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.