Chapter 4 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on March 27, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 736

Mr. Compson gives Quentin a letter to read, which was written by Charles Bon to Judith Sutpen, who entrusted it to General Compson’s wife, Quentin’s grandmother. Mr. Compson resumes his narrative, focusing first on the close friendship between Charles and Henry, which he says amounted to love on Henry’s part. Henry renounced his father and his father’s money for Charles’s sake, though he must have known that his friend was “an intending bigamist even if not an out and out blackguard.” 

Mr. Compson says that Charles seduced Henry, as well as a number of other students at the university, with his charm and cosmopolitan sophistication. Judith, in her turn, was influenced by Henry, which is why the eventual progression of her relationship with Charles was so smooth and apparently inevitable. Much of the time he spent at Sutpen’s Hundred, Charles was out riding or hunting with Henry, as though courting his sister by proxy. 

Thomas Sutpen, however, refused to allow Judith to marry Charles because he had discovered in 1859 that Charles kept an octoroon—meaning eighth-part black—mistress in New Orleans and had fathered her child. This, Mr. Compson suggests, was what led to Sutpen’s quarrel with Henry on Christmas Eve of 1860, as Henry refused to believe the allegations against Charles. Although this conflicts with his earlier comment that Henry must have known Charles intended to deceive Judith when arguing with his father, Mr. Compson admits that he is only speculating on what happened. He was not a witness to any of these events and can only piece them together from “a few old mouth-to-mouth tales.” 

After the quarrel with his father, Henry accompanied Charles to New Orleans, where they immersed themselves in a decadent lifestyle that was second nature to Charles but, Mr. Compson imagines, must have shocked Henry. Charles also told Henry that his father’s allegations were true. He was married to a courtesan, whom he also owned as a slave. Although he rebuked Henry for calling this woman a whore, saying that the mixed-race courtesans of New Orleans deserved honor as “the only chaste women, not to say virgins, in America,” Charles also insisted that such a marriage did not really count and should have no effect on his relations with Judith. Henry was appalled and refused to allow Charles to communicate with his sister. 

When the Civil War began, Charles and Henry both enlisted. Charles was promoted to lieutenant even before their company saw action, though Mr. Compson does not think he particularly wanted to be an officer. Although Henry remained a private soldier, he was the watcher, and Charles was the watched, still prevented from writing to Judith by her brother’s vigilance. Meanwhile, at Sutpen’s Hundred, Judith was living in reduced circumstances, as most people were in the South. She grew vegetables in her garden, wore a made-over dress, and drove a carriage drawn by a plow mule. One day, without any reason Mr. Compson can ascertain, she gave the letter Charles had written to her to Quentin’s grandmother, telling her to read it, destroy it, or keep it, as she wished. 

Quentin takes the letter from Mr. Compson and reads it. The letter is dated 1865 and was written in New England stove polish on old watermarked paper, which Charles says he found in the gutted mansion of an aristocrat, which he views as “the best of the old South which is dead.” Charles says that he and Judith have waited long enough to be together. He cannot say when he will come to her, but he believes they are both fated to survive the war, so he will return to be with her when he can. 

When Quentin has finished reading the letter, Mr. Compson speculates on what happened next, imagining how Judith and Clytie would have put together a makeshift wedding gown and veil from scraps of cloth. Perhaps Charles showed the letter to Henry before he sent it, but then again, perhaps not. Quentin imagines what must have happened when the two young men returned to Sutpen’s Hundred. Henry would have warned Charles not to pass the shadow of the gatepost, and Charles would have defied him. Not long after this, Wash Jones stood outside Miss Rosa’s gate in Jefferson, telling her to come to the plantation, as Henry had shot Charles and killed him. 

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