Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1221

New Characters:
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 year. Then, when the Civil War began, for unknown reasons (likely related to the disgrace of his financial dealings with Thomas Sutpen) Mr. Coldfield nailed himself into the attic, and lived there while Miss Rosa scoured the remains of the family store to survive.

Every day Miss Rosa sent her father food in a basket. Then, one day, the basket didn’t come back down. The neighbors broke in and discovered that Goodhue Coldfield had starved himself to death.

The other plot event that is described in this chapter is the first visit of Charles Bon, Thomas Sutpen’s first known son, at Christmas. Henry Sutpen had met and befriended Bon at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, without knowing who he was. Bon probably plotted the friendship to gain access to his father. Then, one Christmas, Henry invited Charles Bon home for vacation, and very soon Bon and Judith fell in love.

Charles Bon and Judith Sutpen decided very quickly to get married. Ellen Sutpen and Miss Rosa were delighted with Judith’s upcoming wedding; Miss Rosa even stole cloth from her father’s store in order to make Judith a trousseau. Thomas Sutpen was quite aware of Charles Bon’s heritage, and in later chapters we will see his subsequent actions.

In the meantime, Henry and Judith were very happy because their relationship was closer than usual with brother and sister. As Faulkner describes it, it was “that fierce impersonal rivalry between two cadets in a crack regiment who eat from the same dish and sleep under the same blanket and chance the same destruction and who would risk death for one another not for the other’s sake but for the sake of the unbroken front of the regiment itself.” Since Henry was Charles’ best friend, he was overjoyed that Charles was marrying his beloved sister.

Ellen Sutpen was the happiest of all and she bloomed while planning this wedding. Faulkner describes her thus:

“Ellen at the absolute halcyon of her butterfly’s summer and now with the added charm of gracious and graceful voluntary surrendering of youth to her blood’s and sex’s successor, that concurrent attitude and behavior with the engagement’s span with which mothers who want to can almost make themselves the brides of their daughters’ weddings.”

It was as if all of the humiliation that she experienced in her own wedding could be mended by giving a good wedding to her daughter; she lived vicariously through her daughter’s happiness. The happiness, however, was not to last, and is foreshadowed by the image at the end of the chapter of a man on a mule desperately calling at Miss Rosa’s gate.

Mr. Compson is still telling the story to Quentin in Chapter Three. However, since he is now relaying information third hand—what the others told Miss Rosa and what Miss Rosa told him—it is doubly suspect. Some of the facts that Mr. Compson presents are inaccurate, and others are just omitted.

The narrative style of Absalom, Absalom! manages to tell a dramatic story in colloquial Southern language and in a modernist style without sacrificing too much suspense. Even though it is sometimes hard to read, Faulkner presents the events thoroughly (if sometimes inaccurately), one at a time, and the reader can gradually get the whole dramatic picture.

Nevertheless, the novel is still a difficult one to read. It requires a real commitment on the part of the reader. If the reader persists, eventually the reader becomes a part of the tale. One of Faulkner’s techniques of narration is to refer to events as if the reader already knows the background—as if he, the narrator, is continuing a conversation with the reader begun a long time ago. Consequently, he casts backwards and forwards in time within each paragraph, and sometimes even within a sentence. Thus, even though the main action of Chapter Three is Mr. Compson’s narration to Quentin about Miss Rosa’s life, the action of Chapter Four is already being foreshadowed in passages such as this:

“But anyway, when Christmas day came, Henry and Bon were gone. And Ellen was not visible (she seemed to have retired to the darkened room which she was not to quit until she died two years later) and nobody could have told from either Sutpen’s or Judith’s faces or actions or behavior, and so the tale came through the negroes: of how on the night before Christmas there had been a quarrel between, not Bon and Henry or Bon and Sutpen, but between the son and the father and that Henry had formally abjured his father and renounced his birthright and the roof under which he had been born and that he and Bon had ridden away in the night….”

Here Faulkner stops mid-story to tell us that Henry and Charles Bon are going to disappear, Ellen Sutpen is going to die, and Henry and his father are going to fight; he tells us this as if we already knew it, as if it were in our minds, as well as his. This technique not only involves the reader in the tale, but it also implicates the reader, by assuming the reader is at one with Faulkner’s mind.

By the method of foreshadowing demonstrated above, Faulkner keeps the story going and the reader reading. Faulkner was a master of the modernist mode of expression, but he was also a good craftsman, using drama, romance, violence, and suspense in order to lure the reader into his tale, and keep the reader there until the end. In some of his novels, such as Sanctuary (1931), in which a woman gets raped by a man holding a corn-cob, Faulkner used more lurid material to gain a readership. Faulkner used every technique available in modern literature to tell his tale.

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