Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1106

Absalom, Absalom! is the most involved of William Faulkner’s works, for the narrative is revealed by recollections years after the events described have taken place. Experience is related at its fullest expression; its initial import is recollected, and its significance years thereafter is faithfully recorded. The conventional method of storytelling is discarded. Through his special method, Faulkner re-creates human action and human emotion in their own setting. Sensory impressions gained at the moment, family traditions as powerful stimuli, the tragic impulses—these focus in the reader’s mind so that a tremendous picture of the nineteenth century South, vivid down to the most minute detail, grows slowly in the reader’s imagination.

This novel is Faulkner’s most comprehensive attempt to come to terms with the full implications of the southern experience. The structure of the novel, itself an attempt by its various narrators to make some sense of the seemingly chaotic past, is indicative of the multifaceted complexity of that experience, and the various narrators’ relationship to the material suggests the difficulty that making order of the past entails. Each narrator has, to begin with, only part of the total picture—and some parts of that hearsay or conjecture—at his disposal, and each narrator’s response is conditioned by individual experience and background. Thus, Miss Rosa’s idea of Sutpen depends equally upon her Calvinist background and her failure to guess why Henry Sutpen killed Charles Bon. Quentin’s father responds with an ironic detachment, conditioned by his insistence upon viewing the fall of the South as the result of the workings of an inevitable fate. As Quentin and Shreve do, the reader must attempt to coordinate the various partial histories of the Sutpen family into a meaningful whole—with the added irony that the reader must also deal with Quentin’s romanticism. In effect, the reader becomes another investigator, one whose concern is with the entire scope of the novel rather than with only the Sutpen family.

At the heart of the novel is Thomas Sutpen and his grand design, and the reader’s comprehension of the meaning of the novel depends upon the discovery of the implications of this design. Unlike the chaos of history the narrators perceive, Sutpen’s design would, by its nature, reduce human history and experience to a mechanical and passionless process that he could control. The irony of Sutpen’s failure lies in the fact that he could not achieve the design precisely because he is unable to exclude such human elements as Charles Bon’s need for his father’s love and recognition. Faulkner, however, gains more than this irony from his metaphor of design. In effect, Sutpen’s design is based upon a formula of the antebellum South that reduces the South to essentials. It encompasses the plantation, the slaves, the wife and family—all the external trappings of the plantation aristocracy that Sutpen, as a small boy from the mountains, saw in his first encounter with this foreign world.

Sutpen, who never really becomes one of the aristocracy that his world tries to mirror, manages, by excluding the human element from his design, to reflect only what is worst in the South. Unmitigated by human emotion and values, southern society is revealed to have at its heart the simple fact of possession: of the land, of the slaves, and of the wife and children. Thus, Faulkner demonstrates that the urge to possess is the fundamental evil from which other evils spring. Sutpen, trying to insulate himself from the pain of rejection that he encountered as a child, is driven almost mad by the need to possess the semblance of the world that denies his humanity, but in his obsession, he loses that humanity.

Once the idea of the design and the principle of possession in Absalom, Absalom! is established, Sutpen’s treatment both of Charles Bon and Bon’s mother is more easily understood. In Sutpen’s distorted mind, what is possessed can also be thrown away if it does not fit the design. Like certain other Faulkner characters—Benjy of The Sound and the Fury (1929) being the best example—Sutpen is obsessed with the need to establish a perfect order in the world into which he will fit. His first vision of tidewater Virginia, after leaving the timeless anarchy of the mountains, was the sight of perfectly ordered and neatly divided plantations, and, like a chick imprinted by its first contact, Sutpen spends his life trying to create a world that imitates that order. He also seeks to establish a dynasty that will preserve that order. His rejection of Bon is essentially emotionless, mechanical, and even without rancor because Bon’s blackness simply excludes him from the design. Similarly, the proposal that Rosa have his child to prove herself worthy of marriage and the rejection of Milly when she bears a female child are also responses dictated by the design. Thus, Sutpen, and all those whose lives touch his, ultimately become victims of the mad design he created. Sutpen, however, is not its final victim: The curse of the design lives on into the present in James Bond, the last of Sutpen’s bloodline.

Sutpen’s rejection of Charles Bon and the consequences of that rejection are at the thematic center of Absalom, Absalom! In the fact that Bon is rejected for the taint of “black blood,” Faulkner clearly points to the particularly southern implication of his story. Bon must be seen, on one level, to represent the human element within southern society that cannot be assimilated and will not be ignored. Faulkner implies that the system, which inhumanely denies the human rights and needs of some of its children, dehumanizes all it touches—master and victim alike. In asserting himself to demand the only recognition he can gain from his father—and that only at second hand through Henry—Bon makes of himself an innocent sacrifice to the sin upon which the South was founded. His death also dramatizes the biblical admonition relevant to Absalom, Absalom!: A house divided against itself cannot stand.

Sutpen’s history is a metaphor of the South, and his rise and fall is southern history written in one person’s experience. The Sutpens, however, are not the only victims in the novel. The narrators, too, are the victims of the southern experience, and each of them seeks in Sutpen’s history some clue to the meaning of his or her own relationship to the fall of the South. Their narratives seek to discover the designs that will impose some order on the chaos of the past.

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