William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
November 23, 2012 § 1 Comment
Faulkner often jumped back and forth in narrative time from story to story. His 1936 novel, Absalom, Absalom!, is, to some extent, a prequel to perhaps his most famous novel, The Sound and the Fury (1929). In devising the reading order for the weekly Faulkner reads/reviews, I left his earliest novels, including The Sound and the Fury, for near the end in part because of my decision to follow the Library of America publication dates for their five volumes of Faulkner’s novels. But it also is a benefit to cover a key character from that earlier novel, Quentin Compson, without having to refer explicitly to what happened to him in the earlier novel a narrative year (1910) after the concluding events in Absalom, Absalom!, as there is a mystery to him for readers unfamiliar with The Sound and the Fury that would otherwise be lost if they were already well-informed about his character and disposition (conversely, those who have read The Sound and the Fury first can derive enjoyment from seeing certain mysteries from that novel played out here in Absalom, Absalom!).
Absalom, Absalom! is a complex novel, perhaps one of Faulkner’s most difficult for neophyte readers to process. It is a recounting in 1909 of events that took place over a period of time stretching from the early decades of the 19th century to the narrative present. In it, Quentin, along with his father (whose outlook on life colors this novel as much as the earlier The Sound and the Fury) and a Canadian-born college roommate at Harvard, try to pry apart the mystery surrounding the Sutpen family. Early on, it is revealed that the Compsons are descended from a close friend of Thomas Sutpen, who established the 100 acre Sutpen’s Hundred plantation on land bought from the Choctaws around the founding of Yoknapatawpha County. In one sense, the piecing together of what happened to Sutpen’s family could be viewed as an analogue for what later occurred to the Compsons (themselves part of the former landed gentry who lost much of their wealth and prestige in the years following the Civil War), but Absalom, Absalom! is more than just a narrative of the decline of the antebellum Southern aristocracy. It is a tragedy that envelops not just this particular strain, but also references in yet another light the complexities of black-white race relations in not just the South, but also the Caribbean (where Thomas Sutpen had lived for several years, with consequences that affected the generations that followed). It can also be viewed (and the story’s title makes this rather explicit) as a filial rebellion similar to that of King David’s son, between two scions of the Sutpens, between Quentin and his family’s past, and between the older and newer Southern societies.
Fatality looms large in Absalom, Absalom!, as the characters, from Thomas Sutpen to his rejected eldest son to the odd relationship between that discarded child and Sutpen’s two children, all experience mortality in ways reminiscent of those surrounding the Biblical Absolom and his kin. Heartache, anger, frustration at being cast aside for another, incestuous feelings – each of these is explored in the novel. Faulkner does not make the connections directly, but instead he utilizes competing narratives pieced together by the two Compsons and Quentin’s roommate to create a mosaic portrayal of the Sutpen family and their amorous/homicidal tendencies. To do this, Faulkner utilizes a running stream of conversation, as Quentin, his father, the roommate, Rosa Coldfield (herself the descendent of a family related by marriage to the Sutpens), and others to recreate (sometimes with purposeful discrepancies) those past events. Below is a sample of this, dealing with Henry Sutpen, Judith Sutpen, and Charles Bon:
So Miss Rosa did not see any of them, who had never seen (and was never to see alive) Charles Bon at all Charles Bon of New Orleans, Henry’s friend who was not only some few years older than Henry but actually a little old to be still in college and certainly a little out of place in that one where he was – a small new college in the Mississippi hinterland and even wilderness, three hundred miles from that worldly and even foreign city which was his home – a young man of a worldly elegance and assurance beyond his years, handsome, apparently wealthy and with for background the shadowy figure of a legal guardian rather than any parents – a personage who in the remote Mississippi of that time must have appeared almost phoenix-like, full-sprung from no childhood, born of no woman and impervious to time and, vanished, leaving no bones nor dust anywhere – a man with an ease of manner and a swaggering gallant air in comparison with which Sutpen’s pompous arrogance was clumsy bluff and Henry actually a hobble-de-hoy. Miss Rosa never saw him; this was a picture, an image. It was not what Ellen told her: Ellen at the absolute halcyon of her butterfly’s summer and now with the added charm of gracious and graceful voluntary surrendering of youth to her blood’s and sex’s successor, that concurrent attitude and behavior with the engagement’s span with which mothers who want to can almost make themselves the bridges of their daughters’ weddings. Listening to Ellen, a stranger would have almost believed that the marriage, which subsequent events would indicate had not even been mentioned between the young people and the parents, had been actually performed. Ellen did not once mention love between Judith and Bon. She did not hint around it. Love, with reference to them, was just a finished and perfectly dead subject like the matter of virginity would be after the birth of the first grandchild.
Most of the novel is told through long, convoluted paragraphs that would be a complete mess to read if they were used to convey anything else other than the shifting perspectives of the narrators and the narrated individuals. As it stands, it takes careful reading to piece together what is being revealed in passages such as this recounting on the part of Rosa Coldfield. We see there is a mystery behind Charles Bon, in reference to his age (believed to be a bit old for college), wealth (rich in a poorer part of the country), and parentage (no parents are known at that time, but with the hint of a reveal later). There is an explicit comparison between him and the Sutpens, as if there were a connection deeper than Bon’s courting of Thomas Sutpen’s daughter Judith. Rosa is recounting what her mother, Ellen, had to say about her nephew, niece, and one-time friend of the former. It is a second-hand account, with traces of yet another level of storytelling to indicate that what was being recounted was through the viewpoint of a potentially biased person. There are similar such passages seen through the perspective of others who knew the Sutpens, leading to the development of a narrative where the “truth,” if there could ever be such an “objective” thing in light of the competing subjective accounts, has to be filtered through several perspectives that may or may not be withholding or distorting information.
This creates problems within the text for the reader to puzzle out, if she were so inclined. Faulkner never directly says, until the concluding chapter, anything really definitive about these characters. Instead, the stream of consciousness-like discussions between the Compsons and Quentin’s roommate, with Rosa’s occasional input, tells and retells the basics of the past in a way that makes it clear that the overarching issues that fueled the tragic events between Charles Bon, Judith, and Henry Stupen and between Thomas Sutpen and a squatter’s daughter after the Civil War are still present within Southern society. Thomas Sutpen, along with the majority of the Southern aristocracy, focused so much of their energy on “purity” and preserving bloodlines. In one of the great ironies of the novel, it is this desire for both that leads to the tragedies that occur and the inheritance being passed down to a character that Faulkner characterizes as the likely future symbol for what will transpire for countless Sutpen-like people in the South. This theme, introduced late in the novel, is not as well-developed as the Absalom-family tragedy connection, yet it is unsettling in how it presents a somewhat pessimistic view of Southern society. It reinforces some of Faulkner’s thoughts expressed in Light in August (1932) on race, yet today it seems to ring a false note.
Absalom, Absalom! is not for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of effort to plow under the textual surface and turn up the nuggets Faulkner has buried underneath the complex presentation. But if the reader makes that effort, he or she may be rewarded with a rich, complex, and ultimately tragic family history that contains not just allusions to Faulkner’s previous stories or to the Civil War and its effects on Southern society, but also to one of the more tragic Biblical tales. It is not Faulkner’s best novel and certainly not one to read first (or second, or even third or fourth), but Absalom, Absalom! is the sort of story that makes the reader take pause for a moment to consider what she has just read. Perhaps this need to pause and to reassess what was just read is the greatest testament to the novel’s power that can be given. After all, discovering that for some, that the past is never over, that it has not indeed ever passed, is a rather disconcerting notion. But sometimes we need to be disconcerted and for that, Absalom, Absalom! is a remarkable achievement and one of Faulkner’s better-constructed novels.
Originally posted in March 2012 on Gogol’s Overcoat as part of a weekly “Faulkner Friday.” Novels reviewed from January-April will be reposted here on Fridays, while the short stories will appear on Wednesdays.