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.”
Absalom, Absalom! was published in 1936, halfway through William Faulkner’s long career. The novel is set against the backdrop of the American South from about 30 years before the Civil War, when Mississippi was still wild territory, peopled with Native Americans and hunters, to about 1910. The novel can serve as an illustration of one stage of American history—the settlement of the mid-south just before the Civil War.
Thomas Sutpen’s life coincides with the colonilization of the land, which gradually became populated with African slaves, wealthy plantation owners, and poor white sharecroppers. The novel covers the war years, describing what life was like for the women who stayed at home, and the reconstruction, extending until the year 1910. Faulkner’s novel Absalom, Absalom! chronicles the history of the settlement, slave economy, Civil War, and reconstruction of the American South.
To write Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner created a whole society. He renamed his hometown Jefferson, Mississippi, and called the county Yoknapatawpha; he even drew a map for his readers. Since the plot events in Absalom, Absalom! are so deeply buried within the narrative text, Faulkner even provides a chronology. However, Absalom, Absalom! is still a difficult novel to read and understand.
Some of the central characters in Faulkner’s early novels reappear briefly in Absalom, Absalom!, and some introduced in this novel appear later. Faulkner’s novels are an ongoing dialogue or narrative, as if several old men were sitting on a porch, telling and re-telling the same old stories. In this way, Faulkner’s writing imitates aspects of oral history, one aspect of his Southern heritage. In Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner adds the modern use of stream-of-consciousness narrative to his natural ability to tell stories, and creates a very complicated text.
In Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner used the language of James Joyce and T. S. Eliot—high-modernism—to tell and re-tell the same tale many different ways. The language of modernism, here, is very difficult to understand. Absalom, Absalom! requires careful, thoughtful reading, which the first reviewers did not have time to give it. Its first critics called it either boring or disturbing. In fact, when Faulkner sent his publisher the first chapter, the publisher penciled a notation: “This is damned confusing.” Still, Faulkner intentionally omitted plot elements in order to make his reader feel as if he or she were one of the storytellers on the porch, and he insisted on publishing Absalom, Absalom! in this difficult modernist style.
Fortunately, Faulkner was still working in Hollywood when Absalom, Absalom! was published; when the novel failed financially, he still had other income coming in. Although the reviews of 1936 were mixed (Clifton Fadiman, in The New Yorker, called it “the most consistently boring novel by a reputable writer to come my way during the last decade”), today Absalom, Absalom! is widely accepted as a modernist American classic.
Whatever your opinion, Absalom, Absalom! is certainly a dense, interesting, and complicated text, with many layers of meaning, and many levels of understanding. The reader can choose the level at which to enter the novel—as a tale of incest, or as a family history of slavery and murder.
Master List of Characters
Akers—A poor hunter from Jefferson, who observes the building of Thomas Sutpen’s plantation, “Sutpen’s Hundred,” and reports back to the other townspeople.
Aunt—Miss Rosa’s and Ellen Coldfield’s aunt. Miss Rosa’s mother died in childbirth, and her aunt was her only mother-figure. She also planned Ellen’s wedding.
Judge Benbow—Miss Rosa’s lawyer, who helps her out when she is poverty-stricken.
Eulalia Bon—Only child of Haitian sugar planter, who married Thomas Sutpen in New Orleans.
Charles Bon—Only son of Thomas Sutpen and Eulalia Bon. He becomes engaged to his half-sister Judith, and is murdered by his half-brother Henry.
Charles Etienne Saint Velery Bon—Son of Charles Bon and his mistress from New Orleans.
Jim Bond—“Idiot” son of Charles Etienne Saint Velery Bon and his African-American wife.
Clytie (Clytemnestra)—Daughter of Thomas Sutpen and a slave, who lives in the main house at Sutpen’s Hundred.
Goodhue Coldfield—Miss Rosa’s father, a merchant and town leader.
Ellen Coldfield—Goodhue’s daughter, who marries Thomas Sutpen; mother of Henry and Judith.
Miss Rosa Coldfield—Goodhue’s second daughter, to whom Sutpen proposes after Ellen dies. Miss Rosa narrates part of the story.
General Compson—Quentin’s grandfather, Sutpen’s first friend.
Mr. Compson—Quentin’s father who narrates part of the story.
Quentin Compson—A college student at Harvard; although Quentin is marginal to the plot, it is he who is telling the story.
French Architect—The architect that Thomas Sutpen brought from Martinique to build his mansion. Sutpen kept him captive on the plantation for two years.
Haitian Slaves—Unnamed and unindividualized, Thomas Sutpen’s slaves from Haiti nevertheless exist as a major force in Absalom, Absalom! Like Sutpen himself, they are a mixture of innocence and savagery, unused to civilized ways.
Ikkemotubbe—The Chickasaw Indian agent from whom Thomas Sutpen bought his plantation.
Melicent Jones—Wash Jones’ daughter.
Milly Jones—Wash Jones’ granddaughter, seduced by Thomas Sutpen.
Wash Jones—Poor white squatter and handyman for Sutpen. Jones kills Sutpen.
Luster—Young African-American boy, who is a central character in The Sound and the Fury.
Major de Spain—The Jefferson sheriff, who killed Thomas Sutpen’s murderer, Wash Jones.
Shreve McCannon—Quentin’s Canadian roommate at Harvard, to whom Quentin narrates the story.
Theophilus McCaslin—One of Faulkner’s stock characters, Theophilus McCaslin prayed over Charles Bon’s grave while he was being buried.
Pettibone—The wealthy plantation owner from whose door Thomas Sutpen was turned away.
Colonel John Sartoris—A Faulknerian figure, whom Thomas Sutpen replaced as commanding officer in the Civil War.
Henry Sutpen—Son of Thomas and Ellen Sutpen.
Judith Sutpen—Daughter of Thomas and Ellen Sutpen.
Thomas Sutpen—The upstart patriarch around whom the novel is centered.
Colonel Willow—The man who told Thomas Sutpen that his son Henry was wounded.
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.
Absalom, Absalom! is both a legend of the South and a historical novel that chronicles the rise and fall of a man named Thomas Sutpen. Faulkner tells the story of the Sutpen family from different perspectives, and in so doing, he sheds light on Southern culture while detailing Sutpen's motivations for starting a dynasty in Mississippi. The title of Faulkner's novel alludes to David and Absalom of the Old Testament, a father and son who face incest and murder, as do Thomas Sutpen and his son Henry. But Faulkner's story chronicles the relationships of many people in Yoknapatawpha County, all of whose lives have been affected by Sutpen and his dynasty in some way. The novel not only emerges as a family history and the history of a southern county but also as a commentary on the South and on the deterioration of the ideals the Confederacy fought for in the Civil War.
Thomas Sutpen's need to establish himself as a "Southern gentleman" stems from an experience he had living in poverty and being turned away by a Negro servant years before he moved to Mississippi. Sutpen becomes obsessed with establishing a plantation, amassing wealth, and owning both land and Negro slaves. Sutpen establishes his plantation, but in his drive for social position he sacrifices personal relationships and alienates everyone close to him. Because Sutpen's drive clouds his vision, he never achieves his dream, and the injustices he committed in the past trigger events that lead...
(The entire section is 252 words.)
Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Three men struggle to define their identity in William Faulkner’s novel, Absalom, Absalom! The first is Thomas Sutpen, the son of poor whites from West Virginia, who arrives in Mississippi with a group of Haitian slaves and a dream: to carve a hundred square miles of plantation out of wilderness and create a new identity for himself. As a boy, Sutpen was refused entry to a rich landowner’s home by a black slave. Now he seeks to become that landowner, with wealth, a house, slaves, and a son to establish his dynasty.
Sutpen’s Haitian marriage was annulled when he discovered that his wife and their son, Charles Bon, had African blood. His second marriage in Jefferson produces a son and a daughter. Still, the town considers him an interloper and refuses to accept him. Years later, when Sutpen’s white son Henry meets Bon, who passes for white, at the university, they become friends. Bon charms Henry and his sister Judith. Unaware that he is her half-brother, Judith agrees to marry Bon.
Charles Bon is a few years older and a man of the world, with an octoroon mistress and infant son in New Orleans. He appears mildly amused at the situation in which he finds himself. Once he realizes that Sutpen is his father, he waits four years to tell the others. Bon wants Sutpen to acknowledge his identity as a legitimate son, warning Henry he will call off the marriage only if Sutpen acknowledges him. What they all understand is that Sutpen will...
(The entire section is 385 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
In the summer of 1909, as Quentin Compson is preparing to go to Harvard, old Rosa Coldfield insists upon telling him the whole infamous story of Thomas Sutpen, whom she calls a demon. According to Miss Rosa, he brought terror and tragedy to all who had dealings with him.
In 1833, Sutpen came to Jefferson, Mississippi, with a fine horse and two pistols and no known past. He lived mysteriously for a while among people at the hotel, and after a short time he disappeared from the area. He purchased one hundred square miles of uncleared land from the Chickasaws and had it recorded at the land office. When he returned with a wagonload of blacks, a French architect, and a few tools and wagons, he was as uncommunicative as ever. At once, he set about clearing land and building a mansion. For two years he labored, and during all that time he rarely saw or visited his acquaintances in Jefferson. People wondered about the source of his money. Some claimed that he stole it somewhere in his mysterious comings and goings. Then, for three years, his house remained unfinished, without windowpanes or furnishings, while Sutpen busied himself with his crops. Occasionally he invited Jefferson men to his plantation to hunt, entertaining them with liquor, cards, and combats between his giant slaves—combats in which he himself sometimes joined for the sport.
At last, he disappeared once more, and when he returned, he had furniture and furnishings elaborate and...
(The entire section is 1176 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Absalom, Absalom!, another Yoknapatawpha novel and another work with multiple structures, has different levels of narrator viewpoint; that of Quentin Compson and his Canadian roommate at Harvard University is the primary level. Shreve McCannon has asked Quentin to tell him about Mississippi; the result is a story told in true Faulkner fashion. It is far from chronological; sometimes Quentin speaks from his own observation, but most often he repeats a secondhand narrative as given him by Miss Rosa Coldfleld, Jason Compson III, and others. Some gaps are filled in by the boys’ speculative dialogue.
The story is about Thomas Sutpen, who as a young man left his western Virginia home and was severely rebuked by a black servant at a tidewater Virginia mansion. Emotionally scarred, he traveled to the West Indies, where he married the daughter of a wealthy planter and became a man of wealth himself. Upon discovering that his wife was part black, he left her and traveled to Mississippi.
The novel opens with Miss Rosa’s earliest childhood memory of Sutpen, who has taken her sister as his second wife. Sutpen’s violent manner of driving his horses up to the front of the church outrages the townspeople; his cockfights and brutal boxing matches have left her with a sense of terror. He has fathered a daughter, Judith, and a son, Henry, by this marriage, and he dreams of family, dynasty, and great wealth. A few miles out from Jefferson, he has...
(The entire section is 466 words.)
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 Cold-field'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.
(The entire section is 1294 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis
Miss Rosa Coldfield: a minor figure in the Sutpen myth; a major narrator in the novel
Quentin Compson: the focal narrator of Absalom, Absalom!
Mr. Compson: Quentin’s father, a major narrator in Absalom, Absalom!
Thomas Sutpen: the frontiersman who founded the Sutpen clan; the patriarch around whom the novel is centered
The novel Absalom, Absalom! begins with a starkly evocative (and typically Faulknerian) scene: Miss Rosa Coldfield, an old Southern lady, and Quentin Compson, a confused young Southerner, are sitting in a dusty, airless, and timeless room, talking. Miss Rosa’s legs are so short they barely touch the floor, and Quentin, a college student, does not know why he is there. Nevertheless, the old lady rambles on, telling Quentin the history of the Sutpen clan in the town of Jefferson, Mississippi. Quentin obediently listens to the tale.
Most of the novel is a third or fourth-person account of the events surrounding Thomas Sutpen and his plantation, Sutpen’s Hundred. We hear the viewpoints of Miss Rosa, Quentin, Quentin’s father Mr. Compson, and various townspeople as well. From all this evidence, we are left to re-construct the tale as best we can.
Later in Absalom, Absalom!, Quentin asks his father why Miss Rosa chose him to tell the tale; Mr. Compson answers that it is because his father, Quentin’s...
(The entire section is 1313 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary and Analysis
Akers: a poor Southern hunter who watches the building of Thomas Sutpen’s plantation, “Sutpen’s Hundred,” in the woods. Akers acts as a reporter, telling the other townspeople of Jefferson what is going on
Aunt: the “Aunt” referred to is Miss Rosa’s and Ellen’s aunt. She lived with the Coldfield family, organized Ellen’s wedding and, after Miss Rosa’s mother died in childbirth, took care of Miss Rosa when she was a child
Goodhue Coldfield: Miss Rosa’s father, a respectable merchant and town leader
Ellen Coldfield: Goodhue’s daughter who marries Thomas Sutpen; also the mother of Henry and Judith
Haitian Slaves: often called “wild negroes” or “wild niggers,” these unnamed slaves from Haiti nevertheless exist as a major force in Absalom, Absalom! Like Thomas Sutpen himself, they are newcomers to a savage world
Ikkemotubbe: the Chickasaw Indian agent from whom Thomas Sutpen bought the land upon which he built his plantation, “Sutpen’s Hundred”
Although Chapter Two is narrated in much the same way as Chapter One, it backtracks in that it gives more details about Thomas Sutpen’s arrival in the town of Jefferson, how he built his plantation, and how he became a part of the town.
According to the Sutpen legend, Thomas Sutpen appeared in Jefferson on a Sunday morning, riding a horse. He bought some...
(The entire section is 1138 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis
Charles Bon: the son of Thomas Sutpen and his first wife, Eulalia Bon, from New Orleans
Eulalia Bon: only child of a Haitian sugar planter. Eulalia married Thomas Sutpen, but he repudiated her when he discovered that she had some African ancestry
Henry Sutpen: the only son of Thomas and Ellen Sutpen
Judith Sutpen: the only daughter of Thomas and Ellen Sutpen
Clytie: the daughter of Thomas Sutpen and a slave; Clytie lives in the mansion at Sutpen’s Hundred
In Chapter Three, the voice is mainly that of Mr. Compson, Quentin’s father. He is telling Quentin the story of Miss Rosa’s life—how she was born to middle-aged parents years after her sister, Ellen, and how her mother died during childbirth. According to Mr. Compson, Miss Rosa grew up alone with her aunt and father, Goodhue Coldfield, who was a cold and bitter old man.
Goodhue Coldfield was not always a bitter man. Before Thomas Sutpen came to Jefferson, he was an honest and upright Methodist, a man so moral that when he bought slaves he immediately freed them. However, due to his dealings with Sutpen, he is caught in the spider web of the slave economy, and, as he ages, he becomes more and more unhappy.
Mr. Compson further narrates that Mr. Coldfield and Miss Rosa visited Sutpen’s Hundred regularly. Although their relations were strained, they made the 12-mile trip twice a...
(The entire section is 1221 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary and Analysis
Wash Jones: the poor white squatter who comes to Jefferson after Miss Rosa is born and lives at Sutpen’s Hundred
At the beginning of each chapter, Faulkner brings us back to the beginning of the novel by portraying Quentin as sitting with Miss Rosa, listening to her stories or waiting to drive her out to Sutpen’s Hundred. Then the other voices join in. In Chapter Four, Mr. Compson’s voice is very much present in Quentin’s head, as Quentin remembers when Mr. Compson showed him a letter.
The main story in this section is about the relationship among the three children of Thomas Sutpen—Henry Sutpen, Judith Sutpen, and Charles Bon. After Henry brought Charles home with him that Christmas, Charles and Judith fell in love. Judith and Henry already loved each other. Since Henry met Charles at college, Henry loved Charles. When Judith loved Charles the circle became complete. This is the section from which the novel takes its title, Absalom, Absalom! (referring to the biblical story of incest), and it is one of the longest in the book.
Henry and Charles are nearly as “in love” as Charles and Judith; Mr. Compson also thinks Judith and Henry are closer than is appropriate for siblings. Chapter Four is mainly about Henry’s relationship with Charles, than the impending marriage to Judith. Faulkner needs to explain the motivation for the action of the characters and the...
(The entire section is 1397 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary and Analysis
Theophilus McCaslin: present during the burial of Charles Bon, he said a Confederate prayer over the Catholic man
Chapter Five is the end segment of Miss Rosa’s story. It tells the events of the Sutpen drama as they related to her, and then her voice is left behind.
The plot is simple. After Wash Jones brings the news to Miss Rosa of Charles Bon’s murder, Miss Rosa immediately goes out to Sutpen’s Hundred. Miss Rosa, Judith, Clytie, and Theophilus McCaslin are the only ones who were present at Charles Bon’s funeral. They carry the coffin, dig the grave, and bury Charles Bon together.
After the burial, Miss Rosa decides to stay on at Sutpen’s Hundred. There, the three women live “the busy eventless lives of three nuns in a barren and poverty-stricken convent,” trying to grow enough food to eat. Miss Rosa no longer has a place in town after her father’s death: the store was ruined, and she needed food, shelter, and company. Consequently, she plans to honor her sister Ellen’s last wishes, and “take care” of her niece Judith.
Miss Rosa lived at Sutpen’s Hundred for seven months, until Thomas Sutpen straggled home from the war. Although they occupy the house together, the women rarely see Thomas Sutpen, except at mealtime: they inhabit the inner world of the house, and he inhabits the outdoors.
However, three months later, Thomas Sutpen...
(The entire section is 828 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary and Analysis
Judge Benbow: Miss Rosa’s lawyer, who helps her when she is poverty-stricken
Charles Etienne Saint Velery Bon: son of Charles Bon and his mistress from New Orleans
Shreve McCannon: Quentin’s Harvard roommate, with whom he is narrating the story
Luster: an African-American boy who is a major character in Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury
Using a technique seen in the earlier chapters, the beginning of Chapter Six recalls the reader to the “present,” only in this case the “present” has changed and now we must change our percep¬tions with it. We are no longer sitting with Quentin and Miss Rosa, waiting to go out and see what is at Sutpen’s Hundred; we are recalling the entire story from the safe distance of Quentin’s dormitory room at Harvard University, far away in the north.
Suddenly, the reader is required to shift the whole focus of the narrative framework. The time is now 1910, and two students are sitting, in the night, recalling the myth of the Sutpen clan. From now on, the reader is to understand that the narrative is a story being told by two young men, Quentin Compson and his Canadian roommate, Shreve McCannon.
The chapter begins with an image of snow on Shreve’s sleeve, thereby bringing us into a concrete present. The small detail of winter weather reminds us that we are listening to two young men up North...
(The entire section is 1549 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary and Analysis
French Architect: Thomas Sutpen brought him from Martinique to build his mansion and kept him captive on the plantation for two years, until the house was nearly finished
General Compson: Quentin Compson’s grandfather, Mr. Compson’s father, Thomas Sutpen’s first (and only) friend
Melicent Jones: Wash Jones’ daughter, who gives birth to Milly Jones in 1853
Milly Jones: Wash Jones’ granddaughter, seduced by Thomas Sutpen, who gives birth to a baby girl and is killed, with her baby, by her father, Wash Jones
Major de Spain: the Jefferson sheriff who killed Wash Jones
Pettibone: the wealthy plantation owner from whose door Thomas Sutpen was turned away, during an incident that inspired Sutpen to build his own empire
In Chapter Seven, Faulkner finally gives us the motivation for Thomas Sutpen’s seemingly inhuman actions. The story came originally from Sutpen himself, in strange circumstances. The French architect, who Sutpen forced to live in a tent for two years, has escaped, so Sutpen is pursuing him with his slaves and dogs, and General Compson is along for the ride. When the architect tricks them by using engineering skills to propel himself a long distance, the slaves and the dogs lose his scent. While waiting for them to find it again, Sutpen recounts the story of his boyhood to General Compson
Thomas Sutpen came from an...
(The entire section is 1019 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary and Analysis
Colonel John Sartoris: a Faulknerian figure, whom Thomas Sutpen replaced as commanding officer in the Civil War
Colonel Willow: the man who told Thomas Sutpen that his son Henry was wounded
In Chapter Eight, the main remembered “action” of Absalom, Absalom! is over. Faulkner has already described Thomas Sutpen’s early life, his arrival in Jefferson, his marriage to Ellen Coldfield, the friendship of Henry Sutpen and Charles Bon, the betrothal of Judith Sutpen and Charles Bon, and the two main murders—Henry’s murder of Charles Bon, and Wash Jones’ murder of Thomas Sutpen. Consequently, Chapter Eight ties up the loose ends of the Sutpen tragedy.
In this chapter the story of Charles Bon is described by Quentin and Shreve in much more detail. Charles Bon grew up in New Orleans, and eventually sought recognition from his father. He befriended Henry Sutpen and gained entry to the Sutpen clan. How¬ever, like Thomas Sutpen at Pettibone’s gate, he was ultimately denied.
This has implications for Henry as well. Charles must have known who Henry was when he first met him, and plotted to gain admittance to Sutpen’s Hundred. Over time, Henry must have also realized this. However, tied to a perverse tradition of honor, he condoned the marriage of siblings, but condemned Charles—and killed him—when he discovered he was one-sixteenth African.
(The entire section is 737 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary and Analysis
Jim Bond: “idiot” son of Charles Etienne St. Velery Bon and his African-American wife
The narration of the story is concluded. Quentin tells Shreve how Miss Rosa brought him out to Sutpen’s Hundred one September and they found Henry still alive, but in hiding. In December, Miss Rosa sends an ambulance, but Clytie thinks that it is a police car and she sets the house on fire, killing herself and Henry.
Now the entire Sutpen clan is destroyed, except for Jim Bond, the “idiot” (who, like Faulkner, gained an extra letter in his last name). Jim Bond stands outside the burning mansion, howling, and then he soon disappears into the woods, still howling. Jim Bond continues to inhabit the woods, and, from time to time, the townspeople of Jefferson can hear him howling.
This is the end result of Thomas Sutpen’s “grand design”—a developmentally disabled person howling in the woods. Clearly, it was a design built on faulty premises.
The conclusion of the story prompts Shreve to say that “in time the Jim Bonds are going to conquer the Western Hemisphere.” He continues with a philosophical conclusion:
“Of course it wont quite be in our time and of course as they spread toward the poles they will bleach out again like the rabbits and the birds do, so they wont show up so sharp against the snow. But it will still be Jim Bond; and so in...
(The entire section is 830 words.)