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History and the Sense of the Tragic: Absalom, Absalom!

(Novels for Students)

Absalom, Absalom!, in my opinion the greatest of Faulkner’s novels, is probably the least well understood of all his books. 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?. . .

Harvey Breit’s sympathetic introduction to the Modern Library edition provides a useful—because it is not an extreme—instance of the typical misreading that I have in mind. Mr. Breit writes:

It is a terrible Gothic sequence of events, a brooding tragic fable. . . Was it the “design” that had devoured Sutpen and prevented him from avowing the very thing that would have saved the design? Was it something in the South itself, in its social, political, moral, economic origins that was responsible for Sutpen and for all the subsequent tragedy? Quentin can make no judgment: Sutpen himself had possessed courage and innocence, and the same land had nourished men and women who had delicacy of feeling and capacity for love and gifts for life.

These are questions which the typical reader asks. Shreve, the outsider, implies them. But it is significant that Quentin does not ask them. The questions are begged by the very way in which they are asked, for, put in this way, the questions undercut the problem of tragedy (which is the problem that obsesses Quentin). They imply that there is a social “solution.” And they misread Sutpen’s character in relation to his society and in relation to himself.

It is the quality of Sutpen’s innocence that we must understand if we are to understand the meaning of his tragedy, and if we confuse it with innocence as we ordinarily use the term or with even the typical American “innocence” possessed by, say, one of Henry James’s young heiresses as she goes to confront the corruption of Europe, we shall remain in the dark. Sutpen will be for us, as he was for Miss Rosa, simply the “demon”—or, since we lack the justification of Miss Rosa’s experience of personal horror, we shall simply appropriate the term from her as Shreve, in his half-awed, halfamused fashion, does.

Faulkner has been very careful to define Sutpen’s innocence for us. “Sutpen’s trouble,” as Quentin’s grandfather observed, “was innocence.” And some pages later, Mr. Compson elaborates the point: “He believed that all that was necessary was courage and shrewdness and the one he knew he had and the other he believed he could learn if it were to be taught.” It is this innocence about the nature of reality that persists, for Sutpen “believed that the ingredients of morality were like the ingredients of pie or cake and once you had measured them and balanced them and mixed them and put them into the oven it was all finished and nothing but pie or cake could come out.” That is why Sutpen can ask Quentin’s grandfather, in his innocence, not “Where did I do wrong” but “Where did I make the mistake. . . what did I do or misdo. . . whom or what injure by it to the extent which this would indicate? I had a design. To accomplish it I should require money, a house, a plantation, slaves, a family—incidentally of course, a wife. I set out to acquire these, asking no favor of any man.”

This is an “innocence” with which most of us today ought to be acquainted. It is par excellence the innocence of modern man, though it has not, to be sure, been confined to modern times. One can find more than a trace of it in Sophocles’ Oedipus, and it has its analogies with the rather brittle rationalism of Macbeth, though Macbeth tried to learn this innocence by an act of the will and proved to be a less than satisfactory pupil. But innocence of this sort can properly be claimed as a special characteristic of modern man, and one can claim...

(The entire section is 11,070 words.)