Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 929
The American South
In Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner openly criticizes the ethical and moral practices of the American South. The story of Sutpen is analogous to the story of the South, and Faulkner suggests that they ultimately fail for the same reasons. By building its success and comfort on the enslavement of another race, the South is doomed to fail because an immoral design is not sustainable. Both Sutpen and the South believe that it is possible to set aside morality at times to pursue a larger social goal. Rosa comments to Quentin that the South was doomed to lose the war because it was led by men like Sutpen, whom she perceives as dishonest, cruel, and manipulative. She remarks in chapter one:
Oh he was brave. I have never gainsaid that. But that our cause, our very life and future hopes and past pride, would have been thrown into the balance with men like that to buttress it—men with valor and strength but without pity or honor. Is it any wonder that Heaven saw fit to let us lose?
The novel contains references to the Civil War and the destruction of the South in the war’s aftermath. Rosa tells Quentin that she suspects that after he graduates from Harvard, he will practice law somewhere besides in his hometown of Jefferson because “Northern people have already seen to it that there is little left in the South for a young man.” Mr. Compson explains to Quentin that he should listen politely to Rosa’s story because long ago the South made its women into ladies, and then the war made the ladies into ghosts. He adds, “So what else can we do, being gentlemen, but listen to them being ghosts?”
Each version of Sutpen’s story is different because it is told through the memories and perceptions of each narrator. When the reader reaches the end of the novel, the basic facts are in order, but there is uncertainty regarding many aspects of the story. None of the narrators is completely reliable, which poses a problem to the reader accustomed to depending on at least one trustworthy narrator.
Faulkner shows his reader that there are limits to how fully people can know the truth about the past. Truth seems to be in the eye of the beholder, as is evident with each telling of Sutpen’s story. The challenge is for the reader, then, to make decisions about which narrators are reliable in which instances. Then, the reader must speculate about other aspects of the story. Because no two narrators tell the exact same story, and different readers can interpret the story in different ways, knowing the truth about Sutpen’s story becomes impossible. Add to that the exceedingly complex narrative structure, and the events told in the novel become even more uncertain and difficult to manage. Thus, Faulkner uses both form and content to demonstrate the limited capacity people have to know the truth of past events.
In his character portrayals, Faulkner expresses his belief that people should be aware of the past and learn what they can from it, but they should not allow it to shape their lives. Each narrator has a different relationship with the past. Rosa finds the past to be a source of bitterness and disappointment, yet she is unable to live in the present. Mr. Compson finds in the past evidence that his fatalistic view of the world is correct. He also believes that past generations were greater than the present generation, so while he may draw inspiration from the past, he must live in the present, which is discouraging for him. Quentin feels deeply connected to his heritage, and because Sutpen’s tale is legendary in his hometown of Jefferson, he becomes obsessed with making sense of the story. At the beginning of chapter two, the narrator comments that in Jefferson, Quentin breathes the same air and hears the same church bells as Sutpen did in the past. Because Quentin feels so connected to the South, he has difficulty coming to terms with his love for his region and the shame of its past. He is burdened by his responsibility for events of long ago and struggles to understand his role as a modern- day man of the South.
Characters within the story are also affected by their pasts. Sutpen is driven by his need to distance himself from the poverty of his past. He seeks to reinvent himself so that his past will have no hold on him. When he leaves Haiti, he is certain that he is leaving another segment of his past behind, but he later realizes that his past has found him in the person of Charles. Charles is also motivated by events from his past. He is wounded by his father’s sudden departure in his childhood, and he seeks to be validated. When he encounters his father in America, he longs to heal his past by reconnecting with him. His determination to be accepted by Sutpen, however, leads to his death. Charles insists that he will marry Judith, even though she is his half-sister. Although it is not clear, the reader assumes that he hopes that either he will be accepted as a son-in-law (if not a son) by Sutpen or Sutpen will be forced to tell the real reason he objects to the marriage, thus claiming Charles as his son. Charles does not take into account the possibility that Henry will kill him rather than allow him to marry Judith.