Written by William Faulkner
in 1936, Absalom, Absalom!
is the story of Thomas Sutpen and the pursuit of his dream, to forge a dynasty in the South
Pieces of Sutpen's story are told by Miss Rosa Coldfield, Sutpen's sister-in-law, Quentin Compson
, Jason Compson
, Sr., and Shrevelin McCaslin. Quentin is present throughout each of the recountings of Sutpen, and he serves as the primary narrator just as Sutpen serves as the primary subject of the novel.
Through the different narratives, Faulkner shows how we deal with the past. Miss Rosa sees Sutpen as a demon sent to destroy her sister and his children, and through her, Faulkner illustrates the subjectivity present in every historical account. Mr. Compson, on the other hand, knew of Sutpen only what his father, General Compson, a friend of Sutpen's, told him. Although he can impartially recount what he was told, many details of Sutpen's life are incorrect as told by Mr. Compson. Only Quentin and Shreve have the ability to sift through the facts and create the most accurate portrait of Thomas Sutpen. Ultimately, however, we never know the real story of Sutpen, and this is just what Faulkner was trying to say: each of us reconstructs history to suit our own beliefs.
The Plot, According to Quentin
Aside from the shifting narratives, Absalom, Absalom! is Sutpen's story. Born of a low-class West Virginia hillsman, young Thomas moved East with his father and siblings at the age of eight. When they reach a large city, Sutpen's father works as a field master for the slaves of a rich white man. One day, Thomas is asked to deliver a message to the plantation owner, and he is refused entrance by a black servant. Thomas leaves home, confused and angry that he should be looked down upon by a slave. He vows to one day own a plantation of his own so that his children will never experience the pain he has.
After hearing a schoolteacher mention slaves in Haiti, he rushes off, and by fourteen he becomes a favorite of a plantation owner. When the slaves wage war with the owner, Sutpen single-handedly stops them, and somehow (we are not told how) he comes into possession of 19 Haitian slaves. He impregnates the daughter of the plantation owner, but after finding out that she was part black, he abandons her, leaving her with nothing more than monetary compensation for the child, Charles Bon.
Sutpen returns to the States, and enters Quentin's town in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. He and his wild slaves build a mansion in two years. Although the townspeople shun him at first, he wins their approval by inviting them to hunt and watch him fight with his slaves. He enters the church one day and asks a merchant for his daughter's hand in marriage. Ellen Coldfield reluctantly becomes his wife and mother to his two children, Henry and Judith. Ellen becomes withdrawn and sick, and asks Miss Rosa to care for her children as she dies.
Henry attends The University of Mississippi, where he meets Charles Bon. Bon's mother's lawyer had made arrangements for Charles and Henry to be roommates, so that Charles would learn that Henry was his brother and receive payment from Thomas Sutpen. The two don't learn that they are brothers until Bon asks to marry Judith. Although Sutpen never talks to Bon, he tells Henry that Bon is his brother. Henry renounces his birthright, refusing to believe this. Henry and Bon enlist in the Civil War, and Sutpen does as well.
During a battle, Sutpen calls for Henry to tell him that Bon is not only his brother, but that he has black blood in him. Henry leaves and asks Bon not to marry Judith. He refuses, saying, "I'm the nigger that's going to sleep with your sister." The two reach the gates of the Sutpen estate, and Henry shoots and kills Bon and flees the town.
Sutpen returns home, but his plantation has been destroyed by the war. He tries to rebuild it, but he ends up working in the shop of his squatter Wash Jones. He realizes that his dream of having a son is all but lost, and he asks Miss Rosa to marry him, if and only if she can give birth to a child. She is insulted and never sees him again. Sutpen tries his luck with Jones' granddaughter, Milly. When she has a daughter, Sutpen tells her she must leave. Wash Jones overhears this and kills Sutpen. Jones then kills Milly and the child, then commits suicide.
Quentin and Miss Rosa go to Sutpen's Hundred because Rosa believes someone still lives there. They enter and find Henry, who says he has come to his home to die. Rosa lives up to her sister's dying request, and calls for an ambulance to hospitalize Henry. Sutpen's daughter of one of his Haitian slaves, Clytie, thinks that the police have come to arrest Henry. She burns down the house, killing herself and Henry. The only remnant of Sutpen's legacy is the grandchild of Charles Bon, a part-black idiot who Quentin can still hear howling in the forest.
Simply put, Sutpen's story is a microcosm of the South. Through one man, Faulkner shows us the fall of the South. Any system that relies on the sweat and blood of an oppressed people, he tells us, will ultimately fail. Rosa says it best when she tells Quentin that men of the South have too much pride and dignity, but not enough love and sympathy.
Like his other works, Faulkner deals with race. Through Bon and his children, we are shown the difficulty faced by anyone of black descent.
This is, by far, Faulkner's most accessible work. Anyone who is interested in American history, pathos, Modernist prose, or human nature will find this novel extremely enjoyable and valuable.
Faulkner William. Absalom, Absalom!. Grove, 1936.