Download Absalom, Absalom! Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Critical Overview

(Novels for Students)

At the time of its publication, Absalom, Absalom! encountered mixed responses to its unorthodox narrative structure. Some critics regarded the novel’s structure as overly confusing and involved, deeming it ineffective. Over time, however, scholars have come to universally commend Faulkner as a genius who was able to fuse content and form perfectly in this novel. The existing body of criticism covers virtually every aspect of the novel, from obvious themes and techniques to subtle relationships between characters and the psychological motivations behind the action of the story.

The structural complexity of the novel presents a unique set of challenges to the reader although critics regard time spent unraveling the novel well spent. David Minter of American Writers observed that Faulkner specialized in fragmented narratives that demonstrate little interest in traditional, continuous forms. “As a result,” Minter added, “the role of the reader would necessarily be enlarged and made more creative as well as more challenging.” The writer Cleanth Brooks commented in William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country that Absalom, Absalom! is Faulkner’s greatest work, but it is also the least understood because of the challenges in reading it. For this reason, Brooks maintained that the novel is highly subject to in- terpretation and thus can be meaningful to a wide audience. He noted:

The property of a great work, as T. S. Eliot remarked long ago, is to communicate before it is understood; and Absalom, Absalom! passes this test triumphantly. It has meant something very powerful and important to all sorts of people, and who is to say that, under the circumstances, this something was not the thing to be said to that particular reader?. . .Yet the book has its own rights, as it were, and in proportion as we admire it, we shall want to see not merely what we can make of it but what it makes of itself.

Scholars consider the regional elements of Absalom, Absalom! to be realistic and vibrant. In The Achievement of William Faulkner, Michael Millgate commented that the novel’s tragic power

derives both from this profoundly localized sense of social reality and from a poignant awareness of the proud and shameful history of the courageous, careless, gallant, and oppressive South. At the same time, to concentrate too exclusively on this aspect of his work is to be in danger of mistaking means for ends and of seeing Faulkner as a lesser figure than he really is.

Faulkner’s novel is not simply about the South, and critics readily praise the author’s ability to portray universal themes and experiences in the southern context he knew so well. In fact, some critics have marveled at Faulkner’s ability to portray such profound and universal ideas, given his isolated, regional background. Many critics admire the way Faulkner seamlessly wove his various themes together into a cohesive whole and made them relevant to modern life. Faulkner’s idea that history’s truths are not completely knowable was addressed by Brooks, who remarked:

Most important of all, however, Absalom, Absalom! is a persuasive commentary upon the thesis that much of ‘history’ is really a kind of imaginative construction. The past always remains at some level a mystery, but if we are to hope to understand it in any way, we must enter into it and project ourselves imaginatively into the attitudes and emotions of...

(The entire section is 855 words.)