Download Absalom, Absalom! Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
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

Summary
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 grandfather General Compson, was the first (and only) man to befriend Thomas Sutpen when he appeared suddenly and unexpectedly in the town of Jefferson. Since that day, the Sutpen family, and thus Miss Rosa’s family, has relied on the Compsons as historians and friends.

Miss Rosa talks on and on, seemingly without sense. Her narration is interwoven with Quentin’s own thoughts about the subject, and about Miss Rosa herself. Miss Rosa haphazardly tells the story of Sutpen’s marriage to her sister Ellen, and their two children, Judith and Henry. Throughout her narrative, Miss Rosa refers to Thomas Sutpen as a “demon” or “ogre” thus displaying her hatred of him.

Miss Rosa hated Thomas Sutpen for a variety of reasons. According to her narration, he “came out of nowhere” and “wasn’t even a gentleman,” and yet he had the power to build a plantation and to meet and marry her sister. Miss Rosa might have forgiven him for those things, but she would never forgive him for what he did later, when he proposed marriage to her and then added an insulting stipulation.

Thomas and Ellen Sutpen had two children, Judith and Henry, but Sutpen still led a wild, savage life. He invited the town’s men to his barn to bet on fights between slaves. He even joined in the fights himself. One night Ellen surprised him in a fight with his three children—Judith, Henry, and Clytie (the daughter of Sutpen and a slave)—watching. Not only was the patriarch fighting a slave, but both were “naked to the waist and gouging at one another’s eyes as if their skins should not only have been the same color but should have been covered with fur.” According to Miss Rosa, this is the point at which Ellen Sutpen discovers what kind of man she has married—a savage. Chapter One ends with this scene.

Analysis
Some of the main thematic elements of Absalom, Absalom! are revealed within the first sentences of the novel. Faulkner’s themes of death, the confusion of the past with the present, and the inevitability of history are demonstrated in the very first words that he writes. In the initial image that Faulkner draws of Miss Rosa talking to Quentin, he writes:

“they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that—a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler…”

Immediately the reader is told that this is a story made up of other stories: Miss Rosa and Quentin are not only sitting in an office, but what was “still...

(The entire section is 1,313 words.)