Three men struggle to define their identity in William Faulkner’s novel, Absalom, Absalom! The first is Thomas Sutpen, the son of poor whites from West Virginia, who arrives in Mississippi with a group of Haitian slaves and a dream: to carve a hundred square miles of plantation out of wilderness and create a new identity for himself. As a boy, Sutpen was refused entry to a rich landowner’s home by a black slave. Now he seeks to become that landowner, with wealth, a house, slaves, and a son to establish his dynasty.
Sutpen’s Haitian marriage was annulled when he discovered that his wife and their son, Charles Bon, had African blood. His second marriage in Jefferson produces a son and a daughter. Still, the town considers him an interloper and refuses to accept him. Years later, when Sutpen’s white son Henry meets Bon, who passes for white, at the university, they become friends. Bon charms Henry and his sister Judith. Unaware that he is her half-brother, Judith agrees to marry Bon.
Charles Bon is a few years older and a man of the world, with an octoroon mistress and infant son in New Orleans. He appears mildly amused at the situation in which he finds himself. Once he realizes that Sutpen is his father, he waits four years to tell the others. Bon wants Sutpen to acknowledge his identity as a legitimate son, warning Henry he will call off the marriage only if Sutpen acknowledges him. What they all understand is that Sutpen will never acknowledge a son who is not white. At last Henry is forced to murder Bon, whom he adores, to prevent an incestuous union. Ironically, the last survivor of Sutpen’s line is a slow-witted black youth, his great-grandson through Bon.
The story of Sutpen and Bon is told to Quentin Compson, whose grandfather, a Civil War hero, attempted to befriend Sutpen. Quentin, a student at Harvard, struggles to piece together the story, as if through the anguished history of these people and their region he can come to understand his own legacy. Faulkner’s novel, its title echoing the lament of King David for his dead son, reveals the tragedy of a family blighted by racism and fear of miscegenation, and a father who cannot weep.
In the summer of 1909, as Quentin Compson is preparing to go to Harvard, old Rosa Coldfield insists upon telling him the whole infamous story of Thomas Sutpen, whom she calls a demon. According to Miss Rosa, he brought terror and tragedy to all who had dealings with him.
In 1833, Sutpen came to Jefferson, Mississippi, with a fine horse and two pistols and no known past. He lived mysteriously for a while among people at the hotel, and after a short time he disappeared from the area. He purchased one hundred square miles of uncleared land from the Chickasaws and had it recorded at the land office. When he returned with a wagonload of blacks, a French architect, and a few tools and wagons, he was as uncommunicative as...
(The entire section is 1176 words.)
Absalom, Absalom!, another Yoknapatawpha novel and another work with multiple structures, has different levels of narrator viewpoint; that of Quentin Compson and his Canadian roommate at Harvard University is the primary level. Shreve McCannon has asked Quentin to tell him about Mississippi; the result is a story told in true Faulkner fashion. It is far from chronological; sometimes Quentin speaks from his own observation, but most often he repeats a secondhand narrative as given him by Miss Rosa Coldfleld, Jason Compson III, and others. Some gaps are filled in by the boys’ speculative dialogue.
The story is about Thomas Sutpen, who as a young man left his western Virginia home and was severely rebuked by a...
(The entire section is 466 words.)