Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1549
Judge Benbow: Miss Rosa’s lawyer, who helps her when she is poverty-stricken
Charles Etienne Saint Velery Bon: son of Charles Bon and his mistress from New Orleans
Shreve McCannon: Quentin’s Harvard roommate, with whom he is narrating the story
Luster: an African-American boy who is a major character in Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury
Using a technique seen in the earlier chapters, the beginning of Chapter Six recalls the reader to the “present,” only in this case the “present” has changed and now we must change our percep¬tions with it. We are no longer sitting with Quentin and Miss Rosa, waiting to go out and see what is at Sutpen’s Hundred; we are recalling the entire story from the safe distance of Quentin’s dormitory room at Harvard University, far away in the north.
Suddenly, the reader is required to shift the whole focus of the narrative framework. The time is now 1910, and two students are sitting, in the night, recalling the myth of the Sutpen clan. From now on, the reader is to understand that the narrative is a story being told by two young men, Quentin Compson and his Canadian roommate, Shreve McCannon.
The chapter begins with an image of snow on Shreve’s sleeve, thereby bringing us into a concrete present. The small detail of winter weather reminds us that we are listening to two young men up North at Harvard University. Then Quentin produces a letter from his father announcing Miss Rosa’s death. This letter may have precipitated the tale, or maybe Quentin brought it out to illustrate the tale; we never know. However, from now on, part of the method of narration of the tale is a dialogue between these two young men.
Quentin talks, then Shreve talks. Shreve adds a lively voice of modern disbelief to the gothic Southern story especially in statements such as “this old dame grew up in a household like an over-populated museum.” Since Shreve, like the reader, is trying to put together the pieces and understand the tale; he reiterates parts of it to make sure he’s clear, and Quentin answers “yes.”
At one point while Shreve is talking, Quentin suddenly realizes that Shreve reminds him of his father. Then an italicized flashback begins, in which Quentin remembers that he and his father went to the graveyard to see the graves of the Sutpens and Coldfields.
Thomas Sutpen paid for his grave and that of his wife, but even in death he did not divulge his place or date of birth. Miss Rosa bought the other graves with money she got from her father’s store; one by one the family buried each other, making (or borrowing) just enough money for the headstones.
Finally Quentin remembers the story of Charles Etienne Saint Velery Bon. He was the child of Charles Bon, born the same year that Charles met Henry in college. Charles Etienne St. Velery Bon and his unnamed mother went to visit Sutpen’s Hundred after Thomas Sutpen was killed. Later, when he was orphaned in New Orleans, Judith sent Clytie to fetch him, and brought him there to live.
During this section, Faulkner gives us his view of women. It is while Mr. Compson is talking again to Quentin, and Quentin is remembering, that the author writes:
“They lead beautiful lives—women. Lives not only divorced from, but irrevocably excommunicated from, all reality. That’s why although their deaths, the instant of dissolution, are of no importance to them since they have a courage and fortitude in the face of pain and annihilation which would make the most spartan man resemble a puling boy, yet to them their funerals and graves, the little puny affirmations of spurious immortality set above their slumber, are of incalculable importance.”
This theme has been constant throughout this novel, and it reappears in Faulkner’s other novels. Faulkner sees women as super-human, tied more strongly to nature than men, and therefore as being somehow more savage than men.
Race is also an important issue in this chapter. When Charles Etienne St. Velery Bon moves to Sutpen’s Hundred, he first slept on a trundle bed between the full bed of his aunt, Judith, and the floor pallet of his other aunt, Clytie. From the first, Clytie will not allow the boy to play with African-American children, so he spends most of his time alone. When Charles Etienne St. Velery Bon becomes a teenager, he moved his sleeping place to the hall, and Clytie moved with him. Later, he made a room for himself in the attic.
Charles Etienne St. Velery Bon grew up angry and confused. Finally he solved his problem by marrying a black woman [with] an authentic wedding license. However, this shocked the towns¬people of Jefferson and the South, so that Charles Etienne St. Velery Bon was always getting into fights. He flaunted his marriage continuously, and this caused him to be beaten often. He was also a gambler, so he led a difficult and violent life. Finally, he died of yellow fever. Judith died attending him.
Miss Rosa enlisted the help of Judge Benbow, her lawyer, to buy and inscribe a headstone for Judith. It said that Judith “Suffered the Indignities and Travails of this World for 42 Years, 4 Months, 9 Days, and went to Rest at Last,” ending with the words: “Pause, Mortal; Remember Vanity and Folly and Beware.”
Luster, an African-American boy who is a major character in The Sound and the Fury, has a brief say as Quentin remembers his father recalling Luster’s fear in the face of the Sutpen curse. Caught in a sudden rain, Luster won’t go into the mansion at Sutpen’s Hundred because he is afraid of Jim Bond, the disabled son of Charles Etienne St. Velery Bon and his unnamed wife.
Chapter Six begins with some of the techniques used in Chapter Four. It attempts to bring the reader back into a “present”; however, this present is a different present than we thought at the beginning of the novel. It is now clear that the outer framework of Absalom, Absalom! is a conversation, or ongoing dialogue, taking place between two young men. Their series of variously formed recollections are being revealed in a dormitory room at Harvard University in 1910.
However, the style soon becomes just as strange and modern¬istic as in the preceding chapters. It is Shreve who is narrating the story now, and Quentin is listening and saying “yes.” It becomes a point-counterpoint recitation of musicality, where Shreve is unwinding the tale and Quentin is punctuating it with the com¬ment “yes.” In this sense, it is also like a court addressing a witness. Even just a quick look at the structure of the chapter reveals that it consists of long, loquacious diatribes given on the topic of the Sutpen clan by Shreve, punctuated by comments from Quentin. One paragraph ends and another begins in this manner:
“‘and then almost before his foot was out of the stirrup he (the demon) set out and got himself engaged again in order to replace that progeny the hopes of which he had himself destroyed?’
‘Yes,’ Quentin said.
‘Came back home and found his chances of descendants gone where his children had attended to that, and his plantation ruined, fields fallow except for a fine stand of weeds . . .”
Even though Shreve’s diction and rhetoric is strange and changeable, and even though the verbal exchange between the two young men is stylized, Shreve does go over all the material fairly systematically, as if he were reviewing a text. In this chapter the reader can catch up with any lost facts.
However, just in case the reader is feeling too secure, Faulkner suddenly introduces Luster, a character from a different novel, to illustrate the strangeness of the inhabitants at Sutpen’s Hundred. This sudden introduction of a new character, who then disappears, unsettles the reader yet again.
Still, bit by bit the pieces of the story are coming together: we now know the history of Ellen Coldfield and Miss Rosa; the ensuing events of the Civil War years, including the murder of Charles Bon; and the history of Charles’ son, Charles Etienne St. Velery Bon.
Faulkner has also outlined his major themes—a confusion of the past with the present; a confusion of social caste and race; and the blurred lines of proposed familial incest. The confusion of the past and present and the theme of incest are even more central to Faulkner’s equally difficult The Sound and the Fury. It is the question of race that is most important in this novel.
The only major plot element that we have yet to understand is the moral make-up of Thomas Sutpen, why he started this “empire” in the way he did, and what led to his success, and his ruin.
Absalom, Absalom! is, at one level, a novel about morality. The Sutpen Empire is built on the various sins of greed, callousness to human suffering, indifference, anger, and the cold manipulation of human lives. The empire grows, and is rich, but then it causes its own decline. The very foundation upon which it rested was throughly corrupt.
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