Summary of the Novel
Absalom, Absalom! is a multi-layered story being told by Quentin Compson, a young student sitting in his room at Harvard, to Shreve McCannon, his Canadian roommate. Shreve has asked Quentin “What is the South like?” In response, Quentin tells him about Thomas Sutpen, a character based on Faulkner’s great-grandfather, who built a plantation, “Sutpen’s Hundred,” in the deep South. The story is told as a series of memories, or gossip collected from different narrators, some of whom are reliable and some of whom are not. Although the story is fairly clear-cut, the layering of the narration makes it seem more of a myth, or mystery, than a history.
Like Faulkner’s great-grandfather, William Clark Falkner, Thomas Sutpen is born in West Virginia and runs away at a young age to make a life for himself. The reason for Sutpen’s departure from his family is that he was ashamed of being the poor, unshod son of an itinerant alcoholic sharecropper. When he was young, he was turned away from a plantation door by a liveried slave.
When Sutpen runs away, he goes to the West Indies to make his fortune. He became an overseer on a plantation, and during a rebellion by the slaves, he protected the plantation owner and his daughter. The trauma of the revolution draws the two young people together, and Thomas Sutpen marries Eulalia Bon, the plantation owner’s only daughter, thus making his fortune.
When Sutpen returns to the United States, he first lives in New Orleans, where he discovers that Eulalia Bon has some African ancestry. Then he abandons her and their son Charles. Thus, in more ways than one, Thomas Sutpen has made his fortune by using the tools of racism.
Sutpen then makes his way to Mississippi, where he buys a piece of fertile land from the Native Americans. Then, using the labor of slaves imported from Haiti, he carves out a plantation and builds a mansion. Thomas Sutpen has a “grand design” in mind: he wants to become a wealthy plantation owner like the one from whose door he was turned away. In order to gain respectability and a family, he then marries Ellen Coldfield, the daughter of an upright, moral town merchant. Sutpen is arrested just before his wedding (for undisclosed reasons), but Mr. Coldfield bails him out, and the wedding takes place. Nevertheless, none of the townspeople attend the wedding.
Thomas Sutpen nearly accomplishes his grand design. He and Ellen have two children, Henry and Judith, and they live a prosperous life at his mansion on his plantation at Sutpen’s Hundred.
Sutpen’s past, however, comes back to haunt him. His son from his first marriage to Eulalia Bon, Charles Bon, meets and befriends his son, Henry, at Oxford University. Henry Sutpen does not know that Charles Bon is his half-brother, and he invites Charles home for Christmas. Charles and Judith immediately fall in love. The following Christmas, Charles Bon returns again, and Thomas Sutpen angrily forbids the marriage, telling Henry that Charles is his half-brother. Henry, in return, angrily repudiates his father and runs away with Charles.
The course of these familial events is changed when the Civil War erupts. Henry and Charles (even though he has African blood) enlist on the side of the South, and Thomas Sutpen forms a regiment. The men leave the women to fend for themselves and to try to grow enough food to last through the war years.
When Henry learns that Charles is his half-brother, he is still willing to condone his marriage to Judith, but when, during the war, he learns that Charles has African ancestry, he refuses to condone it. He follows Charles back to Sutpen’s Hundred and murders him at the gate, rather than see him marry his sister.
During the Civil War years, Ellen Sutpen dies. After the war, and Henry’s murder of Charles, Miss Rosa moves to Sutpen’s Hundred. Then Thomas Sutpen returns from the war. Still trying to beget an empire, Thomas Sutpen proposes to Miss Rosa Coldfield. At first, Miss Rosa is happy, but then Sutpen coldly suggests that she try to bear him a son before marriage. Miss Rosa is furious and hates him forever after. Since the main part of the narration of Absalom, Absalom! comes from Miss Rosa’s knowledge, Thomas Sutpen is most often portrayed as a demon, or devil.
Failing with Miss Rosa, Thomas Sutpen then seduces Wash Jones’s granddaughter. Milly Jones becomes pregnant, and when Sutpen goes to the Jones’s shack to see if it is a son and thus the heir to his empire, Wash Jones kills him with a scythe. Thomas Sutpen’s grand design was also his downfall.
This is the end of the “respectable” Sutpen empire, but Charles Bon is still alive—and he has had a child by a mistress in New Orleans. Clytie the slave is also a daughter of Sutpen’s, and brings the younger Charles to Sutpen’s Hundred to live. When Charles Etienne grows up, he rebels against the family’s racism by marrying a woman of complete African-American ancestry. They, in turn, have an idiot son, Jim Bond, and he is the only survivor of the Sutpen clan.
At the end of the novel, Quentin describes taking Miss Rosa out to the nearly abandoned plantation at Sutpen’s Hundred, where they find Henry still alive, but hiding out. When Miss Rosa arrives with an ambulance a few months later, Clytie sees it coming and thinks it is the police, come to arrest Henry Sutpen at last. Consequently, she sets fire to the house, killing herself and Henry. Then the only figure left with Sutpen blood is Jim Bond; Shreve concludes that “I think that in time the Jim Bonds are going to conquer the Western Hemisphere.” Jim Bond runs off into the woods, howling, and can be heard from time to time thereafter. Faulkner’s message is that the aristocracy of the old South is doomed, due to its own fatal flaws.
Faulkner uses the title Absalom, Absalom! to refer to a story in the Old Testament wherein Absalom, the favorite son of King David, rebels against him and is slain by an uncle. The story in the Bible also includes the incest of a brother and sister. This biblical tale is related to the novel: Charles Bon and Judith Sutpen are brother and sister; Henry Sutpen loves Judith Sutpen more than a sister; and Henry, the favorite son, rebels against Thomas Sutpen, the patriarch of the empire.
The Life and Work of William Faulkner
William Faulkner is arguably one of the greatest American writers from the South. He published 30 books during his lifetime, winning a National Book Award, a Legion of Honor award, the Howells Medal for distinguished fiction, the Gold Medal for Fiction, two Pulitzer Prizes, and, finally, a Nobel prize.
But Faulkner did not lead a completely happy life. As the eldest of four sons, he felt responsible for his entire family. His improvident father drank heavily, as Faulkner did when he became an adult. Moreover, Faulkner’s family had owned slaves, and Faulkner felt the weight of guilt of a society whose economic standard was created by the exploitation of others. The burden of the past was heavy upon him; much of Faulkner’s writing attempts to come to terms with this past.
William Faulkner’s great-grandfather, William Clark Falkner, was a tough frontiersman who ran away from home at a young age, started a plantation in Mississippi, and fought in the Civil War. He lived a violent and active life: he killed two men in feuds, had a large family, ran for public office, and wrote a bestseller, The White Rose of Memphis (1880). Eventually, he was killed by a man who bore him a grudge.
Faulkner’s grandfather, John Wesley, was more conservative: he made his family fortune in railroads, and he was wounded in a feud. Faulkner’s father, Murry, grew up in the shadow of these two strong men: Murry held a secure job on the railroads until his father sold his shares and set his son adrift. After that, Murry didn’t know quite what to do, so he drank.
Moreover, all three men, Faulkner’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, were visited with a legacy of violence: William Clark died by gunshot wound, John Wesley was shot in the hand, and Murry was shot in the face and almost died. The Falkner family had a history of hard drinking, hard living, economic success, and personal tragedy.
William Cuthbert Faulkner (he added the “u” to his name to accord with that of his earlier ancestors) was born in 1897; his three brothers were born shortly thereafter. Faulkner spent most of his life in and around the small city of Oxford, Mississippi. In his early life, Faulkner was not a success. As a small child, he almost died of scarlet fever, and did not do well in school. Nor was he accepted to fight, as he desired, in World War I; he had to stay home and work odd jobs—as a bookkeeper, as a bookstore assistant, in the University of Mississippi power plant, and then at the post office (from which he was fired).
It looked very much like William Cuthbert Faulkner’s life was not going to be very successful. Like his father, Murry, he didn’t know quite what to do, and he drank heavily. However, he also had the talents of William Clark and John Wesley; he was destined to live a powerful, if painful, life. William Cuthbert Faulkner took a few college courses and started writing poetry, and his life as a writer was launched when he drifted to New Orleans and met Sherwood Anderson, who helped him to get his first novel published.
From then on, Faulkner knew that he wanted to write, and he tried to make his living that way. Even though this was stressful for him, and he often felt that he had to write for money, he still managed to produce a significant opus of modern literature. His “commercial” writing and his “artistic” writing were not at odds—at first he wrote Sanctuary (1931), about a rape, which he hoped would be popular; then he wrote Absalom, Absalom! (1936), which he made as difficult as possible. Finally, he combined both styles in his Snopes trilogy—The Hamlet (1940), The Town (1957), and The Mansion (1959)—and the result is a difficult but understand¬able compendium of Southern style, diction, and poetry. It may be significant that Faulkner’s style became clearer as his career progressed.
Despite his successes, William Faulkner led a difficult life. Even though he married his childhood sweetheart, Estelle, she tried to drown herself on their wedding night. Later, they bought “Rowan Oak,” a typical antebellum plantation house, dating from 1844. But since his father was not financially solvent, Faulkner felt responsible for his younger brothers as well, so he found himself supporting his establishment and others. He was always working hard to make money. This pressure on him, combined with other things, led to his alcoholism.
According to his biographer, Joseph Blotner, Faulkner drank for a variety of reasons: drinking made him happy, it made him less shy, and it helped him in difficult social situations. Finally, however, he would stop eating and only drink, and then would have delirium tremens for days afterwards. Faulkner also went for long stretches without drinking at all. Once, while working on Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner drank so heavily that he left the manuscript at a hunting cabin 40 miles outside New Orleans. His family often sent him to private sanitariums to recover. However, drunk or sober, he wrote.
Faulkner’s reputation continued to grow, but the money he made from his novels was not enough to support his large house, wife, family, and wife’s family. Consequently, Faulkner worked, off and on, as a scriptwriter in the Hollywood film industry. This work enabled him to pay his bills. At one point, Faulkner thought that he could sell Absalom, Absalom! to the movies.
Faulkner worked on movies or had his own work adapted into Hollywood projects on and off for about 40 years, but he was most active as a scriptwriter from the 1930s through the 1940s.
He began his film career in the 1930s, and among his early efforts were his co-screenwriting credit for The Road to Glory (1936), and his credit for contributing dialog to Slave Ship (1937).
A few years later, Faulkner was sharing screenwriting credits for what would become two of the finest examples of the film noir genre: To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946). Faulkner’s writing helped make these motion pictures—the first based on an Ernest Hemingway novel, the second based on a Raymond Chandler tale—into classics of the American Cinema.
After this high point, Faulkner continued to write movie scripts and to allow some of his novels to be reborn as movies. The Long Hot Summer and The Tarnished Angels, both released in 1958, were films based on Faulkner’s novels. The following year, his novel, The Sound and the Fury also was made into a movie. The film version of Sanctuary was released in 1961.
Throughout his life, Faulkner continued having trouble with alcoholism and continued writing—producing books, short stories, screenplays, and poems. As he got older, he began to travel around the world and receive honors, including the Nobel Prize in 1950. When he accepted the Nobel Prize for literature in Stockholm, he said:
“I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work—a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.”
This is certainly an achievement of Faulkner’s: whether you like or hate his work, it is clear that what he has done has not been done before. His is an original, clear voice with a special message for the world.
As he grew older, other honors came his way. Faulkner was given an appointment at the University of Virginia, which had a salary but few duties. However, he never wholly left his home of Oxford, Mississippi, and when he died from a heart attack in 1962, he was buried there. Oxford, Mississippi, transformed in Faulkner’s fervid imagination to Jefferson, Mississippi, now has an important place in American literary history.
It should be noted that the background of Thomas Sutpen is very similar to William Faulkner’s grandfather, William Clark Falkner. The events in the tale—the violence, the manipulations, the murders—are very similar to those in Faulkner’s past. At one level, it is his own past that Faulkner is trying to come to terms with, like Quentin, in this novel. As with Quentin in The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner was thinking of his own life when he wrote Absalom, Absalom! According to Faulkner’s biographer, Joseph Blotner, Faulkner always said he wrote from his own experience. Moreover, he told Malcolm Cowley that “I am telling the same story over and over, which is myself and the world.”
1807: Thomas Sutpen is born to a large, poor family in West Virginia.
1817: The Sutpen family begins the migration in search of a better life. That same year, Ellen Coldfield is born.
1820: Thomas Sutpen runs away from home to make his fortune in the world.
1827: Thomas Sutpen marries Eulalia Bon, the only child of a French plantation owner, in the West Indies.
1831: Charles Bon, the son of Thomas Sutpen and Eulalia Bon, is born in Haiti. When Thomas Sutpen learns that Eulalia Bon has some African heritage, he abandons his first wife and child.
1833: Thomas Sutpen appears in Jefferson, Mississippi, buys land, and starts to build his plantation, Sutpen’s Hundred.
1834: Clytie, the daughter of Thomas Sutpen and a slave, is born.
1835: The mansion at Sutpen’s Hundred is almost finished, so Thomas Sutpen allows the French architect to leave and plans to court Ellen Coldfield.
1838: Thomas Sutpen and Ellen Coldfield are married in a ceremony that the townspeople refuse to attend.
1839: Henry Sutpen is born.
1841: Judith Sutpen is born.
1845: Rosa Coldfield is born to middle-aged parents; her mother dies in childbirth.
1850: Wash Jones, a poor white squatter, moves to Jefferson with his daughter Melicent, and camps out on Thomas Sutpen’s land.
1853: Milly Jones, daughter of Melicent Jones and granddaughter of Wash Jones, is born.
1859: Henry Sutpen and Charles Bon meet at the University of Mississippi in Oxford; Henry brings Charles home for Christmas; Charles and Judith fall in love; Charles Etienne St. Velery Bon is born in New Orleans.
1860: Henry brings Charles home for Christmas once again; Thomas Sutpen forbids the marriage of Judith and Charles; Henry repudiates his father, leaves with Charles Bon.
1861: Henry Sutpen, Charles Bon, and Thomas Sutpen enlist in the Confederate Army to fight in
the Civil War.
1863: Ellen Coldfield Sutpen dies in her darkened room.
1864: Goodhue Coldfield dies of starvation in his attic.
1865: Henry Sutpen and Charles Bon return from the war; Henry shoots Charles at the gate to Sutpen’s Hundred. Miss Rosa Coldfield moves out to Sutpen’s Hundred to live with Judith Sutpen and Clytie.
1866: Thomas Sutpen returns from the war and proposes to Miss Rosa Coldfield; he suggests that they try to conceive a male child before marriage and she moves back to the town of Jefferson.
1867: Thomas Sutpen begins a relationship with Milly Jones, Wash Jones’s granddaughter.
1869: Milly has a daughter by Thomas Sutpen; Wash Jones kills Sutpen, his granddaughter, and her child. Major de Spain, the sheriff of Jefferson, kills Wash Jones.
1870: Charles Etienne St. Velery Bon and his mother, Charles Bon’s wife in New Orleans, visit Sutpen’s Hundred.
1871: Charles Etienne St. Velery Bon’s mother dies in New Orleans, and Clytie travels to New Orleans to bring him back to Sutpen’s Hundred to live.
1881: Charles Etienne St. Velery Bon brings an African-American wife to live with him at Sutpen’s Hundred.
1882: Jim Bond, developmentally disabled son of Charles Etienne St. Velery Bon and his African-American wife, is born at Sutpen’s Hundred.
1884: Judith Sutpen and Charles Etienne St. Velery Bon die of yellow fever.
1909: Miss Rosa and Quentin find Henry Sutpen still living, hidden in the mansion at Sutpen’s Hundred; Clytie sets fire to the house, killing herself and Henry Sutpen. The only known heir to the Sutpen clan is Jim Bond, who escapes to the woods.
1910: Quentin Compson recounts this tale to Shreve McCannon at Harvard University. Later that year (and in another novel), Quentin kills himself.
Estimated Reading Time
Faulkner provides a chronology of events and a genealogy of the characters in Absalom, Absalom!, and the reader should consult it every time the novel becomes confusing. Even so, Absalom, Absalom! is a very difficult book to read and understand. It is self-consciously written in the style of high-modernism, like James Joyce’s Ulysses and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, both first published in 1922. Moreover, some of the narration is through Quentin’s eyes, some is through the eyes of his father, and some is through Miss Rosa’s eyes. Every major character in the book has a voice through which the tale is told.
Faulkner’s prose style is also difficult: he omits punctuation, makes up words, and uses long sentences. Nevertheless, it is fun to read in small portions. By slowly and carefully reading the novel, you can get a sense of the Southern accent and the idiom that he is using. If possible, read a section aloud to get the feel of his language.
Since the style of Absalom, Absalom! is a major impediment to understanding and enjoying the novel, these MAXnotes will assist the reader by looking closely at some sections of the text. Faulkner was writing often in “blank verse” so the writing must be seen within the context of poetry. At the same time, the modernism has a self-consciousness about it that refers directly to Faulkner’s literary predecessors, such as James Joyce and T. S. Eliot. The reader will be encouraged to take a critical stance regarding Faulkner’s use of style—whether you like it or hate it—and therefore enter into a closer understanding of the text.
Reading speed will improve as the reader becomes accustomed to the dense, modernistic style that William Faulkner uses in Absalom, Absalom! The novel also becomes somewhat more understandable as it progresses, largely due to the reader’s increasing knowledge of the plot elements. However, it is a difficult novel, and the reader will have to be prepared to spend some time and effort to understand the style.
In Chapter One, Miss Rosa and Quentin’s commentary, is particularly difficult. The reader is suddenly dropped into a story-in-progress, and is expected both to know all the details and to be able to follow Faulkner’s long and idiosyncratic sentence structure. However, if the reader persists, the reading should become easier and easier. The estimated reading time for Chapter One is three hours.
Chapters Two and Three are similar to Chapter One, but longer. Consequently, the reading time for each chapter remains three hours.
Chapter Four is a long, difficult, and complex chapter. Consequently, the estimated reading time is five hours. However, Chapters Five and Six are shorter, and begin to give more concrete plot information. Still, given the overall complexity of the material, the reader should allow three hours for each.
Chapter Seven provides a lot of the background information on Thomas Sutpen, and although it is long, it is easier reading than the preceding chapters. Quentin Compson and Shreve McCannon are talking, telling each other the story of the Sutpen dynasty in flashbacks. Since it is the longest chapter in the book, with the most overall information, the reader should pay special attention to it. Estimated reading time is five hours.
Chapter Eight provides more background material, but little that is new. Since it is long, at least four hours should be left to read it. Chapter Nine, the final chapter, is fairly short and provides a good overview of the entire novel. Consequently, it should be read slowly and carefully. Estimated reading time for this chapter is two hours.
The total estimated reading time for Absalom, Absalom! is 31 hours.