Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 813
Thomas Sutpen, the owner of Sutpen’s Hundred in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. Born of a poor white family in the mountains of Western Virginia, he grows up to become an ambitious man of implacable will. After his arrival in Mississippi, he thinks he can win his neighbors’ respect by building a huge mansion and marrying the daughter of a respectable merchant. When he is not driving his wild African slaves and a kidnapped French architect to finish construction of his magnificent house, he seeks relaxation by fighting his most powerful slaves. Wishing to found a family dynasty, he wants, more than anything else, to have a male heir. When one son is killed and the other disappears, Sutpen, now aging, fathers a child by Milly, the granddaughter of Wash Jones, one of his tenants. After learning that the child is a girl, he rejects and insults Milly. Because of his callous rejection, old Wash Jones kills him.
Ellen Coldfield, the wife chosen by Thomas Sutpen because he believes she is “adjunctive” to his design of founding a plantation family. A meek, helpless woman, she is completely dominated by her husband.
Henry Sutpen, the son born to Thomas and Ellen Sutpen. Unlike his sister Judith, he faints when he sees his father fighting with slaves. At first, not knowing that Charles Bon is also Sutpen’s son, impressionable Henry idolizes and imitates that suave young man. Later, after their return from the Civil War, he learns Bon’s true identity and kills him to keep Judith from marrying her half brother, who is part black.
Charles Bon, Thomas Sutpen’s unacknowledged son by his earlier marriage in Haiti. A polished man of the world, he forms a close friendship with the more provincial Henry, whom he meets at college, and he becomes engaged to Judith Sutpen. When the two return from the Civil War, Bon’s charming manner does not prevent him from being killed by Henry, who has learned that his friend and sister’s suitor is part black.
Judith Sutpen, Thomas Sutpen’s daughter. After Charles Bon has been killed and Henry flees, she vows never to marry. She dies of smallpox contracted while nursing Charles Bon’s wife.
Goodhue Coldfield, a middle-class storekeeper in the town of Jefferson, the father of Ellen and Rosa Coldfield. When the Civil War begins, he locks himself in his attic and disdainfully refuses to have any part in the conflict. Fed by Rosa, who sends him food that he pulls up in a basket, he dies alone in the attic.
Wash Jones, a squatter on Thomas Sutpen’s land and, after the Civil War, his drinking companion. While his employer is away during the Civil War, Wash looks after the plantation. Ignorant, unwashed, but more vigorous than others of his type, he serves Sutpen well until the latter rejects Milly and her child. Picking up a scythe, a symbol of time and change, Wash beheads Sutpen.
Rosa Coldfield, Goodhue Coldfield’s younger daughter. She is an old woman when she tells Quentin Compson that Sutpen, whom she calls a ruthless demon, brought terror and tragedy to all who had dealings with him. A strait-laced person, she recalls the abrupt, insulting fashion in which Sutpen had proposed to her in the hope that she would be able to bear him a son after his wife’s death. Never married, she is obsessed by memories of her brother-in-law.
Clytemnestra Sutpen, called Clytie, Thomas Sutpen’s former slave, who hides Henry Sutpen in the mansion when he returns, old and sick, years after the murder he committed. Fearing that he will be arrested, she sets fire to the house and burns herself and Henry in the conflagration, which destroys the dilapidated monument to Thomas Sutpen’s pride and folly.
Milly Jones, the granddaughter of Wash Jones. She and her child are killed by Wash after Sutpen’s murder.
Charles Etienne de Saint Velery Bon
Charles Etienne de Saint Velery Bon, the son of Charles Bon and his octoroon mistress. He dies of smallpox at Sutpen’s Hundred.
Jim Bond, the half-witted son of Charles Etienne de Saint Velery Bon and a full-blooded black woman. He is the only survivor of Sutpen’s family.
Quentin Compson, the anguished son of a decaying Southern family. Moody and morose, he tells the story of the Sutpens to his uncomprehending roommate at Harvard. Driven by personal guilt, he later commits suicide. Before leaving for Harvard, he learns about Thomas Sutpen from Rosa Coldfield.
Shrevlin McCannon, called Shreve, a Canadian student at Harvard and Quentin Compson’s roommate. With great curiosity but without much understanding, he listens to Quentin’s strange tale of Southern passions and tragedy.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2445
The story of Thomas Sutpen so captivated the people of Yoknapatawpha County that it took on the character of a living legend. The story is full of love and hate, terror and tragedy. It reveals human strengths and frailties so believable that Sutpen's life becomes a legacy. To the people of Yoknapatawpha County, the legacy began in 1833, when Sutpen arrived in Jefferson, Mississippi, as a mysterious stranger with no intent to reveal his past. No one in the town knows anything about this man for a long time, and when he disappears from Jefferson and then returns with a group of slaves and sets his sights on building a plantation, the townspeople begin to see their own lives change irrevocably in numerous ways.
Sutpen is an enigma in Jefferson, Mississippi, because he reveals nothing of his past life nor anything about how he acquired his wealth. For this reason the people of Jefferson view him with skepticism and even contempt for quite some time, which appears to reveal Faulkner's belief that Southerners are set in their ways and have difficulty accepting what goes against convention. But once Sutpen establishes his mansion, he marries Ellen Coldfield, the daughter of a respected citizen of Jefferson, and this gains him respect in the county. Sutpen and his wife raise two children, Henry and Judith, and before long gossip about this family and about Sutpen's Hundred, their ostentatious one-hundred-square-mile plantation, seems to dominate the town.
Sutpen's Hundred continues to be a topic of county gossip for years, and Faulkner uses it as a microcosm of Southern society. Southern society placed a high value on land ownership. In the nineteenth century, plantation owners ruled the South, and ownership of both land and people gave them license to do so. Thomas Sutpen built his plantation and worked toward creating his design for a perfect world. Then he attempted to make everything and everyone fit that design. The nature of ownership, as defined by Sutpen's dynasty, leaves no room for human emotion. Sutpen amasses a great deal of wealth, but in the process he comes to disregard the very values that led him to create his plantation in the first place.
The truth behind Sutpen's motivations remains buried in the past, and Faulkner uncovers it over the course of the novel. One of the primary themes in the novel is man's relationship to the past, a theme that emerges early as the mystery of Sutpen's life captivates the people of Yoknapatawpha County and sets the novel's tone. As the narrators of the story reveal more and more of Sutpen's story and delve further into history for explanations, the reader learns that Sutpen left Haiti and his wife Eulalia and child Charles Bon to come to Mississippi and start a new life. Sutpen abandoned his son when he learned that the boy's mother was part African. But this son, Charles Bon, eventually came to Mississippi to haunt his father and force him to acknowledge his past life and family. But Thomas Sutpen refuses and turns his son away at the door. Charles courted Judith, his half sister, and intended to force an acknowledgment of his birthright by making Thomas prevent the incest that would occur once his children married.
The facts of this story are disclosed in the first chapter of the book, and from there Faulkner proceeds to embellish the story with not so many factual details. The first five chapters of the novel take place one day in September 1909, just before Quentin Compson, one of Faulkner's four narrators, leaves for Harvard. The next four chapters take place later on, when Quentin and his roommate, Shreve McCannon, are in their dorm room at Harvard attempting to decipher the Sutpen story. It is not until the eighth chapter, when the novel reaches a climax, and the reader discovers the reason Thomas Sutpen is driven to establish his grand design: Sutpen was devastated from an experience he had as a child in Haiti when he was turned away by the Negro servant of a wealthy plantation owner. It was then Sutpen vowed to change his life, become an owner himself, and start a dynasty of his own.
This incident leads to an understanding of Faulkner's rejected child theme which he juxtaposes with the theme of retribution and the theme of the interconnectedness between past and present. Sutpen was born poor, and he was indeed devastated by being sent to the back door of the planter's house by a "monkey nigger." This incident makes him vow to amass great wealth and create his own dynasty, and to devote his life to his own design, though at the expense of everyone else. But if he seeks retribution for the injustice done to him by the servant of the black plantation owner, then he fails to see how his rejection of his son years later dooms his life to failure. Sutpen cannot make sense of his past because he is blinded by ambition and determined to become a member of the Southern aristocracy.
Parallel to Sutpen's drive for retribution, Charles Bon comes to Mississippi with a similar drive. It is Bon who is now rejected, when Sutpen dismisses his own son. Bon comes to Mississippi with the intention of marrying Judith, his half-sister, so he befriends Henry, his half-brother, and then begins to court Judith, pretending not to know of the relationship between them. Thomas Sutpen sees that the impending marriage will ruin his dynasty, yet he is a coward and can do nothing to rectify the situation without himself disrupting his perfect world. He refuses to recognize Bon, but tells his son Henry about his secret and lets Henry determine what course of action to follow. Henry kills Charles Bon to prevent incest and the miscegenation (the belief that whites should not marry or have children with members of another race).
The fact that Faulkner weaves the theme of man's relationship to the past with the theme of injustice reveals an essential truth about Southern culture. Past injustices continue to haunt Thomas Sutpen just as past injustices continue to haunt Southerners today; the crimes committed against the slaves can never be erased from Southern history. Guilt emerges as a primary theme in Faulkner's story and as a prominent emotion among the residents of Jefferson, Mississippi. Most of the characters in the novel suffer from guilt of some sort, partly as a result of their own evil doings and partly from the guilt they "inherited" from their ancestors who first became slaveholders.
Faulkner supports his theme of guilt by emphasizing the cruel treatment Southern plantation owners inflicted on their slaves. Slavery cannot help but be a big theme in a Southern novel because slavery does, in fact, characterize the nature of Southern ownership. Ownership, in the antebellum South, meant owning people as well as land. It meant exploiting people as well as the earth. Faulkner devotes much attention to the evils that result from the dehumanization of black people, and he creates in Thomas Sutpen a character who cannot recognize humanity because of his blind dedication to an abstract design. Sutpen is a cruel slaveholder who condones racism and thus dooms his design to failure. Readers are left to decipher the complex reasons why Sutpen's design fails, as well as to answer other questions that arise during the course of the novel.
Questions arise during the retelling of Sutpen's story because each of the four narrators, like everyone in Yoknapatawpha County, has their own take on what happened and why. Nothing is concrete because personal prejudices influence the townspeople's thoughts and feelings. Sutpen's mystery captivates the county, and gossip surrounds Judith and Henry as they grow up. By the time Charles Bon enters the picture and his life with Judith falls apart, each of the narrators has a different understanding of why Judith and Bon never married. They offer answers to this key question and to other questions that emerge, such as why Sutpen forbade the marriage, and why Henry killed Bon after appearing to stand up for him.
What readers must do as they read Absalom, Absalom!, and what the narrators must do as the novel progresses, is to order events and make sense of random pieces of information. The stories the narrators tell are to be considered but not taken as fact. This does not mean that the basic story these people tell is untrue, but simply that they each reveal a different side of the tale. The narrators of Faulkner's novel are Rosa Coldfield, the younger sister of Sutpen's wife Ellen; Jason Compson, an older, respected man in the county; Quentin Compson, Rosa Coldfield's young friend; and Shreve McCannon, a Northerner and Quentin's roommate at Harvard. Each of them has different reasons for arriving at the conclusions they do because Thomas Sutpen affected each of their lives in different ways. The structure of the narratives makes the book a psychological novel as well as a historical one, and it sheds light on the motivations of people as well as on the nature of Southern gossip. Because the accounts given by all of the narrators are biased and unreliable, Faulkner demonstrates that people's personal stories largely mold the course of history, and thus the reader must question whether it is ever possible to get a truly accurate account of history in the first place.
One of the questions that emerges in the novel is why Rosa Coldfield agrees to marry Sutpen and then later refuses. As the reader learns more about the circumstances surrounding her decision, there is the realization that Rosa's narration is unreliable because her view is tainted by Sutpen's proposal that they have a child before they marry. For Thomas Sutpen, Rosa Coldfield is simply a means to obtaining his goal, providing an heir to carry on the dynasty. It is with Miss Rosa's narration that readers begin to see an analogy between Sutpen's rise and fall with that of the South. Miss Rosa believes that with men like Sutpen in control, the South is bound to fail. She considers Sutpen lacking in honor and compassion. He exploits people like he exploits the land and thus has to suffer the consequences of the collapse of his dynasty.
The theme of exploitation molds Faulkner's characterization of Sutpen and defines his condemnation of Southern morals. Essentially, Sutpen puts the abstract notion of a perfect design before the concrete needs of the people around him. He chooses the life of a planter and thus becomes a natural exploiter, adopting the philosophy of production for profit and personal benefit. Thomas Sutpen exploits Rosa just as he exploited Milly Jones. He got Milly pregnant but abandoned her when she could not produce an heir for him. But he fails to see the consequences of his actions. Thomas Sutpen is unfeeling and unthinking and blind to the feelings of others. He has no imagination and remains so focused on his design that he cannot recognize how his actions will affect those around him. When Sutpen proposes to Rosa that they produce an heir before they marry, he does not foresee that this will cause her to reject him. When he rejects Milly Jones, Sutpen does not foresee that Walsh Jones will kill him in anger because of this. Charles Sutpen also fails to see the inevitability of the collapse of his dynasty and how his own failure to come to terms with the past can bring nothing but doom. With the killing of Charles, Henry disappears and the dynasty collapses. There will be no more heirs.
Absalom, Absalom! gives insight into the exploitation that defines the aristocratic South and which makes stories like Sutpen's living legends. The book is very much an analysis of Southern myths and their roots; for example, the myth of Southern hospitality, the myth of Southerners as aristocracy, and the myth of white supremacy. The roots of these myths are imbedded in history, and thus Faulkner makes the construction of these myths a primary theme. He uses all four of his narrators in the construction process, but the process becomes most noticeable as Quentin and Shreve tell their stories.
In the process of reconstructing the truths of the Sutpen story, Quentin and Shreve go through a laborious process. Not only does this process parallel the recreation of history and the birth of legend, it parallels the construction of a work of fiction. Quentin is a romantic figure, for Faulkner continually refers to his romantic nature. He knows some facts, but he romanticizes them, so as he and Shreve attempt to assimilate the facts, they use their imagination to draw conclusions. The process by which these boys arrive at their conclusion is crucial to understanding Faulkner's message. He wishes to convey the process of recreating history as an imaginative act, one colored by personal bias. Though the truths are there, locked in the past, these truths are not easily discovered and any meaning derived from them is subject to personal interpretation. The fact that all of the narrators' accounts are biased conveys the notion of historical materialism. For the historical materialist, reality is not learned but created. Sutpen and the other characters in the book create their own realities and thus see only a narrow view of the world.
Absalom, Absalom! is a book of such complexity that re-reading may be necessary in order to fully grasp Faulkner's themes. But Faulkner succeeds in creating a vibrant cast of characters whose lives have been ruined by their historical materialism and their heritage of slavery and racism. Thomas Sutpen is a legacy as the South itself is a legacy; and even in Rosa's view of Sutpen as a demon, he assumes heroic proportions. But there is nothing honorable about Sutpen's legacy, or, Faulkner seems to say, that of the South. Sutpen's honor is embodied in his design, and his design is doomed to failure. When, in chapter six, the reader learns of Sutpen's motive for moving to Mississippi and of his vows to rise above poverty, the reader also discovers that he intended to right the injustice done to him by the planters of Haiti by becoming an "upstanding" member of the Southern aristocracy. He planned to value humanity above personal prejudice. But Sutpen falls prey to the abject materialism of the aristocratic culture and can only fail in his pursuit of it. General Compson sees Sutpen's innocence as his weakness. Sutpen cannot assimilate his past experiences into his present life; therefore, he cannot understand how history has betrayed him. In this sense, he embodies the ideals of the Confederacy, attempting to move forward without looking back.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1593
Charles is Thomas Sutpen’s son by his Haitian wife. Although Sutpen abandons Charles and his mother, Charles’ path later crosses Sutpen’s when he attends law school with Sutpen’s son Henry, and the two become great friends. Charles falls in love with Henry’s sister, Judith, and they plan to marry, but their plans are interrupted by the Civil War. As Henry and Charles fight together, they learn more about each other. When Henry realizes that he and Charles are half-brothers, Charles refuses to tell his friend what he plans to do about his engagement to Judith. After the war, Charles tells Henry, quite nastily, that he is going to marry Judith, and Henry kills him immediately.
Charles wants only the slightest acknowledgement from Sutpen that he is his son but never gets it. Charles knows that his plan to marry Judith means that Sutpen will either have to accept him as a son-in-law or admit that he is his son to stop him from marrying his daughter. Although in life, Charles never receives the acknowledgement he wants from Sutpen, he is buried in the family plot. Charles Etienne Saint Valery Bon This character is Charles Bon’s son by a oneeighth black woman.
Jim is the mentally-handicapped son of Charles Etienne Saint Valery Bon (who is Charles Bon’s son) and his black wife. Jim is, in the end, the only survivor of Thomas Sutpen’s family.
Clytie (Clytemnestra) is the illegitimate daughter of Thomas Sutpen and a slave woman. She stays in the Sutpen house during and after the Civil War. When Henry returns, she thinks the law is chasing him for killing Charles, so she sets the house on fire, killing herself and Henry.
Ellen is Sutpen’s wife in Jefferson, Mississippi. She is proper and innocent with a disposition in stark contrast to her husband’s wild nature. She has two children with Sutpen, Henry and Judith. During the Civil War, she dies, and in her last moments, she asks her sister Rosa to protect Judith.
Goodhue is Ellen’s father. Thomas Sutpen chooses him as a father-in-law (perhaps more than he chooses Ellen as a wife) because of his righteousness and respectable standing in the community. There is some arrangement between Mr. Coldfield and Sutpen, the details of which are never revealed, but Mr. Coldfield apparently comes to regret it.
One of the novel’s narrators, Rosa is Ellen Coldfield’s sister. Rosa is twenty-seven years younger than Ellen, so she is closer in age to her niece Judith than to Ellen. When Mr. Coldfield dies, Rosa goes to live at Sutpen’s Hundred. After Ellen’s death, Sutpen asks Rosa to marry him. She agrees but is abandoned by Sutpen before they can marry. She lives the rest of her life bitter and alone and, in the end, she calls for Quentin so she can tell him Sutpen’s story.
Rosa starts out a typical, optimistic young woman, but the Civil War and the ruin of her family turn her into a resentful and lonely woman. In her youth, she was the town’s poetess laureate. Her mother, because of her age at the time of Rosa’s birth, died in childbirth, and Rosa resents her father for her mother’s death. Throughout her life, her focus is on her family, and as each member is taken away, she is forced further into solitude.
Quentin’s grandfather, General Compson was one of the first men in Jefferson to accept Thomas Sutpen into the community. Because he personally knew Sutpen, he tells his son Jason and his grandson Quentin much about him.
Mr. Jason Compson III
One of the novel’s narrators, Mr. Compson is Quentin’s father. His telling of the story reveals his deterministic and cynical views of the world. He admires Sutpen greatly and is struck by his failure. Compson imagines that if a courageous and hardworking man like Sutpen could fail so thoroughly, his pessimistic view of the world must be correct. Compson believes that fate and destiny rule the course of people’s lives and that there is little they can do to change the course set for them.
One of the novel’s narrators, Quentin is a student at Harvard who comes from the small town of Jefferson. Faulkner describes Quentin as a young man torn between two selves: an educated Harvard man full of promise and potential and a native of the South who has much in common with people like Rosa. He struggles to make sense of his southern heritage, and when asked by his roommate to tell about the South, Quentin tells Sutpen’s story. Because the Sutpen story is so integral to the town of Jefferson and, in Quentin’s mind, to the South, he searches the saga for answers to life’s questions.
Faulkner’s chronology at the end of the novel reveals that Quentin commits suicide just after the events of the novel.
Major de Spain
Major de Spain is the sheriff who investigates Sutpen’s murder. When he discovers that Wash Jones is responsible, the sheriff kills him.
Milly is Wash Jones’ fifteen-year-old granddaughter. Sutpen, who desperately wants a son, seduces her. When Milly has a girl, Sutpen insults her, and Wash kills Sutpen, Milly, and the child.
Wash is a poor man who is a squatter on Sutpen’s land during the Civil War. He is a great admirer of Sutpen, yet he kills Sutpen, Milly, and their child when Sutpen abuses Milly.
Quentin’s roommate at Harvard, Shreve (Shrevlin) not only listens to Quentin’s account of Sutpen but also tries to help Quentin fill in the blanks in the story. Because Shreve is Canadian, he has few preconceptions about the South and its history.
Eulalia Bon Sutpen
Eulalia is Thomas Sutpen’s wife in Haiti. She bears him a son, Charles, but when Thomas discovers that a small portion of her heritage is black, he leaves her and Charles in Haiti.
Henry is the son of Thomas Sutpen and Ellen Coldfield. When Henry attends law school, he befriends Charles Bon, who then falls in love with Henry’s sister Judith. Charles and Judith plan to marry, but the men are called to fight in the Civil War. Henry fights alongside Charles and discovers that he is the son Thomas Sutpen left behind in Haiti. This means that Charles is the half-brother of Henry and Judith. Despite Henry’s insistence on knowing how Charles plans to handle his engagement to Judith, Charles will not tell.
After the war, Henry returns to Sutpen’s Hundred with Charles, and as they approach the house, Charles reveals that he intends to marry Judith. Henry responds by immediately killing Charles and then running away. Many years later, Henry reappears at Sutpen’s Hundred, where he is taken in by his sister and Clytie. He later dies there.
Judith is the daughter of Thomas Sutpen and Ellen Coldfield. Judith has her father’s hardy nature and does not flinch at witnessing violence. When she meets her brother’s college friend Charles Bon, the two fall in love and plan to marry. Henry later kills Charles in front of the house, and Judith never marries.
Thomas Sutpen is the main figure in the story that is retold throughout the novel. Many critics note that Sutpen represents the work ethic of the South, along with its decline and failures. Sutpen comes from a poor family and is unconcerned with wealth until one day when he takes a message to a large estate. The uniformed servant informs him that he should go to the back entrance on future visits. After this incident, Sutpen decides that, some day, he will own a large estate and be in a position to tell people to go to the back. Part of his master plan is to have sons, a preoccupation that leads to ruin. (One son kills another, and the killer later dies in Sutpen’s mansion; Sutpen’s anger at not having a son by Milly brings about Sutpen’s own death.)
As a young man, Sutpen travels to Haiti, where he marries a plantation owner’s daughter, and they have a son. When he learns that his wife has remote black ancestry, he disowns her and their son. He returns to the United States, where he chooses Jefferson, Mississippi, as the site for his mansion in the wilderness. With the help of a French architect and a group of “wild” slaves (presumably from Haiti), Sutpen clears land and builds an estate that he names Sutpen’s Hundred. Next, he marries into a respectable family and has two children, Henry and Judith.
Sutpen is a power-hungry man who seeks to create and control his environment. When he leaves to fight in the Civil War, he soon becomes his unit’s leader. Upon returning to Sutpen’s Hundred after the war, he finds his estate in ruins and his slaves gone. Further, his wife has died, and his son has run away after killing Charles Bon. Although he crudely asks his wife’s sister to marry him, he abandons her and seduces the teenaged granddaughter of a poor man living on his land. She bears him a child, but not the son Sutpen wants. His cruelty to the girl provokes her father to kill him.
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