Absalom, Absalom Summary – Chapter 1
Without delay, it should be understood that this is perhaps Faulkner’s most difficult novel. To the inexperienced reader, some of the difficulties seem insurmountable, but if one perseveres, he will discover why many critics consider this to be Faulkner’s greatest novel.
Of the many difficulties, the Faulknerian style is one of the major hindrances for the student unfamiliar with the Faulknerian diction. Another difficulty lies in determining what character is narrating certain aspects of the story, or when Faulkner as the omniscient author begins narrating as opposed to one of the characters themselves.
Another difficulty is that a person is often talked about long before he is identified. For example, a character is often referred to simply as “he” long before that character is actually identified, and many small items of information are casually mentioned as though the reader knows the entire story.
The main difficulty, however, consists of how much of the plot is given by the various narrators as opposed to how much of the story is left untold and must be imaginatively recreated by the reader. To facilitate the reader’s understanding of the various elements of the plot as opposed to the story, perhaps a simple definition or example of the difference between plot and story should be offered. In Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner tells many aspects of the story, but then he leaves many aspects untold. In other words, the story is larger than the plot. The plot consists of those elements of the story which the author decides to narrate. For example, if a person went to the theater to see a play about Abraham Lincoln, he would know beforehand the entire story of Lincoln’s life, but the plot of the drama would consist of those episodes which the dramatist chooses to dramatize. Likewise with Greek dramas which were based on ancient myths: the audience knew the entire story or myth, but would attend the theater to observe how the dramatist chose to emphasize certain aspects of the myth. In conclusion, those scenes or episodes which are presented in relationship to each other constitute plot whereas the story can involve matters which lie outside the plot narration.
The plot narration in Absalom, Absalom! is the most unique in modern fiction and occupies a sizeable portion of the reader’s or critic’s attention. To help the reader, Faulkner included at the end of the novel 1) a chronology of the central events, 2) a genealogy of the characters (for example, in the genealogy note that Faulkner indicates that Quentin died the year the novel ended making his death a part of the story, but we have no indication of this in the plot of the novel), and 3) a map of Yoknapatawpha county indicating the place where central events occurred.
Consequently, Faulkner mentions in the first chapter the most important or significant events of the entire story. By the end of the first chapter, Faulkner has told the reader almost the entire story, and in subsequent chapters will only offer subtle modifications of this large story told in this first chapter. Of course, on a first reading, we do not realize that this is the germinal of the plot, but all the essential facts are here. In subsequent chapters the plot will consist of narrating individual episodes of the general story; but essentially the basic outline of the entire Sutpen story is presented here in the first chapter.
The purpose, in bare outline, is to familiarize the reader with the story so that in all subsequent retellings the element of surprise will not interfere with the probing into the causes of the various actions. By the end of the first chapter, Faulkner wanted his reader to feel as though he knew the story as well as did the townspeople of Jefferson, Mississippi. As the story was both a part of Quentin’s heritage and a part of the town of Jefferson, so by revealing much of the story now, it becomes, with each retelling, a familiar part of our heritage also. This is Faulkner’s method of leading the reader into the story and making the reader accept it in the same way that Quentin accepts the story. Thus by this method the story gains a certain amount of universality. For example, the average reader is not aware of the fact that Faulkner tells us six different times in the first chapter about Sutpen’s arrival in Jefferson because each retelling has a different purpose.
In literary terms, this constant reiteration of the story elements gives the story a mythic quality. This mythic quality then adds depth to the story since by analogy to other myths — if this story is viewed as mythic — it assumes additional validity. It requires a long time before a story attains mythic qualities and most of the myths of the world have long been accepted as great works or as great thoughts. Thus, if Faulkner can get the reader to accept his story as mythic in the first chapter, he has achieved another level of awareness which adds to the greatness of the novel.
As noted in another section, one of Faulkner’s main emphasis is upon man’s relationship to the past. This is to become one of the prominent themes in this novel. It emphasizes the idea that Faulkner is to develop later: that man cannot deny those aspects of the past which molded his personality; that man is responsible for the actions of the past. This idea receives additional emphasis when we examine the reason why Miss Rosa chose Quentin to accompany her on the journey. She seems to think that Quentin is aware of his heritage especially since he comes from one of the most prominent families of the town. This idea contrasts with the fact that Sutpen appeared from nowhere and had no discernible past.
Miss Rosa’s past has been colored by forty-three years of hating Sutpen and thinking about his betrayal. (Note that Faulkner does not yet tell us what the betrayal is, but only that she has hated the “demon” for all these years.) Later, when we are able to interpret what her story means, we must remember that during these forty-three years the events have taken on a different meaning than they had when they first happened. Miss Rosa’s narration is not always reliable because her hatred has caused her to interpret all of the events so as to account for her present condition.
When Miss Rosa mentions that her sister Ellen was a blind romantic fool, she is totally unaware that she is also a romantic fool. Throughout the novel, the emphasis on the Coldfield family as being romantic becomes central to interpreting the actions of the other characters of the novel. While all the Coldfield’s were romantic by nature, the Sutpens are cold and calculating and determined by nature. Consequently, the children of the Coldfield-Sutpen marriage will have either the Coldfield temperament or the Sutpen temperament. We see the first implications of this at the end of the first chapter. Henry’s reaction to violence indicates that he is closely aligned to the romantic Coldfield nature. Furthermore, his later repudiation of his father, his loyalty to Bon, and other factors identify him as a romantic Coldfield. In contrast, Judith’s nature is that of the Suspense. Even though Faulkner does not depict it, we must assume by implication that Judith enjoys the violence.
Throughout Miss Rosa’s narration, there is the implication that Sutpen was in some way directly responsible for the downfall of the Coldfield family. She sees him as some type of brute instrument of God’s injustice, in that the good and innocent are destroyed equally with the strong and wicked. Miss Rosa thinks that man is at the mercy of a capricious God who allows such demons as Sutpen to exist. However, she can never give a straight, logical reason for her beliefs and they must be viewed with some skepticism. It is implied throughout the novel that there is some type of connection between the Coldfield family and Sutpen before Sutpen arrived in Jefferson, but if this connection existed, it is never made clear to the reader.
Miss Rosa’s narration also sets the key to an allegorical interpretation of the events of the Sutpen family being analogous to the rise and fall of the entire South. In her view, the South had to fail because such men as Sutpen controlled the South. When the hopes of the South are placed in the hands of men like Sutpen-men with strength, valor, and power but without pity or honor or compassion — then the South is doomed.
The crucial point in which Miss Rosa’s narration differs from that of Mr. Compson and Quentin is in the reason each attributed for the failure of Judith and Bon to be married. Miss Rosa’s reasoning is that the marriage was denied by Sutpen merely as an irresponsible and capricious act. The reader must remember then that Miss Rosa does not have available to her many of the facts which the other narrators know. She never met Bon, she never knew anything about Bon’s parentage or past life, and therefore could not know the motivations which prompted Sutpen to deny the marriage. In fact, in this first chapter when she refers to the almost fratricide she is thinking that Bon was about to become Henry’s brother-in-law and did not know that the murder was a true fratricide.
Absalom, Absalom Summary – Chapter 2
One of the difficulties of this novel lies in identifying the narrator. In this chapter, Faulkner, as an omniscient author, narrates about half of the chapter and then with little warning slips into Mr. Compson’s narration. The central intent of the chapter involves establishing the Sutpen myth with particular emphasis upon Sutpen’s early activities in Jefferson.
This chapter, more so than the first one, illustrates one aspect of Faulkner’s narrative technique: Faulkner will, throughout the book, present Sutpen mainly from the viewpoint of other people. We seldom see Sutpen directly, and this method of circumlocution — of presenting the main character through indirection — aids in establishing Sutpen as a mythic character.
The mythic quality is also stressed at the beginning of the chapter where Faulkner emphasizes the continuity of the past with the present. With this emphasis, Faulkner is stressing man’s past as a direct influence upon his present actions. Ultimately, Quentin will try to determine the meaning the Sutpen story has for his own personal life and for the entire South.
In terms of Faulkner’s narrative technique, this chapter begins to fill in certain episodes which have already been mentioned in the first chapter. Note that nothing new is narrated, but only that we get a fuller picture of the marriage between Sutpen and Ellen Coldfield. It is therefore important that Mr. Compson narrate the facts about the marriage because of his own father’s involvement in the wedding. The grandfather could pass the actual facts on to Quentin’s father who in turn tells them to Quentin. Ultimately, this second chapter begins Faulkner’s retelling of the story and already the story should be familiar to us so that the details can be elaborated upon.
A question arises as to why Faulkner had Miss Rosa narrate the first chapter, in which we hear Sutpen referred to as a demon or a djinn. Would our view of Sutpen be different if we had not already been prejudiced by Miss Rosa’s view? Generally speaking, this chapter depicts Sutpen as a strong, powerful, independent, and individualistic man who can and will do anything to achieve his ends. This view of Sutpen colors most of Mr. Compson’s narration. Basically, it will later become clear that Mr. Compson is fascinated with the legend. He sees in the defeat of a strong, determined man like Sutpen the rationale by which he concludes that all men are incapable of determining their own destinies.
In this early picture of Sutpen, the basic ingredients of a heroic and admirable man are present; yet our view of him is modified by several factors, such as Miss Rosa’s hatred, the town’s irrational dislike for Sutpen, and the cold, determined way in which he arranges his marriage with Ellen Coldfield. In the town’s dislike for Sutpen, Faulkner forces us to enter into the novel and become narrators since he never explains or gives any clues as to why the town conceived this dislike for the man. Thus, to speculate, the dislike could result from Sutpen’s arrogance and independence which might easily have offended the townspeople. Furthermore, when the town cannot understand an outsider’s actions, then all types of motivations are assigned to his endeavors. Apparently, the town also resented Sutpen’s engagement and marriage to Ellen Coldfield and his expectation that everyone would attend the wedding. The entire marriage and arrangements for it have a dehumanized quality, partly due to Sutpen’s innocence — that is, that quality in him which fails to delineate between moral subtleties.
There are many other things left unknown or merely implied. For example, we never know where Sutpen gets his money, why he was arrested, what the link was between Coldfield and Sutpen, why the architect remained in the wilderness for two years to build the house — or many other aspects of the story. Many interpretations are offered by various narrators, but we are never to know for certain. This failure to give the answers is part of Faulkner’s purpose of forcing the reader into the story.
Absalom, Absalom Summary – Chapter 3
This entire chapter is narrated by Mr. Compson, but the reader should be aware that he is not always correct in the information he imparts. For example, he is partially incorrect when he wonders why Miss Rosa agreed to marry a man whom she grew up to look upon as a demon. Mr. Compson apparently does not understand that Miss Rosa’s view of Sutpen as a demon stems from the day of the outrageous proposal. The inconsistency of Mr. Compson’s narration is further revealed by the fact that he assumes Miss Rosa looked upon Sutpen as a demon and at the same time, he reports how Sutpen was respected by his soldiers and how he ultimately became a leading citizen of the town.
In this chapter Faulkner is continuing to fill in certain aspects of his myth, allowing for variant interpretations and also presenting further aspects of the same story with additional details. Some of these details are not presented as fact but only as speculations. For example, could Sutpen have meant to name his mulatto daughter Cassandra instead of Clytemnestra? Clytemnestra was the wife of Agamemnon, who led the Greeks in the defeat of the Trojans in the Trojan War. She killed both her husband and Cassandra. Cassandra was the daughter of the king of Troy who predicted the fall of Troy and was not believed, and who also predicted her own death, and Agamemnon’s, at the hands of Clytemnestra — and was not believed. Thus, if Sutpen meant to call his daughter Cassandra, he had fathered the daughter who would preside over the destruction of the Sutpen dynasty.
Most of the episodes in this chapter will be elaborated upon in subsequent chapters. Again, a central critical concern is Faulkner’s narrative technique which involves retelling the same episodes from many different perspectives. Furthermore, another aspect of the narrative technique is seen in the manner in which Charles Bon is discussed at first as though the reader knows all about him even though it is not until sometime later that we learn who he actually is.
An examination of the Coldfield family shows them to be heavily endowed with romanticism. This aspect of the Coldfield nature will show up in Henry Sutpen, who is more of a Coldfield than he is a true Sutpen. Neither Faulkner nor any of the narrators ever classify the Coldfield family as romantic; however, almost every action can be classified as being tinged with romanticism.
All of Mr. Coldfield’s actions are the height of romantic bravura and protest. Then, too, the circumstances surrounding Miss Rosa’s birth and childhood force her into a romantic mold. Ultimately, her devotion to writing poetry is another act of romanticism. In general terms, seclusion, isolation, suicide, poetry, and over-refined morality are all qualities often associated with romanticism. Therefore, the Coldfield family represents the romantic element most opposed to the brute reality of the Sutpen character. Now in looking back to the first chapter where Judith and Henry are watching Sutpen fight, we can see that Judith’s fascination aligns her with the Sutpen character and Henry’s revulsion to violence is a romantic reaction which identifies him as a Coldfield.
This romantic aspect of the Coldfield nature is emphasized in Henry’s repudiation of his house and home and birthright. Such a rejection carries with it all the elements of the romantic outcast who is often at variance with his society and his family. When we understand the basis of the Coldfield nature, then we can understand more fully the underlying motivations of Henry’s actions. Likewise, to repudiate one’s family for the sake of friendship is even more noble in terms of the romantic code of behavior.
But more important, Faulkner is now preparing for the final act of the novel when Henry must perform his fratricide, that is, he is now creating the basic elements of Henry’s character which will make his later actions completely believable.
Again in this chapter, the mystery surrounding the relationship between Coldfield and Sutpen is emphasized. Whatever offer or arrangement Sutpen made to Coldfield was never revealed by Mr. Coldfield and apparently, he later regretted that arrangement — a regret which becomes a contributory cause to his suicide by starvation. We are led to believe that he did have some over-refined guilt feelings about the transactions, which forced him to seek penance.
Finally, the reader needs to step back from the involvement in the novel and note that Mr. Compson’s narration is developing an idea that chance or fate or destiny controls the lives of all men. Ultimately, he will view man as incapable of determining his own life and as a victim of forces beyond his control.
Absalom, Absalom Summary – Chapter 4
This chapter continues with Mr. Compson as the narrator. We should remember that Mr. Compson represents a person who, unlike Miss Rosa, did not participate in the actual events and is therefore far enough removed to comment objectively. Yet he is not as far removed as is his son Quentin, who views the story as established history. In other words, Mr. Compson stands as a moderating voice between Quentin and Miss Rosa.
Whereas previously Mr. Compson’s narration served to complete or fill in certain aspects of the Sutpen myth, this chapter heads in another direction. We later find out that most of the opinions expressed in this chapter, or most of the things reported, are later proved to be either false or subject to different interpretation. The question then arises as to the function of Mr. Compson’s narration. First, the total narration functions to provide more background information. Second, the more Mr. Compson narrates, the more we find out about him as an individual. Third, even though he, as a person, is not important, his views of life are essential to understanding Quentin and Quentin’s concern with the Sutpen story. That is, Quentin received from his father many of the ideas and opinions that later molded his personality and prompted him to become almost obsessed with the Sutpen story. Fourth, Mr. Compson’s narration helps to establish the Sutpen story as a myth in that, as will be indicated, there is still room for various interpretations of the actions and motives of Thomas Sutpen.
Ultimately, in order to understand Quentin’s obsession with the Sutpen story, we must examine some of the views held by Mr. Compson and see if Quentin is directly affected by his father’s philosophy. Mr. Compson sees the past generations as being composed of men of larger and more heroic dimensions who had a gift for living life to the fullest instead of living in an ambivalent and disorganized life. Later we will see that Quentin does accept his father’s view that the older generations are more noble than the present generation, and in accepting this view, Quentin’s problem is to discover what has happened in the intervening generations.
Quentin is also influenced to a certain degree by his father’s philosophy of determinism, fatalism, or cynicism. To fully understand this view, we have to return to earlier matters. We have previously said that the three narrations of the Sutpen story differed mostly in the reasons assigned to Sutpen’s refusal to allow Judith and Bon to marry. In this chapter, we have Mr. Compson’s speculations on the refusal. But he realizes that none of these speculations can explain all the later violence. It is not sensible that, in 1860, Henry, a white man, would be concerned over any kind of ceremony entered into with a black person. Thus Mr. Compson can only conclude that the entire episode is simply incredible and that no explanation can possibly explain the horror of the subsequent actions.
Thus, for Mr. Compson, the world is a place of determinism — a place where man is incapable of controlling his own destiny and where the strongest of men is ultimately defeated along with the weakest. Mr. Compson apparently likes the story because it proves to him that man, even one as strong and determined as Sutpen, is incapable of determining his own fate. In other words, to Mr. Compson, man is only a victim of circumstances, subjected to the whims of an arbitrary God who likes to play games. This pessimistic view of man, this fatalism which Mr. Compson proposed as a solution to the Sutpen story, causes Quentin to choose this story to see if he can discover the causes which led to the downfall of the South. That is, was the South itself governed by fatalism and determinism as Miss Rosa and Mr. Compson have both suggested, or was the South destroyed by other forces?
In his fumbling attempts to find out the cause of Sutpen’s rejection, and how the wedding came to be the cause of the break-up of the family, Mr. Compson hits accidentally upon some important observations. He first notices that Henry feels very strongly toward his sister and later forms a very strong attraction for Bon. Therefore in wishing that Charles and Judith would get married, Henry seems to be fulfilling two desires in his own nature. First, there is a tinge of incestual desire (or at least a desire that goes beyond brother and sister loyalty) for his own sister, and second, he feels somewhat drawn toward Bon in an attraction with mildly suggested homosexual overtones. Mr. Compson suggests that, by having Bon marry Judith, Henry would be fulfilling vicariously two desires that he would never be able to consummate in reality.
This suggested motivation is not embraced by the other characters in the novel and is not firmly supported by evidence in the rest of the novel. We must keep in mind that Mr. Compson, who is most responsible for these suggestions, has often been wrong in his interpretation of other facts. However, his theory about the relationships between Judith, Henry, and Bon can easily be supported by inferences from several parts of the novel and from a close study of the characters.
In terms of Faulkner’s narrative technique, the reader will have to solve the riddle of why Faulkner uses a narrator such as Mr. Compson who gives false information. Mr. Compson’s view of the two half brothers fighting in the American Civil War while fighting within themselves carries some misconceptions. He does not understand that Henry is struggling with the problem of incest, not with Bon’s morganatic marriage. Likewise, he is incorrect as to which brother was wounded. In both cases, the correct view is a matter for later interpretation.
The letter which Bon writes is about the closest direct view we are to get of Charles Bon. The letter shows Bon to be someone who appreciates the ironies of life as he steals stationery and writes with stove polish captured from the Yankees. And behind Bon’s appreciation of this irony is the colossal irony of the situation in which Bon himself is placed. Ultimately Bon is to be killed by his own brother because Bon has one-sixteenth black blood in him, and the irony lies in the fact that the “Negro” is an officer in the Confederate Army fighting in support of slavery and for a system which will cause his death. And a further irony is that the black officer will be killed by his brother who is only a private in the same army.
By the end of this chapter, the reader should now be aware that Faulkner is telling only a few of the facts of the story, and furthermore, he is demanding that the reader participate more and more in reconstructing the story. By now, with all we know (and ultimately, we will know much more than does Mr. Compson) can we imaginatively reconstruct what happened between Henry and his father in the library? One should try to create in his own mind something which would force Henry to denounce his birthright and go off with his friend, remembering that it is not until the end of the war, four years later, that Henry discovers that Charles has black blood — a fact that probably would have altered his original decision to leave Sutpen’s Hundred. Why should Henry deny his own birthright when his father told him that Charles was his half brother? This could have been a cause for rejoicing. In other words, the reader himself should reconstruct the exact scene — this is part of Faulkner’s technique.
Absalom, Absalom Summary – Chapter 5
Chapter five ends Miss Rosa’s narration; beginning with the next chapter, she will fade into the background, but will still remain as a point of reference between Quentin and Shreve. After this chapter, Quentin and Shreve will become the principal narrators. And note in this chapter that part of Miss Rosa’s narration is given in the third person. That is, she talks of or about herself in the third person as though she represents the people of the town interpreting her own actions. These shifts in narrative view and modifications even within a set narration create the sense of constant interpretation and also involve the reader more closely in the novel, even though the reader might often be puzzled as to who the narrator is.
This chapter presents two crucial problems. First, if Miss Rosa really thought of Sutpen as being this demonic ogre, why did she agree to marry him? Secondly, how did his request so adversely affect Miss Rosa that she decided to become a recluse the rest of her life?
In our discussion of the Coldfield family, we saw that the entire family was heavily endowed with romanticism. Thus, Miss Rosa must be seen as an incurable romantic. And all of her actions are motivated and dominated by this romanticism.
The time when Miss Rosa began thinking of Sutpen as a demon must have been after Sutpen made his outrageous request to her. Being a romantic, and knowing only a few of the facts of Sutpen’s life, she must have viewed him in some strange, mysterious, and romantic way. She knew him only by hearsay since the Coldfield’s’ visits were limited to no more than four a year, and during these visits, Sutpen was seldom at home. Furthermore, Miss Rosa’s father was not a man given to gossip or small talk, thus making it rather certain that she learned little or nothing about Sutpen from him.
Until Sutpen reappeared after the Civil War, he had remained a strange, distant, dim figure of legend who became transformed in her mind into some sort of romantic chevalier. Miss Rosa’s imagination is enough to make Sutpen fit into her picture of him in the same way that she never saw Charles Bon, but placed all of her abortive dreams and hopes upon him.
The reader should note then that for Miss Rosa, Sutpen and Bon had many qualities in common. Both were people whom she knew mainly by reputation and whom she had very little contact with. Both lived or came from a strange and mysterious world. Both became the epitome of the dashing and romantic hero. Thus, Miss Rosa’s reactions to Judith and Charles Bon’s engagement again show her extreme romanticism. Since Miss Rosa’s life was so barren, she thought of Judith’s engagement as her own and projected upon this wedding all her dreams and hopes and became, as she admits, “all polymath love’s androgynous advocate.” The failure of the wedding to take place shattered her romantic dreams and Miss Rosa was left to face a bleak and realistic world.
But when Sutpen returned from the war, Miss Rosa had one more chance to make her fairy tale come true. His proposal was her last chance to bring “the living fairy tale” not into “frustration’s vicarious recompense” but into a living reality. But Sutpen’s outrageous request destroyed this last chance that Miss Rosa had. Why? First of all, Faulkner was very careful to make the reader realize that Miss Rosa is not an extreme moralist. Her thefts from her father and her later thefts from the various gardens around Jefferson distinctly suggest that Miss Rosa is not concerned with morality. Therefore, when Sutpen makes his frank, vulgar, and bold request, it is Miss Rosa’s sense of decorum and romance which is violated rather than her morals. Her outrage results from the fact that Sutpen has now destroyed all of her romantic dreams by this brutal, realistic proposal.
Thus, for Miss Rosa, Sutpen’s evil is that he failed to become the romantic chevalier she was searching for. And when she contemplated the complete downfall of the Coldfield family, she felt compelled to ascribe its destruction to something. Since no one had disappointed her as much as did Sutpen, it was easy to ascribe to him the qualities of evil.
Miss Rosa is quite incorrect as to why Sutpen refused to allow the marriage between Judith and Bon. Her view is distorted by her obsession that Sutpen possesses some superhuman quality. She even attributes to him an almost godlike quality of being able to affect the fate of almost every person with whom he came into contact.
The reader should also note there is an air of determinism and fatalism connected with Miss Rosa’s narration. She is partially concerned with explaining why the Coldfield family was completely destroyed. Because she was never able to give a complete and logical explanation, she attributed the family’s disaster to some type of predetermined fate. Thus, for Miss Rosa, justice could not exist in a world that would allow the innocent (the Coldfields) to suffer while the evil (the Sutpens) prospered. Consequently, the past and the Sutpen story have one central meaning for Miss Rosa — they are proof that man has little or no control over his own destiny.
The question often arises as to why this entire chapter is narrated in italics. This is a part of Faulkner’s total narrative technique, in that this is Miss Rosa’s narration, but the italics indicate that it is being remembered by Quentin some four months after Miss Rosa told it to him. Then, the reader should note that Faulkner, as an omniscient author, narrates the last page.
This information leads to another problem: How is it that Miss Rosa seems to know what is going on outside her seclusion? Faulkner never answers this question but instead creates a new character (Shreve McCannon) in the next chapter who will function partly to express the same disbelief in these matters that the reader is now encountering.
The final underlying irony of this chapter is that Charles Bon, who could not achieve recognition by his father during his life, is buried in the family burial ground, thus gaining posthumously some type of family recognition.
Absalom, Absalom Summary – Chapter 6
The narration and the identification of the various narrators in this chapter present something of a problem. This is the chapter where Quentin begins to take over as the main character and as the main narrator, thus revealing his importance as the listener to Miss Rosa’s story in the earlier chapters. Furthermore, Quentin’s narration, which begins in this chapter, will ultimately bring the story into a full perspective. In other words, this is the narration which will provide all of the missing facts from the other narrations. The question then arises as to where Quentin gets these missing facts. As we later find out in other chapters, Quentin was told some things about the story by his grandfather — things which his father had never known. That is, the grandfather told his grandson (Quentin) things which he had failed to tell to his own son (Mr. Compson, III). But more important, as we later discover, Quentin hears some things directly from Henry Sutpen himself when he accompanies Miss Rosa out to Sutpen’s Hundred.
The confusion of the narration, however, lies partially in the fact that Faulkner narrates part of the chapter as omniscient author, and also allows parts to be narrated by Mr. Compson, and by Shreve McCannon, who is first introduced in this chapter. As Faulkner shifts the setting from Mississippi to a dormitory room in Harvard, he also introduces a new character, Shreve, who seems to accept the Sutpen story and who seems to already know as much about the story as we the readers do, and therefore becomes another narrator.
With the introduction of Shreve, we immediately wonder about Faulkner’s purpose in creating a new character halfway through the novel. Of greatest importance, perhaps, are the comments made by Shreve when he asks Quentin to tell him about the South. Shreve’s reactions serve to raise the novel to another level of meaning. We have seen how Faulkner was very careful to create the Sutpen story as a myth, i.e., to retell the story and give it so many mythic qualities that the reader now feels he knows the story as well as though it were a part of his own life. Now when Shreve asks to be told about the nature of the South and Quentin chooses Sutpen’s story, we must see the Sutpen myth as more than a story: it is also an allegory. It is for Quentin the story that is most representative of the South. It is the story that he chooses to illustrate what the South is really like. Therefore Quentin, who was not as directly involved as was Miss Rosa and not as indifferent to the story as is his father, feels that this story is a very integral part of his own life and his own heritage. We should remember that Faulkner prepared us for this concept in the first chapter when he wrote that Quentin and Sutpen lived in the same town, breathed the same air, etc. For Quentin, the story is an integral part of his own history and his own heritage and in choosing to tell this legend to Shreve, he is also investigating both the legend itself and his own relationship to the past and to his own region.
Shreve serves other functions also. Since Faulkner has gone to such great lengths to make the readers believe in this Sutpen myth, he must now provide someone who will both accept the myth, join in the narrating and interpreting of it and, of equal importance, objectively question that same myth. Shreve also functions as a sensitive and objective commentator who often expresses the readers in credulousness. He must be a Canadian because someone from another section of the United States would become too involved in the story to be completely objective or, more likely, would already be prejudiced about the Civil War.
Someone from another continent, Europe for instance, would be too distant and foreign. Thus Shreve is included so we can have an objective commentary from a reliable person who is truly concerned with the story and the region.
As the Greek play had its chorus which echoed the thoughts of the audience, so Shreve steps in and asks the questions which the reader would like to ask. And finally, we follow Shreve’s reactions from being non-involved to becoming involved directly and emotionally in the story at the same time that we are becoming more involved. He functions as a type of gauge for our own reactions.
In general, with the introduction of Shreve and the shifting point of view in this chapter, the reader has to be careful not to misinterpret any of the material. At the beginning of the chapter, it sounded as though Shreve were asking for the first time to be told about the South, but as the chapter progresses, we become aware that this request must have been some time ago since Shreve knows so much already about the Sutpen story. Yet at the same time, Shreve questions certain aspects such as how did Miss Rosa know that there was someone living at the Sutpen house. Thus Shreve accepts the story, contributes to it, and yet expresses the same disbelief that we the readers often feel.
Another difficulty arises when we realize that Shreve is narrating the story or parts of the story; then, at the same time, Quentin is projecting himself into Shreve’s mind and the narration shifts to Quentin who does the actual narration, but is telling the story as though he were Shreve; then to complicate matters Quentin even answers, himself, questions which he poses in the guise of Shreve. These are not insurmountable difficulties, but they do require close attention to the text and to the point of view.
This is also the chapter in which we first find out that Wash Jones is one of the people who worship Sutpen. And in keeping with certain myths, the demi-god (Sutpen) is killed by his most devout worshipper. But the details will be more fully developed in a subsequent chapter. Again this is part of Faulkner’s total narrative technique to introduce a subject as though the reader already knows about it and then to give the full details later.
The strength Judith displays in her actions characterizes her as a Sutpen who remains patient and devoted to her way of life in spite of adverse conditions. This chapter also presents the first symbolic changing of the name from Charles Bon (“Bon” is the French word for “good”) to Charles Etienne Saint Valery Bon to Jim Bond with “bond” suggesting something of servitude, bondage, or imprisonment.
Absalom, Absalom Summary – Chapter 7
Over halfway through the novel, for the first time, we get some complete background information on Thomas Sutpen which will allow us to make more valid generalizations upon his character and to determine what forces motivated him in his various actions. It is also significant that this background information comes from Quentin Compson, the most recent of all the narrators, who is concerned in evaluating certain aspects of Sutpen’s earlier life in order to determine what meaning this early history of a powerful man had upon his own personal life.
To Miss Rosa, Sutpen was ultimately a pure demon. To Mr. Compson, Sutpen was a victim of a hostile universe and proof that man cannot control his own destiny. But to Quentin, he represented many of the events and many of the glories of the past combined with many of the faults which caused the downfall of the South. Consequently, a basic knowledge of his past is important to Quentin so that he can evaluate this man’s importance to the entire history of the South.
From Quentin’s perspective, Sutpen is the epitome of a man who was able to achieve great feats by sheer determination. Here, then, was a man who rose from being the son of a poor and ignorant farmer to become a man of wealth, influence, and power. Sutpen possessed all those basic strengths of character which enable a man to perform feats of power and grandeur. Quentin’s dilemma now is, how could such a man fail to achieve his desired goals? Sutpen’s failure will be correlated with the failure of the South to retain the greatness it once had.
Quentin’s dilemma is the conflict between his admiration of a man who possessed so many of the heroic qualities which enable one to succeed against overwhelming odds and his despair over how a man who possesses these qualities could become utterly devoid of the more important virtues of charity, sympathy and love. Ultimately, Quentin discovers that Sutpen’s error was the same as that of the entire South which “erected its economic edifice not on the rock of stern morality but on the shifting sands of opportunism and moral brigandage.” (New York: Random House, 1951, p. 260.)
Both Sutpen and the South created a design or society which did not take into considerations the ethical and moral questions concerning the enslavement of another race. Both then are guilty of a type of “innocence” in believing that certain obligations could be set aside in order to create a magnificent design or social structure. Sutpen, moreover, was brought up as a type of primitive who could not see the necessity of fencing off land when so much land was available. From this primitive belief, he moves through one episode after another which reveals his degree of innocence.
This innocence is shown in several central episodes. First, as a young boy, Sutpen is confused and bewildered by his first encounter with a caste system. That some people are better than others is a colossal shock to him. Only through innocence could he have escaped encountering such a basic fact in life. Second, the conception of his design is innocent since he merely conceived the design and never considered any of the moral or ethical implications in it.
When the design fails, he is still not concerned about whether or not the design was good or bad, but only about what mistakes he had made. His innocence will not allow him to see that the mistake was in his failure to consider the ethical and moral implications in the design proper. For example, for Sutpen to set his first wife aside is proper, in his view, since he gave her all the money he had. His innocence does not allow him to see the subtleties of any of his actions. Furthermore, this chapter also shows how he kept a civilized architect in captivity for about two years, never thinking that he had done anything wrong in forcing the architect to remain because he intends to remunerate him. Only his innocence allows him to think that any human behavior can be justified by proper sums of money.
In the handling of the narration of this chapter, Faulkner again uses a circuitous approach. In presenting Sutpen’s death, he forces the reader to approach the final revelation through a rather oblique manner before we finally know that it was a girl and not a boy that Milly gave birth to. This narrative technique also brings the reader more into the story. For example, in this chapter, Shreve, who knows no more about the Sutpen story than does the reader, begins to become one of the narrators and interrupts Quentin frequently by insisting that he (Shreve) be allowed to “play” or tell part of the story.
For the reader interested in the way Faulkner uses and re-works earlier material to become part of a larger work, a comparison could be made between the short story entitled “Wash” (found in Collected Short Stories of William Faulkner, Random House, pp. 535-550), and the manner in which Faulkner integrates this story into the novel.
Absalom, Absalom Summary – Chapter 8
At this point in the story, Shreve is becoming so involved that he ceases to be a listener and begins imaginatively recreating part of the story himself. One of the principal images in the chapter is that of, nottwo people (Henry and Charles) on the battlefield in the 1860s, but four people (Henry and Charles; Shreve and Quentin). By this, Faulkner wants the reader to become one of the people there and wants the reader to also enter into the story and create the scenes along with Shreve.
A large portion of the chapter is devoted to examining the figure of Charles Bon and this examination is narrated mainly by Shreve. Bon becomes a pivotal figure in that the collapse of Sutpen design is directly related to Bon’s actions. In actuality, however, the large section of this chapter dealing with Charles, the lawyer, and the mother gives us very little insight into Charles’ motivation, and furthermore, tends to slow down the narrative.
The connecting link between Sutpen’s conception of the design and his failure to achieve its completion is represented in Sutpen’s refusal to recognize his son, Charles Bon. He conceived of the design so as to establish such a great dynasty that none of his heirs would ever be turned away from any door. The completion of the design became such an obsession to Sutpen that the original purpose was either obscured or completely obliterated. Bon’s need for recognition and acceptance as he is turned away from his father’s door parallels the episode where Sutpen was turned away from the plantation. Thus, when Sutpen rejects his own son, he seems to have forgotten all the torment and anguish he felt when he was himself rejected. Sutpen’s rejection as a boy brought about the inception of the design, and Sutpen’s rejection of his own son brings about the failure of the design and its total collapse. Thus, in one way, it may be said that the story centers on Sutpen’s relationship with his sons.
Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the entire novel lies in Sutpen’s adamant refusal to acknowledge his son, especially since we hear from Bon that he would have been content with the slightest sign or indication of acknowledgment. However, if we remember that the Sutpen design was conceived so that no son of his would ever be turned away, then if he acknowledges a Negro as his son, his design is defeated since all white peoples’ doors would automatically be closed to him. Even if Sutpen privately or secretly acknowledged Bon, then the design would be a travesty and he would be betraying the dreams of that young, innocent boy who was once turned away from a door. Thus, Sutpen is trapped because if he acknowledges Bon, then the design either fails or becomes a travesty; if he refuses to acknowledge him, then the design collapses since Henry will be forced to murder his brother and all doors will be closed to him.
Charles Bon’s search (the search-for-a-father theme) is a theme often used in modern literature. Faulkner uses this theme in connection with incest, miscegenation, and the fate of the South. Bon’s search for a father is made more poignantly appealing in that he did not desire a formal acknowledgement but only a sign, however small. But it should be remembered that all the time Charles Bon is searching for recognition from his father, he is willing to deny his own son, Charles Etienne Saint Valery Bon, in order to achieve his purpose. But even though this is so, that is, that Bon is willing to commit an ethical violation, it does not in any way excuse Sutpen from his failure to acknowledge his son. Sutpen still carries the burden of the guilt for denying his son.
Only at the end of the Civil War does Bon finally realize that Sutpen will never acknowledge him. He then sets in motion his plan to marry Judith, his half-sister. His reasoning is probably that Sutpen will then be forced to acknowledge him in order to prevent the marriage. However, Charles underestimates the romantic and impulsive nature of his brother Harry.
In the two brothers, the Sutpen and Coldfield traits are again emphasized. It now becomes clearer that Henry possesses the weak, romantic Coldfield traits and Bon possesses the Sutpen traits. For example, Bon’s insistence and firm determination to carry out his plans are qualities which mark him as a Sutpen. And whereas these factors in Sutpen enabled him to create Sutpen’s Hundred, these same qualities in his son Charles are the main factors causing the design to collapse.
Since Sutpen can save the design only by acknowledging Bon as his son, an acknowledgment which he refuses, the resolution now must depend on Henry, who possesses the romantic Coldfield temperament, integrity, and conscience. It is nevertheless Henry’s duty to effect the resolution to the situation.
It now becomes clear why Faulkner devoted so much of this chapter to the Henry-Charles relationship at the university. Henry met and formed a strong allegiance to Bon at the university. We can now return to the Christmas scene in the library when Sutpen revealed something to Henry which caused Henry to repudiate his father — a repudiation which foreshadows the complete destruction of the Sutpen design. Faulkner offers only suggestions through Shreve as to what transpired between father and son that could cause Henry to make so dramatic a gesture. Thus we, like Shreve, must recreate the scene and offer motives. First, had Sutpen merely revealed that Bon was Henry’s brother, Henry would have accepted this information gladly since he has already formed such a strong love for Bon and has already told Bon that he would like to have an older brother just like Bon. Therefore, Sutpen must have revealed not only that Bon is Henry and Judith’s brother, but that Bon has known it all along and has been deceiving and using Henry for his own personal gain and revenge. Consequently, Henry had to repudiate this accusation, go with Bon, and see if deceit and revenge were Bon’s main purposes.
Thus for four years Henry could neither deny Charles nor allow him to proceed with his plan to marry Judith. Henry becomes convinced that Bon’s purpose is not just to revenge when Bon, now an officer, risks his life to rescue his brother Henry, who lies wounded on the battlefield. This view, therefore, clears up some confusing matters earlier in the novel when Mr. Compson maintained that it was Bon who was wounded and Henry who saved Bon so that he could later kill Bon. Now it becomes more plausible that it was Bon who saved Henry, and even though this discovery is made by Shreve, who could not actually be certain, yet in a short scene it is verified by the omniscient author.
Ultimately, Henry’s acceptance of incest is in one way equated with the defeat and doom of the South. But when he learns of Bon’s Negro blood, this rapidly changes the relationship and presents the climax of the novel. Even though Henry is able to acknowledge Bon as his brother, he cannot allow Bon to become his brother-in-law. Thus, Henry is forced to kill his brother after acknowledging him. Consequently, Faulkner’s condemnation of the mores of the South lies in Henry’s accepting such a horrible thing as incest while being unable to accept a man with one-sixteenth Negro blood as his sister’s husband.
Absalom, Absalom Summary – Chapter 9
This concluding chapter presents the final collapse of the once great Sutpen dynasty. Of greater importance is that we finally learn how Quentin knew more of the story than did his father or grandfather and therefore we can now give the greater credence to Quentin’s narration. Faulkner never makes it clear how long or how much Quentin actually learned, but the reader can assume that he asked enough questions so as to make his narration the most reliable in the novel.
In terms of the entire novel, Quentin has told this story of Sutpen and his sons as a result of Shreve’s inquiry as to the nature of the South. The logical implication is that Sutpen’s story is in some ways representative of the South.
As stated in the introduction, Sutpen represented all the qualities associated with great heroic actions. But on the other hand, Sutpen represented the failure of the South. Sutpen’s basic belief that the ingredients of ethics and morality were the same as the ingredients for any mixture caused him to ignore the ethical values of love, decency, and sympathy for other human beings. His intent upon establishing his design without acknowledging a humanitarian base is analogous to the rise and fall of the antebellum South, which established its design without considering the humanitarian implications of slavery. Sutpen’s defeat and the South’s defeat is the price they paid for erecting their economic and social structure upon the concept of the enslavement of another people. Likewise, Henry’s sanctioning of incest and his crime of fratricide all suggest the most extreme perversion of values — a perversion that is only equaled by the South’s willingness to fight with great chivalry for such a perverted system of values as those embedded in the concept of slavery.
Quentin, therefore, has told this story as representative of the South because he needs to understand the story himself. The meaning of Sutpen’s story becomes clear to Quentin as he tells it and as he realizes that no man and no nation can set its selfish aims above those of another man or above that of humanity.
The final implication of the story comes not from Quentin but from Shreve, who at the beginning was the purely objective commentator who had no past to haunt him but who became so emotionally involved in the story that he undertook part of the narration. Shreve’s final view is one of pessimism about the possible fate of the South and of the modern world; it is a world where a Jim Bond, who is both parts black and part white, and an idiot, will be the type who will ultimately inherit the earth.