William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! Random House, 1936.

Summary of Work
This work is a frame narrative, with Rosa, the sister-in-law to Thomas Sutpen, telling the story of the Sutpen family to the Compson boy because she hopes he will write the story down, and he believes that it will show why God let the South lose the war, because of the infamy of people like Thomas Sutpen. Quentin Compson, the grandson of Sutpen’s friend General Compson, is getting ready to go to Harvard when he is summoned to talk with Sutpen’s sister-in-law, and she tells him about how Sutpen destroyed his own family and hers as well.

In the mid 1800s, Thomas Sutpen buys a hundred square miles of land in the Jefferson, Mississippi area from an indian tribe and clears the land, builds a home, and plants cotton. Many see him as some sort of barbarian or demon, because Sutpen often holds fights between the slaves, and he often participated in them. He marries a local merchant’s daughter, Ellen, and soon he becomes a member of the planter aristocracy and has a son and daughter. The children do not change Sutpen, who still hosts fights and participates, and one evening the children view it, Henry in terror, and Judith in fascination. Judith is angry to have to leave the scene, and Ellen realizes that Judith has her father’s temperament. Upon her death bed, she asks her sister to look after Judith, even though Judith is older than Rosa.

Quentin’s father confirms this story, stating similar details, but including that upon deciding to marry, he went to church, left town, came back with a bunch of finery for his home, and then went to court Ellen. However, the men of the town, believing that Sutpen had gotten his money from criminal activity, found him after he had proposed to Ellen and arrested him, and Compson and another friend had to get him out of jail. Two months later he was married. Ellen was dismayed on her wedding day, and of a hundred people invited, only ten people attended the wedding, and on the way out of the church, the couple were hit with rubbish as they walked. When Quentin asks about why Rosa is telling this story, Compson tells him that she was raised by an aunt after her father killed himself in order to not go to the war, and she hated her father for her mother’s death. Rosa was the one who came back to try and save Judith from the Sutpin fate, and she sought to do that by perhaps marrying Sutpin, she just twenty years old at the time. According to Compson, she was taking care of Judith and Clytie, Sutpen’s daughter by a slave girl, when Sutpen came home from the war.

Compson also explains to his son that before Rosa moved to the Sutpen home, she went sporadically to the Sutpen home with family members, and as Sutpen became the richest planter in the country and therefore became socially accepted, her sister Ellen first started taking her on fancy shopping trips and hosting parties, and then slowly became estranged from Rosa. It was also at this time that Sutpen was taking off to new Orleans in search of Charles Bon, his son by a black woman, although at the time people did not know it. As Compson tells it, the word about Bon being Henry and Judith’s half brother came from Sutpen’s slaves rather than from a family member. Rosa was largely left in the dark, unaware of the blood relation of Judith’s fiancee Bon until much later, and after the war when the Sutpen plantation was largely ruined and they didn’t know who was alive and who was dead, she at first refused to come to the plantation because she was uncertain of the situation.

That evening, Compson continued the story, handing Quentin a letter that Bon had written many years previous to Judith. He then talks about how Henry, Sutpen’s son by Ellen, goes to college at the University of Mississippi and becomes friends with Charles Bon, bringing him home for Christmas one year. Charles falls in love with his sister Judith, and he asks her to marry him, but by this time, Sutpen has realized that Charles is his son, and Judith’s half brother, and so they cannot marry. This is particularly important because his wife from that time was an octoroon, and he had abandoned her and the child afterward. The situation was one that he became entangled with her when he was at an octoroon ball, a space for octoroon women to attract wealthy white men as either husbands or benefactors. Henry is outraged when his father tells him, refusing to believe that Charles could have known this and still decided to ask his sister to marry him. Henry, in that outrage, gives up his birthright and runs to New Orleans with Charles, where they enlist in the army to fight in the Civil War for the Confederacy. Bon quickly rises to the rank of lieutenant, and he is regularly talking to Henry about the situation; Henry tells him not to write to Judith because he hasn’t decided if it is okay for him to marry her yet, and he also has sexual feelings for Bon, and is conflicted about the incest. Sutpen also fights in the war as a colonel, and he finds his son to tell him again that Charles is his half brother and that he is also a black man. When Sutpen explains Charles’ race, Henry goes to find Charles and murder him before he marries Judith, and he does murder him at the gate of the Sutpen plantation.

Rosa tells Quentin that when Sutpen returned, he went right about rebuilding the plantation, not even surprised or upset about Bon’s death and Judith’s reaction. He hardly recognized Rosa, and she soon found herself engaged to him. However, when he found the plantation to be unsalvageable, he insulted her so badly that she left the plantation and lived off of stealing food from her neighbor’s gardens, refusing to accept help. She also says that she thinks that someone other than Clytie is living in the manor there at the plantation, although she is not sure whom it is.

When Quentin goes back to Harvard, he tells his roommate Shreve the story, including the later years of Sutpen’s life. Sutpen becomes an alcoholic and has an affair with a teenage girl, Milly. Milly gets pregnant, and after the birth of their daughter, who dies along with Milly, Wash Jones, Milly’s grandfather, murders Sutpen. Judith dies of yellow fever along with other members of the family, and Clytie raises the son of Charles Bon, found in New Orleans after he visited his father’s grave. His son is strange and works what is left of the Sutpen land.

Mr. Compson also told Quentin about how he learned Sutpen’s actual life story from him when they were hunting for a fugitive architect who had run away from Sutpen’s plantation. Sutpen was from a poor family and quickly learned he wanted money and land, and so set out for the Caribbean and made his name in the sugar plantation business, and he married a plantation owner’s daughter. It was only after they had a child together that he learned of her African blood, and so he left with twenty slaves and built the plantation. When Sutpen’s son came back to haunt him, he had a choice: remain quiet and let his dynasty continue on or speak out. He chose to speak to Henry, and when the word brother failed, he determined that the word race would not, and he was correct. After that, he could never rebuild his dying legacy. When he left Milly with her child in a stable, that was when Wash Jones lost his mind, killed his granddaughter and great granddaughter, killed Sutpen, and then went around killing others with a scythe until he was arrested.

Quentin Compson can’t stop thinking about the story, and he and Shreve speculate on the other people’s perspectives of the story, particularly Charles Bon’s. The evening after he and Shreve speculate, he can’t sleep as he remembers going back to the plantation with Sutpen’s sister-in-law, and there they unexpectedly meet Henry, who is an old man waiting to die. They go back to get an ambulance to go get Henry, but before they can get in, Clytie, the child of Sutpen and a slave woman who is now an old woman herself, burns the house down and kills them both before they can get him, which brings the Sutpen family legacy to an end. In the end, Quentin, obsessing, tries to tell himself that he doesn’t hate the South.

Discussion of Work
The plot line of this work, quickly summarized, would seem rather simple and make for a short story: man moves to the South, builds a plantation, marries and has children, his past comes back to haunt him, and it destroys the entire family. And yet, the story is not that straightforward, because we are not getting the narrative from the main character, Thomas Sutpen. Instead, we are getting the story through a pieced together history which includes plenty of speculation both from the people telling the story and the people it’s being told to. Narrative is obscured by its nonlinear telling, with certain pieces  of information being given either earlier or later in the story, leaving the reader to piece together the full tale both on their own and with Quentin, who is the most akin to the reader.

Miscegenation is the main issue of the work, of particular importance because of its placement in the US South. Sutpen seems less than human, dangerous, or animalistic throughout the work, more so as he ages. As the story is told of his strange relationship with his slaves, he occupies a liminal space between white and black, even though he is a white man. As the narrators detail it, Sutpen himself goes into decline the moment that he marries an octoroon, because he has been legally intimate with her and has a legitimate son by her; it is this miscegenation that leads to potential incest. Still, the issue of miscegenation is by far of greater importance not only to Sutpen and his son Henry, but to everyone who is telling the story. The obsession with race, even to the tracking of the “one drop” of black blood, makes clear to readers that Faulkner is showing them that the South’s racial prejudice and obsession is what leads to the Southern aristocracy’s downfall more than any other failing in their society. Even the black community members in the story feel this, as Clytie is the one who burns down the house, and Wash Jones is the one who goes on a killing spree after Sutpen leaves his granddaughter. Black people are still objects to Sutpen, as they are to all the white people in the community, and the inability to see them as human beings leads not only to their downfall, but to the destruction of the black people’s humanity: constantly treated as animals or subhuman, they can only tolerate the South for so long before they snap and destroy themselves or are destroyed by the white community surrounding them.

 

Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio

Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. 1919. Dover, 1995.

Summary of Work
Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio is a novel that contains a series of short stories interwoven to create a picture of the town, its history, and its residents. The story is framed by the brief introduction of a writer who, upon reaching old age and spending most of his time in his room, has a dream/vision where he sees truth created and then people walking past and picking up a truth or two, some as many as a dozen, and then going about trying to live their lives by those truths, and in turn becoming corrupted because they take the truth and turn it, and themselves, into a falsehood, a grotesque. The idea is that a truth clung to fiercely creates all sorts of problems for people and can destroy happiness and lives. The whole of the novel functions with this frame.

The stories range from tragic to hilarious in nature. Wing Biddlebaum is the first character that we meet. He is talking to George Willard, the young and naive reporter for the newspaper in town, and George always wonders about Wing’s hands, but has enough respect for the man to never ask. Wing has the fastest hands for picking produce in the town, but he is always insistent on trying to hide his hands, as if he is ashamed of them. His past is tragic. As a schoolteacher, he is affectionate and caring for the boys in his classroom, but upon one boy deciding that the man’s hands were making sexual advances rather than more of a fatherly care, the townspeople become enraged and one comes into the classroom and beats him bloody. Afterward, the townsmen come to his house with intent to hang him, change their mind and let him run, but then decide after all that they want to hang him. He gets away, changes his name to Biddlebaum, and lives a life in Winesburg after his relative dies that he had been living with.

Doctor Reefy is an older man who is known for having had a very young wife. The story goes that she came to him one day after a suitor had gotten her pregnant and she didn’t know what to do. He decided to try to help her as he could by offering her company and advice, and after she miscarried the child, the woman found that she very much loved the doctor, and married him. He was known for keeping thoughts on small pieces of paper, which he would read to her, and then put them in his pockets and roll them into balls and then throw them away when they were fully rolled. A year after they married she died of illness.

Elizabeth Willard, George’s mother, is the wife of Tom Willard, who runs the hotel in town. The hotel was her father’s, and she feels trapped in the town, unloved and unseen, never having been on an actual adventure. She hates her husband and her life, and wants her son to have the adventures she never had. There are later stories about her telling of her affair with Doctor Reefy, of her father’s giving her 800 dollars to live a different life than the one she had, and her inability to tell anyone about it so her son could have the money before she died.

Doctor Parcival is one who believes in living life with little amounts of work and going around hating people and feeling superior to them. When he refuses to help during an accident that leaves people dead, he, terrified, tells George that people will be after him for it and that everyone is Christ and ends up crucified in the end. Louise Trunnion is a woman on the poorer end of town that sends George a message that he can meet her one evening. He goes and they spend an evening together, and they figure no one has to know about it.

Jesse Bentley is a boy from a farmer’s family who goes away to become a preacher but must come back to his family when all his brothers are killed in the Civil War. He goes back with his wife and he becomes very industrious, but everyone is unhappy under him, including himself, despite his extreme success. He talks to God and is convinced his mission is to be like the Israelites of old and to conquer the Philistines around him by buying up all their farms, and he is convinced he needs a son, David, to help him. His wife delivers a child, Louise, and dies in childbirth, and Jesse is upset more at the birth of a daughter than his wife’s death. Louise receives no love from anyone, and in an attempt to find love, married Mr. Hardy. She is still very unhappy and is more unhappy when she has a son, David. She is vicious and cruel to everyone, including her son. One evening her son runs away to try and get to his grandfather because he doesn’t want to go home, and he gets lost. A search party is sent out, and when he is found and taken back to his mother, he is surprised by her warmth and care and concern. When her father states that he would like David to come live on the farm with him, everyone is even more surprised when she agrees. David loves the farm and gets the love his mother denied him, but Jesse is still insistent that he is God’s chosen. The first time he takes David out to the woods to pray, David becomes terrified and runs from the man who no longer looks like his grandfather. He gets over it, but years later after Jesse has become the most successful farmer in town, he gets it in his head that he needs to offer a burnt offering to the Lord with David. They get a lamb and tie it up and go to the same spot in the woods. While Jesse gets a fire going, David unties the lamb’s feet and waits for Jesse, but is determined that both he and the lamb will run when needed. When Jesse pulls out a knife to kill the lamb, David thinks that Jesse is going to kill him, and he runs with the lamb. David finds a rock, puts it in his sling, and hits Jesse square in the forehead with it, knocking him out. David thinks he has killed his grandfather and runs away, and when Jesse wakes up, forever after he states that he lost David due to his pride.

Joe Welling is a man who runs around with all sorts of funny stories and ideas, and he falls in love with a woman who is part of the scariest, meanest, toughest family in town. When they come to tell him to stay away, he wins them over with his strange ideas, obliviousness, and charm. Alice Hindman waits for a lover that will never come back. Wash Williams was made a cuckold by a wife and he hates all women for it and spends his days as a telegraph operator in Winesburg after that. Seth Richmond is quiet and doesn’t feel he fits into the town. He loves Helen White, but determines that he cannot be with her because he isn’t part of the town, and he decides to leave to find a better life. Tandy Hard is a young girl who’s name is given to her by a drunkard who is passing through town. The Reverend Curtis Hartman is married and a good reverend, but he is tempted when he sees the schoolteacher partly naked and reading a book through his open window, which is stained glass with a picture of Christ with a child. He breaks a hole in the corner of the glass so he can “overcome temptation,” but he is never able to. He sees her naked, praying, and crying in her room one cold night when he has nearly frozen himself to death waiting in the bell tower to see her and walked with no shoes through the cold to do so, and he runs to George Willard and says that God has saved him and shown him new ways. Kate Swift is a teacher who is unmarried, bound to be an old maid, but who cares about her students and in a motherly and womanly way loves George Willard and tries to guide him but also fails because she loves him but doesn’t feel she can be with him. Enoch Robinson spent time in New York City and became an illustrator for an advertisement company, but he leaves his wife and two children to be with himself and his imaginary friends. He is happy in his small hallway-like space until a neighbor starts talking to him and he realizes she’s ruined everything because she understands him. He moves back to Winesburg a bitter and lonely old man.

Belle Carpenter loves the local bartender but does not feel like she can just see him because of her social station. So she sees George Willard, but isn’t really interested, and George knows it and is unhappy. George makes one more attempt to woo her, but the bartender has come by earlier to tell her not to see him, and so she uses that as an opportunity to make the bartender jealous. George is shoved out of the picture and his pride is wounded. Elmer Cowley feels like his father and his whole family are queer and that they will never understand that is how the whole town sees them and their little shop. He feels like he needs to let the town know, and particularly George Willard, that he isn’t queer like his family, and after several failed attempts, decides to leave town, and before he goes, he beats up George Willard. Ray Pearson reflects on his life and how if he hadn’t had gotten his girl pregnant he wouldn’t be married, and that perhaps he shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place because it wasn’t his responsibility to take care of a woman after he got her pregnant. He is going to tell a fellow farmhand this in regard to his same situation, but then determines that it is a lie and the farmhand decides to marry the girl he has gotten pregnant. Tom Foster is a boy who comes to Winesburg with his grandmother and does odd jobs around town. He tries things once so he knows what it is like and then never does them again.

Helen White reflects upon her time with George Willard and determines she has some sort of affection for him after spending time with city folk and academics and determining that she doesn’t like their company. She and George spend an evening together, and out of it they gain a mutual respect for each other. They never sleep together, but instead laugh and occasionally kiss and then get serious as they think about life. They do not get married, but instead George leaves the city in search of a job as a reporter in a bigger city, perhaps Cleveland or Chicago.

Brief Note on Themes
The themes of this work deal very much with the idea of the grotesque as outlined in the beginning of the book, but it also describes much of small town life in the Midwest and deals with the relationships between people in small towns as well as the mentalities and personalities that come with that town. The strongest, most overt themes come in the stories that deal heavily in religion, making commentary about how seemingly good things and religious upbringing and study can lead to a warped sense of reality and disaster for families and individuals as they lose their way by getting caught on certain particulars of religion. The idea of getting caught up on small things rather than seeing a bigger life picture is, in fact, what hooks all of these stories together outside of their happening in the same town.