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

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9275

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 further that it flourishes particularly in a secularized society.

The society into which Sutpen rides in 1833 is not a secularized society. That is not to say that the people are necessarily “good.” They have their selfishness and cruelty and their snobbery, as men have always had them. Once Sutpen has acquired enough wealth and displayed enough force, the people of the community are willing to accept him. But they do not live by his code, nor do they share his innocent disregard of accepted values. Indeed, from the beginning they regard him with deep suspicion and some consternation. These suspicions are gradually mollified; there is a kind of acceptance; but as Quentin tells Shreve, Sutpen had only one friend, Quentin’s grandfather, General Compson, and this in spite of the fact that the society of the lower South in the nineteenth century was rather fluid and that class lines were flexible. Men did rise in one generation from log cabins to great landed estates. But the past was important, blood was important, and Southern society thought of itself as traditional.

That Sutpen does remain outside the community comes out in all sorts of little ways. Mr. Compson describes his “florid, swaggering gesture” with the parenthetical remark: “yes, he was underbred. It showed like this always, your grandfather said, in all his formal contacts with people.”. . . Yet though Sutpen’s manners have been learned painfully, Sutpen has complete confidence in them. “He may have believed that your grandfather or Judge Benbow might have done it a little more effortlessly than he, but he would not have believed that anyone could have beat him in knowing when to do it and how.”

Mr. Compson is not overrating the possession of mere manners. More is involved than Miss Rosa’s opinion that Sutpen was no gentleman, for Sutpen’s manners indicate his abstract approach to the whole matter of living. Sutpen would seize upon “the traditional” as a pure abstraction— which, of course, is to deny its very meaning. For him the tradition is not a way of life “handed down” or “transmitted” from the community, past and present, to the individual nurtured by it. It is an assortment of things to be possessed, not a manner of living that embodies certain values and determines men’s conduct. The fetish objects are to be gained by sheer ruthless efficiency. (Sutpen even refers to “my schedule.”) Thorstein Veblen would have understood Sutpen’s relation to traditional culture. . . The New York robber baron’s acquiring a box at the opera did not usually spring from a love of music, and one is tempted to say that Sutpen’s unwillingness to acknowledge Charles Bon as his son does not spring from any particular racial feeling. Indeed, Sutpen’s whole attitude toward the Negro has to be reinspected if we are to understand his relation to the Southern community into which he comes.

It would seem that the prevailing relation between the races in Jefferson is simply one more of the culture traits which Sutpen takes from the plantation community into which he has come as a boy out of the mountains of western Virginia. Sutpen takes over the color bar almost without personal feeling. His attitude toward the Negro is further clarified by his attitude toward his other part- Negro child, Clytie. Mr. Compson once casually lets fall the remark that Sutpen’s other children “Henry and Judith had grown up with a negro half sister of their own.” The context of Mr. Compson’s remarks makes it perfectly plain that Henry and Judith were well aware that Clytie was indeed their half-sister, and that Clytie was allowed to grow up in the house with them. This fact in itself suggests a lack of the usual Southern feeling about Negroes.

After Sutpen has returned from the war, Clytie sits in the same room with Judith and Rosa and Sutpen and listens each evening to the sound of Sutpen’s voice. When Sutpen proposes to Rosa, he begins, “‘Judith, you and Clytie—’ and ceased, still entering, then said, ‘No, never mind. Rosa will not mind if you both hear it too, since we are short for time.’” Clytie is accepted naturally as part of the “we.” She can be so accepted because acceptance on this level does not imperil Sutpen’s “design.” But acceptance of Charles Bon, in Sutpen’s opinion, would. For Sutpen the matter is really as simple as that. He does not hate his first wife or feel repugnance for her child. He does not hate just as he does not love. His passion is totally committed to the design. . .

As for slavery, Sutpen does not confine himself to black chattel slavery. He ruthlessly bends anyone that he can to his will. The white French architect whom he brings into Yoknapatawpha County to build his house is as much a slave as any of his black servants: Sutpen hunts him down with dogs when he tries to escape.

The trait that most decisively sets Sutpen apart from his neighbors in this matter of race is his fighting with his slaves. Sutpen is accustomed to stripping to the waist and fighting it out with one of his slaves, not with rancor, one supposes, and not at all to punish the slave, but simply to keep fit—to prove to himself and incidentally to his slaves that he is the better man. Some of Sutpen’s white neighbors come to watch the fights as they might come to watch a cockfight. But it is significant that they come as to something extraordinary, a show, an odd spectacle; they would not think of fighting with their own slaves. To Miss Rosa, Sutpen’s sister-inlaw, the ultimate horror is that Sutpen not only arranges the show but that he enters the ring himself and fights with no holds barred—not even eyegouging.

Sutpen is not without morality or a certain code of honor. He is, according to his own lights, a just man. As he told Quentin’s grandfather with reference to his rejection of his first wife:

suffice that I. . . accepted [my wife] in good faith, with no reservations about myself, and I expected as much from [her parents]. I did not [demand credentials] as one of my obscure origin might have been expected to do. . . I accepted them at their own valuation while insisting on my part upon explaining fully about myself and my progenitors: yet they de- liberately withheld from me one fact which I have reason to know they were aware would have caused me to decline the entire matter.

But Sutpen, as he tells General Compson, “made no attempt to keep. . . that [property] which I might consider myself to have earned at the risk of my life. . . but on the contrary I declined and resigned all right and claim to this in order that I might repair whatever injustice I might be considered to have done [in abandoning my wife and child] by so providing for” them.

Moreover, Sutpen is careful to say nothing in disparagement of his first wife. Quentin’s grandfather comments upon “that morality which would not permit him to malign or traduce the memory of his first wife, or at least the memory of the marriage even though he felt that he had been tricked by it.” It is Sutpen’s innocence to think that justice is enough—that there is no claim that cannot be satisfied by sufficient money payment. Quentin imagines his grandfather exclaiming to Sutpen: “What kind of abysmal and purblind innocence would that have been which someone told you to call virginity? what conscience to trade with which would have warranted you in the belief that you could have bought immunity from her for no other coin but justice?”

Sutpen thinks of himself as strictly just and he submits all of his faculties almost selflessly to the achievement of his design. His attitude toward his second wife conforms perfectly to this. Why does he choose her? For choose he does: he is not chosen— that is, involved with her through passion. The choice is calculated quite coldbloodedly (if, to our minds, naïvely and innocently). Ellen Coldfield is not the daughter of a planter. She does not possess great social prestige or beauty and she does not inherit wealth. But as the daughter of a steward in the Methodist church, she possesses in high degree the thing that Sutpen most obviously lacks—respectability. Mr. Compson sees the point very clearly. He describes Mr. Coldfield as “a man with a name for absolute and undeviating and even Puritan uprightness in a country and time of lawless opportunity, who neither drank nor gambled nor even hunted.” For Sutpen, respectability is an abstraction like morality: you measure out so many cups of concentrated respectability to sweeten so many measures of disrespectability—“like the ingredients of pie or cake.”

The choice of a father-in-law is, in fact, just as symbolically right: the two men resemble each other for all the appearance of antithetical differences. Mr. Coldfield is as definitely set off from the community as is Sutpen. With the coming of the Civil War, this rift widens to an absolute break. Mr. Coldfield denounces secession, closes his store, and finally nails himself up in the attic of his house, where he spends the last three years of his life. No more than Sutpen is he a coward; like Sutpen, too, his scheme of human conduct is abstract and mechanical. “Doubtless the only pleasure which he had ever had. . . was in [his money’s] representation of a balance in whatever spiritual counting- house he believed would some day pay his sight drafts on self-denial and fortitude.”

This last is Mr. Compson’s surmise; but I see no reason to question it or to quarrel with the motive that Mr. Compson assigns for Coldfield’s objection to the Civil War: “not so much to the idea of pouring out human blood and life, but at the idea of waste: of wearing out and eating up and shooting away material in any cause whatever.” Mr. Coldfield is glad when he sees the country that he hates obviously drifting into a fatal war, for he regards the inevitable defeat of the South as the price it will pay for having erected its economic edifice “not on the rock of stern morality but on the shifting sands of opportunism and moral brigandage.”

Some critics have been so unwary as to assume that this view of the Civil War is one that the author would enjoin upon the reader, but William Faulkner is neither so much of a Puritan nor so much of a materialist as is Mr. Coldfield. The truth of the matter is that Mr. Coldfield’s morality is simply Sutpen’s turned inside out. Faulkner may or may not have read Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism; but on the evidence of Absalom, Absalom! he would certainly have understood it.

Sutpen is further defined by his son, Charles Bon. Bon is a mirror image, a reversed shadow of his father. Like his father, he suddenly appears out of nowhere as a man of mystery: “a personage who in the remote Mississippi of that time must have appeared almost phoenix-like, fullsprung from no childhood, born of no woman and impervious to time.” Like his father, Bon has an octoroon “wife,” whom he is prepared to repudiate along with his child by her. Like his father, he stands beyond good and evil. But Bon is Byronic, rather than the gogetter, spent, rather than full of pushing vitality, sophisticated, rather than confidently naïve.

Sutpen is the secularized Puritan; Bon is the lapsed Roman Catholic. Whereas Sutpen is filled with a fresh and powerful energy, Bon is worldweary and tired. Bon is a fatalist, but Sutpen be- lieves in sheer will: “anyone could look at him and say, Given the occasion and the need, this man can and will do anything.” Bon possesses too much knowledge; Sutpen on the other hand is “innocent.” The one has gone beyond the distinction between good and evil; the other has scarcely arrived at that distinction. The father and the son define the extremes of the human world: one aberration corresponds to—and eventually destroys—the other. The reader is inclined to view Bon with sympathy as a person gravely wronged, and he probably agrees with Quentin’s interpretation of Bon’s character: that Bon finally put aside all ideas of revenge and asked for nothing more than a single hint of recognition of his sonship. Faulkner has certainly treated Bon with full dramatic sympathy—as he has Sutpen, for that matter. But our sympathy ought not to obscure for us Bon’s resemblances to his father, or the complexity of his character. Unless we care to go beyond Quentin and Shreve in speculation, Charles Bon displays toward his octoroon mistress and their son something of the cool aloofness that his father displays toward him. If he is the instrument by which Sutpen’s design is wrecked, his own irresponsibility (or at the least, his lack of concern for his own child) wrecks his child’s life. We shall have to look to Judith to find responsible action and a real counter to Sutpen’s ruthlessness.

These other children of Sutpen—Judith and Henry—reflect further light upon the character of Sutpen—upon his virtues and upon his prime defect. They represent a mixture of the qualities of Sutpen and Coldfield. Judith, it is made plain, has more of the confidence and boldness of her father; Henry, more of the conventionality and the scruples of his maternal grandfather. It is the boy Henry who vomits at the sight of his father, stripped to the waist in the ring with the black slave. Judith watches calmly. And it is Judith who urges the coachman to race the coach on the way to church.

Henry is, of the two, the more vulnerable. After Sutpen has forbidden marriage between Bon and Judith and during the long period in which Henry remains self-exiled with his friend Bon, he is the one tested to the limit by his father’s puzzling silence and by his friend’s fatalistic passivity. But he has some of his father’s courage, and he has what his father does not have: love. At the last moment he kills, though he kills what he loves and apparently for love. It is the truly tragic dilemma.

Faulkner has not chosen to put Henry’s story in the forefront of the novel, but he has not needed to do so. For the sensitive reader the various baffles through which that act of decision reaches us do not muffle but, through their resonance, magnify the decisive act.

Henry’s later course is, again, only implied. We know that in the end—his last four years—he reverted to the course of action of his grandfather Coldfield, and shut himself up in the house. But there is a difference. This is no act of abstract defiance and hate. Henry has assumed responsibility, has acted, has been willing to abide the consequences of that action, and now, forty years later, has come home to die.

If it is too much to call Henry’s course of action renunciation and expiation, there is full justification for calling Judith’s action just that. Judith has much of her father in her, but she is a woman, and she also has love. As Mr. Compson conjectures:

And Judith: how else to explain her but this way? Surely Bon could not have corrupted her to fatalism in twelve days. . . No: anything but a fatalist, who was the Sutpen with the ruthless Sutpen code of taking what it wanted provided it were strong enough. . . [Judith said] I love, I will accept no substitute; something has happened between him and my father; if my father was right, I will never see him again, if wrong he will come or send for me; if happy I can be I will, if suffer I must I can.

It is Judith who invites Charles Bon’s octoroon mistress to visit Bon’s grave. It is Judith who, on his mother’s death, sends to New Orleans for Bon’s son and tries to rear him. Some years later she also tries to free him (as Quentin conjectures) by promising to take care of his Negro wife and child if he will go to the North to pass as white, and Quentin imagines her saying to him: “Call me Aunt Judith, Charles.” But Quentin’s conjectures aside, we know that Judith did take him into the house when he was stricken with yellow fever, and that she died nursing him. The acknowledgment of blood kinship is made; Sutpen’s design is repudiated; the boy, even though he has the “taint” of Negro blood, is not turned away from the door.

Both Henry’s action, the violent turning away from the door with a bullet, and Judith’s, the holding open the door not merely to Bon, her fiancé, but literally to his part-Negro son, are human actions, as Sutpen’s actions are not. Both involve renunciation, and both are motivated by love. The suffering of Henry and Judith is not meaningless, and their very capacity for suffering marks them as having transcended their father’s radical and disabling defect. . .

One must not alter the focus of the novel by making wisdom won through suffering the issue. But the consequences entailed upon Judith and Henry have to be mentioned if only to discourage a glib Gothicizing of the novel or forcing its meaning into an overshallow sociological interpretation.

Miss Rosa feels that the Coldfields are all cursed; and certainly the impact of Sutpen upon her personally is damning: she remains rigid with horror and hate for forty-three years. But it is Miss Rosa only who is damned. Judith is not damned; nor am I sure that Henry is. Judith and Henry are not caught in an uncomprehending stasis. There is development: they grow and learn at however terrible a price. . .

Sutpen, as has been pointed out, never learns anything; he remains innocent to the end. As Quentin sees the character: when Charles Bon first comes to his door, Sutpen does not call it “retribution, no sins of the father come home to roost; not even calling it bad luck, but just a mistake. . . just an old mistake in fact which a man of courage and shrewdness. . . could still combat if he could only find out what the mistake had been.” I have remarked that Sutpen’s innocence is peculiarly the innocence of modern man. For like modern man, Sutpen does not believe in Jehovah. He does not believe in the goddess Tyche. He is not the victim of bad luck. He has simply made a “mistake.” He “had been too successful,” Mr. Compson tells Quentin; his “was that solitude of contempt and distrust which success brings to him who gained it because he was strong instead of merely lucky.”. . . Sutpen resembles the modern American, whose character, as Arthur M. Schlesinger has put it, “is bottomed on the profound conviction that nothing in the world is beyond [his] power to accomplish.” Sutpen is a “planner” who works by blue-print and on a schedule. He is rationalistic and scientific, not traditional, not religious, not even superstitious.

We must be prepared to take such traits into account if we attempt to read the story of Sutpen’s fall as a myth of the fall of the Old South. Unless we are content with some rather rough and ready analogies, the story of the fall of the house of Sutpen may prove less than parallel. The fall of the house of Compson as depicted in The Sound and the Fury is also sometimes regarded as a kind of exemplum of the fall of the old aristocratic order in the South, and perhaps in some sense it is. But the breakup of these two families comes from very different causes, and if we wish to use them to point a moral or illustrate a bit of social history, surely they point to different morals and illustrate different histories. Mr. Compson, whose father, General Compson, regarded Sutpen as a “little underbred,” has failed through a kind of overrefinement. He has lost his grip on himself; he has ceased finally to believe in the values of the inherited tradition. He is a fatalist and something of an easy cynic. His vices are diametrically opposed to those of Thomas Sutpen, and so are his virtues. . . Indeed, Sutpen is at some points more nearly allied to Flem than he is to the Compsons and the Sartorises. Like Flem, he is a new man with no concern for the past and has a boundless energy with which to carry out his aggressive plans.

Yet to couple Sutpen with Flem calls for an immediate qualification. Granting that both men subsist outside the community and in one way or another prey upon the community, Sutpen is by contrast a heroic and tragic figure. He achieves a kind of grandeur. Even the obsessed Miss Rosa sees him as great, not as petty and sordid. His innocence resembles that of Oedipus (who, like him, had been corrupted by success and who put his confidence in his own shrewdness). His courage resembles that of Macbeth, and like Macbeth he is “resolute to try the last.”. . .

Up to this point we have been concerned with the character of Thomas Sutpen, especially in his relation to the claims of the family and the community. We have treated him as if he were a historical figure, but of course he is not. More than most characters in literature, Thomas Sutpen is an imaginative construct, a set of inferences—an hypothesis put forward to account for several peculiar events. For the novel Absalom, Absalom! does not merely tell the story of Thomas Sutpen, but dramatizes the process by which two young men of the twentieth century construct the character Thomas Sutpen. Fascinated by the few known events of his life and death, they try, through inference and conjecture and guesswork, to ascertain what manner of man he was. The novel, then, has to do not merely with the meaning of Sutpen’s career but with the nature of historical truth and with the problem of how we can “know” the past. The importance of this latter theme determines the very special way in which the story of Sutpen is mediated to us through a series of partial disclosures, informed guesses, and constantly revised deductions and hypotheses.

Young Quentin Compson, just on the eve of leaving Mississippi for his first year at Harvard, is summoned by Miss Rosa Coldfield and made to listen to the story of her wicked brother-in-law, Thomas Sutpen. Sutpen had been a friend of Quentin’s grandfather, General Compson, and as Quentin waits to drive Miss Rosa out to Sutpen’s Hundred after dark, as she has requested, Quentin’s father tells him what he knows about the Sutpen story.

Nobody had really understood the strange events that had occurred at Sutpen’s Hundred—the quarrel between Thomas Sutpen and Henry, the disappearance of Henry with his friend Charles Bon, the forbidding of the marriage between Judith and Bon, and later, and most sensational of all, Henry’s shooting of his friend Charles Bon at the very gates of Sutpen’s Hundred in 1865. Mr. Compson makes a valiant effort to account for what happened. What evidently sticks in his mind is the fact that Charles Bon had an octoroon mistress in New Orleans. Presumably Judith had told General Compson or his wife about finding the octoroon’s picture on Charles Bon’s dead body. But in any case the visit, at Judith’s invitation, of the woman to Charles Bon’s grave would have impressed the whole relationship upon General Compson and upon his son, Mr. Compson. Mr. Compson thinks that it was the fact of the mistress that made Thomas Sutpen oppose Bon’s marriage to his daughter, but that Henry was so deeply committed to his friend that he refused to believe what his father told him about Bon’s mistress, chose to go away with Charles, and only at the very end, when Charles Bon was actually standing before his father’s house, used the gun to prevent the match.

It is not a very plausible theory. For, though it could account for Sutpen’s opposition to Bon, it hardly explains Henry’s violent action, taken so late in the day. Mr. Compson does the best that he can with this aspect of the story and says: “[Henry] loved grieved and killed, still grieving and, I believe, still loving Bon, the man to whom he gave four years of probation, four years in which to renounce and dissolve the other marriage, knowing that the four years of hoping and waiting would be in vain.” But Mr. Compson has to concede that, after all, “it’s just incredible. It just does not explain. . . Something is missing.”

Quentin’s other informant about the Sutpens is Miss Rosa Coldfield, Sutpen’s sister-in-law. Miss Rosa clearly does not understand what happened. She exclaims that “Judith’s marriage [was] forbidden without rhyme or reason,” and her only theory for accounting for the murder is that Sutpen was a demon, and as a demon, dowered his children with a curse which made them destroy themselves. Even Judith evidently did not know why her marriage was forbidden nor did she know why her brother killed Charles Bon. After the murder and Henry’s flight, Judith tells Mrs. Compson, the General’s wife, that the war will soon be over now because “they [the Confederate soldiers] have begun to shoot one another.” The remark indicates her bafflement as well as her despair.

By the time we have reached the end of section 5—that is, halfway through the book—we have been given most of the basic facts of the Sutpen story but no satisfactory interpretation of it. We know the story of Sutpen’s life in the Mississippi community pretty much as the community itself knew it, but the events do not make sense. The second half of the book may be called an attempt at interpretation. When section 6 opens, we are in Quentin’s room at Harvard and Quentin is reading a letter from his father telling about the death of Miss Rosa Coldfield. From this time on until past midnight, Quentin and Shreve discuss the story of Sutpen and make their own conjectures as to what actually happened. In this second half of the book there are, to be sure, further disclosures about Sutpen, especially with reference to his early life before he came to Mississippi. Sutpen, it turns out, had once told the story of his early life to General Compson, and his information had been passed on to Quentin through Mr. Compson. As Shreve and Quentin talk, Quentin feeds into the conversation from time to time more material from his father’s and grandfather’s memory of events, and one very brilliant scene which he himself remembers: how, hunting quail on a gray autumn day, he and his father came upon the graves in the Sutpen family graveyard and his father told him the touching story of Judith’s later life. But as the last four sections of the book make plain, we are dealing with an intricate imaginative reconstruction of events leading up to the murder of Charles Bon—a plausible account of what may have happened, not what necessarily did happen.

If the reader reminds himself how little hard fact there is to go on—how much of the most important information about the motivation of the central characters comes late and is, at best, vague and ambiguous—he will appreciate how much of the story of Sutpen and especially of Sutpen’s children has been spun out of the imaginations of Quentin and Shreve.

Absalom, Absalom! is, indeed, from one point of view a wonderful detective story—by far the best of Faulkner’s several flirtations with this particular genre. It may also be considered to yield a nice in- stance of how the novelist works, for Shreve and Quentin both show a good deal of the insights of the novelist and his imaginative capacity for constructing plausible motivations around a few given facts. . . 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 wise, we must enter into it and project ourselves imaginatively into the attitudes and emotions of the historical figures. . .

To note that the account of the Sutpens which Shreve and Quentin concoct is largely an imaginative construct is not to maintain that it is necessarily untrue. Their version of events is plausible, and the author himself—for whatever that may be worth—suggests that some of the scenes which they palpably invented were probably true: e.g., “the slight dowdy woman. . . whom Shreve and Quentin had. . . invented” and who was probably “true enough.” But it is worth remarking that we do not “know,” apart from the Quentin-Shreve semifictional process, many events which a casual reader assumes actually happened. To provide some illustrations: Charles Bon’s telling Henry “So it’s the miscegenation, not the incest, which you cant bear” is a remark that rests upon no known fact. It is a conjecture, though a plausible one. Again, Bon’s agonized waiting for his father to give him the merest hint of a father’s recognition and Bon’s comment that this was all that Sutpen needed to do to stop his courtship of Judith are both surmises made by Quentin and Shreve. So too is the scene in which the boys imagine the visit of Bon and Henry to New Orleans and hear Bon’s mother’s bitter question, “So she [Judith] has fallen in love with him,” and listen to her harsh laughter as she looks at Henry. The wonderfully touching scene in which Judith asks Charles Bon’s son to call her “Aunt Judith” is presumably an imaginative construction made by Quentin.

One ought to observe in passing that in allowing the boys to make their guesses about what went on, Faulkner plays perfectly fair. Some of their guesses have the clear ring of truth. They are obviously right. On the other hand, some are justified by the flimsiest possible reasoning. For example, notice Shreve’s argument that it was Henry, not Bon, who was wounded at the battle of Shiloh.

One of the most important devices used in the novel is the placing of Shreve in it as a kind of sounding board and mouthpiece. By doing so, Faulkner has in effect acknowledged the attitude of the modern “liberal,” twentieth century reader, who is basically rational, skeptical, without any special concern for history, and pretty well emancipated from the ties of family, race, or section. . .

Shreve teases Quentin playfully and even affectionately, but it is not mere teasing. When Shreve strikes a pose and in his best theatrical manner assigns a dramatic speech to Wash, Faulkner, in one of his few intrusions as author, observes: “This was not flippancy. . . It too was just that protective coloring of levity behind which the youthful shame of being moved hid itself.”. . .

The last sections of the novel tell us a great deal about Shreve’s and Quentin’s differing attitudes toward history and of their own relation to history. Shreve has been genuinely moved by the story of Sutpen. For all of his teasing, he is concerned to understand, and late in the evening he says to Quentin: “Listen. I’m not trying to be funny, smart. I just want to understand it if I can and I dont know how to say it better. Because it’s something my people haven’t got.” And though he cannot suppress his bantering tone in alluding to the Southern heritage—it is “a kind of entailed birthright. . . of never forgiving General Sherman, so that forevermore as long as your children’s children produce children you wont be anything but a descendant of a long line of colonels killed in Pickett’s charge”—Shreve’s question is seriously put. What is it that Quentin as a Southerner has that Shreve does not have? It is a sense of the presence of the past, and with it, and through it, a personal access to a tragic vision. For the South has experienced defeat and guilt, and has an ingrained sense of the stubbornness of human error and of the complexity of history. The matter has been recently put very well in C. Vann Woodward’s The Burden of Southern History: “The experience of evil and the experience of tragedy,” he writes, “are parts of the Southern heritage that are as difficult to reconcile with the American legend of innocence and social felicity as the experience of poverty and defeat are to reconcile with the legends of abundance and success.”

In remarking on how little of hard fact one has to go on, we should bear in mind particularly the question of Bon’s Negro blood and of his kinship to Henry. Quentin says flatly that “nobody ever did know if Bon ever knew Sutpen was his father or not.” Did anyone ever know whether Bon knew that he was part Negro? In their reconstruction of the story, Shreve and Quentin assume that Bon was aware that he was Henry’s part-Negro half-brother (though a few pages earlier Quentin and Shreve assume that Bon did not know that he had Negro blood). If in fact Bon did have Negro blood, how did Shreve and Quentin come by that knowledge? As we have seen, neither Judith nor Miss Rosa had any inkling of it. Nor did Mr. Compson. Early in the novel he refers to Bon’s “sixteenth part negro son.” Since Bon’s mistress was an octoroon, his son could be one-sixteenth Negro only on the assumption that Charles Bon was of pure white blood—and this is evidently what Mr. Compson does assume. Mr. Compson, furthermore, knows nothing about Bon’s kinship to Henry.

The conjectures made by Shreve and Quentin—even if taken merely as conjectures— render the story of Sutpen plausible. They make much more convincing sense of the story than Mr. Compson’s notions were able to make. And that very fact suggests their probable truth. But are they more than plausible theories? Is there any real evidence to support the view that Bon was Sutpen’s son by a part-Negro wife? There is, and the way in which this evidence is discovered constitutes another, and the most decisive, justification for regarding Absalom, Absalom! as a magnificent detective story. Precisely what was revealed and how it was revealed are worth a rather careful review.

In the course of his conversation with Quentin, Shreve objects that Mr. Compson “seems to have got an awful lot of delayed information awful quick, after having waited forty-five years.” Quentin confirms the fact that his father had got delayed information—had got it from Quentin himself— had got it, indeed, the day after “we” (that is, Quentin and Miss Rosa) had gone out to Sutpen’s Hundred. A little later, when Quentin tells Shreve of Sutpen’s long conversation with General Compson about his “design” and about the “mistake” that Sutpen had made in trying to carry it out, Shreve asks Quentin whether General Compson had then really known what Sutpen was talking about. Quentin answers that General Compson had not known; and Shreve, pressing the point, makes Quentin admit that he himself “wouldn’t have known what anybody was talking about” if he “hadn’t been out there and seen Clytie.” The secret of Bon’s birth, then, was revealed to Quentin on that particular visit. Shreve’s way of phrasing it implies that it was from Clytie that Quentin had got his information, but, as we shall see, it is unlikely that Clytie was Quentin’s informant. In any case, when Shreve puts his question about seeing Clytie, he did not know that another person besides Clytie and her nephew was living at Sutpen’s Hundred.

Miss Rosa has sensed that “something”—she does not say someone—was “living hidden in that house.” When she and Quentin visit Sutpen’s Hundred, her intuition is confirmed. The hidden something turns out to be Henry Sutpen, now come home to die. Presumably, it was from Henry Sutpen that Quentin learned the crucial facts. Or did he? Here again Faulkner may seem to the reader either teasingly reticent or, upon reflection, brilliantly skillful.

We know from the last section of the book that after Miss Rosa had come down from the upstairs room with her “eyes wide and unseeing like a sleepwalker’s,” Quentin felt compelled to go up to that room and see what was there. He does go, though Faulkner does not take us with him into the room. He descends the stairs, walks out of the house, overtakes Miss Rosa, and drives her home. Later that night, however, after he has returned to his own home and is lying sleepless, he cannot—even by clenching his eyelids—shut out his vision of the bed with its yellowed sheets and its yellowed pillow and the wasted yellow face lying upon it, a face with closed, “almost transparent eyelids.” As Quentin tosses, unable to erase the picture from his eyes, we are vouchsafed one tiny scrap of his conversation with Henry, a conversation that amounts to no more than Quentin’s question “And you are— ?” and Henry’s answer that he is indeed Henry Sutpen, that he has been there four years, and that he has come home to die. How extended was the conversation? How long did it last? Would Henry Sutpen have volunteered to a stranger his reason for having killed Charles Bon? Or would Quentin Compson, awed and aghast at what he saw, put such questions as these to the wasted figure upon the bed? We do not know and Faulkner—probably wisely—has not undertaken to reconstruct this interview for us. (It is possible, of course, that Henry did tell Miss Rosa why he had killed Bon and that Miss Rosa told Quentin in the course of their long ride back to Jefferson.)

At all events, the whole logic of Absalom, Absalom! argues that only through the presence of Henry in the house was it possible for Quentin— and through Quentin his father and Shreve and those of us who read the book—to be made privy to the dark secret that underlay the Sutpen tragedy. At the end of the novel Shreve is able to shrug off the tragic implications and resume the tone of easy banter. His last comment abounds with the usual semi-sociological clichés: the Negroes “will bleach out again like the rabbits and the birds. . . In a few thousand years, I who regard you will also have sprung from the loins of African kings.” Though the spell of the story has been powerful enough to fire his imagination and involve all his sympathies, he is not personally committed, and we can see him drawing back from the tragic problem and becoming again the cheery, cynical, commonsense man of the present day. In the long perspective of history, how few issues really matter! The long perspective is antihistorical: make it long enough and any “sense of history” evaporates. Lengthen it further still and the human dimension itself evaporates.

From his stance of detachment, Shreve suddenly, and apropos of nothing, puts to Quentin the question “Why do you hate the South?” And Quentin’s passionate denial that he hates it tells its own story of personal involvement and distress. The more naïve reader may insist on having an answer: “Well, does he hate it?” And the response would have to be, I suppose, another question: “Does Stephen Daedalus hate Dublin?” Or, addressing the question to Stephen’s creator, “Did James Joyce hate Ireland?” The answer here would surely have to be yes and no. In any case, Joyce was so obsessed with Ireland and so deeply involved in it that he spent his life writing about it.

At this point, however, it may be more profitable to put a different question. What did the story of Sutpen mean to Quentin? Did it mean to him what it has apparently meant to most of the critics who have written on this novel—the story of the curse of slavery and how it involved Sutpen and his children in ruin? Surely this is to fit the story to a neat and oversimple formula. Slavery was an evil. But other slaveholders avoided Sutpen’s kind of defeat and were exempt from his special kind of moral blindness.

What ought to be plain, in any event, is that it is Henry’s part in the tragic tale that affects Quentin the most. Quentin had seen Henry with his own eyes and Henry’s involvement in slavery was only indirect. Even Henry’s dread of miscegenation was fearfully complicated with other issues, including the problem of incest. In view of what we learn of Quentin in The Sound and the Fury, the problem of incest would have fascinated him and made him peculiarly sensitive to Henry’s torment. Aside from his personal problem, however, Sutpen’s story had for Quentin a special meaning that it did not have for Shreve.

The story embodied the problem of evil and of the irrational: Henry was beset by conflicting claims; he was forced to make intolerably hard choices—between opposed goods or between conflicting evils. Had Henry cared much less for Bon, or else much less for Judith, he might have promoted the happiness of one without feeling that he was sacrificing that of the other. Or had he cared much less for either and much more for himself, he might have won a cool and rational detachment, a coign of vantage from which even objections to miscegenation and incest would appear to be irrational prejudices, and honor itself a quaint affectation whose saving was never worth the price of a bullet. Had Henry been not necessarily wiser, but simply more cynical or more gross or more selfish, there would have been no tragedy. . . But Shreve is measurably closer to the skepticism and detachment that allow modern man to dismiss the irrational claims from which Quentin cannot free himself and which he honors to his own cost.

The reader of Absalom, Absalom! might well follow Quentin’s example. If he must find in the story of the House of Sutpen something that has special pertinence to the tragic dilemmas of the South, the aspect of the story to stress is not the downfall of Thomas Sutpen, a man who is finally optimistic, rationalistic, and afflicted with elephantiasis of the will. Instead, he ought to attend to the story of Sutpen’s children.

The story of Judith, though muted and played down in terms of the whole novel, is one of the most moving that Faulkner has ever written. She has in her the best of her father’s traits. She is the stout-hearted little girl who witnesses without flinching scenes which force poor Henry to grow sick and vomit. She is the young woman who falls in love with a fascinating stranger, the friend of her brother, who means to marry him in spite of her father’s silent opposition, and who matches her father’s strength of will with a quiet strength of her own. She endures the horror of her fiancé’s murder and buries his body. She refuses to commit suicide; she keeps the place going for her father’s return. Years later it is Judith who sees to it that Bon’s mistress has an opportunity to visit his grave, who brings Bon’s child to live with her after his mother’s death and, at least in Quentin’s reconstruction of events, tries to get the little boy to recognize her as his aunt and to set him free, pushing him on past the barriers of color. When she fails to do so, she still tries to protect him. She nurses him when he sickens of yellow fever, and she dies with him in the epidemic. She is one of Faulkner’s finest characters of endurance—and not merely through numb, bleak stoicism but also through compassion and love. Judith is doomed by misfortunes not of her making, but she is not warped and twisted by them. Her humanity survives them.

Because Henry knew what presumably Judith did not know, the secret of Bon’s birth, his struggle— granted the circumstances of his breeding, education, and environment—was more difficult than Judith’s. He had not merely to endure but to act, and yet any action that he could take would be cruelly painful. He was compelled to an agonizing decision. One element that rendered tragic any choice he might make is revealed in Henry’s last action, his coming home to die. One might have thought that after some forty years, Henry would have stayed in Mexico or California or New York or wherever he was, but the claims of locality and family are too strong and he returns to Sutpen’s Hundred.

Absalom, Absalom! is the most memorable of Faulkner’s novels—and memorable in a very special way. Though even the intelligent reader may feel at times some frustration with the powerful but darkly involved story, with its patches of murkiness and its almost willful complications of plot, he will find himself haunted by individual scenes and episodes, rendered with almost compulsive force. He will probably remember vividly such a scene as Henry’s confrontation of his sister Judith after four years of absence at war—the boy in his “patched and faded gray tunic,” crashing into the room in which his sister stands clutching against her partially clothed nakedness the yellowed wedding dress, and shouting to her: “Now you cant marry him. . . because he’s dead. . . I killed him.” Or there is Miss Rosa’s recollection of the burial of Charles Bon. As she talks to Quentin she relives the scene: the “slow, maddening rasp, rasp, rasp, of the saw” and “the flat deliberate hammer blows” as Wash and another white man work at the coffin through the “slow and sunny afternoon,” with Judith in her faded dress and “faded gingham sunbonnet. . . giving them directions about making it.” Miss Rosa, who has never seen Bon alive and for whom he is therefore a fabulous creature, a mere dream, recalls that she “tried to take the full weight of the coffin” as they carried it down the stairs in order “to prove to myself that he was really in it.”

There is the wonderful scene of Thomas Sutpen’s return to Sutpen’s Hundred, the iron man dismounting from his “gaunt and jaded horse,” saying to Judith, “Well, daughter,” and touching his bearded lips to her forehead. There follows an exchange that is as laconically resonant as any in Greek tragedy: “‘Henry’s not—?’ ‘No. He’s not here.’—‘Ah. And—?’ ‘Yes. Henry killed him.’” With the last sentence Judith bursts into tears, but it is the only outburst of which Judith is ever guilty.

The reader will remember also the scenes of Sutpen’s boyhood and young manhood—perhaps most vivid of all of them, that in which the puzzled boy is turned away from the plantation door by the liveried servant. Sometimes the haunting passage is one of mere physical description: the desolate Sutpen burial ground with the “flat slabs. . . cracked across the middle by their own weight (and vanishing into the hole where the brick coping of one vault had fallen in was a smooth faint path worn by some small animal—possum probably— by generations of some small animal since there could have been nothing to eat in the grave for a long time) though the lettering was quite legible: Ellen Coldfield Sutpen. Born October 9, 1817. Died January 23, 1863.” One remembers also the account of something that had taken place earlier in this same graveyard, when Bon’s octoroon mistress, a “magnolia-faced woman a little plumper now, a woman created of by and for darkness whom the artist Beardsley might have dressed, in a soft flowing gown designed not to infer bereavement or widowhood. . . knelt beside the grave and arranged her skirts and wept,” while beside her stood her “thin delicate child” with its “smooth ivory sexless face.”

There is, too, the ride out to Sutpen’s Hundred in the “furnacebreathed” Mississippi night in which Quentin shares his buggy with the frail and fanatical Miss Rosa, and smells her “fusty camphorreeking shawl” and even her “airless black cotton umbrella.” On this journey, as Miss Rosa clutches to her a flashlight and a hatchet, the implements of her search, it seems to Quentin that he can hear “the single profound suspiration of the parched earth’s agony rising toward the imponderable and aloof stars.” Most vivid of all is the great concluding scene in which Clytie, seeing the ambulance approaching to bear Henry away, fires “the monstrous tinder-dry rotten shell” of a house, and from an upper window defies the intruders, her “tragic gnome’s face beneath the clean headrag, against a red background of fire, seen for a moment between two swirls of smoke, looking down at them, perhaps not even now with triumph and no more of despair than it had ever worn, possibly even serene above the melting clapboards.”

These brilliantly realized scenes reward the reader and sustain him as he struggles with the novel; but it ought to be remembered that they are given their power by the way in which the novel is structured and thus constitute a justification of that peculiar structure. . .

Absalom, Absalom! is in many respects the most brilliantly written of all Faulkner’s novels, whether one considers its writing line by line and paragraph by paragraph, or its structure, in which we are moved up from one suspended note to a higher suspended note and on up further still to an almost intolerable climax. The intensity of the book is a function of the structure. The deferred and suspended resolutions are necessary if the great scenes are to have their full vigor and significance. Admittedly, the novel is a difficult one, but the difficulty is not forced and factitious. It is the price that has to be paid by the reader for the novel’s power and significance. There are actually few instances in modern fiction of a more perfect adaptation of form to matter and of an intricacy that justifies itself at every point through the significance and intensity which it makes possible.

Source: Cleanth Brooks, “History and the Sense of the Tragic: Absalom, Absalom!,” in Faulkner: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Robert Penn Warren, Prentice- Hall, Inc., 1996, pp. 186–203.

Narrator Perceptions

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1795

The complex narrative structure of Absalom, Absalom! presents a major challenge for William Faulkner’s readers. The story does not unfold in a familiar way; the reader must learn how to read it as the story is told and retold, piecing together elements of the Sutpen story and then trying to understand Faulkner’s underlying design. Because the novel consists of different narrators telling the same story (a story that occurred in the past and is, therefore, more subject to interpretation than a story happening in the present), variations arise that provide insights into the characters who serve as narrators. To better understand the novel, a close examination of these variations is extremely useful. Each narrator has something at stake in the story, and each, therefore, perceives the characters and events differently. Each narrator also belongs to a different generation, and this, too, affects each one’s view of the story.

Rosa is the first narrator to tell the story of Thomas Sutpen, a mysterious stranger who arrives in Jefferson, Mississippi, one day and forever changes the lives of many of its residents. Rosa is the oldest of the narrators and was living at the time the events took place. Over forty years have elapsed, however, and her longstanding hatred for Sutpen is a major influence in how she remembers the events. She recalls simpler, happier days in her family and believes that its downfall began when Sutpen married Rosa’s older sister, Ellen. Rosa tells the story in a bitter and accusatory tone that places all blame for her family’s demise on Sutpen, whom she describes as a demon, an ogre, a djinn (similar to a genie), and a fiend. Over the years, she has convinced herself that he was so evil that he brought curses upon those with whom he came in contact. By imagining that Sutpen possessed an almost supernatural evil, Rosa is able to color her memories in sharp black and white, with no shades of gray and nothing open to alternative interpretations.

After Rosa’s sister died, Sutpen crudely proposed to Rosa but then suggested that they have a son before marrying. It was clear that Sutpen had no intention of going through with the marriage unless Rosa was able to produce a male heir. Rosa’s dignity and optimism were shattered, and Sutpen moved on to find someone who would go along with his plans. Consequently, Rosa lived out the rest of her life alone and bitter, watching each member of her family die over the years. Readers are often surprised that Rosa would accept the proposal of a man she deems so reprehensible, but there is reason to believe that she began to feel this way after he abandoned her to spinsterhood. In fact, Rosa seems to have been an optimistic and romantic young woman; she wrote poetry and was active in her community. Even after her sister married Sutpen, Rosa saw little of him and may have seen him as a heroic and exciting man. Thus his bad treatment of her would have come as a shock and crushed her hopes for a happy ending, leaving her cynical about life’s opportunities. Forty years later, Rosa has nothing to look forward to and little to enjoy in the present, so she is stuck in the past. The way her life has turned out—what she has become and has not become—is a result of Sutpen’s story. She must find in the story a way to understand and interpret her life. She has allowed her life and personality to be determined by events that happened over forty years ago, so when she is described as a ghost, it is a fitting metaphor.

The second narrator is Mr. Compson, the son of General Compson. General Compson was among the first members of Jefferson to accept Sutpen, so the version of the story he told his son was undoubtedly complimentary rather than reproachful. As a result, Mr. Compson’s descriptions contrast with Rosa’s, as he portrays Sutpen as a strong, brave individual with an ironclad work ethic. It becomes clear to the reader that Mr. Compson, from having heard the story so many times and from the laudatory accounts of his father, is carried away with the legend. He sees Sutpen not as a demon, but as a heroic and mythic figure who breathed life and adventure into the small town of Jefferson. Mr. Compson tells how Sutpen cleared a large tract of land and built a stunning mansion in the wilderness. He also emphasizes that when Sutpen went to fight in the Civil War, he was bold, and his men looked to him for leadership.

Mr. Compson overlooks the less admirable aspects of Sutpen’s story, such as the fact that he cheated a Native American out of the land on which he built his estate. He interprets Sutpen’s unbending determination as an admirable quality rather than as the driving force behind his mistreatment of people around him. There is a reason that Mr. Compson is compelled to find in Sutpen’s story the saga of a great man who ultimately fails. Mr. Compson believes in a world dictated by destiny in which men and women have no control over their fates. Despite his admiring account of Sutpen’s life, Mr. Compson is deeply cynical and fatalistic. Sutpen’s story is, for Mr. Compson, proof that his worldview is correct; even a great man like Sutpen was unable to escape his fated doom. Perhaps Mr. Compson feels that he has not achieved much in his own life and seeks reasons to believe that he is right to not take risks or to not try to do great things. He believes that past generations were greater and more impressive than his own (a view that certainly is supported by the mythology of Sutpen’s story), so he feels inferior to Sutpen. For Mr. Compson, his way of seeing and interpreting the world is at stake in the Sutpen story. He emphasizes those elements of Sutpen’s story that confirm his beliefs and glosses over elements that would challenge them.

Except for Shreve, Quentin is the narrator furthest removed from Sutpen’s story, yet he feels a deep connection to it. When Shreve asks Quentin about the South, Quentin chooses to tell him about Sutpen. This indicates that Quentin equates this story with the story of the South. All of Quentin’s information comes from primary sources, but Quentin himself can never be more than a secondary source. Unlike his father, however, Quentin receives information from a variety of sources. Besides having heard the story from his father and Rosa, Quentin has also heard details of the story from his grandfather, who shared information with Quentin that he did not share with his own son. In a sense, Quentin becomes an archivist for the Sutpen story although his personal investment in the story is profound.

For Quentin, the story potentially contains the answers to his questions about how he should live his life in the modern world. He grew up in Jefferson, hearing about Sutpen throughout his childhood and youth, and his connection to the town and its folklore is a defining element of his personality. This may be difficult for some modern readers to understand, but at the beginning of the book, Quentin is preparing to leave his comfortable hometown to go to Harvard. Additionally, the year is 1909, a time when young people felt more involved in their communities and often formed their identities around their hometowns. This need to understand his past is intensified by the fact that he comes from the South, a region where people are deeply aware of and still closely connected to a tragic and shameful history. Quentin feels a degree of responsibility for the past, which affects how he carries himself in his present-day world. Making sense of the Sutpen story becomes critical to his understanding of himself and his role in the world; he searches for answers and lessons that he can apply in his own life. This aspect differentiates Quentin from the other two narrators because they are recalling events as they know them while Quentin becomes obsessed with the story and seeks details and information from all possible sources.

Quentin is at times impatient when he feels that he is hearing information he has already heard many times. He is searching for new insights, which is why he agrees to visit Henry, who is dying. After he sees Henry, who is frail and torn down by life, Quentin rides away like he is being chased. Rosa’s grim account of the story and the tragedy that befell everyone involved seems to be accurate. This creates an emotional and urgent reaction in Quentin, who desperately seeks something hopeful and logical in the story because he sees it as the story of his own past and as a key to his present and future. Although Rosa sees Sutpen as an evil force and Mr. Compson sees him as a victim of fate, Quentin sees him as a representative of all that was good and bad in the Old South. Quentin admires Sutpen, but with reservations; he sees the admirable qualities in the man, but he also sees the immorality of his decisions. Quentin alone sees Sutpen as a human being who was complicated and fallible. For Quentin, his view of himself in the world is at stake in Sutpen’s story. If he cannot find guidance in the story, he has nowhere else to turn. The chronology at the end of the book indicates that Quentin commited suicide just after the events of Absalom, Absalom!, which suggests that he either did not find the answers he was seeking or found answers that left him hopeless.

The story of Thomas Sutpen looms large in the life of each of these residents of Jefferson—Rosa, Mr. Compson, and Quentin. They seek understanding of their past, present, and future lives in the narrative, so it is not surprising that they interpret the story in unique ways. The dramatic tale takes on new dimensions with each generation of storytellers, yet the true meaning of the story remains elusive.

One of Faulkner’s themes in the novel is the ultimate incapacity to know the truth about historical events, and the narrators’ variations of the story support that theme. At the same time, Faulkner demonstrates the importance of trying to understand the past and the validity of personalizing stories in the pursuit of personal and social insight. Such insight can never be perfect, but it can, nevertheless, be instructive.

Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on Absalom, Absalom!, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

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