Summary of the Novel
Absalom, Absalom! is a multi-layered story being told by Quentin Compson, a young student sitting in his room at Harvard, to Shreve McCannon, his Canadian roommate. Shreve has asked Quentin “What is the South like?” In response, Quentin tells him about Thomas Sutpen, a character based on Faulkner’s great-grandfather, who built a plantation, “Sutpen’s Hundred,” in the deep South. The story is told as a series of memories, or gossip collected from different narrators, some of whom are reliable and some of whom are not. Although the story is fairly clear-cut, the layering of the narration makes it seem more of a myth, or mystery, than a history.
Like Faulkner’s great-grandfather, William Clark Falkner, Thomas Sutpen is born in West Virginia and runs away at a young age to make a life for himself. The reason for Sutpen’s departure from his family is that he was ashamed of being the poor, unshod son of an itinerant alcoholic sharecropper. When he was young, he was turned away from a plantation door by a liveried slave.
When Sutpen runs away, he goes to the West Indies to make his fortune. He became an overseer on a plantation, and during a rebellion by the slaves, he protected the plantation owner and his daughter. The trauma of the revolution draws the two young people together, and Thomas Sutpen marries Eulalia Bon, the plantation owner’s only daughter, thus making his fortune.
When Sutpen returns to the United States, he first lives in New Orleans, where he discovers that Eulalia Bon has some African ancestry. Then he abandons her and their son Charles. Thus, in more ways than one, Thomas Sutpen has made his fortune by using the tools of racism.
Sutpen then makes his way to Mississippi, where he buys a piece of fertile land from the Native Americans. Then, using the labor of slaves imported from Haiti, he carves out a plantation and builds a mansion. Thomas Sutpen has a “grand design” in mind: he wants to become a wealthy plantation owner like the one from whose door he was turned away. In order to gain respectability and a family, he then marries Ellen Coldfield, the daughter of an upright, moral town merchant. Sutpen is arrested just before his wedding (for undisclosed reasons), but Mr. Coldfield bails him out, and the wedding takes place. Nevertheless, none of the townspeople attend the wedding.
Thomas Sutpen nearly accomplishes his grand design. He and Ellen have two children, Henry and Judith, and they live a prosperous life at his mansion on his plantation at Sutpen’s Hundred.
Sutpen’s past, however, comes back to haunt him. His son from his first marriage to Eulalia Bon, Charles Bon, meets and befriends his son, Henry, at Oxford University. Henry Sutpen does not know that Charles Bon is his half-brother, and he invites Charles home for Christmas. Charles and Judith immediately fall in love. The following Christmas, Charles Bon returns again, and Thomas Sutpen angrily forbids the marriage, telling Henry that Charles is his half-brother. Henry, in return, angrily repudiates his father and runs away with Charles.
The course of these familial events is changed when the Civil War erupts. Henry and Charles (even though he has African blood) enlist on the side of the South, and Thomas Sutpen forms a regiment. The men leave the women to fend for themselves and to try to grow enough food to last through the war years.
When Henry learns that Charles is his half-brother, he is still willing to condone his marriage to Judith, but when, during the war, he learns that Charles has African ancestry, he refuses to condone it. He follows Charles back to Sutpen’s Hundred and murders him at the gate, rather than see him marry his sister.
During the Civil War years, Ellen Sutpen dies. After the war, and Henry’s murder of Charles, Miss Rosa moves to Sutpen’s Hundred. Then Thomas Sutpen returns from the war. Still trying to beget an empire, Thomas Sutpen proposes to Miss Rosa Coldfield. At first, Miss...
(The entire section is 5,294 words.)