Chapter 4 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1397

New Character:
Wash Jones: the poor white squatter who comes to Jefferson after Miss Rosa is born and lives at Sutpen’s Hundred

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At the beginning of each chapter, Faulkner brings us back to the beginning of the novel by portraying Quentin as sitting with Miss Rosa, listening to her stories or waiting to drive her out to Sutpen’s Hundred. Then the other voices join in. In Chapter Four, Mr. Compson’s voice is very much present in Quentin’s head, as Quentin remembers when Mr. Compson showed him a letter.

The main story in this section is about the relationship among the three children of Thomas Sutpen—Henry Sutpen, Judith Sutpen, and Charles Bon. After Henry brought Charles home with him that Christmas, Charles and Judith fell in love. Judith and Henry already loved each other. Since Henry met Charles at college, Henry loved Charles. When Judith loved Charles the circle became complete. This is the section from which the novel takes its title, Absalom, Absalom! (referring to the biblical story of incest), and it is one of the longest in the book.

Henry and Charles are nearly as “in love” as Charles and Judith; Mr. Compson also thinks Judith and Henry are closer than is appropriate for siblings. Chapter Four is mainly about Henry’s relationship with Charles, than the impending marriage to Judith. Faulkner needs to explain the motivation for the action of the characters and the ensuing catastrophe.

When Thomas Sutpen learns of the marriage plans between Judith and Charles, he tells Henry that Charles Bon is also his son. Although Henry is shocked that Charles would deceive him in order to befriend him and make his way into the family, he remains constant in his affection for Charles. He and Charles leave together, enlisting in the Civil War. Faulkner puts these words in quotations, emanating from Mr. Compson’s mouth:

“Because Henry loved Bon. He repudiated blood birthright and material security for his sake, for the sake of this man who was at least an intending bigamist even if not an out and out blackguard, and on whose dead body four years later Judith was to find the photograph of the other woman and child.”

This is an example of how Faulkner gives the reader a plot clue that may be overlooked on a first reading. This is the only mention in Absalom, Absalom! of the photograph of Charles Bon’s wife and child in New Orleans.

The revelation that Charles Bon is part African-American is a shock for the entire family. Henry and Judith’s mother, Ellen, retire to a darkened room, where she lives for two years while she (in typical Faulknerian manner) wastes away and dies. But like Henry, Judith remains steadfast in her love for Charles, and she waits to hear from him.

The letter that Mr. Compson is in the process of showing Quentin is from Charles to Judith (Judith had given it to Mr. Compson’s mother to keep). In that letter, Charles describes the difficulty of fighting in the Civil War. He tells Judith to wait for him. Consequently, Judith spends the war years alone, trying to grow enough food to eat, and stitching clothes from rags. Judith saved the scraps of good material from which to sew her wedding dress.

During the war years, the women were reduced to the basic elements of life: seeking food, shelter, and clothing. They lived together at Sutpen’s Hundred without the men—Thomas Sutpen had also enlisted in the war, as a colonel. Judith remained steadfast in her commitment to Charles.

During the war, Charles was decorated by the Confederates for bravery. This is ironic in view of later events, when it is revealed that he is part African himself. During the war, Henry also learned that not only was Charles his half-brother, but he was one-sixteenth African-American as well. Henry vowed never to let the marriage happen. This is another example of the moral bankruptcy inherent in racism: Henry condoned the marriage when he knew it was incest, but he condemned it when he learned that it was miscegenation.

When the war was over, the men began to straggle home. Charles set off to Sutpen’s Hundred to meet and marry Judith, as he had promised, and Henry set off after him. Just as Charles finally approached the gate to Sutpen’s Hundred, Henry caught up with him and shot him rather than see him marry his sister.

The final image in this chapter is of the poor white squatter, Wash Jones, shouting for Miss Rosa to come because there had been a tragedy in her family.

In Absalom, Absalom!, all the characters’ voices are recalled in a stylized, modernist manner, so that sometimes they all sound alike. As Joseph Blotner writes in his biography of Faulkner, as the novel continues, even Shreve’s “normally colloquial Canadian” voice becomes Hellenized, like Mr. Compson’s voice, and full of high-flown rhetoric, like Miss Rosa’s voice. Thus, Shreve sees Sutpen in relation to Miss Rosa as “a widowed Agamemnon to her Cassandra an ancient still-jointed Pyramus to her eager though untried Thisbe….” It is sometimes difficult to tell where one character’s thoughts end and another’s begin.

Moreover, Faulkner writes as if the reader already knew everything. Faulkner’s difficult style forces the reader to identify with the town of Jefferson and even the Sutpen clan. Since we have to trust our instincts and partially reconstruct the story ourselves, as if we were family, which makes the story more intimate. Absalom, Absalom! is constructed like a family saga, made not of written narrative fiction, but crafted from spoken gossip. However, the modernist style is very difficult to read, and the reader may want to cover only short sections, one at a time.

The more modernist, abstract sections of Absalom, Absalom! alternate with other sections where the narrative voice is clear, hard, and dramatic. For instance, in the description of Henry and Charles in front of the gate to Sutpen’s Hundred, Faulkner uses concrete adjectives and images to show, in detail, two men coming home from war:

“They faced one another on the two gaunt horses, two men, young, not yet in the world, not yet breathed over long enough to be old but with old eyes, with unkempt hair and faces gaunt and weathered as if cast by some spartan and even niggard hand from bronze, in worn and patched gray weathered now to the color of dead leaves, the one with the tarnished braid of an officer, the other plain of cuff, the pistol lying yet across the saddle bow unaimed, the two faces calm, the voices not even raised…”

Then, switching to italics to denote conversation, Faulkner gives a few words of simple spoken language to complete the dramatic moment: “Dont you pass the shadow of this post, this branch, Charles; and I am going to pass it, Henry.” Faulkner ends the chapter with the more colloquial language of the poor white squatter, Wash Jones, as he shouts to Miss Rosa “Air you Rosie Coldfield? Then you better come on out yon. Henry has done shot that durn French feller. Kilt him dead as a beef.” This is an example of how Faulkner’s poetic language comes together with direct, dramatic rendition of colloquial language to create a strong and exciting form of prose.

In Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner is using an experimental technique of mixing poetic prose and Greek and modernist influences with the directness of colloquial language. In his later novels, he comes to rely more and more on standard, spoken English. This novel shows the possibilities that are created when an author sees no limits on the use of language; the shifting of perspectives, of time, past and present, of voice, of language all result in a compound musical construction that can be “heard” as much as read. It is still left to the reader, though, to orchestrate the construction in his or her mind. Since the shifts are so subtle and frequent in this novel, this is a difficult task indeed.

The result of Faulkner’s technique, however, is that meaning is carried in the sound of the language as well as in the content of the words themselves. This is one of Faulkner’s great strengths.

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