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Last Updated July 11, 2023.

Introduction

Absalom, Absalom! is a novel written by William Faulkner and published in 1936. Faulkner, an American author and Nobel laureate, is considered one of the United States' most important authors. Absalom, Absalom! explores race, class, history, and the burden of the past. The novel reflects Faulkner's innovative narrative techniques and his exploration of the Southern Gothic genre.

Plot Summary

In September of 1909, Miss Rosa Coldfield—an elderly lady from a prominent family in Jefferson, Mississippi—tells Quentin Compson, the grandson of a Civil War General, about the life of his grandfather’s friend, Thomas Sutpen. Her story melds with other tales Quentin has heard from members of his family, fleshing out an extended, melodramatic family saga that Quentin tells to his roommate, Shreve, in a collection of asynchronous memories and stories. 

Quentin is a young man preparing to go to college at Harvard, and Miss Coldfield imagines that he may become a writer and could use her story in his work. Miss Coldfield hated Sutpen bitterly, and her narrative paints him as a demonic figure. She tells Quentin how Sutpen arrived in Jefferson out of nowhere in 1833 and quickly acquired an estate and built a mansion. 

Afterward, Sutpen married Miss Coldfield’s elder sister, Ellen, and had two children, Henry and Judith. However, becoming a landowner and connecting himself with a respectable family did not encourage Sutpen to behave like a gentleman. He was wild, violent, and reckless, racing his carriage in front of the church and engaging in bloody fistfights with slaves in front of his children. 

Later, Mr. Compson, Quentin’s father, also tells Quentin what he knows about Thomas Sutpen. Most of his story is based on what he was told by his own father, General Compson, who knew Sutpen in his youth. When Sutpen rode into Jefferson in 1833, he looked ill, as though he had just recovered from a fever. He bought a hundred square miles of land using all the gold he had and, with the help of a crew of twenty black men and a French architect, built a mansion called Sutpen’s Hundred and located twelve miles from town. 

Sutpen lived in the mansion for three years without furniture, carpets, or glass in the windows and invited parties of men to stay with him to drink, fight, and gamble. After these three years, he mysteriously found the money to buy expensive furniture and crystal chandeliers, and eventually, he married Ellen Coldfield, the daughter of a respectable—though far from wealthy—merchant. 

Quentin asks his father why Miss Coldfield would wish to talk about the man who jilted her. Mr. Compson responds with a long account of Miss Coldfield’s early life and her relations with the Sutpen family. She did not visit Sutpen’s Hundred often, even as a child, but her visits became less and less frequent as she grew up and found that she had little in common with Ellen, who had become vain, frivolous, and only interested in shopping and social life. However, during the Civil War, when Sutpen was away fighting and both Ellen and her father were dead, Miss Coldfield moved into Sutpen’s Hundred, where she lived with her niece, Judith, and Sutpen’s illegitimate daughter, Clytemnestra, known as Clytie.

Mr. Compson gives Quentin a letter that Judith Sutpen entrusted to his grandmother. The letter is from Charles Bon, a university friend of Judith’s brother, Henry, who became engaged to Judith after visiting Sutpen’s Hundred one Christmas. Henry approved of this engagement but changed his mind when he discovered that Charles was married to a courtesan in New Orleans and had a child with her. 

(This entire section contains 1348 words.)

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Mr. Compson gives Quentin a letter that Judith Sutpen entrusted to his grandmother. The letter is from Charles Bon, a university friend of Judith’s brother, Henry, who became engaged to Judith after visiting Sutpen’s Hundred one Christmas. Henry approved of this engagement but changed his mind when he discovered that Charles was married to a courtesan in New Orleans and had a child with her. 

Both Charles and Henry fought in the Civil War, and Charles wrote the letter to Judith in 1865, telling her that they had waited long enough and that he would soon return to marry her. Unfortunately, Henry and Charles returned to Sutpen’s Hundred at the same time, and Henry shot Charles dead outside the plantation gates. 

Miss Rosa Coldfield takes up the story again, telling Quentin how she went to live at Sutpen’s Hundred immediately after Charles’s death. Clytie, Judith, and Rosa waited together for Thomas Sutpen’s return, knowing that he would do all he could to rebuild the decaying plantation.

This is exactly what he did when he came back, but he also unexpectedly asked Rosa to marry him, telling her that he would at least be no worse a husband to her than he was to Ellen. Miss Rosa accepted his proposal, but soon afterward, he insulted her, so she fled back to Jefferson. She tells Quentin that there is something living in the house now, something that has been hidden there for the last four years. 

A few months later, Quentin is at Harvard, talking to his roommate, Shreve. He tells Shreve about Thomas Sutpen’s death at the hands of Wash Jones, a squatter at Sutpen’s Hundred with whose granddaughter, Milly, Sutpen had a child. Quentin remembers seeing Sutpen’s grave and, beside it, those of his wife and daughter, as well as of Charles Bon and his son, Charles Etienne.

Charles Etienne came to live at Sutpen’s Hundred after the death of his mother in New Orleans and was raised by Judith and Clytie. He married and had a son, Jim Bond, but died soon afterward in an outbreak of yellow fever that also killed Judith. Quentin tells Shreve about his visit to Sutpen’s Hundred with Miss Rosa in 1909 when Clytie and Jim were still living in a cabin behind the house. 

Quentin then tells Shreve about two occasions, thirty years apart, on which Sutpen told General Compson about his life. He was born in 1808 to a poor family but did not realize they were poor until he came into contact with rich people. Determined to become rich himself, he ran away to the West Indies and secured a job as manager of a plantation. He married the owner’s daughter and had a son with her but abandoned his wife when he discovered that she was part black. Sutpen returned to America, built Sutpen’s Hundred, and became a wealthy man. 

When his son, Henry, brought Charles Bon home to stay for Christmas in 1859, Sutpen realized that Charles was his long-lost son from the West Indies. He told Henry this and later added the information that Charles’s mother had black ancestry. Henry killed Charles, and Sutpen was later killed by Wash Jones after sleeping with his granddaughter, Milly, and then disowning her and the child they had together. Jones then killed Milly and her child before he was arrested for murdering her and Sutpen.

Shreve gives a highly speculative account of the story from Charles Bon’s perspective, inventing situations and dialogues at will. He imagines Bon’s upbringing, wondering if his mother regarded him as an instrument of revenge against Thomas Sutpen and, if so, whether Bon was aware of this.

He imagines Charles and Henry’s first meeting and Charles’s wish for his father’s acceptance when he visited Sutpen’s Hundred. He then imagines Henry’s reaction to, and gradual acceptance of, the incestuous relationship between Charles and Judith, followed by his determination to prevent their marriage when he discovered Charles’s black ancestry. 

Quentin concludes his story with an account of what he and Miss Rosa found when they went to Sutpen’s Hundred in September of the previous year. As they expected, Clytie and Jim Bond—Charles Bon’s grandson—were still living there, but so was a dying Henry Sutpen. Three months later, Miss Rosa took an ambulance to the house to try to save Henry’s life. Clytie, however, thought that the sheriff was coming to arrest Henry for the murder of Charles Bon. To prevent this from happening, she set fire to the house. The fire killed Clytie and Henry, meaning that Jim Bond was now the only surviving descendant of Thomas Sutpen. 

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