Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1019
French Architect: Thomas Sutpen brought him from Martinique to build his mansion and kept him captive on the plantation for two years, until the house was nearly finished
General Compson: Quentin Compson’s grandfather, Mr. Compson’s father, Thomas Sutpen’s first (and only) friend
Melicent Jones: Wash Jones’ daughter, who gives birth to Milly Jones in 1853
Milly Jones: Wash Jones’ granddaughter, seduced by Thomas Sutpen, who gives birth to a baby girl and is killed, with her baby, by her father, Wash Jones
Major de Spain: the Jefferson sheriff who killed Wash Jones
Pettibone: the wealthy plantation owner from whose door Thomas Sutpen was turned away, during an incident that inspired Sutpen to build his own empire
In Chapter Seven, Faulkner finally gives us the motivation for Thomas Sutpen’s seemingly inhuman actions. The story came originally from Sutpen himself, in strange circumstances. The French architect, who Sutpen forced to live in a tent for two years, has escaped, so Sutpen is pursuing him with his slaves and dogs, and General Compson is along for the ride. When the architect tricks them by using engineering skills to propel himself a long distance, the slaves and the dogs lose his scent. While waiting for them to find it again, Sutpen recounts the story of his boyhood to General Compson
Thomas Sutpen came from an impoverished family in the West Virginia mountains. When he was young, his family set off to make a better living, but his mother, who provided the main impetus for the trip and for the family’s stability, died on the way. Sutpen’s father was an alcoholic who was barely able to keep the family on the road. He kept stopping at taverns, drinking, and losing all the money the family had.
Eventually, as Faulkner writes: “taverns now become hamlets, hamlets now become villages, villages now towns and the country flattened out now with good roads and fields and niggers working in the fields while white men sat fine horses and watched them…” The Sutpen family found a place to live and settled down once again, on the Pettibone plantation.
The Sutpens became sharecroppers and there Thomas Sutpen learned the cruel lesson of social division. One day he went to deliver a message to the plantation house, but was turned away from the front door by a well-dressed African-American slave. He never forgot this humiliation. The rest of the Sutpen myth, and Sutpen’s “grand design” to build a plantation and be a patriarch himself, is an attempt to overcome this humiliation.
During his school years, Thomas Sutpen decided he would rather be a slave owner than be a slave. In school, he learned that people “made their fortunes” in the West Indies, so he took his chances and sailed there, where he defended a French plantation against a Haitian uprising. In doing so, he met and married the plantation owner’s daughter who, in a plot complication, both made him wealthy and provoked a dilemma. He discovered that she was part African herself, which meant that she could not help him to further his grand design of creating a racist economic system. Sutpen repudiated Eulalia Bon and divorced her, leaving her and their son in New Orleans. Sutpen himself moved on to Jefferson, Mississippi.
The chapter ends with the final tragic event in Sutpen’s life. After Miss Rosa refuses his proposition to try to have a son, Sutpen seduces Milly Jones, the granddaughter of his handyman, Wash Jones. When she gives birth, Sutpen rides to her shack to see if it is a male. Jones kills Sutpen with a scythe, and kills his granddaughter and the child as well.
In an ironic tragedy, the “demon” Thomas Sutpen is finally (and literally) mowed down by a man who resembles himself at the beginning of his life—a poor white with no real home. Thus, the story comes full circle, and the dreams of a “grand design” are ended abruptly and violently.
This chapter begins with Shreve’s narration again, but rapidly changes to Quentin’s memory of his father’s memory of his grandfather’s memory of Thomas Sutpen. Even though this seems confusing, the readers are finally given some real information about the motivation for Thomas Sutpen’s monstrous actions, and we are grateful.
Although the story is becoming clearer, Quentin experiences increasing confusion about his own identity. He confuses himself with Shreve and his father, just as Charles Etienne St. Velery Bon is confused about his race, and Thomas Sutpen is confused about his social standing. It is interesting again to note that this confusion may well reflect reality. Faulkner himself grew up in a family much like Quentin Compson’s, and his great-grandfather, William Clarke Falkner, evolved in much the same way as Thomas Sutpen. It’s not surprising that the identities are confused in this novel.
The background about Thomas Sutpen clarifies the various paradoxes in the evolution of the Sutpen clan. For instance, Sutpen makes his money from the start by racism. He marries a woman who is the recipient of a plantation fortune. He is surprised to discover that she is part African. Even though Sutpen tries to escape this paradox by repudiating her, his past comes back to haunt him when their son, Charles Bon, turns up at Sutpen’s Hundred. When Charles Bon is turned away, recalling the same manner as Thomas Sutpen was turned away from Pettibone’s door, the story begins again. There is no ending, only endless cycles of death, murder, and misery in this empire formed on the backs of slaves. The inescapable circularity of history is the ultimate tragedy of the Sutpen clan, and, by extension, it is the tragedy of the American South.
Of all the chapters, Chapter Seven is perhaps the easiest to understand and the most central to the Sutpen myth. Still, it is hard to read. Every time Faulkner gives the reader an edge of under¬standing the story, he takes it away again, as he brings back his multifaceted stream-of-consciousness narration technique.
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