalom! is one of Faulkner's fifteen novels set in fictional Yoknapatawpha County. This is the first of Faulkner's novels in which he includes a chronology and a map of the fictitious setting to better enable the reader to understand the context for the novel's events. The map includes captions noting areas where certain events take place. The map shows events that happen in Sartoris, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Sanctuary, and Light in August, as well as those that occur in Absalom, Absalom!
Despite Faulkner's roots in the South, he readily condemns many aspects of its history and heritage in Absalom, Absalom!. He reveals the unsavory side of southern morals and ethics, including slavery. The novel explores the relationship between modern humanity and the past, examining how past events affect modern decisions and to what extent modern people are responsible for the past.
William Faulkner was born on September 25, 1897, to a genteel southern family that had lost most of its money during the Civil War. Faulkner grew up in Oxford, Mississippi, which is recast as the fictional town of Jefferson in many of his stories. Jefferson is placed in fictional Yoknapatawpha County, the setting for fifteen of Faulkner's novels and many of his short stories.
As a child, Faulkner was a capable but uninterested student. He left school in 1915, prior to graduating, and went to work in his grandfather's bank as a clerk. A friend of Faulkner's, Phil Stone, went to Yale after graduation. Stone recognized Faulkner's literary ability, and when Faulkner briefly attended Yale Law School, the two enjoyed discussing literary theory and literary movements. With the outbreak of World War I, Faulkner decided to enlist but was turned away. (He was short and slightly built.) With Stone's help, he falsified papers in 1918 so he could join the Canadian Air Force. The war ended, however, before Faulkner completed his training.
Upon returning to Oxford with his uniform and fictitious war stories, Faulkner briefly attended classes at the University of Mississippi in 1919 before taking a job as the university postmaster. He read students' magazines before distributing them, and he was often so immersed in his writing that he ignored his responsibilities. In 1924, Faulkner resigned before he could be terminated. He then went to New Orleans to visit his friend Elizabeth Prall, who was married to author Sherwood Anderson. Despite Faulkner's desire to be a poet, he had come to realize that his talent was for prose, and Anderson encouraged him to pursue this craft. The following year, Faulkner and a friend traveled around Europe, returning home in 1926.
Over the next four years, Faulkner wrote a number of novels but garnered little commercial success. When he decided to stop writing for the public and focus on writing for himself, the result was The Sound and the Fury. From this point through the end of his career, his work became particularly complex and challenging to his readers, as he employed complicated structure, characterization, and fictional techniques.
Faulkner is considered one of the great American authors as well as one of the world's finest contemporary writers. In his fiction, Faulkner depicts people facing the problems of living in modern society. He believed that human beings possess the ability to overcome overwhelming challenges by drawing on qualities that are distinctly human, including virtue, love, loyalty, and humor. In 1949, he won the Nobel Prize for literature. A controversial choice for the Prize (his work was criticized as being both too innovative and too regional), Faulkner delivered a speech in which he proclaimed that the crux of his fiction is "the human heart in conflict with itself." The speech was so moving that many of his critics changed their minds about him. Faulkner also won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction twice: in 1955 for A Fable (which also won the National Book Award) and in 1963 for The Reivers.
Faulkner died on July 6, 1962, in Byhalia, Mississippi.
The Main Story
The story of Thomas Sutpen is told by four different narrators during the course of Absalom, Absalom! First, Rosa Coldfield tells the story, then subsequent versions reveal added elements of Sutpen's story.
Thomas Sutpen arrives in Jefferson, Mississippi, in 1833. An enigmatic figure, he never reveals much about his past or his reasons for choosing Jefferson as the site for his home. He comes with a group of "wild" slaves (presumably from Haiti), a French architect, and construction tools. Rumors abound about the mysterious Sutpen, and two years later, his plantation home is complete but empty. Sutpen's relationship with the community becomes friendlier when he begins inviting the men to come stay and hunt on his land. Nestled on one hundred square miles of land that he cheated out of a Native American, the estate is named Sutpen's Hundred.
Sutpen enjoys violent wrestling with his slaves. This sport, like his ambition to execute his great design for a plantation, indicates his drive to control and tame that which he perceives as wild. To everyone's surprise, he asks for Ellen Coldfield's hand in marriage. The Coldfields are a respectable family in Jefferson but have little money and are known for being righteous. Sutpen makes an arrangement (the details of which are never revealed to the reader) with Mr. Coldfield, and Sutpen and Ellen are married. They have two children, Henry and Judith.
Once married, Sutpen makes no effort to gain the community's approval. He does not attend church and continues to wrestle with his slaves. On one occasion, Ellen discovers, to her horror, that Sutpen has brought Henry to the stable to watch the wrestling, which the boy finds frightening and sickening. In contrast, Judith secretly watches the wrestling and is unfazed by the violence.
As a young man, Henry attends law school at the University of Mississippi where he becomes great friends with Charles Bon. Henry brings Charles home with him for a visit, and Charles and Judith fall in love. Despite Sutpen's objections to the union, the couple plans to marry. Their plans are interrupted by the Civil War because Charles, Sutpen, and Henry must all go and fight.
The men in Sutpen's unit lose faith in their commander and choose Sutpen as their new leader. Meanwhile, Henry and Charles fight together, cementing their bond. Henry and Charles discover that they are half-brothers. Before coming to Jefferson, Sutpen had lived in Haiti, where he married a woman and had a son. When Sutpen learned that his wife had black ancestry, he disowned her and his son and left Haiti. Years later, the son, Charles, enrolled as a student at the University of Mississippi. With this information, Henry insists that Charles tell him what he plans to do about his engagement to Judith. Charles will not say, and when the war is over, Charles and Henry return to Sutpen's Hundred. As they come in sight of the house, Henry tells Charles that he cannot marry Judith. When Charles responds nastily that he will marry her, Henry kills him on the spot and then flees.
Sutpen returns from the war to an overgrown estate where his buildings are in shambles, his slaves are all gone, and his wife is dead. Although he plans to marry Ellen's much younger sister, Rosa, when she realizes that he expects her to produce a son before the marriage, she refuses. Sutpen then seduces Milly, the teenaged granddaughter of Wash Jones, a poor man living on his land. She becomes pregnant, but when she has a girl instead of a boy (which Sutpen needs to create a dynasty), he becomes cruel toward Milly. Even though Wash has always admired Sutpen, he kills him for mistreating his granddaughter.
When Henry returns to Sutpen's Hundred years later, he stays in the abandoned estate with his sister and Clytie, the illegitimate daughter of Sutpen and one of his slaves. When Clytie thinks that the law is coming to capture Henry for murdering Charles, she sets fire to the house, destroying it and killing Henry and herself.
Characteristics of Rosa's Version
Rosa is the only narrator who lived during the events of the story. Still, her recollection is filtered through forty years of bitterness and hatred toward Sutpen. She refers to Sutpen as a demon, a djinn (similar to a genie), and a fiend. Her version of the story has an accusatory tone, and she blames Sutpen for all the miseries of the Coldfields. Further, she interprets the fall of the South as being the result of the influence of men like Sutpen.
In chapter five, the reader comes to understand why Rosa accepted Sutpen's marriage proposal. As a young woman, she was optimistic and perhaps romantic. Not knowing Sutpen very well, she thought of him as a mysterious, dashing, and intriguing man. When he crudely proposed to her and then abandoned her, she lost her innocence and op-timism in the heartbreak. The reader may assume either that it was after this point that she began to hate him or that she disliked him all along but had no other marriage prospects.
Because Rosa hardly knew Sutpen, she speculates on his motivations. When Sutpen opposes the marriage plans between Judith and Charles, for example, Rosa believes he does so on a cruel whim. Faulkner never gives any indication that Rosa knows anything of Charles' background or lineage. It is, therefore, ironic when she refers to Henry's murder of Charles as being almost fratricide (because they were almost brothers-in-law), when in fact, it was fratricide.
Characteristics of Mr. Compson's Version
Mr. Compson's father was one of the first men in Jefferson to accept Sutpen, so this version is sympathetic toward Sutpen. Compson describes Sutpen as brave, strong, determined, and individualistic. Compson finds it difficult, therefore, to understand why Rosa is so harsh in her denouncement of Sutpen.
Compson's version of the story introduces speculation regarding Henry's relationships with his sister and with Charles. Compson's account suggests that Henry had feelings for his sister that were beyond normal sibling affection. Although he does not say that Henry had incestuous desires, he implies it. Compson also seems to suggest that Henry had an unusual attraction to Charles. According to Compson, while Henry initially supported the marriage of Judith and Charles as a way to resolve his yearnings, his realization that Charles was partly black and his half-brother prevented Henry from allowing the union to take place.
Characteristics of Quentin's Version
Quentin is preoccupied with the Sutpen story as he attempts to make sense of his own past and better understand his role in the present. He has heard the story so many times that he feels like "a barracks filled with stubborn back-looking ghosts." Quentin's version contains some details of the story missing from the other versions. The reader later learns that Quentin's grandfather told Quentin things about the story that he had not told his own son (Mr. Compson).
When Quentin's roommate Shreve asks about the South, Quentin begins telling the Sutpen story. Although the story took place before Quentin's time in Jefferson, he feels a strong connection to the story and is compelled to uncover its meaning for his own life.
Characteristics of Shreve's Version
Shreve is introduced in chapter six and asks to hear about the South. As the chapter progresses, it becomes clear that Quentin has told Shreve the Sutpen story before. Shreve knows many of the events of the story but serves as sort of a spokesperson for the reader, asking questions the reader would like to ask. Because he is the furthest removed from the story, Shreve brings an objective view of the story to the novel and is in a position to question certain aspects of the narrative.
Charles is Thomas Sutpen's son by his Haitian wife. Although Sutpen abandons Charles and his mother, Charles' path later crosses Sutpen's when he attends law school with Sutpen's son Henry, and the two become great friends. Charles falls in love with Henry's sister, Judith, and they plan to marry, but their plans are interrupted by the Civil War. As Henry and Charles fight together, they learn more about each other. When Henry realizes that he and Charles are half-brothers, Charles refuses to tell his friend what he plans to do about his engagement to Judith. After the war, Charles tells Henry, quite nastily, that he is going to marry Judith, and Henry kills him immediately.
Charles wants only the slightest acknowledgement from Sutpen that he is his son but never gets it. Charles knows that his plan to marry Judith means that Sutpen will either have to accept him as a son-in-law or admit that he is his son to stop him from marrying his daughter. Although in life, Charles never receives the acknowledgement he wants from Sutpen, he is buried in the family plot.
Charles Etienne Saint Valery Bon
This character is Charles Bon's son by a one-eighth black woman.
Jim is the mentally-handicapped son of Charles Etienne Saint Valery Bon (who is Charles Bon's son) and his black wife. Jim is, in the end, the only survivor of Thomas Sutpen's family.
Clytie (Clytemnestra) is the illegitimate daughter of Thomas Sutpen and a slave woman. She stays in the Sutpen house during and after the Civil War. When Henry returns, she thinks the law is chasing him for killing Charles, so she sets the house on fire, killing herself and Henry.
Ellen is Sutpen's wife in Jefferson, Mississippi. She is proper and innocent with a disposition in stark contrast to her husband's wild nature. She has two children with Sutpen, Henry and Judith. During the Civil War, she dies, and in her last moments, she asks her sister Rosa to protect Judith.
Goodhue is Ellen's father. Thomas Sutpen chooses him as a father-in-law (perhaps more than he chooses Ellen as a wife) because of his righteousness and respectable standing in the community. There is some arrangement between Mr. Coldfield and Sutpen, the details of which are never revealed, but Mr. Coldfield apparently comes to regret it.
One of the novel's narrators, Rosa is Ellen Coldfield's sister. Rosa is twenty-seven years younger than Ellen, so she is closer in age to her niece Judith than to Ellen. When Mr. Coldfield dies, Rosa goes to live at Sutpen's Hundred. After Ellen's death, Sutpen asks Rosa to marry him. She agrees but is abandoned by Sutpen before they can marry. She lives the rest of her life bitter and alone and, in the end, she calls for Quentin so she can tell him Sutpen's story.
Rosa starts out a typical, optimistic young woman, but the Civil War and the ruin of her family turn her into a resentful and lonely woman. In her youth, she was the town's poetess laureate. Her mother, because of her age at the time of Rosa's birth, died in childbirth, and Rosa resents her father for her mother's death. Throughout her life, her focus is on her family, and as each member is taken away, she is forced further into solitude.
Quentin's grandfather, General Compson was one of the first men in Jefferson to accept Thomas Sutpen into the community. Because he personally knew Sutpen, he tells his son Jason and his grandson Quentin much about him.
Mr. Jason Compson III
One of the novel's narrators, Mr. Compson is Quentin's father. His telling of the story reveals his deterministic and cynical views of the world. He admires Sutpen greatly and is struck by his failure. Compson imagines that if a courageous and hardworking man like Sutpen could fail so thoroughly, his pessimistic view of the world must be correct. Compson believes that fate and destiny rule the course of people's lives and that there is little they can do to change the course set for them.
One of the novel's narrators, Quentin is a student at Harvard who comes from the small town of Jefferson. Faulkner describes Quentin as a young man torn between two selves: an educated Harvard man full of promise and potential and a native of the South who has much in common with people like Rosa. He struggles to make sense of his southern heritage, and when asked by his roommate to tell about the South, Quentin tells Sutpen's story. Because the Sutpen story is so integral to the town of Jefferson and, in Quentin's mind, to the South, he searches the saga for answers to life's questions.
Faulkner's chronology at the end of the novel reveals that Quentin commits suicide just after the events of the novel.
Major de Spain
Major de Spain is the sheriff who investigates Sutpen's murder. When he discovers that Wash Jones is responsible, the sheriff kills him.
Milly is Wash Jones' fifteen-year-old granddaughter. Sutpen, who desperately wants a son, seduces her. When Milly has a girl, Sutpen insults her, and Wash kills Sutpen, Milly, and the child.
Wash is a poor man who is a squatter on Sutpen's land during the Civil War. He is a great admirer of Sutpen, yet he kills Sutpen, Milly, and their child when Sutpen abuses Milly.
Quentin's roommate at Harvard, Shreve (Shrevlin) not only listens to Quentin's account of Sutpen but also tries to help Quentin fill in the blanks in the story. Because Shreve is Canadian, he has few preconceptions about the South and its history.
Eulalia Bon Sutpen
Eulalia is Thomas Sutpen's wife in Haiti. She bears him a son, Charles, but when Thomas discovers that a small portion of her heritage is black, he leaves her and Charles in Haiti.
Henry is the son of Thomas Sutpen and Ellen Coldfield. When Henry attends law school, he befriends Charles Bon, who then falls in love with Henry's sister Judith. Charles and Judith plan to marry, but the men are called to fight in the Civil War. Henry fights alongside Charles and discovers that he is the son Thomas Sutpen left behind in Haiti. This means that Charles is the half-brother of Henry and Judith. Despite Henry's insistence on knowing how Charles plans to handle his engagement to Judith, Charles will not tell.
After the war, Henry returns to Sutpen's Hundred with Charles, and as they approach the house, Charles reveals that he intends to marry Judith. Henry responds by immediately killing Charles and then running away. Many years later, Henry reappears at Sutpen's Hundred, where he is taken in by his sister and Clytie. He later dies there.
Judith is the daughter of Thomas Sutpen and Ellen Coldfield. Judith has her father's hardy nature and does not flinch at witnessing violence. When she meets her brother's college friend Charles Bon, the two fall in love and plan to marry. Henry later kills Charles in front of the house, and Judith never marries.
Thomas Sutpen is the main figure in the story that is retold throughout the novel. Many critics note that Sutpen represents the work ethic of the South, along with its decline and failures. Sutpen comes from a poor family and is unconcerned with wealth until one day when he takes a message to a large estate. The uniformed servant informs him that he should go to the back entrance on future visits. After this incident, Sutpen decides that, some day, he will own a large estate and be in a position to tell people to go to the back. Part of his master plan is to have sons, a preoccupation that leads to ruin. (One son kills another, and the killer later dies in Sutpen's mansion; Sutpen's anger at not having a son by Milly brings about Sutpen's own death.)
As a young man, Sutpen travels to Haiti, where he marries a plantation owner's daughter, and they have a son. When he learns that his wife has remote black ancestry, he disowns her and their son. He returns to the United States, where he chooses Jefferson, Mississippi, as the site for his mansion in the wilderness. With the help of a French architect and a group of "wild" slaves (presumably from Haiti), Sutpen clears land and builds an estate that he names Sutpen's Hundred. Next, he marries into a respectable family and has two children, Henry and Judith.
Sutpen is a power-hungry man who seeks to create and control his environment. When he leaves to fight in the Civil War, he soon becomes his unit's leader. Upon returning to Sutpen's Hundred after the war, he finds his estate in ruins and his slaves gone. Further, his wife has died, and his son has run away after killing Charles Bon. Although he crudely asks his wife's sister to marry him, he abandons her and seduces the teenaged granddaughter of a poor man living on his land. She bears him a child, but not the son Sutpen wants. His cruelty to the girl provokes her father to kill him.
- Audio adaptations of Absalom, Absalom! have been made by Everett/Edwards in 1977 and Books on Tape in 1993.
The American South
In Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner openly criticizes the ethical and moral practices of the American South. The story of Sutpen is analogous to the story of the South, and Faulkner suggests that they ultimately fail for the same reasons. By building its success and comfort on the enslavement of another race, the South is doomed to fail because an immoral design is not sustainable. Both Sutpen and the South believe that it is possible to set aside morality at times to pursue a larger social goal. Rosa comments to Quentin that the South was doomed to lose the war because it was led by men like Sutpen, whom she perceives as dishonest, cruel, and manipulative. She remarks in chapter one:
Oh he was brave. I have never gainsaid that. But that our cause, our very life and future hopes and past pride, would have been thrown into the balance with men like that to buttress it—men with valor and strength but without pity or honor. Is it any wonder that Heaven saw fit to let us lose?
The novel contains references to the Civil War and the destruction of the South in the war's aftermath. Rosa tells Quentin that she suspects that after he graduates from Harvard, he will practice law somewhere besides in his hometown of Jefferson because "Northern people have already seen to it that there is little left in the South for a young man." Mr. Compson explains to Quentin that he should listen politely to Rosa's story because long ago the South made its women into ladies, and then the war made the ladies into ghosts. He adds, "So what else can we do, being gentlemen, but listen to them being ghosts?"
Topics For Further Study
- Think of a story that is told in your family, especially by the older members. Write three versions of the story as told by three very different members of your family.
- Faulkner died in 1962, just as the civil rights movement was gaining momentum. Evaluate the modern-day South and prepare a speech or essay containing what you believe would be Faulkner's views on the results of the civil rights movement.
- Create a multimedia character study of either Thomas Sutpen or Rosa Coldfield from a psychological perspective. To complete this project, you will need to conduct basic research on psychological theories of personality and behavior.
- Research the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. Prepare a comparison of his relationship to Ireland and Faulkner's relationship to the South. Be sure to explore how these relationships are expressed in the men's writing and to pay particular attention to each writer's attempts to create a mythology for his land.
- Examine the various mythic elements of the Sutpen story. In what ways does Faulkner create a mythical setting and characters? Look for allusions, themes, techniques, and other connections to myth. Present your findings in an essay.
- Faulkner originally planned to entitle the book Dark House. Why would this have been a good title, and how would it have altered your reading of the novel? Also consider why Absalom, Absalom! is a good title. Review the biblical story of Absalom's death in Samuel 18:2 and how it affects David. Which of the two titles do you think is the better choice?
- Some readers believe that Henry kills Charles because he cannot allow his sister to marry her own half-brother. Others maintain that he kills Charles because he cannot allow his sister to marry a man who has black ancestry. Hold a debate in which one side argues for the first motivation, and the other side argues for the second motivation. The strongest arguments will come from the action of the novel, the character of Henry, and the cultural context of the story.
Each version of Sutpen's story is different because it is told through the memories and perceptions of each narrator. When the reader reaches the end of the novel, the basic facts are in order, but there is uncertainty regarding many aspects of the story. None of the narrators is completely reliable, which poses a problem to the reader accustomed to depending on at least one trustworthy narrator.
Faulkner shows his reader that there are limits to how fully people can know the truth about the past. Truth seems to be in the eye of the beholder, as is evident with each telling of Sutpen's story. The challenge is for the reader, then, to make decisions about which narrators are reliable in which instances. Then, the reader must speculate about other aspects of the story. Because no two narrators tell the exact same story, and different readers can interpret the story in different ways, knowing the truth about Sutpen's story becomes impossible. Add to that the exceedingly complex narrative structure, and the events told in the novel become even more uncertain and difficult to manage. Thus, Faulkner uses both form and content to demonstrate the limited capacity people have to know the truth of past events.
In his character portrayals, Faulkner expresses his belief that people should be aware of the past and learn what they can from it, but they should not allow it to shape their lives. Each narrator has a different relationship with the past. Rosa finds the past to be a source of bitterness and disappointment, yet she is unable to live in the present. Mr. Compson finds in the past evidence that his fatalistic view of the world is correct. He also believes that past generations were greater than the present generation, so while he may draw inspiration from the past, he must live in the present, which is discouraging for him. Quentin feels deeply connected to his heritage, and because Sutpen's tale is legendary in his hometown of Jefferson, he becomes obsessed with making sense of the story. At the beginning of chapter two, the narrator comments that in Jefferson, Quentin breathes the same air and hears the same church bells as Sutpen did in the past. Because Quentin feels so connected to the South, he has difficulty coming to terms with his love for his region and the shame of its past. He is burdened by his responsibility for events of long ago and struggles to understand his role as a modern-day man of the South.
Characters within the story are also affected by their pasts. Sutpen is driven by his need to distance himself from the poverty of his past. He seeks to reinvent himself so that his past will have no hold on him. When he leaves Haiti, he is certain that he is leaving another segment of his past behind, but he later realizes that his past has found him in the person of Charles. Charles is also motivated by events from his past. He is wounded by his father's sudden departure in his childhood, and he seeks to be validated. When he encounters his father in America, he longs to heal his past by reconnecting with him. His determination to be accepted by Sutpen, however, leads to his death. Charles insists that he will marry Judith, even though she is his half-sister. Although it is not clear, the reader assumes that he hopes that either he will be accepted as a son-in-law (if not a son) by Sutpen or Sutpen will be forced to tell the real reason he objects to the marriage, thus claiming Charles as his son. Charles does not take into account the possibility that Henry will kill him rather than allow him to marry Judith.
Absalom, Absalom! is considered to be one of Faulkner's most difficult novels because of its complex narrative structure. In a sense, the story becomes part of an oral tradition among the residents of Jefferson and, as Shreve becomes involved, people living beyond Jefferson. Many of Faulkner's characteristic structural innovations are employed in Absalom, Absalom!, such as long sentences, flashbacks, and multiple points-of-view describing the same events. Because the narrative structure is so unusual, the reader is kept off balance from the opening pages to the end of the novel and must learn how to read it as the book unfolds.
There are four characters narrating the story, and a fifth omniscient narrator also occasionally speaks to the reader. The challenge is often determining who is speaking at any given time because Faulkner switches from narrator to narrator without always signifying the change. The reader must be particularly adept in chapter five when the narration switches between Quentin and Shreve and then back to Quentin as he tries imagining how Shreve would tell the story. Further, the novel's overall design is not clear until the end of the book. There is no introductory paragraph to provide a framework for the reader. Instead, the book begins with Rosa talking to Quentin with Quentin wondering why she called for him. This lack of context is very perplexing to readers, and navigating the headwaters of the novel requires a great deal of effort. Additionally, readers expect a novel to start at the beginning of a story and move through a se-ries of events toward a satisfying end. In Absalom, Absalom!, however, there is no true beginning or end, so the reader must submit to hearing each narrator's version of the same story and come to understand what the story means on individual and social levels.
Of the four characters who narrate the story, none of them is completely reliable. Each has his or her own bias, and it is up to the reader to determine what the biases are and how they affect the telling of the story. In her old age, Rosa experiences the memory of the events differently than she experienced the events when they happened. For this reason, she is an unreliable narrator. Mr. Compson knows the story from his father, who admired and respected Sutpen. This, coupled with the fact that Mr. Compson did not witness the events of the story himself, makes him an unreliable narrator. Quentin is even further removed from the story than his father is, and he seeks answers to some of life's big questions, so he is also unreliable. Shreve is not invested in the story at all and hears the story after it has come through various people's biases (General Compson's, Mr. Compson's, Rosa's, and Quentin's), so he is also unreliable. Many critics note that because of the burden on the reader, he or she essentially becomes a narrator, hearing the story numerous times and being forced to make assumptions about missing or conflicting information.
Faulkner also tends to mention new characters in passing, as if the reader knows who they are. Not until later does the reader learn how they fit into the overall story and structure. Then, the reader struggles to recall what was said earlier in the novel about the various members of the growing cast of characters.
Absalom, Absalom! is regional in scope although its themes extend well beyond the South. Except for the room that Quentin and Shreve share at Harvard (where they sit and tell the story of Sutpen), all the action of the novel takes place in the South; the concerns of the characters are confined to the small southern town of Jefferson, Mississippi. Although there are no dialects, the novel portrays the manners, habits, and lore of the South. As with any truly regional novel, Absalom, Absalom! would not work in any other setting. Its characters would not be believable in another geographic area, and its depiction of the consequences of slavery is unique to the South.
Faulkner employs a variety of literary techniques throughout Absalom, Absalom!, notably several significant instances of irony. He uses irony when Rosa speaks of Henry's murder of Charles as being almost fratricide. (She is not aware that the two men were half-brothers.) Another instance of irony is when, after all his failed efforts to be accepted by Sutpen as his son, Charles is buried in the family graveyard. Another even more disturbing example of irony is the fact that Charles, who has black ancestry, fights as an officer for the Confederacy.
A simile appears near the beginning of the novel where Faulkner writes that Sutpen came upon "a scene peaceful and decorous as a schoolprize water color." And, describing Quentin, Faulkner employs a metaphor, noting that
his very body was an empty hall echoing with sonorous defeated names; he was not a being, an entity, he was a commonwealth. He was a barracks filled with stubborn back-looking ghosts still recovering.
Through various literary techniques, Faulkner creates a mythic atmosphere for Sutpen's saga. The reiteration of the story is reminiscent of the legends and folktales kept alive by oral tradition. Rosa describes Sutpen in supernatural terms including ogre, djinn, fiend, and demon. In fact, she believes that his evil is so intense that he brings curses on those with whom he comes in contact. In this way, Sutpen becomes almost a supernatural figure. Further, the grand scale and headstrong ambition of Sutpen's plans align him with mythical and heroic figures.
Biblical and classical allusions appear throughout the novel. Ellen is likened to Niobe, a character in Greek mythology who is turned to stone while weeping for her children. Rosa is compared to Cassandra, the daughter of the King of Troy who possessed prophetic powers, according to Greek mythology. The book's title is a biblical reference to David's mournful cry at the death of his son Absalom.
The Civil War Aftermath
Almost one-third of the southern men who went to fight in the Civil War (1861–1865) died, and almost as many suffered serious injuries. Because slaves were available to perform work, nearly eighty percent of eligible (by age and health status) white southern men were able to fight in the Civil War. They all brought home emotional, if not physical, scars. During the war, thousands of refugees in the South, black and white, lost everything they owned and faced uncertainty and terror about the future. Many families were forced to seek ways to get by without their fathers, husbands, and brothers to support them. Children who grew up without men in their families felt incomplete, and they often grew up thinking that they could never achieve the bravery and nobility of their fallen relatives.
Compare & Contrast
- 1800s: Heroes are drawn from legends and from stories of people (usually men) demonstrating great bravery and wisdom.
1900s: Heroes are often men who figured prominently in the Civil War, such as Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. Often, soldiers, returning to their hometowns after the war, become local heroes.
Today: Heroes are more often celebrities than historical figures, and hero status is more a product of success than of bravery. Professional athletes, captains of industry, and entertainers are most often named as heroes. A person who commits an act of courage is often a hero for a short while, usually because of press coverage. The effect of the media on hero status is profound; few people who remain out of the public eye are idolized as heroes.
- 1800s: Social status is primarily the product of lineage. In early America, social status often dictates marriage choices, occupational decisions, and political affiliation.
1900s: Social status is the product of lineage and wealth. In the South, where many "respectable" families fall on hard economic times, the ability to build wealth brings more social influence.
Today: Social status is primarily the product of wealth. While there are privileged "dynasties" in some major cities, anyone who can acquire enough wealth can move up in society. Social status, however, is less a determining factor in people's lives than it was in the past.
- 1800s: Slavery provides the backbone of economics in the South. Slaves are the source of labor for everything from farming to domestic duties.
1900s: With the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, slavery is outlawed. Slaves are given their freedom, but their struggles are far from over as they seek to support themselves and their families in a culture that fears and despises them. Racism is harsh and overpowering.
Today: African Americans continue to grapple with the pain, injustice, and indignity of their history in America. Although the civil rights movement of the 1960s made great strides for minorities in terms of rights and liberties, racism is still a divisive force that serves as a grim reminder of the past.
To make matters worse, the South was in financial ruin at the end of the war. Railroads, manufacturing equipment, farm machinery, and livestock were destroyed. The destruction was so severe that industry in the South was set back a full generation. During Reconstruction (1865–1877), the North and South struggled to come to terms with the new legal and social parameters of the nation. The central concerns of the Reconstruction Period were: defining the relationship between the former North and the former South; determining who was responsible for the Confederate rebellion and whether punishment was in order; deciding which rights would be granted to former slaves; and conceiving a recovery plan for the southern economy. The transition was tense and arduous because Southerners were angry and uncooperative in the wake of their defeat. Memorials to the war in the South were slow coming, but, in time, Southerners renewed their sense of regional pride.
Southern Social Life
In the South, gender roles were specific and were taught at an early age. According to Encyclopedia of American Social History, a young man in the North entered adulthood by undertaking religious training or an apprenticeship and by reading works by English moralists, while young men in the South read traditional courtly works and planned their futures with a focus on the land. Young southern men demonstrated their manhood to their families by working hard to show that they would be good providers for their future families. Social structure and habits in the South were rooted in chivalry and hierarchy, and the prevailing code of honor sometimes included the aristocratic tradition of dueling. In contrast, the ideology of the North was based on ethics and conscience. The courtly foundation of many southern traditions extended to its treatment of women. Women were regarded as delicate creatures to be admired for their beauty and grace. They were expected to avoid competition and to prepare for romantic, submissive love relationships with their future husbands. Young people were taught to respect their elders, a characteristic exhibited by Quentin when he insists that Shreve refer to Rosa as "Miss Rosa," not as "Aunt Rosa" or as an "old dame."
During the Civil War, women were given an opportunity to be more independent and to adopt formerly masculine roles as nurses, factory workers, farmers, and clerks. At the end of the war, however, women returned to their positions as domestic figures, except that their status was reduced because of the absence of slaves. Now, women were expected to do more work in their homes and to occupy the most submissive position in the house.
Although their duties were concentrated on domestic affairs and their power was non-existent, southern women symbolized the virtue and goodness of the South. When men returned from the war, they depended on their women to provide reassurance and comfort. The southern patriarchy quickly reestablished itself, and the women were integral in helping men recover from the horrors of war and the humility of defeat.
Naturalistic and Symbolistic Period in American Literature
The Naturalistic and Symbolistic Period in American Literature extended between 1900 and 1930. Early in the century, the country witnessed a rise in journalistic exposés, and a movement toward unflinching realism in literature was seen in the works of Henry James, Theodore Dreiser, and Jack London. After World War I came the emergence of the Lost Generation, a group of writers disillusioned by American idealism. These writers longed for something new and innovative and found it in French symbolists like James Joyce and Marcel Proust. They rejected many aspects of American culture, in some cases creating a new polished style of writing, in other cases writing satire, and in still other cases recalling simpler times in American history when society was more structured and had a sense of tradition. In this last group were many prominent southern writers, including Faulkner.
At the time of its publication, Absalom, Absalom! encountered mixed responses to its unorthodox narrative structure. Some critics regarded the novel's structure as overly confusing and involved, deeming it ineffective. Over time, however, scholars have come to universally commend Faulkner as a genius who was able to fuse content and form perfectly in this novel. The existing body of criticism covers virtually every aspect of the novel, from obvious themes and techniques to subtle relationships between characters and the psychological motivations behind the action of the story.
The structural complexity of the novel presents a unique set of challenges to the reader although critics regard time spent unraveling the novel well spent. David Minter of American Writers observed that Faulkner specialized in fragmented narratives that demonstrate little interest in traditional, continuous forms. "As a result," Minter added, "the role of the reader would necessarily be enlarged and made more creative as well as more challenging." The writer Cleanth Brooks commented in William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country that Absalom, Absalom! is Faulkner's greatest work, but it is also the least understood because of the challenges in reading it. For this reason, Brooks maintained that the novel is highly subject to in-terpretation and thus can be meaningful to a wide audience. He noted:
The property of a great work, as T. S. Eliot remarked long ago, is to communicate before it is understood; and Absalom, Absalom! passes this test triumphantly. It has meant something very powerful and important to all sorts of people, and who is to say that, under the circumstances, this something was not the thing to be said to that particular reader?… Yet the book has its own rights, as it were, and in proportion as we admire it, we shall want to see not merely what we can make of it but what it makes of itself.
Scholars consider the regional elements of Absalom, Absalom! to be realistic and vibrant. In The Achievement of William Faulkner, Michael Millgate commented that the novel's tragic power
derives both from this profoundly localized sense of social reality and from a poignant awareness of the proud and shameful history of the courageous, careless, gallant, and oppressive South. At the same time, to concentrate too exclusively on this aspect of his work is to be in danger of mistaking means for ends and of seeing Faulkner as a lesser figure than he really is.
Faulkner's novel is not simply about the South, and critics readily praise the author's ability to portray universal themes and experiences in the southern context he knew so well. In fact, some critics have marveled at Faulkner's ability to portray such profound and universal ideas, given his isolated, regional background. Many critics admire the way Faulkner seamlessly wove his various themes together into a cohesive whole and made them relevant to modern life. Faulkner's idea that history's truths are not completely knowable was addressed by Brooks, who remarked:
Most important of all, however, Absalom, Absalom! is a persuasive commentary upon the thesis that much of 'history' is really a kind of imaginative construction. The past always remains at some level a mystery, but if we are to hope to understand it in any way, we must enter into it and project ourselves imaginatively into the attitudes and emotions of the historical figures.
The characters in Absalom, Absalom! are also the subjects of much critical attention. Rosa is considered by some to be a typical southern woman who is quiet and easily dismissed. After all, the argument goes, she lacks social influence in the small town of Jefferson and never moves into the accepted female roles of wife and mother. On the other hand, some feminist critics point to evidence in the novel of her importance in preserving Sutpen's story, adding that her account is so valuable that it is offered first and provides the basis for the discussion between Quentin and Shreve. Brooks called the introduction of Shreve into the novel a stroke of brilliance, as it acknowledges the modern-day reader's cynicism and rationalism regarding localized tales. Brooks also described Judith as "one of the most moving [characters] that Faulkner has ever written" because of the endurance of her basic humanity in the face of misfortune.
Absalom, Absalom! is revered by numerous scholars as Faulkner's best work or, at the very least, one of his top three novels. Brooks found it to be Faulkner's most memorable novel, writing:
Absalom, Absalom! is in many respects the most brilliantly written of all Faulkner's novels, whether one considers its writing line by line and paragraph by paragraph, or its structure, in which we are moved up from one suspended note to a higher suspended note and on up further still to an almost intolerable climax. The intensity of the book is a function of its structure…. There are actually few instances in modern fiction of a more perfect adaptation of form to matter and of an intricacy that justifies itself at every point through the significance and intensity which makes it possible.
Bussey holds a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies and a bachelor's degree in English literature. She is an independent writer specializing in literature. In the following essay, she examines Rosa's, Mr. Compson's, and Quentin's versions of the Sutpen story, determining what each narrator brings to the telling of the story. She also considers what is at stake for each narrator that may account for the differences in their perceptions of the story.
The complex narrative structure of Absalom, Absalom! presents a major challenge for William Faulkner's readers. The story does not unfold in a familiar way; the reader must learn how to read it as the story is told and retold, piecing together elements of the Sutpen story and then trying to understand Faulkner's underlying design. Because the novel consists of different narrators telling the same story (a story that occurred in the past and is, therefore, more subject to interpretation than a story happening in the present), variations arise that provide insights into the characters who serve as narrators. To better understand the novel, a close examination of these variations is extremely useful. Each narrator has something at stake in the story, and each, therefore, perceives the characters and events differently. Each narrator also belongs to a different generation, and this, too, affects each one's view of the story.
Rosa is the first narrator to tell the story of Thomas Sutpen, a mysterious stranger who arrives in Jefferson, Mississippi, one day and forever changes the lives of many of its residents. Rosa is the oldest of the narrators and was living at the time the events took place. Over forty years have elapsed, however, and her longstanding hatred for Sutpen is a major influence in how she remembers the events. She recalls simpler, happier days in her family and believes that its downfall began when Sutpen married Rosa's older sister, Ellen. Rosa tells the story in a bitter and accusatory tone that places all blame for her family's demise on Sutpen, whom she describes as a demon, an ogre, a djinn (similar to a genie), and a fiend. Over the years, she has convinced herself that he was so evil that he brought curses upon those with whom he came in contact. By imagining that Sutpen possessed an almost supernatural evil, Rosa is able to color her memories in sharp black and white, with no shades of gray and nothing open to alternative interpretations.
After Rosa's sister died, Sutpen crudely proposed to Rosa but then suggested that they have a son before marrying. It was clear that Sutpen had no intention of going through with the marriage unless Rosa was able to produce a male heir. Rosa's dignity and optimism were shattered, and Sutpen moved on to find someone who would go along with his plans. Consequently, Rosa lived out the rest of her life alone and bitter, watching each member of her family die over the years. Readers are often surprised that Rosa would accept the proposal of a man she deems so reprehensible, but there is reason to believe that she began to feel this way after he abandoned her to spinsterhood. In fact, Rosa seems to have been an optimistic and romantic young woman; she wrote poetry and was active in her community. Even after her sister married Sutpen, Rosa saw little of him and may have seen him as a heroic and exciting man. Thus his bad treatment of her would have come as a shock and crushed her hopes for a happy ending, leaving her cynical about life's opportunities. Forty years later, Rosa has nothing to look forward to and little to enjoy in the present, so she is stuck in the past. The way her life has turned out—what she has become and has not become—is a result of Sutpen's story. She must find in the story a way to understand and interpret her life. She has allowed her life and personality to be determined by events that happened over forty years ago, so when she is described as a ghost, it is a fitting metaphor.
The second narrator is Mr. Compson, the son of General Compson. General Compson was among the first members of Jefferson to accept Sutpen, so the version of the story he told his son was undoubtedly complimentary rather than reproachful. As a result, Mr. Compson's descriptions contrast with Rosa's, as he portrays Sutpen as a strong, brave individual with an ironclad work ethic. It becomes clear to the reader that Mr. Compson, from having heard the story so many times and from the laudatory accounts of his father, is carried away with the legend. He sees Sutpen not as a demon, but as a heroic and mythic figure who breathed life and adventure into the small town of Jefferson. Mr. Compson tells how Sutpen cleared a large tract of land and built a stunning mansion in the wilderness. He also emphasizes that when Sutpen went to fight in the Civil War, he was bold, and his men looked to him for leadership.
Mr. Compson overlooks the less admirable aspects of Sutpen's story, such as the fact that he cheated a Native American out of the land on which he built his estate. He interprets Sutpen's unbending determination as an admirable quality rather than as the driving force behind his mistreatment of people around him. There is a reason that Mr. Compson is compelled to find in Sutpen's story the saga of a great man who ultimately fails. Mr. Compson believes in a world dictated by destiny in which men and women have no control over their fates. Despite his admiring account of Sutpen's life, Mr. Compson is deeply cynical and fatalistic. Sutpen's story is, for Mr. Compson, proof that his worldview is correct; even a great man like Sutpen was unable to escape his fated doom. Perhaps Mr. Compson feels that he has not achieved much in his own life and seeks reasons to believe that he is right to not take risks or to not try to do great things. He believes that past generations were greater and more impressive than his own (a view that certainly is supported by the mythology of Sutpen's story), so he feels inferior to Sutpen. For Mr. Compson, his way of seeing and interpreting the world is at stake in the Sutpen story. He emphasizes those elements of Sutpen's story that confirm his beliefs and glosses over elements that would challenge them.
Except for Shreve, Quentin is the narrator furthest removed from Sutpen's story, yet he feels a deep connection to it. When Shreve asks Quentin about the South, Quentin chooses to tell him about Sutpen. This indicates that Quentin equates this story with the story of the South. All of Quentin's information comes from primary sources, but Quentin himself can never be more than a secondary source. Unlike his father, however, Quentin receives information from a variety of sources. Besides having heard the story from his father and Rosa, Quentin has also heard details of the story from his grandfather, who shared information with Quentin that he did not share with his own son. In a sense, Quentin becomes an archivist for the Sutpen story although his personal investment in the story is profound.
For Quentin, the story potentially contains the answers to his questions about how he should live his life in the modern world. He grew up in Jefferson, hearing about Sutpen throughout his childhood and youth, and his connection to the town and its folklore is a defining element of his personality. This may be difficult for some modern readers to understand, but at the beginning of the book, Quentin is preparing to leave his comfortable hometown to go to Harvard. Additionally, the year is 1909, a time when young people felt more involved in their communities and often formed their identities around their hometowns. This need to understand his past is intensified by the fact that he comes from the South, a region where people are deeply aware of and still closely connected to a tragic and shameful history. Quentin feels a degree of responsibility for the past, which affects how he carries himself in his present-day world. Making sense of the Sutpen story becomes critical to his understanding of himself and his role in the world; he searches for answers and lessons that he can apply in his own life. This aspect differentiates Quentin from the other two narrators because they are recalling events as they know them while Quentin becomes obsessed with the story and seeks details and information from all possible sources.
Quentin is at times impatient when he feels that he is hearing information he has already heard many times. He is searching for new insights, which is why he agrees to visit Henry, who is dying. After he sees Henry, who is frail and torn down by life, Quentin rides away like he is being chased. Rosa's grim account of the story and the tragedy that befell everyone involved seems to be accurate. This creates an emotional and urgent reaction in Quentin, who desperately seeks something hopeful and logical in the story because he sees it as the story of his own past and as a key to his present and future. Although Rosa sees Sutpen as an evil force and Mr. Compson sees him as a victim of fate, Quentin sees him as a representative of all that was good and bad in the Old South. Quentin admires Sutpen, but with reservations; he sees the admirable qualities in the man, but he also sees the immorality of his decisions. Quentin alone sees Sutpen as a human being who was complicated and fallible. For Quentin, his view of himself in the world is at stake in Sutpen's story. If he cannot find guidance in the story, he has nowhere else to turn. The chronology at the end of the book indicates that Quentin commited suicide just after the events of Absalom, Absalom!, which suggests that he either did not find the answers he was seeking or found answers that left him hopeless.
The story of Thomas Sutpen looms large in the life of each of these residents of Jefferson—Rosa, Mr. Compson, and Quentin. They seek understanding of their past, present, and future lives in the narrative, so it is not surprising that they interpret the story in unique ways. The dramatic tale takes on new dimensions with each generation of storytellers, yet the true meaning of the story remains elusive.
One of Faulkner's themes in the novel is the ultimate incapacity to know the truth about historical events, and the narrators' variations of the story support that theme. At the same time, Faulkner demonstrates the importance of trying to understand the past and the validity of personalizing stories in the pursuit of personal and social insight. Such insight can never be perfect, but it can, nevertheless, be instructive.
Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on Absalom, Absalom!, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
In the following essay, Brooks examines "the quality of Sutpen's innocence" to "understand the meaning of his tragedy"
Absalom, Absalom!, in my opinion the greatest of Faulkner's novels, is probably the least well understood of all his books. The property of a great work, as T. S. Eliot remarked long ago, is to communicate before it is understood, and Absalom, Absalom! passes this test triumphantly. It has meant something very powerful and important to all sorts of people, and who is to say that, under the circumstances, this something was not the thing to be said to that particular reader?…
Harvey Breit's sympathetic introduction to the Modern Library edition provides a useful—because it is not an extreme—instance of the typical misreading that I have in mind. Mr. Breit writes:
It is a terrible Gothic sequence of events, a brooding tragic fable … Was it the "design" that had devoured Sutpen and prevented him from avowing the very thing that would have saved the design? Was it something in the South itself, in its social, political, moral, economic origins that was responsible for Sutpen and for all the subsequent tragedy? Quentin can make no judgment: Sutpen himself had possessed courage and innocence, and the same land had nourished men and women who had delicacy of feeling and capacity for love and gifts for life.
These are questions which the typical reader asks. Shreve, the outsider, implies them. But it is significant that Quentin does not ask them. The questions are begged by the very way in which they are asked, for, put in this way, the questions undercut the problem of tragedy (which is the problem that obsesses Quentin). They imply that there is a social "solution." And they misread Sutpen's character in relation to his society and in relation to himself.
It is the quality of Sutpen's innocence that we must understand if we are to understand the meaning of his tragedy, and if we confuse it with innocence as we ordinarily use the term or with even the typical American "innocence" possessed by, say, one of Henry James's young heiresses as she goes to confront the corruption of Europe, we shall remain in the dark. Sutpen will be for us, as he was for Miss Rosa, simply the "demon"—or, since we lack the justification of Miss Rosa's experience of personal horror, we shall simply appropriate the term from her as Shreve, in his half-awed, half-amused fashion, does.
Faulkner has been very careful to define Sutpen's innocence for us. "Sutpen's trouble," as Quentin's grandfather observed, "was innocence." And some pages later, Mr. Compson elaborates the point: "He believed that all that was necessary was courage and shrewdness and the one he knew he had and the other he believed he could learn if it were to be taught." It is this innocence about the nature of reality that persists, for Sutpen "believed that the ingredients of morality were like the ingredients of pie or cake and once you had measured them and balanced them and mixed them and put them into the oven it was all finished and nothing but pie or cake could come out." That is why Sutpen can ask Quentin's grandfather, in his innocence, not "Where did I do wrong" but "Where did I make the mistake … what did I do or misdo … whom or what injure by it to the extent which this would indicate? I had a design. To accomplish it I should require money, a house, a plantation, slaves, a family—incidentally of course, a wife. I set out to acquire these, asking no favor of any man."
This is an "innocence" with which most of us today ought to be acquainted. It is par excellence the innocence of modern man, though it has not, to be sure, been confined to modern times. One can find more than a trace of it in Sophocles' Oedipus, and it has its analogies with the rather brittle rationalism of Macbeth, though Macbeth tried to learn this innocence by an act of the will and proved to be a less than satisfactory pupil. But innocence of this sort can properly be claimed as a special characteristic of modern man, and one can claim further that it flourishes particularly in a secularized society.
The society into which Sutpen rides in 1833 is not a secularized society. That is not to say that the people are necessarily "good." They have their selfishness and cruelty and their snobbery, as men have always had them. Once Sutpen has acquired enough wealth and displayed enough force, the people of the community are willing to accept him. But they do not live by his code, nor do they share his innocent disregard of accepted values. Indeed, from the beginning they regard him with deep suspicion and some consternation. These suspicions are gradually mollified; there is a kind of acceptance; but as Quentin tells Shreve, Sutpen had only one friend, Quentin's grandfather, General Compson, and this in spite of the fact that the society of the lower South in the nineteenth century was rather fluid and that class lines were flexible. Men did rise in one generation from log cabins to great landed estates. But the past was important, blood was important, and Southern society thought of itself as traditional.
That Sutpen does remain outside the community comes out in all sorts of little ways. Mr. Compson describes his "florid, swaggering gesture" with the parenthetical remark: "yes, he was underbred. It showed like this always, your grandfather said, in all his formal contacts with people."… Yet though Sutpen's manners have been learned painfully, Sutpen has complete confidence in them. "He may have believed that your grandfather or Judge Benbow might have done it a little more effortlessly than he, but he would not have believed that anyone could have beat him in knowing when to do it and how."
Mr. Compson is not overrating the possession of mere manners. More is involved than Miss Rosa's opinion that Sutpen was no gentleman, for Sutpen's manners indicate his abstract approach to the whole matter of living. Sutpen would seize upon "the traditional" as a pure abstraction—which, of course, is to deny its very meaning. For him the tradition is not a way of life "handed down" or "transmitted" from the community, past and present, to the individual nurtured by it. It is an assortment of things to be possessed, not a manner of living that embodies certain values and determines men's conduct. The fetish objects are to be gained by sheer ruthless efficiency. (Sutpen even refers to "my schedule.") Thorstein Veblen would have understood Sutpen's relation to traditional culture … The New York robber baron's acquiring a box at the opera did not usually spring from a love of music, and one is tempted to say that Sutpen's unwillingness to acknowledge Charles Bon as his son does not spring from any particular racial feeling. Indeed, Sutpen's whole attitude toward the Negro has to be reinspected if we are to understand his relation to the Southern community into which he comes.
It would seem that the prevailing relation between the races in Jefferson is simply one more of the culture traits which Sutpen takes from the plantation community into which he has come as a boy out of the mountains of western Virginia. Sutpen takes over the color bar almost without personal feeling. His attitude toward the Negro is further clarified by his attitude toward his other part-Negro child, Clytie. Mr. Compson once casually lets fall the remark that Sutpen's other children "Henry and Judith had grown up with a negro half sister of their own." The context of Mr. Compson's remarks makes it perfectly plain that Henry and Judith were well aware that Clytie was indeed their half-sister, and that Clytie was allowed to grow up in the house with them. This fact in itself suggests a lack of the usual Southern feeling about Negroes …
After Sutpen has returned from the war, Clytie sits in the same room with Judith and Rosa and Sutpen and listens each evening to the sound of Sutpen's voice. When Sutpen proposes to Rosa, he begins, "'Judith, you and Clytie—' and ceased, still entering, then said, 'No, never mind. Rosa will not mind if you both hear it too, since we are short for time.'" Clytie is accepted naturally as part of the "we." She can be so accepted because acceptance on this level does not imperil Sutpen's "design." But acceptance of Charles Bon, in Sutpen's opinion, would. For Sutpen the matter is really as simple as that. He does not hate his first wife or feel repugnance for her child. He does not hate just as he does not love. His passion is totally committed to the design …
As for slavery, Sutpen does not confine himself to black chattel slavery. He ruthlessly bends anyone that he can to his will. The white French architect whom he brings into Yoknapatawpha County to build his house is as much a slave as any of his black servants: Sutpen hunts him down with dogs when he tries to escape.
The trait that most decisively sets Sutpen apart from his neighbors in this matter of race is his fighting with his slaves. Sutpen is accustomed to stripping to the waist and fighting it out with one of his slaves, not with rancor, one supposes, and not at all to punish the slave, but simply to keep fit—to prove to himself and incidentally to his slaves that he is the better man. Some of Sutpen's white neighbors come to watch the fights as they might come to watch a cockfight. But it is significant that they come as to something extraordinary, a show, an odd spectacle; they would not think of fighting with their own slaves. To Miss Rosa, Sutpen's sister-in-law, the ultimate horror is that Sutpen not only arranges the show but that he enters the ring himself and fights with no holds barred—not even eye-gouging.
What Do I Read Next?
- Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929) is tangentially related to Absalom, Absalom! because it shares several characters. Besides being one of Faulkner's most widely read books, The Sound and the Fury is one of his many Yoknapatawpha novels, all of which are interrelated to varying degrees.
- Roots, Alex Haley's 1976 masterpiece, tells the story of the author's ancestors, beginning with the African slave Kunta Kinte. Haley recounts his family's history in an effort to bring them to life for the reader and to understand his own identity.
- The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor (1971) provides a collection of short fiction that continues to reach readers through its universal themes and depictions of black and white relations in the South.
- The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty (1980) contains the short fiction of Eudora Welty, one of Mississippi's most respected authors. Welty is known for her distinctly southern storytelling style, and her work is a must for students of southern literature.
Sutpen is not without morality or a certain code of honor. He is, according to his own lights, a just man. As he told Quentin's grandfather with reference to his rejection of his first wife:
suffice that I … accepted [my wife] in good faith, with no reservations about myself, and I expected as much from [her parents]. I did not [demand credentials] as one of my obscure origin might have been expected to do … I accepted them at their own valuation while insisting on my part upon explaining fully about myself and my progenitors: yet they de-liberately withheld from me one fact which I have reason to know they were aware would have caused me to decline the entire matter.
But Sutpen, as he tells General Compson, "made no attempt to keep … that [property] which I might consider myself to have earned at the risk of my life … but on the contrary I declined and resigned all right and claim to this in order that I might repair whatever injustice I might be considered to have done [in abandoning my wife and child] by so providing for" them.
Moreover, Sutpen is careful to say nothing in disparagement of his first wife. Quentin's grandfather comments upon "that morality which would not permit him to malign or traduce the memory of his first wife, or at least the memory of the marriage even though he felt that he had been tricked by it." It is Sutpen's innocence to think that justice is enough—that there is no claim that cannot be satisfied by sufficient money payment. Quentin imagines his grandfather exclaiming to Sutpen: "What kind of abysmal and purblind innocence would that have been which someone told you to call virginity? what conscience to trade with which would have warranted you in the belief that you could have bought immunity from her for no other coin but justice?"
Sutpen thinks of himself as strictly just and he submits all of his faculties almost selflessly to the achievement of his design. His attitude toward his second wife conforms perfectly to this. Why does he choose her? For choose he does: he is not chosen—that is, involved with her through passion. The choice is calculated quite coldbloodedly (if, to our minds, naïvely and innocently). Ellen Coldfield is not the daughter of a planter. She does not possess great social prestige or beauty and she does not inherit wealth. But as the daughter of a steward in the Methodist church, she possesses in high degree the thing that Sutpen most obviously lacks—respectability. Mr. Compson sees the point very clearly. He describes Mr. Coldfield as "a man with a name for absolute and undeviating and even Puritan uprightness in a country and time of lawless opportunity, who neither drank nor gambled nor even hunted." For Sutpen, respectability is an abstraction like morality: you measure out so many cups of concentrated respectability to sweeten so many measures of disrespectability—"like the ingredients of pie or cake."
The choice of a father-in-law is, in fact, just as symbolically right: the two men resemble each other for all the appearance of antithetical differences. Mr. Coldfield is as definitely set off from the community as is Sutpen. With the coming of the Civil War, this rift widens to an absolute break. Mr. Coldfield denounces secession, closes his store, and finally nails himself up in the attic of his house, where he spends the last three years of his life. No more than Sutpen is he a coward; like Sutpen, too, his scheme of human conduct is abstract and mechanical. "Doubtless the only pleasure which he had ever had … was in [his money's] representation of a balance in whatever spiritual counting-house he believed would some day pay his sight drafts on self-denial and fortitude."
This last is Mr. Compson's surmise; but I see no reason to question it or to quarrel with the motive that Mr. Compson assigns for Coldfield's objection to the Civil War: "not so much to the idea of pouring out human blood and life, but at the idea of waste: of wearing out and eating up and shooting away material in any cause whatever." Mr. Coldfield is glad when he sees the country that he hates obviously drifting into a fatal war, for he regards the inevitable defeat of the South as the price it will pay for having erected its economic edifice "not on the rock of stern morality but on the shifting sands of opportunism and moral brigandage."
Some critics have been so unwary as to assume that this view of the Civil War is one that the author would enjoin upon the reader, but William Faulkner is neither so much of a Puritan nor so much of a materialist as is Mr. Coldfield. The truth of the matter is that Mr. Coldfield's morality is simply Sutpen's turned inside out. Faulkner may or may not have read Tawney's Religion and the Rise of Capitalism; but on the evidence of Absalom, Absalom! he would certainly have understood it.
Sutpen is further defined by his son, Charles Bon. Bon is a mirror image, a reversed shadow of his father. Like his father, he suddenly appears out of nowhere as a man of mystery: "a personage who in the remote Mississippi of that time must have appeared almost phoenix-like, fullsprung from no childhood, born of no woman and impervious to time." Like his father, Bon has an octoroon "wife," whom he is prepared to repudiate along with his child by her. Like his father, he stands beyond good and evil. But Bon is Byronic, rather than the gogetter, spent, rather than full of pushing vitality, sophisticated, rather than confidently naïve.
Sutpen is the secularized Puritan; Bon is the lapsed Roman Catholic. Whereas Sutpen is filled with a fresh and powerful energy, Bon is world-weary and tired. Bon is a fatalist, but Sutpen be-lieves in sheer will: "anyone could look at him and say, Given the occasion and the need, this man can and will do anything." Bon possesses too much knowledge; Sutpen on the other hand is "innocent." The one has gone beyond the distinction between good and evil; the other has scarcely arrived at that distinction. The father and the son define the extremes of the human world: one aberration corresponds to—and eventually destroys—the other. The reader is inclined to view Bon with sympathy as a person gravely wronged, and he probably agrees with Quentin's interpretation of Bon's character: that Bon finally put aside all ideas of revenge and asked for nothing more than a single hint of recognition of his sonship. Faulkner has certainly treated Bon with full dramatic sympathy—as he has Sutpen, for that matter. But our sympathy ought not to obscure for us Bon's resemblances to his father, or the complexity of his character. Unless we care to go beyond Quentin and Shreve in speculation, Charles Bon displays toward his octoroon mistress and their son something of the cool aloofness that his father displays toward him. If he is the instrument by which Sutpen's design is wrecked, his own irresponsibility (or at the least, his lack of concern for his own child) wrecks his child's life. We shall have to look to Judith to find responsible action and a real counter to Sutpen's ruthlessness.
These other children of Sutpen—Judith and Henry—reflect further light upon the character of Sutpen—upon his virtues and upon his prime defect. They represent a mixture of the qualities of Sutpen and Coldfield. Judith, it is made plain, has more of the confidence and boldness of her father; Henry, more of the conventionality and the scruples of his maternal grandfather. It is the boy Henry who vomits at the sight of his father, stripped to the waist in the ring with the black slave. Judith watches calmly. And it is Judith who urges the coachman to race the coach on the way to church.
Henry is, of the two, the more vulnerable. After Sutpen has forbidden marriage between Bon and Judith and during the long period in which Henry remains self-exiled with his friend Bon, he is the one tested to the limit by his father's puzzling silence and by his friend's fatalistic passivity. But he has some of his father's courage, and he has what his father does not have: love. At the last moment he kills, though he kills what he loves and apparently for love. It is the truly tragic dilemma. Faulkner has not chosen to put Henry's story in the forefront of the novel, but he has not needed to do so. For the sensitive reader the various baffles through which that act of decision reaches us do not muffle but, through their resonance, magnify the decisive act.
Henry's later course is, again, only implied. We know that in the end—his last four years—he reverted to the course of action of his grandfather Coldfield, and shut himself up in the house. But there is a difference. This is no act of abstract defiance and hate. Henry has assumed responsibility, has acted, has been willing to abide the consequences of that action, and now, forty years later, has come home to die.
If it is too much to call Henry's course of action renunciation and expiation, there is full justification for calling Judith's action just that. Judith has much of her father in her, but she is a woman, and she also has love. As Mr. Compson conjectures:
And Judith: how else to explain her but this way? Surely Bon could not have corrupted her to fatalism in twelve days … No: anything but a fatalist, who was the Sutpen with the ruthless Sutpen code of taking what it wanted provided it were strong enough … [Judith said] I love, I will accept no substitute; something has happened between him and my father; if my father was right, I will never see him again, if wrong he will come or send for me; if happy I can be I will, if suffer I must I can.
It is Judith who invites Charles Bon's octoroon mistress to visit Bon's grave. It is Judith who, on his mother's death, sends to New Orleans for Bon's son and tries to rear him. Some years later she also tries to free him (as Quentin conjectures) by promising to take care of his Negro wife and child if he will go to the North to pass as white, and Quentin imagines her saying to him: "Call me Aunt Judith, Charles." But Quentin's conjectures aside, we know that Judith did take him into the house when he was stricken with yellow fever, and that she died nursing him. The acknowledgment of blood kinship is made; Sutpen's design is repudiated; the boy, even though he has the "taint" of Negro blood, is not turned away from the door.
Both Henry's action, the violent turning away from the door with a bullet, and Judith's, the holding open the door not merely to Bon, her fiancé, but literally to his part-Negro son, are human actions, as Sutpen's actions are not. Both involve renunciation, and both are motivated by love. The suffering of Henry and Judith is not meaningless, and their very capacity for suffering marks them as having transcended their father's radical and disabling defect …
One must not alter the focus of the novel by making wisdom won through suffering the issue. But the consequences entailed upon Judith and Henry have to be mentioned if only to discourage a glib Gothicizing of the novel or forcing its meaning into an overshallow sociological interpretation.
Miss Rosa feels that the Coldfields are all cursed; and certainly the impact of Sutpen upon her personally is damning: she remains rigid with horror and hate for forty-three years. But it is Miss Rosa only who is damned. Judith is not damned; nor am I sure that Henry is. Judith and Henry are not caught in an uncomprehending stasis. There is development: they grow and learn at however terrible a price …
Sutpen, as has been pointed out, never learns anything; he remains innocent to the end. As Quentin sees the character: when Charles Bon first comes to his door, Sutpen does not call it "retribution, no sins of the father come home to roost; not even calling it bad luck, but just a mistake … just an old mistake in fact which a man of courage and shrewdness … could still combat if he could only find out what the mistake had been." I have remarked that Sutpen's innocence is peculiarly the innocence of modern man. For like modern man, Sutpen does not believe in Jehovah. He does not believe in the goddess Tyche. He is not the victim of bad luck. He has simply made a "mistake." He "had been too successful," Mr. Compson tells Quentin; his "was that solitude of contempt and distrust which success brings to him who gained it because he was strong instead of merely lucky."… Sutpen resembles the modern American, whose character, as Arthur M. Schlesinger has put it, "is bottomed on the profound conviction that nothing in the world is beyond [his] power to accomplish." Sutpen is a "planner" who works by blue-print and on a schedule. He is rationalistic and scientific, not traditional, not religious, not even superstitious.
We must be prepared to take such traits into account if we attempt to read the story of Sutpen's fall as a myth of the fall of the Old South. Unless we are content with some rather rough and ready analogies, the story of the fall of the house of Sutpen may prove less than parallel. The fall of the house of Compson as depicted in The Sound and the Fury is also sometimes regarded as a kind of exemplum of the fall of the old aristocratic order in the South, and perhaps in some sense it is. But the breakup of these two families comes from very different causes, and if we wish to use them to point a moral or illustrate a bit of social history, surely they point to different morals and illustrate different histories. Mr. Compson, whose father, General Compson, regarded Sutpen as a "little underbred," has failed through a kind of overrefinement. He has lost his grip on himself; he has ceased finally to believe in the values of the inherited tradition. He is a fatalist and something of an easy cynic. His vices are diametrically opposed to those of Thomas Sutpen, and so are his virtues … Indeed, Sutpen is at some points more nearly allied to Flem than he is to the Compsons and the Sartorises. Like Flem, he is a new man with no concern for the past and has a boundless energy with which to carry out his aggressive plans.
Yet to couple Sutpen with Flem calls for an immediate qualification. Granting that both men subsist outside the community and in one way or another prey upon the community, Sutpen is by contrast a heroic and tragic figure. He achieves a kind of grandeur. Even the obsessed Miss Rosa sees him as great, not as petty and sordid. His innocence resembles that of Oedipus (who, like him, had been corrupted by success and who put his confidence in his own shrewdness). His courage resembles that of Macbeth, and like Macbeth he is "resolute to try the last."…
Up to this point we have been concerned with the character of Thomas Sutpen, especially in his relation to the claims of the family and the community. We have treated him as if he were a historical figure, but of course he is not. More than most characters in literature, Thomas Sutpen is an imaginative construct, a set of inferences—an hypothesis put forward to account for several peculiar events. For the novel Absalom, Absalom! does not merely tell the story of Thomas Sutpen, but dramatizes the process by which two young men of the twentieth century construct the character Thomas Sutpen. Fascinated by the few known events of his life and death, they try, through inference and conjecture and guesswork, to ascertain what manner of man he was. The novel, then, has to do not merely with the meaning of Sutpen's career but with the nature of historical truth and with the problem of how we can "know" the past. The importance of this latter theme determines the very special way in which the story of Sutpen is mediated to us through a series of partial disclosures, informed guesses, and constantly revised deductions and hypotheses.
Young Quentin Compson, just on the eve of leaving Mississippi for his first year at Harvard, is summoned by Miss Rosa Coldfield and made to listen to the story of her wicked brother-in-law, Thomas Sutpen. Sutpen had been a friend of Quentin's grandfather, General Compson, and as Quentin waits to drive Miss Rosa out to Sutpen's Hundred after dark, as she has requested, Quentin's father tells him what he knows about the Sutpen story.
Nobody had really understood the strange events that had occurred at Sutpen's Hundred—the quarrel between Thomas Sutpen and Henry, the disappearance of Henry with his friend Charles Bon, the forbidding of the marriage between Judith and Bon, and later, and most sensational of all, Henry's shooting of his friend Charles Bon at the very gates of Sutpen's Hundred in 1865. Mr. Compson makes a valiant effort to account for what happened. What evidently sticks in his mind is the fact that Charles Bon had an octoroon mistress in New Orleans. Presumably Judith had told General Compson or his wife about finding the octoroon's picture on Charles Bon's dead body. But in any case the visit, at Judith's invitation, of the woman to Charles Bon's grave would have impressed the whole relationship upon General Compson and upon his son, Mr. Compson. Mr. Compson thinks that it was the fact of the mistress that made Thomas Sutpen oppose Bon's marriage to his daughter, but that Henry was so deeply committed to his friend that he refused to believe what his father told him about Bon's mistress, chose to go away with Charles, and only at the very end, when Charles Bon was actually standing before his father's house, used the gun to prevent the match.
It is not a very plausible theory. For, though it could account for Sutpen's opposition to Bon, it hardly explains Henry's violent action, taken so late in the day. Mr. Compson does the best that he can with this aspect of the story and says: "[Henry] loved grieved and killed, still grieving and, I believe, still loving Bon, the man to whom he gave four years of probation, four years in which to renounce and dissolve the other marriage, knowing that the four years of hoping and waiting would be in vain." But Mr. Compson has to concede that, after all, "it's just incredible. It just does not explain … Something is missing."
Quentin's other informant about the Sutpens is Miss Rosa Coldfield, Sutpen's sister-in-law. Miss Rosa clearly does not understand what happened. She exclaims that "Judith's marriage [was] forbidden without rhyme or reason," and her only theory for accounting for the murder is that Sutpen was a demon, and as a demon, dowered his children with a curse which made them destroy themselves. Even Judith evidently did not know why her marriage was forbidden nor did she know why her brother killed Charles Bon. After the murder and Henry's flight, Judith tells Mrs. Compson, the General's wife, that the war will soon be over now because "they [the Confederate soldiers] have begun to shoot one another." The remark indicates her bafflement as well as her despair.
By the time we have reached the end of section 5—that is, halfway through the book—we have been given most of the basic facts of the Sutpen story but no satisfactory interpretation of it. We know the story of Sutpen's life in the Mississippi community pretty much as the community itself knew it, but the events do not make sense. The second half of the book may be called an attempt at interpretation. When section 6 opens, we are in Quentin's room at Harvard and Quentin is reading a letter from his father telling about the death of Miss Rosa Coldfield. From this time on until past midnight, Quentin and Shreve discuss the story of Sutpen and make their own conjectures as to what actually happened. In this second half of the book there are, to be sure, further disclosures about Sutpen, especially with reference to his early life before he came to Mississippi. Sutpen, it turns out, had once told the story of his early life to General Compson, and his information had been passed on to Quentin through Mr. Compson. As Shreve and Quentin talk, Quentin feeds into the conversation from time to time more material from his father's and grandfather's memory of events, and one very brilliant scene which he himself remembers: how, hunting quail on a gray autumn day, he and his father came upon the graves in the Sutpen family graveyard and his father told him the touching story of Judith's later life. But as the last four sections of the book make plain, we are dealing with an intricate imaginative reconstruction of events leading up to the murder of Charles Bon—a plausible account of what may have happened, not what necessarily did happen.
If the reader reminds himself how little hard fact there is to go on—how much of the most important information about the motivation of the central characters comes late and is, at best, vague and ambiguous—he will appreciate how much of the story of Sutpen and especially of Sutpen's children has been spun out of the imaginations of Quentin and Shreve.
Absalom, Absalom! is, indeed, from one point of view a wonderful detective story—by far the best of Faulkner's several flirtations with this particular genre. It may also be considered to yield a nice in-stance of how the novelist works, for Shreve and Quentin both show a good deal of the insights of the novelist and his imaginative capacity for constructing plausible motivations around a few given facts … Most important of all, however, Absalom, Absalom! is a persuasive commentary upon the thesis that much of "history" is really a kind of imaginative construction. The past always remains at some level a mystery, but if we are to hope to understand it in any wise, we must enter into it and project ourselves imaginatively into the attitudes and emotions of the historical figures …
To note that the account of the Sutpens which Shreve and Quentin concoct is largely an imaginative construct is not to maintain that it is necessarily untrue. Their version of events is plausible, and the author himself—for whatever that may be worth—suggests that some of the scenes which they palpably invented were probably true: e.g., "the slight dowdy woman … whom Shreve and Quentin had … invented" and who was probably "true enough." But it is worth remarking that we do not "know," apart from the Quentin-Shreve semifictional process, many events which a casual reader assumes actually happened.
To provide some illustrations: Charles Bon's telling Henry "So it's the miscegenation, not the incest, which you cant bear" is a remark that rests upon no known fact. It is a conjecture, though a plausible one. Again, Bon's agonized waiting for his father to give him the merest hint of a father's recognition and Bon's comment that this was all that Sutpen needed to do to stop his courtship of Judith are both surmises made by Quentin and Shreve. So too is the scene in which the boys imagine the visit of Bon and Henry to New Orleans and hear Bon's mother's bitter question, "So she [Judith] has fallen in love with him," and listen to her harsh laughter as she looks at Henry. The wonderfully touching scene in which Judith asks Charles Bon's son to call her "Aunt Judith" is presumably an imaginative construction made by Quentin.
One ought to observe in passing that in allowing the boys to make their guesses about what went on, Faulkner plays perfectly fair. Some of their guesses have the clear ring of truth. They are obviously right. On the other hand, some are justified by the flimsiest possible reasoning. For example, notice Shreve's argument that it was Henry, not Bon, who was wounded at the battle of Shiloh.
One of the most important devices used in the novel is the placing of Shreve in it as a kind of sounding board and mouthpiece. By doing so, Faulkner has in effect acknowledged the attitude of the modern "liberal," twentieth century reader, who is basically rational, skeptical, without any special concern for history, and pretty well emancipated from the ties of family, race, or section …
Shreve teases Quentin playfully and even affectionately, but it is not mere teasing. When Shreve strikes a pose and in his best theatrical manner assigns a dramatic speech to Wash, Faulkner, in one of his few intrusions as author, observes: "This was not flippancy … It too was just that protective coloring of levity behind which the youthful shame of being moved hid itself."…
The last sections of the novel tell us a great deal about Shreve's and Quentin's differing attitudes toward history and of their own relation to history. Shreve has been genuinely moved by the story of Sutpen. For all of his teasing, he is concerned to understand, and late in the evening he says to Quentin: "Listen. I'm not trying to be funny, smart. I just want to understand it if I can and I dont know how to say it better. Because it's something my people haven't got." And though he cannot suppress his bantering tone in alluding to the Southern heritage—it is "a kind of entailed birthright … of never forgiving General Sherman, so that forevermore as long as your children's children produce children you wont be anything but a descendant of a long line of colonels killed in Pickett's charge"—Shreve's question is seriously put. What is it that Quentin as a Southerner has that Shreve does not have? It is a sense of the presence of the past, and with it, and through it, a personal access to a tragic vision. For the South has experienced defeat and guilt, and has an ingrained sense of the stubbornness of human error and of the complexity of history. The matter has been recently put very well in C. Vann Woodward's The Burden of Southern History: "The experience of evil and the experience of tragedy," he writes, "are parts of the Southern heritage that are as difficult to reconcile with the American legend of innocence and social felicity as the experience of poverty and defeat are to reconcile with the legends of abundance and success."
In remarking on how little of hard fact one has to go on, we should bear in mind particularly the question of Bon's Negro blood and of his kinship to Henry. Quentin says flatly that "nobody ever did know if Bon ever knew Sutpen was his father or not." Did anyone ever know whether Bon knew that he was part Negro? In their reconstruction of the story, Shreve and Quentin assume that Bon was aware that he was Henry's part-Negro half-brother (though a few pages earlier Quentin and Shreve assume that Bon did not know that he had Negro blood). If in fact Bon did have Negro blood, how did Shreve and Quentin come by that knowledge? As we have seen, neither Judith nor Miss Rosa had any inkling of it. Nor did Mr. Compson. Early in the novel he refers to Bon's "sixteenth part negro son." Since Bon's mistress was an octoroon, his son could be one-sixteenth Negro only on the assumption that Charles Bon was of pure white blood—and this is evidently what Mr. Compson does assume. Mr. Compson, furthermore, knows nothing about Bon's kinship to Henry.
The conjectures made by Shreve and Quentin—even if taken merely as conjectures—render the story of Sutpen plausible. They make much more convincing sense of the story than Mr. Compson's notions were able to make. And that very fact suggests their probable truth. But are they more than plausible theories? Is there any real evidence to support the view that Bon was Sutpen's son by a part-Negro wife? There is, and the way in which this evidence is discovered constitutes another, and the most decisive, justification for regarding Absalom, Absalom! as a magnificent detective story. Precisely what was revealed and how it was revealed are worth a rather careful review.
In the course of his conversation with Quentin, Shreve objects that Mr. Compson "seems to have got an awful lot of delayed information awful quick, after having waited forty-five years." Quentin confirms the fact that his father had got delayed information—had got it from Quentin him-self—had got it, indeed, the day after "we" (that is, Quentin and Miss Rosa) had gone out to Sutpen's Hundred. A little later, when Quentin tells Shreve of Sutpen's long conversation with General Compson about his "design" and about the "mistake" that Sutpen had made in trying to carry it out, Shreve asks Quentin whether General Compson had then really known what Sutpen was talking about. Quentin answers that General Compson had not known; and Shreve, pressing the point, makes Quentin admit that he himself "wouldn't have known what anybody was talking about" if he "hadn't been out there and seen Clytie." The secret of Bon's birth, then, was revealed to Quentin on that particular visit. Shreve's way of phrasing it implies that it was from Clytie that Quentin had got his information, but, as we shall see, it is unlikely that Clytie was Quentin's informant. In any case, when Shreve puts his question about seeing Clytie, he did not know that another person besides Clytie and her nephew was living at Sutpen's Hundred.
Miss Rosa has sensed that "something"—she does not say someone—was "living hidden in that house." When she and Quentin visit Sutpen's Hundred, her intuition is confirmed. The hidden something turns out to be Henry Sutpen, now come home to die. Presumably, it was from Henry Sutpen that Quentin learned the crucial facts. Or did he? Here again Faulkner may seem to the reader either teasingly reticent or, upon reflection, brilliantly skillful.
We know from the last section of the book that after Miss Rosa had come down from the upstairs room with her "eyes wide and unseeing like a sleepwalker's," Quentin felt compelled to go up to that room and see what was there. He does go, though Faulkner does not take us with him into the room. He descends the stairs, walks out of the house, overtakes Miss Rosa, and drives her home. Later that night, however, after he has returned to his own home and is lying sleepless, he cannot—even by clenching his eyelids—shut out his vision of the bed with its yellowed sheets and its yellowed pillow and the wasted yellow face lying upon it, a face with closed, "almost transparent eyelids." As Quentin tosses, unable to erase the picture from his eyes, we are vouchsafed one tiny scrap of his conversation with Henry, a conversation that amounts to no more than Quentin's question "And you are—?" and Henry's answer that he is indeed Henry Sutpen, that he has been there four years, and that he has come home to die. How extended was the conversation? How long did it last? Would Henry Sutpen have volunteered to a stranger his reason for having killed Charles Bon? Or would Quentin Compson, awed and aghast at what he saw, put such questions as these to the wasted figure upon the bed? We do not know and Faulkner—probably wisely—has not undertaken to reconstruct this interview for us. (It is possible, of course, that Henry did tell Miss Rosa why he had killed Bon and that Miss Rosa told Quentin in the course of their long ride back to Jefferson.)
At all events, the whole logic of Absalom, Absalom! argues that only through the presence of Henry in the house was it possible for Quentin—and through Quentin his father and Shreve and those of us who read the book—to be made privy to the dark secret that underlay the Sutpen tragedy.
At the end of the novel Shreve is able to shrug off the tragic implications and resume the tone of easy banter. His last comment abounds with the usual semi-sociological clichés: the Negroes "will bleach out again like the rabbits and the birds … In a few thousand years, I who regard you will also have sprung from the loins of African kings." Though the spell of the story has been powerful enough to fire his imagination and involve all his sympathies, he is not personally committed, and we can see him drawing back from the tragic problem and becoming again the cheery, cynical, common-sense man of the present day. In the long perspective of history, how few issues really matter! The long perspective is antihistorical: make it long enough and any "sense of history" evaporates. Lengthen it further still and the human dimension itself evaporates.
From his stance of detachment, Shreve suddenly, and apropos of nothing, puts to Quentin the question "Why do you hate the South?" And Quentin's passionate denial that he hates it tells its own story of personal involvement and distress. The more naïve reader may insist on having an answer: "Well, does he hate it?" And the response would have to be, I suppose, another question: "Does Stephen Daedalus hate Dublin?" Or, addressing the question to Stephen's creator, "Did James Joyce hate Ireland?" The answer here would surely have to be yes and no. In any case, Joyce was so obsessed with Ireland and so deeply involved in it that he spent his life writing about it.
At this point, however, it may be more profitable to put a different question. What did the story of Sutpen mean to Quentin? Did it mean to him what it has apparently meant to most of the critics who have written on this novel—the story of the curse of slavery and how it involved Sutpen and his children in ruin? Surely this is to fit the story to a neat and oversimple formula. Slavery was an evil. But other slaveholders avoided Sutpen's kind of defeat and were exempt from his special kind of moral blindness.
What ought to be plain, in any event, is that it is Henry's part in the tragic tale that affects Quentin the most. Quentin had seen Henry with his own eyes and Henry's involvement in slavery was only indirect. Even Henry's dread of miscegenation was fearfully complicated with other issues, including the problem of incest. In view of what we learn of Quentin in The Sound and the Fury, the problem of incest would have fascinated him and made him peculiarly sensitive to Henry's torment. Aside from his personal problem, however, Sutpen's story had for Quentin a special meaning that it did not have for Shreve.
The story embodied the problem of evil and of the irrational: Henry was beset by conflicting claims; he was forced to make intolerably hard choices—between opposed goods or between conflicting evils. Had Henry cared much less for Bon, or else much less for Judith, he might have promoted the happiness of one without feeling that he was sacrificing that of the other. Or had he cared much less for either and much more for himself, he might have won a cool and rational detachment, a coign of vantage from which even objections to miscegenation and incest would appear to be irrational prejudices, and honor itself a quaint affectation whose saving was never worth the price of a bullet. Had Henry been not necessarily wiser, but simply more cynical or more gross or more selfish, there would have been no tragedy … But Shreve is measurably closer to the skepticism and detachment that allow modern man to dismiss the irrational claims from which Quentin cannot free himself and which he honors to his own cost.
The reader of Absalom, Absalom! might well follow Quentin's example. If he must find in the story of the House of Sutpen something that has special pertinence to the tragic dilemmas of the South, the aspect of the story to stress is not the downfall of Thomas Sutpen, a man who is finally optimistic, rationalistic, and afflicted with elephantiasis of the will. Instead, he ought to attend to the story of Sutpen's children.
The story of Judith, though muted and played down in terms of the whole novel, is one of the most moving that Faulkner has ever written. She has in her the best of her father's traits. She is the stout-hearted little girl who witnesses without flinching scenes which force poor Henry to grow sick and vomit. She is the young woman who falls in love with a fascinating stranger, the friend of her brother, who means to marry him in spite of her father's silent opposition, and who matches her father's strength of will with a quiet strength of her own. She endures the horror of her fiancé's murder and buries his body. She refuses to commit suicide; she keeps the place going for her father's return. Years later it is Judith who sees to it that Bon's mistress has an opportunity to visit his grave, who brings Bon's child to live with her after his mother's death and, at least in Quentin's reconstruction of events, tries to get the little boy to recognize her as his aunt and to set him free, pushing him on past the barriers of color. When she fails to do so, she still tries to protect him. She nurses him when he sickens of yellow fever, and she dies with him in the epidemic. She is one of Faulkner's finest characters of endurance—and not merely through numb, bleak stoicism but also through compassion and love. Judith is doomed by misfortunes not of her making, but she is not warped and twisted by them. Her humanity survives them.
Because Henry knew what presumably Judith did not know, the secret of Bon's birth, his struggle—granted the circumstances of his breeding, education, and environment—was more difficult than Judith's. He had not merely to endure but to act, and yet any action that he could take would be cruelly painful. He was compelled to an agonizing decision. One element that rendered tragic any choice he might make is revealed in Henry's last action, his coming home to die. One might have thought that after some forty years, Henry would have stayed in Mexico or California or New York or wherever he was, but the claims of locality and family are too strong and he returns to Sutpen's Hundred.
Absalom, Absalom! is the most memorable of Faulkner's novels—and memorable in a very special way. Though even the intelligent reader may feel at times some frustration with the powerful but darkly involved story, with its patches of murkiness and its almost willful complications of plot, he will find himself haunted by individual scenes and episodes, rendered with almost compulsive force. He will probably remember vividly such a scene as Henry's confrontation of his sister Judith after four years of absence at war—the boy in his "patched and faded gray tunic," crashing into the room in which his sister stands clutching against her partially clothed nakedness the yellowed wedding dress, and shouting to her: "Now you cant marry him … because he's dead … I killed him." Or there is Miss Rosa's recollection of the burial of Charles Bon. As she talks to Quentin she relives the scene: the "slow, maddening rasp, rasp, rasp, of the saw" and "the flat deliberate hammer blows" as Wash and another white man work at the coffin through the "slow and sunny afternoon," with Judith in her faded dress and "faded gingham sunbonnet … giving them directions about making it." Miss Rosa, who has never seen Bon alive and for whom he is therefore a fabulous creature, a mere dream, recalls that she "tried to take the full weight of the coffin" as they carried it down the stairs in order "to prove to myself that he was really in it."
There is the wonderful scene of Thomas Sutpen's return to Sutpen's Hundred, the iron man dismounting from his "gaunt and jaded horse," saying to Judith, "Well, daughter," and touching his bearded lips to her forehead. There follows an exchange that is as laconically resonant as any in Greek tragedy: "'Henry's not—?' 'No. He's not here.'—'Ah. And—?' 'Yes. Henry killed him.'" With the last sentence Judith bursts into tears, but it is the only outburst of which Judith is ever guilty.
The reader will remember also the scenes of Sutpen's boyhood and young manhood—perhaps most vivid of all of them, that in which the puzzled boy is turned away from the plantation door by the liveried servant. Sometimes the haunting passage is one of mere physical description: the desolate Sutpen burial ground with the "flat slabs … cracked across the middle by their own weight (and vanishing into the hole where the brick coping of one vault had fallen in was a smooth faint path worn by some small animal—possum probably—by generations of some small animal since there could have been nothing to eat in the grave for a long time) though the lettering was quite legible: Ellen Coldfield Sutpen. Born October 9, 1817. Died January 23, 1863." One remembers also the account of something that had taken place earlier in this same graveyard, when Bon's octoroon mistress, a "magnolia-faced woman a little plumper now, a woman created of by and for darkness whom the artist Beardsley might have dressed, in a soft flowing gown designed not to infer bereavement or widowhood … knelt beside the grave and arranged her skirts and wept," while beside her stood her "thin delicate child" with its "smooth ivory sexless face."
There is, too, the ride out to Sutpen's Hundred in the "furnacebreathed" Mississippi night in which Quentin shares his buggy with the frail and fanatical Miss Rosa, and smells her "fusty camphor-reeking shawl" and even her "airless black cotton umbrella." On this journey, as Miss Rosa clutches to her a flashlight and a hatchet, the implements of her search, it seems to Quentin that he can hear "the single profound suspiration of the parched earth's agony rising toward the imponderable and aloof stars." Most vivid of all is the great concluding scene in which Clytie, seeing the ambulance approaching to bear Henry away, fires "the monstrous tinder-dry rotten shell" of a house, and from an upper window defies the intruders, her "tragic gnome's face beneath the clean headrag, against a red background of fire, seen for a moment between two swirls of smoke, looking down at them, perhaps not even now with triumph and no more of despair than it had ever worn, possibly even serene above the melting clapboards."
These brilliantly realized scenes reward the reader and sustain him as he struggles with the novel; but it ought to be remembered that they are given their power by the way in which the novel is structured and thus constitute a justification of that peculiar structure …
Absalom, Absalom! is in many respects the most brilliantly written of all Faulkner's novels, whether one considers its writing line by line and paragraph by paragraph, or its structure, in which we are moved up from one suspended note to a higher suspended note and on up further still to an almost intolerable climax. The intensity of the book is a function of the structure. The deferred and suspended resolutions are necessary if the great scenes are to have their full vigor and significance. Admittedly, the novel is a difficult one, but the difficulty is not forced and factitious. It is the price that has to be paid by the reader for the novel's power and significance. There are actually few instances in modern fiction of a more perfect adaptation of form to matter and of an intricacy that justifies itself at every point through the significance and intensity which it makes possible.
Source: Cleanth Brooks, "History and the Sense of the Tragic: Absalom, Absalom!," in Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert Penn Warren, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1996, pp. 186-203.
Brooks, Cleanth, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country, Yale University Press, 1963.
Caesar, Judith, "Patriarchy, Imperialism, and Knowledge," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 4, Fall 1994–1995, pp. 164-74.
"Manners and Etiquette," in Encyclopedia of American Social History, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1993.
Millgate, Michael, The Achievement of William Faulkner, Constable, 1966.
Minter, David, American Writers, Retrospective Supplement, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1998.
Backman, Melvin, Faulkner, The Major Years: A Critical Study, Indiana University Press, 1966.
Backman reviews Faulkner's major writing, both novels and short stories, and provides a critical overview of the author's development and contribution to American letters.
Brooks, Cleanth, William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond, Yale University Press, 1978.
Respected literary critic Cleanth Brooks focuses on Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha stories, exploring why they are important to Faulkner's writing as a whole and what importance they have in the American literary tradition. Brooks evaluates early influences and innovations made by Faulkner over the course of his writing career.
Cowley, Malcolm, ed., The Portable Faulkner, Viking, 1946.
When Cowley, a literary historian and poet, collected Faulkner's writing in this volume, he renewed interest in Faulkner at a time when Faulkner's work was being neglected and narrowly categorized as regional writing. Critics often note that many of Faulkner's novels had gone out of print prior to the publication of Cowley's collection.
Edenfield, Olivia Carr, "'Endure and Then Endure': Rosa Coldfield's Search for a Role in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!," in Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 32, No. 1, Fall 1999, pp. 59-70.
Edenfield examines Rosa Coldfield's quest for a feminine role in Faulkner's novel.
Faulkner, William, Collected Stories, Random House, 1950.
This volume collects Faulkner's short stories. It has been reprinted over the years for its value to students of Faulkner.
――――――, A Fable, Random House, 1954.
This is the novel for which Faulkner was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1955.
――――――, The Reivers, Random House, 1962.
This is the novel for which Faulkner won the 1963 Pulitzer Prize.
――――――, William Faulkner's Speech of Acceptance Upon the Award of the Nobel Prize for Literature: Delivered in Stockholm, 10th December 1950, Chatto and Windus, 1951.
This booklet contains Faulkner's memorable and moving acceptance speech upon winning the Nobel Prize for literature.
Meriwether, James B., and Michael Millgate, eds., Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner, 1926–1962, Random House, 1968.
This collection of interviews contains the reclusive author's views on literature and a variety of other subjects.