Chapter 2 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1138

New Characters:
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 land from Ikkemotubbe, a Chickasaw Indian agent, and brought a group of French-speaking slaves and a French-speaking architect to the land to build a plantation. They all lived in the wild while carving out the plantation from the raw land, and the entire town was curious about this man and his enterprise. Where did he come from and why was he doing what he was doing?

Sutpen never explained anything about himself to the other townspeople—where he came from or where he got his money—because of that they always held him in some distrust. They looked on in amazement as his mansion and estate rose up from the wilds.

From the first, Thomas Sutpen is characterized as a hard, unscrupulous man. To a certain extent he is a man without a conscience. He bought Haitian slaves to build and work on his plantation, and while they were developing his property, they slept in the mud. He brought an architect from Martinique to design his house. Sutpen kept the architect against his will at the primitive camp, and like the slaves, captured him when he tried to escape. They all lived like this for two years, until the mansion was nearly completed, and Sutpen finally let the architect go.

As long as Sutpen refused to explain anything about himself to the townspeople, they distrusted him, so he decided to gain respectability in another way. When his plantation and mansion were nearly complete, he began to court Ellen Coldfield, the daughter of the most respected man in town.

Sutpen had in mind a “grand design” that Faulkner discusses in more detail later: he wanted to be the patriarch of a dependent empire. The motivation for this is hinted at later.

Thomas Sutpen’s marriage to Ellen Coldfield was part of his grand design. Through the marriage, he would become part of the town and gain respectability.

One of the mysteries in the novel that is never solved is that Sutpen probably entered into an illegal financial arrangement with Ellen’s father, Goodhue Coldfield. This is hinted at in Absalom, Absalom! but never fully explained. However, just before the wedding, Thomas Sutpen is arrested, and it is Goodhue who bails him out. Although we never discover the reason for his arrest, it is significant that Mr. Coldfield signed the bond to free him, even though he was an upright, moral man.

In Chapter Two, the wedding of Thomas Sutpen and Ellen Coldfield is described. It is a tragic wedding: even though Ellen invited 100 townspeople, almost no one came. Con¬sequently, she cried throughout the ceremony. When she left the church after the ceremony, a scene symbolic of her future life awaited her. Sutpen’s Haitian slaves were holding pine-knot torches in the night, forming a line against the townspeople as they threw garbage and jeered at the couple.

The narration in Chapter Two begins from the viewpoint of Quentin and then switches to storytelling by Mr. Compson, Quentin’s father. Since Faulkner is an omniscient narrator at the beginning of this chapter, speaking in the third person for Quentin, so it follows that Faulkner’s viewpoint is closest to Quentin’s in this novel. Faulkner’s way of telling and re-telling the story is to gradually add more details and information to its core. In one of the paragraphs where Mr. Compson is speaking, some direct information is given:

“When they were married, there were just ten people in the church, including the wedding party, of the hundred who had been invited; though when they emerged from the church (it was at night: Sutpen had brought in a half dozen of his wild negroes to wait at the door with burning pine knots) the rest of the hundred were there in the persons of boys and youths and men from the drovers tavern on the edge of town….”

Even though Mr. Compson’s narration is not totally reliable (since he heard it from gossip), in excerpts such as this the reader can get a good idea of what the action in the story is. It is scenes such as this—the image of Thomas Sutpen and Ellen Coldfield Sutpen leaving the church on their wedding night, the latter crying, surrounded by slaves holding torches and the faces of angry villagers—that probably encouraged Faulkner to try to sell the novel to Hollywood.

Faulkner’s complex manipulation of viewpoint shows how family myths are made and remade by generations of half-truths. Eventually, most of the characters have a voice in the novel, and most of them give their viewpoints. Of course, some of the viewpoints differ, as in real life. The listener, or collector of the tale, like Quentin, or the reader, can never know the full truth—only the social web of truths that make up what we call life.

History is formed by a collection of data, of documents referring to a certain period in time. Faulkner is creating history here, using the most ephemeral of data—the spoken word—and his history, like many histories, has a moral. Faulkner uses the voices of the ghosts of his past to create a cultural myth, or history, that shows the inhumanity of the economic system of slavery to be unacceptable. In this sense, Absalom, Absalom!, though it may be difficult to read, provides a good cultural antidote to the romanticism of slavery in texts such as Gone With the Wind.

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