Transferring Violence in Absalom, Absalom

At the heart of Absalom, Absalom is the violence of class division, national division, and racial division; particularly the violence between white Southerners and black slaves as a substitute for the violence poor whites would like to commit against wealthy whites. Thomas Sutpen’s barn fights with his “wild negroes” and his youth’s encounter with the slave at the door epitomize this desire for revenge and violence by transferring it. The revelation that he was in Haiti for the revolution sheds a new light on his barn fights and the appearance of the Klan shows this transference at a larger social level. Ironically, the very violence that Thomas Sutpen cannot commit against his former antagonists and objects of jealousy is the violence that kills him when Wash loses control his rage. What begins as a class division between Sutpen’s mountain family and the South’s plantation aristocracy quickly becomes the division and antagonism of the African slave by the poor white.Sutpen, and the poor whites like him, feel frustration that the slaves of these plantation owners seem superiorly dressed, fed, and cared for. In the South, Sutpen “had learned the difference not only between white men and black ones, but he was learning that there was a difference between white men and white men not to be measured by lifting anvils or gouging eyes or how much whiskey you could drink” (183). He noticed that one of the main differences would be the presence of slaves and those slaves’ superior state, seeing “ a nigger who wore every day better clothes than he or his father and sisters had ever owned and ever expected to” (184). Not just the clothes, but the house of the whites were “not quite as well built and not at all as well kept and preserved as the ones the nigger slaves lived in” (185). In innocence, “he still didn’t envy the man…he coveted the shoes” (184). However, that innocence does not exist for the others like his father who do feel a rage and hatred of the man who owns the shoes, which Sutpen may later share.Sutpen, his father, and those like them engage in violence against the African slaves who are the only objects within reach and within their power to hurt that can represent the frustration and hatred they feel towards the plantation attitude of superiority. Sutpen realizes that this violence is useless and only a feeble attempt to fight back. He knows “you could hit them…and they would not hit back…But you did not want to, because they (the niggers) were not it, not what you wanted to hit” (186). When “the nigger told him, even before he had time to say what he came for, never to come to that front door again but to go around to the back,” Sutpen loses some of his innocence and feels the same violent frustration of his father (188). He must do something, like his father must beat the slaves, thinking, “But I can shoot him. (Not the monkey nigger. It was not the nigger anymore than it had been the nigger that his father had helped to whip that night” but the man in the hammock without shoes (190). Yet his voice tells him that it would do no good. Even the rich owner is not the final object of violence, it is beyond individuals, and Sutpen realizes, “‘You got to have land and niggers and a fine house to combat them with” and it’s a “them” beyond the slaves or rich owner (192).Sutpen, does, however indulge in fights with his Negroes as a way of releasing some of that stress and frustration that he feels, knowing the fights will not change anything or bring him closer to his design; yet, he cannot quite escape that need for violence and physical contact in the face of an abstract enemy. This continued physical brutality may also reflect the ultimate failure of his design in that he never really manages to leave that mountain mentality. As the rich owner must have seen his family then, “as cattle, creatures heavy and without grace, brutally evacuated into a world without hope or purpose for them, who would in turn spawn with brutish and vicious prolixity” is exactly the last picture we get of Sutpen’s desperate desire only to procreate (190). In the end, he could not “combat with them,” he could only fight slaves, and fighting the revolution in Haiti did no good because he fought against his mixed marriage and the son who is ultimately the demise of Sutpen. Fighting the slaves in the barn did no good since it just lowered his reputation by revealing his similarity to the slaves that he works with half-naked in the field and now fights in the bar. In the end, transferring violence onto the slaves helped no one and was not a successful means to his design.Work CitedFaulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom. New York: Vintage International, 1986. Print.

Ambivalence and Anguish: The Inescapability of the Old South and its Destruction of Quentin Compson in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom

William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom identifies the fundamental problem of Southern history as a wretched combination of two predominant qualities: the shameful and abhorrent nature of the past, and the haunting and mythical presence of such a past in the hearts and minds of the descendents of the old South. In the essay “Faulkner and the Civil War: Myth and Reality,” Douglas T. Miller argues that Faulkner often implies the retrospective “moral failings” of the old South but at the same time grants its history an immense mythic and heroic quality. “Much of Faulkner’s writing is concerned with the inability of the descendents of the old order leaders to deal effectively with the modern South,” writes Miller. “To some of these individuals it is the legend of the Civil War that incapacitates them from acting meaningfully in the new South” (204). Quentin Compson’s mental anguish in the final pages of the novel and his subsequent suicide reflect a profound inner estrangement—the myth of the antebellum South and the cold reality of the post-bellum world colliding in the mind of one man who cannot quite come to terms with either. Quentin’s long-winded and convoluted description of the South functions in the novel as a poignant commentary on the painful aura of history that exists below the Mason-Dixon line. It is something even he, a descendent of the South, simply “cannot pass” (Faulkner 139). The South is unintelligible for Quentin, yet its history has been internalized nonetheless. The stories that haunt Quentin into convulsions make the past no more lucid, but they do indicate the innate presence of the South in his soul. Miller contends there is a strong “myth-making quality of Southern memory. ” Quentin can internalize and access such mythical memories of a foregone era because he has been so shaped by that era. In Faulkner: The House Divided, Eric J. Sundquist calls Quentin “one of the remaining fragments of Sutpen’s nightmarish design, and as such [he] continues to express the long trauma that outlived the design” (130).The narrator conveys this profound connection by dissolving the boundaries between past and present. “It was a day of listening too—the listening, the hearing in 1909 even yet mostly that which [Quentin] already knew since he had been born in and still breathed the same air in which the church bells had rung on that Sunday morning of 1833” (Faulkner 23). The juxtaposition between Quentin’s innate association with the old South and Shreve’s fundamental detachment from it explains why the outsider can never embody the varied nuances of such a past. Shreve is removed both geographically and temporally from the legend of the South that he yearns to comprehend. Charles S. Sydnor’s essay entitled “The Southern Experiment in Writing Social History” argues that historians from the South face similar difficulty when explaining their past to people removed from the Southern tradition—“people who have in some measure a different standard of values” (460). [M]uch skill and art are needed if a civilization that is gone is to be made comprehensible to men of the civilization that displanted it. Perhaps the historian can never hope to accomplish the task as well as the novelist can do it. At best, the historian may make a profound and penetrating analysis of a culture, but he is rarely able to make it breathe and move before the eyes of another generation of men (Sydnor 460).Faulkner’s own work both mirrors and emphasizes this inability to translate certain aspects of history across regional lines. In the novel, Quentin—a man separated by time but not origin—tells Shreve: “You can’t understand it. You would have to be born there” (Faulkner 289). In agreement, Shreve says that Southerners have “something [his] people haven’t got”—the internal phantom of a past so repugnant that it can never quite be forgotten. “[I]f we have got it, it happened long ago across the water and so now there ain’t anything to look at every day and remind us of it” (Faulkner 289). The “something” Shreve describes is that certain and stubborn essence that makes the South, the haunting past that has lived decades beyond the Civil War. Sundquist contends that Faulkner’s entire work “is permeated by an aura of decay and failed magnificence—of a grand design gone wrong through the sins of the fathers” (97). More than a lasting problem, Shreve describes the Southern curse as eternal: “[A]s long as your children’s children produce children you won’t be anything but a descendent of a long line of colonels killed in Pickett’s charge at Manassas” (Faulkner 289). No matter how many generations arise, the origins and roots will always trace back to that ill-fated era. The curse is a blood curse—and there is no blotting out the history of the South. In an essay entitled “The Ever-Vanishing South,” Charles P. Roland notes that Southern fiction often “swarms” with long family lineages that go on ad infinitum: “The strengths and weaknesses of the present generation are seen as a legacy from its forebears” (12). In the individual case of Thomas Sutpen and his legatees, the sins and threats of miscegenation and incest pervade the generations and persevere with the life of Jim Bond, leading Quentin to ponder the infinity of memory. Maybe nothing ever happens once and is finished. Maybe happen is never once but like ripples maybe on water after the pebble sinks, the ripples moving on, spreading, the pool attached to a narrow umbilical cord to the next pool which the first pool feeds, has fed, did feed, let this second pool contain a different temperature of water, a different molecularity of having seen, felt, remembered, reflect in a different tone the infinite unchanging sky, it doesn’t matter: that pebble’s watery echo whose fall it did not even see moves across its surface too at the original ripple-space, to the old inevitable rhythm (Faulkner 210).The soft “ripples” in Quentin’s metaphor deviate from the intense reality of his own internal conflict: “[Quentin] began to jerk all over, violently and uncontrollably until he could even heard the bed” (Faulkner 288). Even though Quentin explicitly states, “I’m not cold,” Shreve offers Quentin coats and blames the cool climate of the Northeast; he cannot fathom that Quentin’s “violent and uncontrollable” spasms might have originated from a deep-seeded conflict of self spurred by the vestiges of his history. Unlike Shreve, who has nothing “to look at everyday” to remind him of the past, Quentin must face himself and grapple with his innate, albeit temporally distant, relationship with the South. The unintelligible nature of Quentin’s own history spurs his subsequent mental torment. When Shreve questions his understanding of the history, Quentin appears markedly ambivalent: “I don’t know … Yes, of course I understand it … I don’t know” (Faulkner 289). The South is at once ubiquitous and elusive. “What is it?” asks Shreve, “Something you live and breathe in like air? A kind of vacuum filled with wrath-like and indomitable anger and pride and glory at and in happenings that occurred and ceased fifty years ago?” (Faulkner 289). Shreve’s choice of the word “cease” emphasizes the crux of his confusion: not only did the “happenings” occur fifty years ago, but they also ostensibly ceased, concluded. Quentin’s internal struggles prove, however, that the Civil War was no panacea for the problems of the South, and the conflict yielded no catharsis. At the conclusion of Absalom, Absalom, there is little resolution for Quentin either. Quentin’s failure to understand his own past—one that he is inextricably and inescapably tied up in—contributes to a form of self-estrangement that he cannot overcome. He is neither synonymous with his past nor fully removed enough to function as a true member of his present. Quentin’s mental “miscegenation” reflects the debacle of slavery and the war itself, which Sundquist argues “makes Clytie neither slave nor free and makes Charles Bon neither slave nor son nor brother” (114). This form of “improbable marriage … creates the extraordinary psychological and stylistic turbulence in Faulkner’s reimagining of Quentin’s dilemma” (Sundquist 111). Zygmunt Bauman, author of Modernity and Ambivalence, defines the stranger as an “undecidable” who “disturbs the resonance between physical and psychical distance: he is physically close while remaining spiritually remote” (60). Quentin’s existence hinges on the nostalgic yet horrifying past of Sutpen and the old South to the extent that he cannot fully align with the physical reality of living in the 20th century. Indeed, one of the subtlest—and most thorny—difficulties inherent in Southern history is the “cultural difference between the old South and modern America” (Sydnor 460). In many ways, Quentin is torn between two worlds. Contrary to Abraham Lincoln’s vision in his House Divided speech, Quentin’s past impedes his being “all one thing, or all the other.” He is mentally unsound because he encompasses the old South yet contemporaneously exists in 1909. Quentin’s breakdown is based on his inability to strike the “balance between nostalgia and rage” necessary to lead a complete and contented life; he instead occupies both (Sundquist 112). Says Bauman: “Oppositions enable knowledge and action; undecidables paralyze them” (56). Quentin’s ambiguous response to Shreve’s question about his own comprehension of the South signals the novel’s conclusion, where Quentin ardently yet unpersuasively maintains that he does not hate the South. Shreve’s initial inquiry about the nature of the South functions as a precursor to Quentin’s psychological deterioration and consequent death in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Shreve’s loaded questions lead Quentin “through an agonizing rehearsal of Thomas Sutpen’s flawed design, through the might have been that had to be, and bring him to the threshold of his suicide” (Sundquist 100). “Tell about the South,” Shreve asks. “What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all” (Faulkner 142). Quentin attempts to answer the questions in his detailed account of Sutpen’s Hundred and the consequences such an abomination necessarily caused, yet by the novel’s conclusion he realizes he can never fully explain the South to someone like Shreve. Even more troubling is Shreve’s final question, “Why do they live at all?” Although Quentin does not explicitly give an answer, the response lies in Charles Bon’s letter to Judith. [W]ithin this sheet of paper you now hold the best of the old South which is dead, and the words you read were written upon it with the best … of the North which has conquered and will therefore, whether it likes it or not, will have to survive, I now believe that you and I are, strangely enough, included among those doomed to live (Faulkner 104-5).Quentin is doomed to live in the same way, doomed to a life dominated by the duality of one mind and one soul. Quentin’s collapse reflects the “utter fragility of the South’s own vision of itself,” as he has effectively stigmatized himself as a cultural stranger in the post-bellum world (Sundquist 99). Bauman defines stigma as “an otherwise innocuous trait”—such as Quentin’s bond with history—that “becomes a blemish, a sign of affliction, a cause of shame … eminently fit for the task of immobilizing the stranger in his identity of the excluded Other” (67-8). In asking about the South, Shreve indirectly implies and exposes Quentin’s innate cultural difference—a flaw Quentin himself does not recognize until the conclusion of the novel when he finds “that contagion [has spread] to his bedroom in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1910” (Sundquist 129). Bauman asserts that stigmatized individuals often “go out of their way to rid and suppress everything which makes them distinct from rightful members of the community … to guarantee their reclassification as insiders” (71). Quentin lacks such social flexibility because the essence of his stigma is the inescapable past embedded in his very being. To achieve full domestication, the stranger must “demonstrate the absence of old abomination,” says Bauman. “To prove the absence of a trait is an endemically inconclusive task [because] to unmake the past is downright impossible.” Faced with the inability of this task, Quentin hopelessly resolves to “unmake” his present—and future—by committing suicide in 1910. Works CitedBauman, Zygmunt. Modernity and Ambivalence. Cornell University Press: Ithaca, 1991.Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom. Vintage International: New York, 1990.Miller, Douglas T. “Faulkner and the Civil War: Myth and Reality. ”American Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 2, Part 1. (Summer, 1963) pp. 200-209 Roland, Charles P. “The Ever-Vanishing South.” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Feb. 1982), pp.3-20Sundquist, Eric J. Faulkner: The House Divided. Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 1983.Sydnor, Charles S. “The Southern Experiment in Writing Social History.” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Nov. 1945), pp. 455-468.

Relations Between Blacks and Whites in Faulkner’s Literature

Part of an old southern family from Mississippi, William Faulkner chooses to inscribe in his writing the culture of his white heritage: the stories, myths and nightmares of the South. He particularly selects to portray the fall of the old aristocracy and its interaction with the people in the imaginary town of Jefferson. He also engages his fictive world with a moving, often tragic, awareness of the impact of racism and prejudice against Black Americans. Faulkner’s writing not only reproduces the social and political institutions based on racism in the South, it frequently analyzes that racism, demonstrating its damaging impact on both races. Some of his chief concerns were the nature of evil and guilt in the chaotic relationships between blacks and whites, the resentment that they encounter against each other and the inexplicable attraction that often result from it. Faulkner’s black characters in particularly have difficult times dealing with all these issues that take them places where they question their true identities and the meaning of their life. At the end, most of these characters’ actions and lives are the result of the way they are treated according to the color of their skin. African Americans characters are a regular presence in Faulkner’s stories, even if they represent stereotypes: the tragic mulatto, the Mammy, the faithful retainer, the rebellious marginal man. Faulkner’s black characters were not written purely from personal contact and observation of life in the environs of Jefferson, Mississippi. He alludes to and perpetuates well-established myths of black identity and culture. Faulkner, born and raised in Mississippi in the early twentieth century has the point of view of the typical white man who sees blacks as primitive and dependant of white superiority. But at the same time he intents to stay neutral and only give the point of view of the inhabitants of Jefferson while telling the stories. The imaginary town is filled with atypical personalities who at one time or another find themselves the center of attention because of what they are: black, or “Negro” (the term Negro has a negative connotation and induces the reader to visualize the situation the way it was back in those days). The whites in the old-fashioned South aristocracy castigated blacks as worthless and never treated them as equal. Faulkner grew up in that state of mind “Faulkner struggled with this culture and this heritage [of racism and violence against blacks] all his life” and therefore transfers it to his writing.1 The theme of racial prejudice is brought up in several of Faulkner’s works: in Light in August (1932) the prejudice is shown to be most destructive when it is internalized in the character of Joe Christmas who believes that one of his parent was Negro; in Absalom, Absalom! (1936) Charles Bon is rejected by his father and brother because of his mixed blood. However, Faulkner’s most outspoken moral evaluation of the relationship and the problems between blacks and whites is to be found in Intruder In the Dust (1948), the story of Lucas Beauchamp who is falsely accused of murder. In the novel The Sound and the Fury (1929), the principal black character is Dilsey Gibson, mother of three children, who has been a faithful domestic servant and “Mammy” to the white Compson family for thirty years. She is strong and independent but retains her fidelity to the Compson family.The characters range from the traditional southern Mammy figure or the Negro help working in the white Masters plantation, to characters with a higher position that want to relate to these aristocratic southern families and want to be treated as equal. Faulkner’s black characters identify themselves with the way they are treated by whites, and the interaction between the two races is described as if everything that matter in the South involved around the subject. Racism was predominant at that time in America and was even more severe in the South, black lynching was an everyday occurrence and as the Jim Crow laws came to personify the system of a government promoting racial oppression and segregation in the United States. The Jim Crow system emerged towards the end of the historical period called Reconstruction, during which Congress had enacted laws designed to order relations between southern whites and newly freed blacks. Southern whites felt profoundly threatened by increasing claims by African American for social equality and economic opportunity. In reaction, white controlled state legislatures passed laws designed to rob blacks of their civil rights.In his novels, Faulkner goes beyond that idea and chooses to show the relationships between blacks and whites in the most intimate and profound ways. He takes his characters places where the complexity of their identity alters who they are and their relations with others. In the novel Light in August Joe Christmas, who believes to be mixed blood, is unable to bear the struggle of his individuality and comes to perform the most horrific acts: he has a shocking way of treating women, he either beats them or treats them like prostitutes and even kill them ” she was watching his face and began to move backwards slowly before him, staring at him, her face draining, her mouth open to scream, then she did scream”(225); he doesn’t have respect for anybody not even the church “we could see brother Bedenberry talking to him, trying to pacify him quiet, and him jerking at brother Bedenberry and slapping his face with his hand”(323). His constant preoccupation is his racial uncertain identity and he isolates himself because he refuses to accept either of the two racial categories he could belong to. Nevertheless Joe Christmas knows how to take advantage of the situation and exploit it: after having sex with a prostitute he tells her that he is black because he knows that she thinks that a black costumer is beneath her and won’t take his money or he tells white men that he is black just to provoke them into a fight.Charles Bon, in the novel Absalom, Absalom! doesn’t resemble the character of Joe Christmas. He doesn’t seem to be bothered by the fact that he is mixed blood (maybe because he knows it for a fact) and chooses to go Jefferson with his friend Henry Sutpen (who is actually his half brother) to meet his father. Once in the Sutpen’s house, Charles doesn’t reveal his real identity and enjoys the treatments given to a white man until the truth finally comes out and he is rejected by what he thought would be his family and killed by his brother who couldn’t accept the idea of him being in part a black man. In this story, the character himself is not subject to a change but those bound to him are.In Intruder in the Dust Lucas isolates himself, identifying with neither the black nor the white community of Yoknapatawpha. Nonetheless, he is connected to both: he has inherited land and three thousand dollars from the McCaslin estate, yet white society and the law consider him a black. Quite willing to ignore this racial reality, he reinvents himself: independent, prideful, and contemptuous of all others. Part of the process of rejecting his racial background and patrimony required that he rename himself, which he did in a way that echoes Faulkner’s own change of name for independence from his family. Faulkner changed the spelling of his name from Faulkner; Lucas Beauchamp was born Lucius Quentus Carothers McCaslin Beauchamp. By establishing Lucas’s independence from both races Faulkner avoids the perhaps impossible task of depicting the complexities of black society, as Richard King puts it “Faulkner’s creation of Lucas was artistically and morally daring for a white writer, Southerner or not.”2Another aspect of the relationship between blacks and whites analyzed in Faulkner’s novels is the intimate and sexual relations. Inter racial relationships at that time weren’t even an option, not in the open at least. The fact that some of the characters are mixed blood implies that one of their parents is white and every single time it is the father. It appears that it was more acceptable for a white man to have sexual relations with a black woman while for a white woman to have relations with a black man was shameful, even for a prostitute. Southern racial distinction allowed white men to use black women as sexual objects but a black man could be hanged immediately if he even spoke familiarly with a white woman. But there is the exception of Joanna Burden, character in Light in August, she is Joe Christmas lover and during their lovemaking she murmurs “Negro! Negro! Negro!”(260) her sexual passion seems to be directed to the racial aspect of the situation. “Within six months she was corrupted” (260) this is refers to Joanna Burden’s passion for Joe Christmas, but could that be the reason why white women were not allowed to have sexual relations with a black men, because they might like it? Men in another end did not think twice before having sex with a black woman, a multitude of Faulkner’s characters have offspring who are the result of a relation with a black woman. As young as fourteen years old, Christmas and a few friends were taking turns in having sex with a black girl; it could be for proof of superiority that white men would have sex with black women or it could also be that they associate them with feminine qualities. In the short story That Evening Sun Faulkner takes the issue even further as Nancy (a black servant in the Compson’s house) is pregnant with another man’s child, a white Baptist named Stovall. As a result, her husband Jesus is “waiting outside of the cabin to slit her throat” because he cannot bear the idea of his wife having an other man’s child, even worse, a white man’s child. Go Down, Moses (1942) is the direct sequel to Absalom, Absalom!, it is Faulkner’s second most painful and agonizing novel because it shows the consequences to man and culture when the present is built on a past of miscegenation. The novel, named for a gospel song that is a cry for a rescuer for blacks, traces a new aristocratic family on a plantation in Yoknapatawpha, but the McCaslins, like the Sutpens, are guilty of miscegenation. In fact, when Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin impregnates his own daughter by a slave woman, the girl’s mother commits suicide in an icy creek at Christmas. Through his writing, Faulkner tries to analyze and understand the nature of human beings, how can they be so similar and so different at the same time? Black or white, people respond a certain way mostly to protect themselves, the behavior is then learned and repeated over and over again, generations after generations. Nancy’s remark (That Evening Sun) “I aint nothing but a nigger …it aint none of my fault”, expose the way she has internalized the condemnation to such an extent that she really believes that she is without value. Even when they try to alienate themselves from each other, blacks and whites always find themselves on the same path and even if they fight against, or for, what they are at the end they are fighting for the same thing: the acceptance and the acknowledgment that they matter.Faulkner struggled with this culture, and this heritage all his life. In his last years, he spoke up in newspaper letters against the punishment of blacks, which he thought was excessive. He lost the friendships he had and the recognition of his own brother and much of his family. At the same time, he wrote in Ebony magazine of all places, the leading black national magazine published in the North, an argument that precisely echoes Ike McCaslin in “Delta Autumn”: he argued that the South should go slowly and independently on matters of race, taking perhaps a hundred, perhaps a thousand years to assimilate everyone into a single race.3NOTES1 “Faulkner and Racism” Critical Essays on William Faulkner .ed. Arthur Kinney 265.2 .”Lucas Beauchamp and William Faulkner: Blood Brothers,” Critical Essays on William Faulkner, ed. Kinney 234. 3 “Faulkner and Racism” Critical Essays on William Faulkner, ed. Kinney 265-278.BIBLIOGRAPHYBinley, Leslie. “Literary Pilgrimages: William Faulkner”. The New York Times May 10 1998: 23-24.Cowley, Malcolm. The portable Faulkner. Viking.Boston,1986.Faulker, William. Absalom,Absalom! New York. Vintage International Ed. 1990.Faulker, William. Light in August .New York. Vintage International Ed. 1992.Hamblin,Robert W. and Charles Peek. “A William Faulkner Enciclopedia”. Questia Online Library. Greenwood Press, 1999. Kinney,Arthur F. “Faulkner and Racism”. Critical Essay on William Faulkner Connotations 3.3 (1993-94): 265-278. .

“I am Telling”: Narrative and Identity in Absalom, Absalom!

Who says what – and how and when – may be the most compelling way William Faulkner constructs his characters in Absalom, Absalom! Storytelling is not just an act in which the saga of the Sutpens is recounted, revised, and even recreated; it is a gesture of self-disclosure. Each revelation about the past provides a glimpse into the present state of the narrating character’s mind. The rhetoric, the digressions, the strange (and often obsessive) fixations of each character’s account are the products of a range of personalities and view points, unable to agree on a definitive version of the story.There are, to be sure, overlaps; these are the events in the stories that transcend the proclivities of each narrator and are probably, though not certainly, the basic facts of what happened. We know there was a man named Thomas Sutpen; who came to Jefferson, Missippi; who married Ellen Coldfield; who had two children with his wife; whose son befriended and later killed a man named Bon; whose daughter was Bon’s betrothed; who fought in the Civil War; and who longed for a male heir to carry on the Sutpen legacy. The passion of the storytellers makes us forget that these are the only uniformly corroborated elements of the story. Neither Bond’s identity nor Sutpen’s mysterious past, though they seem so essential to our understanding of the novel, are indisputable. It is not impossible, indeed, that they are inventions of the narrators, perhaps unconscious embellishments of the story in order to do away with all its troublesome lacunae. Like the reader, the characters have had to infer and imagine a great deal to arrive at a plausible rendering of how things really happened.These discrepancies, as bewildering as they often are, do not exist to indict the narrators for taking creative liberties with history. Faulkner does not see them as liars or manipulators and we should not either. Indeed, there is no “authentic” version of the Sutpen story, and so, within the bounds of the basic facts we have established, there can be no wrong version. This is not objective reporting; what we have instead are personal interpretations. What we also have are expressions of personality. The story Quentin tells says as much about Quentin Compson as it does about the Sutpens and their travails. He brings his own experiences and opinions to the story, which the reader may discover embedded in the narrative he recounts. The same, of course, is true of Miss Rosa, Mr. Compson, Shreve, and all the others. At any point in the multiple narratives in Absalom, Absalom!, it is essential to keep in mind that there are two stories being told: one, the tragic history of the Sutpens, the other, the unwitting autobiography of the raconteur.This essay attempts to examine the different narratives in the novel in order to identify and analyze the traits of each of the narrators. By doing this, I also hope to clear up some of the ambiguities of the narration in the novel. The question in Absalom, Absalom! is often “Who is speaking?” rather than “How does this character speak?” Shifts in font, the passing on of stories (“I heard it from A who heard it from B…”, etc.), and the long sentences and paragraphs obfuscate which character is telling the story. With a better understanding of the “voice” of each of the characters, much of the confusion surrounding these parts of the narrative should clear up a bit.Miss Rosa is the first of the characters to tell the Sutpen saga. She is also a participant in the story and her version is perhaps the most impassioned and aggressive. Her relationship with Sutpen (first as sister-in-law, then as bride-to-be) has left her angry and bitter. Indeed, even after the passing of several decades, she still recalls the man through “outraged recapitulation.” A completely ruthless and nefarious Colonel Thomas Sutpen serves as the central figure of her story.Before Rosa tells her story, though, she chooses a listener: Quentin Compson. Quentin is confused by her selection. She sarcastically claims that she is telling him the story because he may one day “enter the literary profession” and if his wife should ever want a new gown, he could “write this and submit it to the magazines” for money. He knows that “she dont mean that” but he struggles to discover the real reason she has beckoned him into her dark, wisteria scented room. His next hypothesis approaches the truth but fails to account for some of the specifics: “it’s because she wants it told…so that people…will read it and know at last why God let us lose the War: that only through the blood of our men and the tears of our women could He stay this demon and efface his name and lineage from the earth.”This is part of Miss Rosa’s motivation, but it still does not answer the question “Why Quentin?” Couldn’t anyone pass on the story? Mr. Compson offers a very simple, practical explanation which proves to be true later in the novel. “It’s because,” he tells Quentin, “she will need someone to go with her [to Sutpen’s Hundred] – a man, gentleman, yet one young enough to do what she wants, do it the way she wants it done.” He then adds: “And she chose you because your grandfather was the nearest thing to a friend which Sutpen ever had in this country.”Although Quentin later – and somewhat comically – disappoints Rosa by failing to bring an ax on their excursion to Sutpen’s Hundred, as a listener he serves two purposes for Rosa. First, he can help her bring her story to its close by confronting the last physical and human remnants of the Sutpen legacy. And second, he can be receptive to the story in a way only an “insider” could be; there was a connection between the Sutpens and Compsons two generations ago and it exists still “through heredity.” Because Rosa needs Quentin much more than Quentin needs her, she knows she must shape her story in such a way that it presents a persuasive case for going to Sutpen’s Hundred.It’s not surprising, then, that she waits to reveal her real reason for wanting to visit Sutpen’s Hundred until after the most exciting events of the story (along with her most melodramatic rhetoric) have been divulged. Her timing is impeccable. At the beginning of chapter five, she commences her account of the showdown between Henry and Bon, Sutpen’s return from the Civil War and the dilapidated state of the property and family. As usual, though, Miss Rosa’s main focus is the character of Sutpen and in this chapter she gives some of the most stirring images of him in the book. Before she even begins her account of what happened, she describes him as”the brute instrument of that justice which presides over human events, which incept in the individual, runs smooth…but which, by man or woman flouted, drives on like fiery steel and overrides both weakly just and unjust strong, both vanquisher and innocent victimized.”In tone and syntax, her portrayal of Sutpen is wrought with frenzied, Biblical, and apocalyptic language. He is, in her mind, the source of all the evil ever done unto her and her family. Rosa follows this with a more subtle rhetorical tactic. Near the end of the chapter, she plaintively sums it up by saying “that was all. Or rather, not all, since there is no all, no finish; it’s not the blow we suffer form but the tedious repercussive anti-climax of it, the rubbishy aftermath to clear away from off the very threshold of despair.” Quentin, by now, is engrossed in the saga. Miss Rosa knows that she can tantalize him into accompanying her to the house with the enigmatic claim that “there’s something in that house…something living in it. Hidden in it.” Here is a chance to rid the family of the “rubbishy aftermath.” Here is a chance to indulge Quentin’s curiosity and relieve Miss Rosa’s uneasy superstition.It has been pointed out by many critics that Absalom, Absalom! is full of Gothic overtones. The women in the novel seem to embody these Gothic elements more than anyone or thing else in the novel, with Miss Rosa, because she is the most fully developed female character, being somewhat of a gothic ingenue. Her descriptions are informed by a sense of dark, brooding fate and archetypes – the maiden, the demon, etc. – playing out lives whose outcomes were determined long ago. Her story has, like the gothic novel, three main registers, which may exist either independently or intermingled: the romantic, the monstrous, and the tragic. Most of the romance of her story naturally involves the two couples in the Sutpen saga, Thomas and Ellen and Bon and Judith. The marriage between Ellen and Sutpen is, according to Rosa, both “a living fairy tale” and “an edifice like Bluebeard’s.” Similarly, she notes that in the garden where Judith and Bon would stroll, she felt a “fairy tale come alive.” The romantic is always teetering on the monstrous, though, as the Bluebeard comparison (and the potential incest) highlights. When treating her own “romance” with Sutpen, Rosa does away with any pretence of tenderness and describes the whole affair – including the man himself – as a monstrosity. He was, she says, an “ogre” and “a madman who creates within his very coffin walls his fabulous immeasurable Camelots and Carcassonnes.” In the end, she sees the whole story subsumed by its tragic ending and she proclaims her sister’s very first encounter with Sutpen to have been unnoticed evidence of a “fatality and curse on the South and on our family.”Mr. Compson, removed from the heart of the Sutpen saga by a generation, approaches his storytelling with distance and without personal grievances. His version of the story rivals Rosa’s in its grandiosity, but it is more a classical tragedy than a gothic novel. Mr. Compson’s tendency is to aggrandize where Rosa’s was to romanticize. He is not willing to dismiss Sutpen as pure evil; indeed, he considers him a tragic hero, a man with “alertness for measuring and weighing event against eventuality, circumstance against human nature, his own fallible judgment and mortal clay against not only human but natural forces.” The whole saga is an epic tragedy, with “people too as we are and victims too as we are, but victims of a different circumstance, simpler and therefore, integer for integer, larger, more heroic and the figures therefore more heroic too.” In this schema, Sutpen has no agency either to cause or to prevent the horrible things that happen to his family and himself. Mr. Compson explains, rather swept up in his own rhetoric, that Sutpen was”unaware that his flowering was a forced bloom…and that while he was still playing the scene to the audience, behind him fate, destiny, retribution, irony – the stage manager, call him what you will – was already striking the set and dragging on the synthetic and spurious shadows of the next one.”It is likely that Mr. Compson inherited his sympathetic view of Sutpen from his own father, who was Sutpen’s one friend in Jefferson. Sutpen confided in the elder Compson the story of his childhood and early adulthood – everything, that is, that took place up until his appearance in Jefferson. Mr. Compson repeats Sutpen’s story to Quentin and, although it is being passed on for a third time, Sutpen’s frank, detached narrative comes through with as little adulteration as Quentin’s memories of Miss Rosa’s story.Thomas Sutpen’s narrative is unique in the novel. It covers most of, but not all, the years of his life preceding his arrival in Jefferson. He is, it would seem, mysterious even to himself, for he recounts his own life story from a faraway, even dreamy point of view. Colonel Compson recalls being unsettled by Sutpen’s utter divorce from his earlier life: “He was not talking about himself. He was telling a story. He was not bragging about something he had done; he was just telling a story about something a man named Thomas Sutpen had experienced, which would still have been the same story if the man had had no name at all, if it had been told about any man or no man over whiskey at night.” Sutpen seems to have transcended all personal entanglements in order to establish his vast dynasty in Jefferson. Rosa may not have been far from the truth when she declared Sutpen to be no more than “a walking shadow.”It is evident, though, that his past is not so neutral a topic as he would have it seem from his tone. His trouble when he was younger, Sutpen tells Colonel Compson, was “innocence.” He explains that “all of a sudden he discovered, not what he wanted to do but what he just had to do, had to do it whether he wanted to or not, because if he did not do it he knew he could never live with himself for the rest of his life.” The use of the word “innocence” followed by this description of Sutpen’s almost impersonal ambition makes it clear that the purpose of his “design” was never pleasure and wealth for their own sakes. Rather, he set out to settle scores and to triumph in order to avenge the mistreatment he had received in the world. He has no personal targets just as he has no personal attachments to the process. He is, however, determined to succeed.In spite of – or perhaps because of – his detachment as a narrator, Sutpen tells his own story like a myth, which later becomes the inspiration for Mr. Compson’s version of the entire Sutpen saga. “What I learned,” Sutpen recalls of his brief period of schooling, “was that there was a place called the West Indies to which poor men went in ships and became rich, it didn’t matter how, so long as that man was clever and courageous.” This candid recollection tells us two things. The first is that the “design” is every bit as calculated and deep-rooted as Sutpen claims. Apparently, too, the rancor Miss Rosa suspects to be the basis of Sutpen’s actions is in fact callous solipsism. The second is that Sutpen envisions himself on a kind of heroic quest and his honor is invested in its success. He manages to make his position extraordinarily convincing and sympathetic to Colonel Compson, who observes that “destiny had fitted itself to him, to his innocence, his pristine aptitude for platform drama and childlike heroic simplicity.”By the end of Sutpen’s life, though, these heroic aspirations have become an ironic prelude to an impossible situation. With Bon’s return, Sutpen’s design quickly comes undone. If he acknowledges Bon, the legacy splits between his two sons, one of which has negro blood. If he doesn’t, Judith will marry Bon and there will be both incest and miscegenation in the Sutpen line. When he comes to Colonel Compson to finish his story, then, his tone has changed a great deal. He no longer assumes that the success of his design is inevitable. Indeed, it seems unlikely. Before, it was Sutpen as a young Ulysses; now he comes before Colonel Compson as a bedraggled old Lear. He still believes in fate, but he now appreciates its ironic blindness, as he gives a “clear and simple synopsis of his history,” all the while “trying to explain to circumstance, to fate itself, the logical steps by which he had arrived at a result absolutely and forever incredible.” Sutpen never takes responsibility for the outcome of his life and Colonel Compson never levels blame at him either. With his naive will to power (and his perfectly serene articulation of his “fate”), Sutpen dies, at least in his own eyes, a tragic hero, brought down by his tragic flaw: an “abysmal and purblind innocence.”Quentin and Shreve, the last of the narrators in Absalom, Absalom!, are also the most difficult to identify since they are often more of a narrating tag-team than individuals telling their own stories. Shreve does not always wait for Quentin to finish parts of the story; he’s perfectly happy to come up with his own ending, supply his own details, and anticipate outcomes with gleeful zeal. This is not the first time since coming to Harvard that Quentin has had such an eager – and unsought – audience. He has been approached multiple times with the same round of inquiries: “Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.” Faulkner significantly omits the question marks here, morphing the nominally interrogative into a series of staccato commands. Like the others, Shreve is not initially receptive to Quentin’s careful narration. He just wants some abbreviated anecdotes about the stereotypically “Southern” way of life. His motivation at first is only enthusiastic curiosity; it takes some time before he begins to ask rather than tell Quentin what happened.At the beginning of the shared narrative (chapter 6), Shreve assumes almost complete control. Quentin is still mulling over his father’s letter about Miss Rosa’s death and he does little more than interpolate a “yes” into Shreve’s enormous monologue. Clearly, Shreve has heard bits and pieces of the Sutpen story before. He playfully reverses their roles by ending enormous sections of his narrative with a simple yes-no question so that he is really just asking and answering the questions at once. Quentin is merely a tangential participant in Shreve’s enormous feat of memory and creative reinterpretation. With a touch of irony, he recasts the story in grandiloquent language and the kind of imagery and allusions one would expect of a Harvard undergraduate:”If [Sutpen] hadn’t been a demon his children wouldn’t have needed protection from him and [Rosa] wouldn’t have had to go out there and be betrayed by the old meat and find instead of a widowed Agamemnon to her Cassandra an ancient stiff-jointed Pyramus to her eager untried Thisbe.” Because Shreve, as a Canadian, is a complete outsider to the story, he comes to it with no personal affinities to any one character or aspect of the saga. Unlike Rosa’s gothic and Mr. Compson’s classical interpretation, Shreve’s account is a mixed-bag of genres, blending the comic, the tragic, the farcical, and the absurd. His only one consistent tone is “exciting” and he does all he can to make his story evocative and even self-consciously scandalous.With all this frenetic rhetorical vim, it soon becomes apparent what Shreve is attempting to do with the story: dramatize it. After his exhaustive recapitulation of the story, he remarks to Quentin “Jesus, the South is fine, isn’t it. It’s better than the theatre, isn’t it. It’s better than Ben Hur, isn’t it. No wonder you have to come away now and then, isn’t it.” Again, Faulkner omits the quotation marks, leading the reader to believe that Shreve is simply asserting his pre-conceived notions of the South rather than actually reacting to the story. His view of the Sutpen saga as a Southern drama proves just how much of an outsider he is. He has very little conception of the people involved in the story and thinks only in terms of sweeping conflicts and transgressions followed inevitably by some wholesale, melodramatic finale.Shreve also has a deep appreciation for ironic endings and, half in jest, he begins to shift the focus of the story from Thomas Sutpen himself to his three children. The “character” Sutpen seems to have impressed Shreve much less that either Rosa or Mr. Compson. Indeed, Sutpen was interfering with the action of Shreve’s narrative, with his psychological ambiguities and waning life span. Shreve wants a story of passion and youthful impetuosity and the aging Sutpen is no longer an acceptable protagonists. He is perfectly delighted to concentrate on Henry and Bon, whose ironic secret is far more in keeping with Shreve’s idea of a good story.Quentin, unhappy at the prospect of Shreve taking the Sutpen saga and running amok with it, finally jumps in and takes control of the narrative. Shreve summarizes the story with his hyperbolic language up until the point when Rosa and Quentin arrived at Sutpen’s Hundred. Quentin keeps his distance from the narrative at first, but midway through Shreve’s energetic if inaccurate story telling, Quentin thinks to himself “Yes, I have had to listen too long.” The thought occurs to him twice more. Faulkner signifies Quentin’s growing involvement in the story by alternating increasingly longer passages of Quentin’s interior monologue with Shreve’s story. By the end of chapter six, the two sections are of equal length; Quentin is ready to be the story teller.Unlike Shreve, Quentin puts a great deal of effort into telling the story as coolly and as calmly as possible. He speaks with a “curious repressed calm voice” and refuses to indulge Shreve by acknowledging the Canadian’s frequent, semi-sarcastic interruptions. Quentin’s goal as narrator is to make sense of what happened to the Sutpens and to reconcile himself to it. His discourse is deliberate and assertive, his attitude “brooding.” For Quentin, the Sutpen story is no drama, but an incomplete puzzle requiring serious attention and a very minimal sense of humor. Shreve is intrigued by the story but a bit exasperated -“but go on…go on” – with Quentin’s narrative style as well.It is not until Quentin begins discussing Sutpen’s children that the narrative act becomes collaborative. Quentin is amenable to Shreve’s request that he discuss Henry, Judith and Bon, but there is a slight hesitance. This is clearly the part of the story that is both the most fascinating and the least lucid, for Quentin as well as for Shreve. Nonetheless, Quentin chooses to proceed and, just before beginning, he formulates in his mind the crucial analogy articulating the relationship between the past of the story and the present of the narrators:”Maybe nothing ever happens once and is finished. Maybe happen is never once but like ripples maybe on water after the pebble sinks, and ripples moving on, spreading, the pool attached by a narrow umbilical water-cord to the next pool which the first pool feeds, has fed, did feed, let this second pool contain a different temperature of water, a different molecularity of having seen, felt remembered.”Quentin is very unsure, as the multiple “maybes” no doubt indicate, about the significance (or even the validity, for that matter) of his analogy. But by finally realizing that the actions of the past come to bear on the outcomes of the future, the Sutpen history becomes much more accessible to him. He no longer feels a need to be quite so distantly reverent; it is, after all, his story too and he has every right to poke and prod at it for personal reasons.At last, Quentin and Shreve compromise on their understanding of the proper way to relate the history of the Sutpens – that is, rather than assert their own versions of the story, they allow the story to assert itself over them. Henry and Bon are brought to the forefront of the narrative and the pace of the story slows down so that the focus is not on the dramatic aspects, but on the personal. These changes intensify the emotional impact of the story immensely. Quentin and Shreve, full of bravura, are at first embarrassed by their deep investment in the story and try to disguise their “youthful shame of being moved.” The intimacy the story creates between the two boys is so acute, in fact, that Faulkner begins to use sexual analogies to describe their joint narrative. At first, Quentin and Shreve are reluctant and regard each other “almost as a youth and a very young girl might out of virginity itself – a sort of hushed and naked searching.” As they progress further into the story, Faulkner describes their narrative process as “creating between them…people.” And ultimately, Quentin and Shreve unite in a “happy marriage of speaking and hearing…in order to overpass to love” and create a story in which “there might be paradox and inconsistency but nothing fault nor false.”This narrative “marriage” is not only between speaking and hearing but between past and present as well. As Quentin glimpsed in his pebble and pool analogy, the present frequently just reiterates what has already happened. History, in this sense, is a pattern appearing again and again over the course of time. This is why what happened to Henry, Bon, and Judith is not simply an inscrutable story (as Quentin originally thought) or grand drama (as Shreve believed with great joviality). Indeed, it is something that could happen to the two of them. With this in mind, the boys really do imagine themselves as Henry and Bon, converging in experience through the use of narrative, “so that now it was not two but four of them riding the two horses through the dark over the frozen December ruts of that Christmas: four of them and then just two – Charles-Shreve and Quentin-Henry.” Notably, it is at this point also that Faulkner notes (for the first of perhaps half a dozen times) that the story has gone beyond an exchange of words and understanding between two people: “it did not matter (and possibly neither of them conscious of the distinction) which one had been doing the talking and which the listening.” Through their imaginative involvement in the story, Quentin and Shreve overcome both narrative and temporal convention and finally, after much exhaustion, bring the story a close. At least, that is, for now.Quentin is very little comforted by the end of his and Shreve’s narrative. Shreve, retreating back to his ironic, macho posturing of before, chases the post-story silence away by exclaiming, “The South. Jesus. No wonder you folks all outlive yourselves by years and years and years.” Quentin retains his brooding, pensive silence, lying rigidly in the cold dorm room and thinking to himself “Nevermore of peace. Nevermore. Nevermore. Nevermore.” The story of the Sutpens has ended, but there has not been (nor will there be) any sort of resolution. Miss Rosa, Mr. Compson, Sutpen, Quentin and Shreve have all tried to bend the story into the shape they most desire, be it a gothic romance, a classical tragedy, a heroic epic, a mystery, or a Southern farce. It is pliable enough, but the story cannot resist being “re-bent” by any narrator who happens upon it. The story, alas, will never be in the exact shape of history. It can, however, be a very close approximation of the patterns of the narrator’s mind.

The Problem with Being There: The Distorting Effect of Personal Experience in Absalom, Absalom

Absalom, Absalom displays two narrators standing at opposite poles in their understanding of time. The first of these, Rosa Coldfield, narrates to a patiently listening Quentin Compson what one might call the life and times of Thomas Sutpen. This rather faulty description of her act, though, immediately suggests something that is missing from her notion of Sutpen, namely a life and times. She takes Sutpen out of time‹sees him as immortal, alternately considering him a god and a demon. Quentin, the second narrator, has a diametrically opposed sense of time‹he has a near philosophically complete understanding of time in the sense expounded by Henri Bergson. This understanding seems to come through some cultural process of osmosis, through which absolute understanding is inherited. While Rosa’s problem might appear an isolated insensitivity to this heritage, Faulkner delicately traces Rosa’s problem, not to Rosa, but instead to her relationship to the story she is telling, her personal involvement in the story. In this tracing we see Rosa’s problem not as an isolated one, but as a crisis of understanding at the very heart of Faulkner’s own struggles in writing. The monologues of Rosa Coldfield to which Quentin listens have one thing at their center: Thomas Sutpen. At the core of her understanding is her belief in his immortality. When she learned of his death she says denied it: “‘Dead?’ I cried. ŒDead?’ You? You lie; you’re not dead, heaven cannot, and hell dare not, have you/” (172). This denial of Sutpen’s end is complimented by a denial of his beginning when recalling the first time she saw Sutpen: “he first rode into town out of no discernible past” (11). In these first and last moments Rosa states her belief in a Sutpen that came from nowhere and is going to nowhere. In her mind, he is not a creation moving from beginning to end, instead he is perpetually suspended somewhere in between, outside of time. When he goes off to war, she simply “stayed there and waited for Thomas Sutpen to come home,” with never a doubt in her mind that he would survive even the bloodiest of wars (154). This view is not present only in Rosa’s recollection of the macro-structure of Sutpen’s life, but also in the micro-structure. When describing her memory of his marriage proposal to her, she says, “he had never once thought about what he asked me to do until the moment he asked it” (166). Just as in his life as a whole, in his individual actions she sees no cause, no beginning, no thought, only pure action. As these actions came from nowhere, they “left no ripple save those instantaneous and incredible tears” (159). His actions seem to be a single point of energy with no density, and no matter‹no existence outside of their pure energy. Even the words that he says are “not to be spoken and heard but to be read carved in the bland stone” (164). Spoken sentences assume a progression of individual words, one coming after another, and thus a progression of time. Rosa rejects this and instead understands his words as occurring all at once, in an inscription. The lack of dialogue spreads to Rosa’s entire monologue. While she occasionally remembers something that she said or that was said directly to her, her story is primarily bereft of any dialogue. The denial of Sutpen’s existence between moments extends to her entire story. She sees time as a series of points, not a progression or succession.If the essence of time is, as Henri Bergson defined it, two things: “points,” but “in addition, the obscure and mysterious passage from one position to the next” (43), then Rosa has clearly stripped her story of the second‹the passage from one position to the next. It is this succession from one to the next that creates the thing Bergson posits as essential to all beings in time: duration. In stripping her characters of duration she becomes one of the two degenerate types of historians that Nietzsche talks about: the antiquarian. She “mummifies” her past by varnishing each past moment like a piece of furniture and then setting it aside to deny its existence in a larger set of moments, as you would deny a piece of furniture a place in a room. In doing this Nietzsche says one “envelops himself in an odour of decay” (21). Perhaps this is just what Quentin detects when he smells a “dim coffin-smelling gloom” (8) in the room where he sits to listen to Rosa’s story. In the mummification, and the stripping of both Sutpen and her entire past of any flux she strips the past of its temporality. The problem of her a-temporality is compounded by the small number of moments that she sees in the past; if she provides the reader snapshots, she provides very few snapshots. She sees each set of time as composed of only a few isolated moments. Recounting the three months immediately after Sutpen returned home, she says, “And then one afternoon in January Thomas Sutpen came home; someone looked up where we were preparing the garden for another year’s food and saw him riding up the drive. And then one evening I became engaged to marry him” (158). She reduces this three months to two single moments. Her reduction of time is even more apparent on the large scale. As the reader might believe from Rosa’s story, her life was but a few moments: the moment of Bon’s death, the moments of handing food to her father in the attic, the moment where Thomas Sutpen proposed to her, and a few others. Nothing else in her life is revealed except these moments. Thus she is also like the other of Nietzsche two degenerate historians, the monumental historian. As Nietzsche describes, “very great portions of the past are forgotten and despised, and flow away . . . and only single embellished facts stand out as islands” (17). In antiquating and monumentalizing her past, she does a similar thing to her past that Gail Hightower does to his in Light in August. Thinking of the past, Hightower says “the world hangs in a green suspension in color and texture like light through colored glass” (468). He sees the past as a stilllife, more specifically, in both the description of the material as glasslike and green, it seems possible that this is a reference to Keats’ green Grecian Urn. Whether it is or isn’t, the urn is a good objective correlative for what Rosa has done with time. By picking a few monumental moments out of her past and depriving these moments of any movement she makes of her past something like a frieze on an urn. Quentin is patient during Rosa’s monologue but towards the end the narrator reveals that Quentin “was not listening.” He was not listening because there was “something which he could not pass” (172). He needs to go back and recollect something, and from the first moments of recollection he shows himself to be interested in all about the life and times of Thomas Sutpen that Rosa was not, namely the time and his existence as a living, breathing creature. In a phrase, he was interested in re-temporalizing the story that Rosa told him. Just moments after Rosa’s voice had trailed off into the warm Mississippi night he draws into the story one primary element that had been missing from Rosa’s hours of monologue: dialogue. He imagines the dialogue between Henry and Judith just after Henry had killed Judith’s lover, Bon:Now you cant marry him.Why cant I marry him?Because he’s dead.Dead?Yes. I killed him. (172)By assuming this past as a medium in which one word could follow another, Quentin assumes a temporal succession in a way immediately foreign to Rosa’s creation. But the description that immediately precedes this‹Quentin’s re-creation of Judith’s running to the door upon hearing the shot that killed Bon‹already revealed Quentin’s interest in temporal succession. Littering his description with signifiers of temporal flux, he tells of Judith “pausing, looking at the door,” “then caught swiftly up by the white girl and held before her as the door crashed in and the brother stood there hatless . . . the pistol still hanging against his flank.” Words like, pausing, swiftly, and still all fundamentally suggest an understanding of time conscious of its quality as a succession of moments, each passing into one another. All of this: “He (Quentin) couldn’t pass that.” Quentin re-conceptualizes this climactic moment as having all that Rosa never saw in her own past, and then extends this to the whole of Sutpen’s story. In the beginning of his own story he still refers to Sutpen as a demon: “Jones squatted against a post, rising from time to time to pour for the demon from the demijohn” (183). But in the very moment that he refers to the demon, he also refers to the demon as existing in a situation in which moments followed one upon another‹flowing time is suggested in the phrase “from time to time.” Quentin deepens the awareness of this flux by fixing Rosa’s notion of Sutpen’s actions coming out of nowhere. In each of Sutpen’s action, Quentin imagines the uncertainty of Sutpen before acting. Considering the moment in Sutpen’s childhood where Sutpen was rejected entrance into the big plantation house, Quentin imagines Sutpen arguing with himself: “But I can shoot him: he argued with himself and the other: No. That wouldn’t do no good: and the first: What shall we do then? and the other: I don’t know” (235). The extent to which Sutpen’s decisions come from timely deliberation is nearly exaggerated in this one passage, but the display of each decision underscores the way each moment arises out of the one before. In this imagined internal argument he also sees a child who is aware of the consequences of his action, where Rosa saw his actions as somehow preordained. The causal, straightforward movement apparent in Sutpen’s life is a testament to the re-temporalization that Quentin has completed. Rosa’s description ignored that second aspect of Bergson’s definition of time, but Quentin grasps what Bergson called the “obscure and mysterious passage from one position to the next.” Quentin sees the time of Sutpen as “a succession of states, each of which announces that which follows and contains that which precedes it” (25).In that moment where he imagines the child Sutpen arguing with himself, there is another assumption missing from Rosa’s telling, and another element that serves to place Sutpen in a temporal continuum: a young Sutpen. Quentin sees a definite beginning to Sutpen’s life: “he was born in West Virginia in the mountains” (220). And he also narrates Sutpen’s death. The larger structure of Sutpen’s life gains a sense of continuity that is not only present in Quentin’s story, but also in the character’s within Quentin’s story. Sutpen realizes within this story that “he still knew he had courage, and though he may have come to doubt lately that he had acquired that shrewdness which at one time he believed he had, he still believed that it existed somewhere in the world to be learned and that if it could be learned he would learn it yet” (273). Quentin does not merely imagine a man existing in time, he also presents a man who is aware of his existence in time. This awareness underscores the interiority of Quentin’s view of Sutpen. In order to understand the duration of another thing, Bergson says you must “enter into it.” Duration is the absolute of the being‹it is the core‹and to understand this about another person implies that you understand its “states of mind;” that you are in touch with that own being’s subjectivity. In order to do this, Bergson says, “I insert myself in them by an effort of imagination” (21). But this act, and the absolute understanding that comes with it, can only be given by what Bergson says is the highest act of understanding: intuition. As the constant use of the word imagination suggests, along with the interiority of Quentin’s view, Quentin has this intuition of the absolute with his characters.The origin of the distinction between the narration of Rosa and Quentin is elucidated by Faulkner’s distinction between the terms memory and knowing in Light in August. The dense and tangled description begins: “memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects” (119). Memory precedes knowledge, or things that can be recollected‹we can temporarily assume that it is inherited rather than learned experientially. As the entire story of Thomas Sutpen occurred before Quentin was born, his understanding clearly comes to him from something innate. Shreve tells Quentin “you knew it all already, had learned, absorbed it already without the medium of speech somehow from having been born and living beside it” (212). Without the medium of speech, the most clear stand-in for experiential knowledge in this moment, Quentin still understands. In this very same passage Faulkner draws an incredibly subtle but very clear connection between Quentin’s mode of understanding and the definition of memory just mentioned: Shreve continues on, saying that all Rosa and his father had told Quentin “did not tell you anything so much as it struck, word by word, the resonant strings of remembering” (my emphasis 213). Remembering, in its more traditional sense, would not make sense here because it would imply that Quentin actually had experienced something. By assuming memory to be something that comes before knowledge, as Light in August directs us, this moment suddenly makes sense. Quentin’s possession of memory brings with it something vital in his recreation of Sutpen. In contrast to knowing, which recollects information, memory brings with it belief. Belief implies subjectivity, and while Quentin is able to imagine more about Sutpen’s subjectivity than just his beliefs, the word belief suggests the subjective conjuring powers of memory. In its ability to let one individual inside another, memory thus seems close to Bergson’s intuition‹or rather it seems that memory provides intuition.What Rosa works from is knowing, the recollection of events in her own life. “Knowing” is giving a more clear, contextual definition a moment after the already mentioned definition when it is said that the young Joe Christmas, “knew that. He had been doing this for almost a year” (120). Knowing comes from his personal experiences, just like Rosa’s knowledge in Absalom, Absalom. Rosa says that her story comes from “sense, sight, smell: the muscles with which we see and hear and feel‹not mind, not thought: there is no such thing as memory” (143). In another apparent reference to the Light in August definition, we learn that there is no such thing as memory in Rosa’s story because she is overwhelmed by experiential data from the past. Rosa’s knowledge leads her to mythologize the story, while Quentin’s knowledge allows him to fictively create Sutpen’s life. As Frank Kermode tells us “myths are the agents of stability, fictions the agents of change” (39). This stillness of Rosa’s story in contrast to the change in Quentin’s is just what we found in the Bergsonian distinction between the two narrators. But why does Rosa not also have access to the absolute‹she also was born and raised in this climate? Is it Quentin’s Harvard education that differentiates him? Upon a consideration of Quentin in The Sound and the Fury (Quentin (SF) from here on) the difference in narration methods seems not tied to the individual, but instead to the individuals relation to the story he or she is telling. While Quentin (SF) is not consciously telling a story as Quentin (AA) is, he is still trying to make sense of his past, so much so that Jean-Paul Sartre says, he appears to be a “man sitting in an open care and looking backwards” (267). But in looking backward he falls into extreme temporal confusion. He remembers a series of moments disconnected from any temporal grounding. One moment is his mother proclaiming, “We have sold Benjy’s pasture so that Quentin may go to Harvard a brother to you. Your little brother” (60). He returns to this moment a number of times, elsewhere recollecting his mother saying “On what on your school money the money they sold the pasture for so you could go to Harvard” (79). In both of these memories there is a syntactic sense of suspension in which the remembrances of the past have neither start nor finish. In one long page of remembered dialogue he remembers:get out of that water are you crazybut she didn’t move her face was a white blur framed out of the blure of the sand by her hairget out now (91),br>Faulkner leaves out the capitalization and punctuation to underscore the lack of boundaries for each statement in Quentin’s mind. In addition to not having clear beginnings and ends, there are very few recollected moments. In the entire Quentin monologue, he obsesses over a select set of events; as Sartre noted, “around a few central themes (Caddy’s pregnancy, Benjy’s castration, Quentin’s suicide) gravitate innumerable silent masses” (268). From this short description it should be clear that Quentin, even with his Harvard education, has sunk down to the same understanding of the past that Rosa holds in Absalom, Absalom. Now Rosa brings slightly more coherence to her understanding of the past than Quentin (SF) does, but this seems a result of Rosa’s conscious effort to tell a story in Absalom, Absalom. Both share essential characteristics in their recounting of the past. Both understand time as a series of points isolated from any temporal succession from past to future.What can account for the difference between the two Quentins and the similarity between Quentin (SF) and Rosa? Quite simply both Rosa and Quentin (SF) are working from recollections of their own experience, in contrast to Quentin (AA). They are working from knowledge as opposed to memory, and as that definition giving earlier reveals, memory provides the subjectivity of a time past, while knowing is only information. But why do Quentin (SF) and Rosa not also have this memory‹they too were born into the South? The lower level of understanding that Quentin (SF) brings to his own understanding of the past seems due to the corrupting influence of personal involvement in his own story. In that moment already discussed, where Rosa refers to the source of her knowledge, she says all the “sense, sight, smell,” all the experiential involvement, “its resultant sum is usually incorrect and false” (143). As a tentative hypothesis, we might say that personal experience, rather than being the only doorway into understanding, actually obscures the understanding of other times and other people.What Faulkner seems to be putting forward here is an extended version of Marcel Proust’s hypothesis in A Remembrance of Things Past. In this novel the narrator comes up against a constant problem when confronting a physical object in the present: “they appeared to be concealing, beyond what my eyes could see, something which they invited me to come and take but which despite all my efforts I never managed to discover . . . I would stand there motionless, looking, breathing, endeavouring to penetrate with my mind beyond the thing seen or smelt” (195). The narrator realizes that there is something in the intensity of present-ness that never allows you beyond your perceptions. Getting beyond perceptions is the way to the Bergsonian absolute because, “that which constitutes [a thing’s] essence, cannot be perceived from without” (22). In Proust’s idea, the physical involvement not only does not help you reach the absolute, it actually hurts your effort. The narrator’s solution‹and the one that Proust followed in his own life‹was to lock himself in a corked room, away from the sensory world. But Faulkner seems to take this theory further in suggesting that not only does physical involvement obfuscate the essence of something while in the presence of something, it also obscures your vision of it in recollection. In thinking about his own past. Quentin (SF) agrees with his father in saying; “only when the clock stops does time come to life” (54). The forward progression of time seems to great a burden to allow the processing of personal experiences, and only by taking something out of its temporal context‹the context that provides its essence‹can one even begin to come to terms with it. The same is not true for Quentin when dealing with the past in Absalom, Absalom. Faulkner seems to put his finger on what Dorrit Cohn says is “the altered relationship between the narrator and his protagonist when that protagonist is his own past self.” This alteration causes a “profound change in narrative climate” (12-3). The nature of this change is found in the shift from Quentin (SF) and Quentin (AA). The latter Quentin’s possession of a Bergsonian temporality leads to the opportunity for morality in his story where a non-Bergsonian temporality virtually excludes morality. With the succession of moments comes the opportunity for one moment to effect the next, comes causality. Intricately tied to causality is the notion of consequence, or “something that logically or naturally follows from an action or condition.” Finally when one recognizes the multiple possibilities for action in situation‹when one stops seeing action as preordained‹judgement and morality is possible. This comes out more forcefully in Quentin’s differentiation between his and Rosa’s view of Sutpen. In Quentin’s story, Sutpen’s death is met by the same thing it was met by in Rosa’s story: “He’s dead. I know he is dead and how can he, how can he be?” But Quentin quickly says that this phrase was “not meaning what Aunt Rosa meant: where did they find or invent a bullet that could kill him but How can he be allowed to die without having to admit that he was wrong and suffer and regret it” (305). Rosa denies Sutpen’s death because of a belief in Sutpen’s immortality. In contrast, Quentin denies him death because of his belief in morality, and the punishment for derelict behavior. It would appear that Faulkner came upon the problem of personal involvement not only in his characters, but also in his own writing. In between the writing of the two separate Quentins, Faulkner wrote Light in August, a book in which, “Faulkner’s surging narrative dislocations of time have received more attention than any other aspect of the novel” (Sundquist 77). Eric Sundquist sees this novel, about the mulatto Joe Christmas, as possessing a more “distorted shape” than any other Faulkner novels (76). Sundquist’s central argument is that these temporal dislocations and distorted shape are a result of Faulkner’s own interaction with the questions at hand in the novel. The tragedy of the mulatto was “the only tragedy he could thoroughly imagine,” or perhaps we could better say, thoroughly know. He knew this problem because “Faulkner was born in 1897 and virtually grew up with the resurgence of Jim Crow” (64). The essential problem of the mulatto was the contradiction and “simultaneous rhythms of repulsion and union, of hatred and embrace” (64). Faulkner’s involvement in this problem is clear from Irving Howe’s quote that the “mulatto” excites in Faulkner, “a pity so extreme as often to break past the limits of speech” (quoted in Sundquist, 76). This hysteria meant that in the novel Faulkner, Sundquist says, seems to “surrender to something beyond his control” (74). This surrender of control and its results‹the novel’s shape and temporal dislocations‹both mark the problems that Faulkner threw into contrast in Absalom, Absalom with Rosa and Quentin.In the meta-fictive aspect of Absalom, Absalom Faulkner puts on display the crisis he came upon while writing Light in August, while also turning back to a more ordered, controlled form. In both of these aspects of Absalom, Absalom Faulkner seems to be recognizing and exposing the crisis of understanding he came upon in his own writing. In his speech upon winning the Nobel Prize Faulkner discussed the problem of a seemingly random universe, in which people’s thoughts are determined by the question of “when will I be blown up” by a completely unpredictable nuclear bomb. By 1950, when he presented this speech, he thought that it is “the poet’s, the writers, duty” to write not about such a universe, but instead about the moral universe in which “compassion and sacrifice and endurance” are central; qualities only possible in a moral universe. In the transition from his earlier novels, like The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying‹where there are only personally involved narrators‹to narrators like Quentin, we see the fermentation of these beliefs in Faulkner’s own writing. Works CitedBergson, Henri. An Introduction to Metaphysics. New York: Macmillan, 1903.Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1978.Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom. New York: The Modern Library, 1964.Faulkner, William. Light in August. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury: An Authoritative Text Backgrounds and Contexts Criticism. Ed. David Minter. New York: Norton, 1994.Faulkner, William. “Speech of Acceptance upon the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature.” Dec. 10, 1950.Kermode, Frank. The Sense of and Ending. Oxford: Oxford U.P., 2000. Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life. 1874. Trans. Peter Preuss. Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 1980. 7-22.Proust, Marcel. Swann’s Way. New Yorlk: Vintage Books, 1989.Sartre, Jean-Paul. “On The Sound and the Fury: Time in the Work of Faulkner.” 1939. In The Sound and the Fury:An Authoritative Text Backgrounds and Contexts Criticism. Ed. David Minter. New York: Norton, 1994, 265-271.Sundquist, Eric J. “The Strange Career of Joe Christmas.” Faulkner: The House Divided. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983. 63-95.

My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?

The novel Absalom Absalom! by William Faulkner is filled with biblical references, from the creation story to Abraham, from David and Goliath to the story of Ham. Faulkner infuses the novel with biblical language, making it impossible to ignore the book’s religious undertones. Throughout the novel, one of the central characters Thomas Sutpen is likened to God through his own “plan” and the creation of his homestead, Sutpen’s Hundred, which mirrors the creation story in the first chapters of Genesis. An even more striking biblical resemblance, however, is how much Sutpen’s first son serves as a Christ-like figure in the book. In the Bible, God sacrifices Jesus for the good of humankind and for the future, so that people will learn from the sacrifice. In Absalom, Absalom!, Sutpen sacrifices his racially mixed son, Charles Bon, by refusing to acknowledge their relationship, in an attempt to preserve his pure white dynasty. Faulkner’s word choice repeatedly connects Jesus to Charles Bon, whose name appropriately means “good,” particularly in the Christmas scene, in which Henry Sutpen convinces Bon to come home to meet his family. Unbeknownst to Henry however, his family is Bon’s family as well. It cannot be an accident that Faulkner had this reunion occur on Christmas, for it’s very name contains the word Christ, and the holiday celebrates His birth. This scene marks a type of birth for Bon as well; it is the first time that he is physically seen by members of his long lost family, and the first time that Sutpen sees Bon as a grown man.The entire recounting of the Christmas scene, told in joint perspective by Quentin and Shreve, is wrought with the images of body and flesh. They describe the imagined perspective of Charles Bon, saying: “but there, just behind a little, obscured a little by that alien blood – in order that he exist in the face of the man who shaped us {Henry and Charles} both out of that blind chancy darkness which we call the future; there; there; at any moment, second, I shall penetrate by something of will -(254).Charles Bon is described as an extension of Sutpen, or created ” -in the face of the man who shaped -” Bon and Henry. This phrase is alluding to the creation of humans “in the image and likeness of God” (Genesis 1 25-27). Just as God created Jesus in his image, Faulkner infers that Sutpen “shaped” Bon and Henry. The use of the words “face,” and “blood,” emphasizes their physicality. Charles Bon’s existence is corporeal, just as Jesus’ existence, although still an extension of God, is corporeal as well. Faulkner also refers to “that blind chancy darkness which we call the future,” saying that like God, Sutpen created his children with a larger purpose in mind.In addition, Faulkner uses the word “flesh” to describe Bon repeatedly, such as “the living touch of that flesh warmed before he was born by the same blood -to be bequeathed by him to run hot and loud in veins and limbs after the first flesh and then his own were dead” (255). This is another creation reference, discussing how Charles Bon was “born” into a body with veins and limbs and blood. However, this is also a reference to mortality; flesh and bone are distinctly mortal characteristics that inevitably lead one to die. By focusing on words such as “flesh” when discussing Charles Bon, Faulkner is again highlighting Bon’s corporeal existence, and by emphasizing his physical body he is implying that he will die.Jesus’ corporal existence is a profoundly important part of His purpose. Whereas God created humans in His image, Jesus is God in actual humanly flesh and form. The Bible says “God sent his one and only son into the world that we might live through him” (John 4 8-10). By placing an enormous focus on Bon’s physicality as well, Faulkner is able to draw a parallel between the two. Ironically, Charles Bon is Sutpen’s only legitimate son as well. Before Ellen, Sutpen was married to a partially black Haitian woman. Once he discovered she was racially mixed he left, never legally ending that marriage. Thus, Bon is Sutpen’s son in the truest form, bastardizing his other “legitimate” children.In addition to the importance of Bon’s physicality, the language of the Christmas scene also suggests more than just the significance of his flesh and body. Through a discussion of the connections between Charles Bon, Henry and Judith, various language suggests that the three represent a sort of trinity, possessing many similar qualities of the Trinity in Christian theology. In the simplest sense, a trinity is a group of three closely related members, which Bon, Judith and Henry clearly are; they form a love triangle that is central to movement of the novel. Within Christianity, however, the Trinity is defined as ” the union of three divine persons in one” (American Heritage Dictionary, 859). Namely, the Father, or God, the Son, or Jesus, and finally the Holy Spirit can be seen as separate entities while at the same time all existing together within one part; God has Jesus and the Holy Spirit within Him, and the Holy Spirit contains both God and Jesus. Together, Judith, Henry and Charles Bon transcend their individual existences, while at the same time maintaining their separateness, like the Trinity in Christianity.From the beginning of the novel Henry and Judith are described as having an extremely close relationship. Mr. Compson, when introducing the dynamic between the three, prefaces it by describing Henry and Judith as “that single personality with two bodies -“(73), already establishing that like the connection within a trinity, Judith and Henry exist in two separate physical bodies, but with the same spirit. It makes sense then that when Charles Bon entered into the picture, things become complete, because he is able to bring the connection full circle.Shreve describes Henry as living in a vacuum where “the three of them existed, lived, moved even maybe, in attitudes without flesh; himself and the friend and the sister” (256). They are able to exist individually, while at the same existing together without flesh, beyond flesh. Considering the abundance of times that Faulkner uses the word “flesh,” within this scene, the statement that they exist without flesh is striking because of it seems contradictory to his other descriptions. Yet, this seeming contradiction exists within the Trinity as well: Jesus exists in flesh and in spirit simultaneously. Later, Shreve says that Henry breathed the thought: “Hers and my lives are to exist within and upon yours” (260), in everything that he said to Bon. The word “within” implies that they exist in each other, whereas the word “upon,” implies being close together yet still separate, again highlighting this seeming contradiction. Through the descriptions of Charles Bon’s body, as well as the description of the relationship between Bon and his siblings, Charles Bon possesses the same duality as Jesus.Bon chooses to go home with Henry for only one reason: he wishes Sutpen to acknowledge him as his child. He believes “if he will let me know just as quickly that I am his son -(255),” everything will resolve itself. Yet for Sutpen, revealing Charles Bon as his son would destroy his plan for the creation of a pure white lineage because Bon is part black. As a result, Bon gets no recognition, “nothing happened; no shock, no hot communicated flesh that speech would have been too slow even to impede; nothing.” (256). Had he received Sutpen’s acknowledgment, even a nonverbal one through “communicated flesh,” he would have gone away, but even a nonverbal communication would have destroyed Sutpen’s image of a perfect dynasty.In a scene between Henry and Sutpen, Sutpen insures that Henry will not allow the marriage between Charles Bon and Judith to take place, thus forcing Sutpen to admit his relationship to Bon. He repeats “he must not marry her, Henry” (283). Henry’s response, repeated many times as well, is “I will – I will – I am going to” (283), can be interpreted as a dissent towards his father’s wishes. However, his comment is not a direct response to Sutpen’s statements; one does not answer the other. In addition to being interpreted as dissent, Henry’s comment “I am going to” is also the beginning of a resolution: Henry is going to make sure that Judith does not marry Bon. Sutpen then does one more thing to make sure that Bon does not destroy his vision of the future; he tells Henry that Charles Bon is part black, knowing that to protect the usurpation of the virginity of his sister, Henry will now prevent the marriage at all costs. In making the decision to tell Henry this, Sutpen is knowingly sacrificing Bon in order to carry out his plan.Sutpen’s lack of acknowledgement when he sees Bon refers to one of the last scenes in Jesus’ life. Jesus and his disciples are praying in the garden, and Jesus calls on God, saying “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Mathew 26:39). Jesus asks to be spared from the pain that is coming. Charles Bon realizes that pain is inevitable as well; Shreve imagines that when he left home his mother tells him:”He is your father. He cast you and me aside and denied you his name. Now go and then sit down and let God finish it: pistol or knife or rack; destruction or grief or anguish: God to call the shot or turn the wheel’. Jesus, you can almost see him (238).”Yet like Jesus, Bon still hoped to be spared from the situation, by a sign from Sutpen that would relieve him. Bon believed that only a small sign was necessary, just a communication, a look, would relieve him of his position (257).The fact that Shreve uses the expression “Jesus,” as he often does in his narrative, is particularly significant here. It can be read as “you can almost see him [Bon]” or “you can almost see him [Jesus]”. Shreve’s constant use of the expression “Jesus” adds to the Christmas scene particularly because of the repeated juxtaposition of the name “Jesus” next to the descriptions of Charles Bon , making yet another connection between the two. In another instance, Faulkner’s reference to Bon as Jesus is unmistakable: Faulkner capitalizes the pronouns for both Sutpen and Charles Bon. “The two of them both believing that Henry was thinking He (meaning his father) has destroyed us all, not for one moment thinking He (meaning Bon) must have known -” (267). This choice deifies both Bon and Sutpen; in literature pronouns are never capitalized unless referring to God or Jesus.In the Christmas scene, when Bon and Sutpen meet and Sutpen ignores him, Bon reflects on the meaning of this rejection, thinking “My God, I am young, young, and I didn’t even know it; they didn’t even tell me that I was young” (257). At this moment, Charles Bon realizes the pain that will follow. His thoughts are lamenting why this is happening; he is too young to be experiencing such pain. However, at one point Shreve comments “Jesus, he must have known it would be, “(258) not only invoking Jesus’ name again , but assuming that Bon must understand the inevitable pain.. Regardless, it is not an accident that Bon’s words began with “my God -“. This statement invokes the scene in the bible when Jesus is on the cross, and, moments before His death He looks to the sky and says “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”(Mathew 27:46). Jesus’ words are in the form of a question, yet they too are a realization of pain. Charles Bon asks why it must happen to him, because he is so young, and Jesus asks why He must be the one to be forsaken.Ultimately, both Jesus and Charles Bon were sacrificed for the same reasons: a vision for the future. Bon was sacrificed because his existence threatened to reveal the racial impurity in the white dynasty that Sutpen built for so many years. Jesus, as well, was sacrificed so that people would remember, and things could change in the future. Interestingly, both men were aware that they were walking into their death; Jesus was given the opportunity to deny that he was the King of the Jews, and absolve himself. Charles Bon was given his opportunity as well, when Henry warned, “Don’t pass the shadow of this post, this branch, Charles” (283)) and yet he still made the choice to continue. Charles Bon was buried by three women cut off from society, Clytie, Rosa, and Judith. Jesus as well was buried by three women: Jesus’ mother, Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Mary, Lazarus’ sister.The similarities between Charles Bon and Jesus build up slowly throughout Absalom, Absalom!, first through just the language, and then through parallels in scenes surrounding their deaths. The most significant parallel, however, is that they were both sacrificed for visions of the future. This becomes apparent particularly when Bon is first rejected by his father, and exclaims, though only in his thoughts “My god I am young -” just like Jesus proclaimed “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” At this moment, Jesus is ignored by God; he is denied acknowledgement and is not rescued from his pain, just as Bon ultimately is not rescued either.

“Mother Sister Wife”: An Evaluation of the Disparagement of Women and its Antagonistic Effects in Absalom, Absalom!

Deeply entrenched misogynistic attitudes pervaded the nineteenth century. Almost all men expected women to fill the role of mother, sister, or wife. They could not imagine and often actively worked against a society in which females could exist outside of these three main positions. William Faulkner firmly establishes this societal rule in his work Absalom, Absalom! by infusing the text with pleasantly phrased yet forgettable sexist language. In an unexpected and bothersome way, the author positions Thomas Sutpen, the main character whose actions typically have adverse and even deleterious effects on those around him, as the protagonist of the novel by consistently wrapping the plot around the success or failure of his projects and ambitions. However, Faulkner encounters a problem in characterizing an antagonist to oppose Sutpen as no believable male character of the time would expend the energy to intentionally thwart the efforts of a monied man to build a reputation and a legacy. His solution lies in the women of the novel. By subtly stressing the inflexible expectations of women yet initially characterizing Rosa Coldfield as a seemingly strong and independent female, Faulkner creates the opportunity to tear her down and transform her into a negative character in the sense that she both corrupts and negates the typical feminine position. Due to her withdrawal from the terms of society, Rosa can no longer exist as a character in her own right but only as an inverse; she becomes the antagonist, the anti-Sutpen.

In keeping with nineteenth century culture and attitudes toward the female gender role, Faulkner firmly places women in a narrow category with rigid expectations. Referring to Mr. Coldfield, Faulkner’s use of the line “at a time when he had mother sister wife…to support” punctuates this point with its intriguing lack of punctuation (60). The oneness of the term that the missing commas create indicates that these female personas, usually associated with different characteristics and time periods in life, are to the male characters indifferentiable. Bon, Sutpen, Henry, and the other men in the novel see no need to separate this overarching designation because in their experience, the women in their lives have filled or will fill these positions at some point. Though “daughter” might arise as an expected addition, the men rarely treat Ellen, Judith, Rosa, and Clytie in the loving and tender way associated with that relationship. The seemingly all-encompassing nature of the “mother sister wife” leaves little room for the women in the novel to have any other role. Therefore, the women cannot act outside of the triumvirate capacity given to them without repercussions both in the plot of the novel and in their reception as characters.

Faulkner uses frankly stated assumptions about females’ functions and capabilities to continue to cement a simplistic view of the female characters in the novel. Bon’s strong assertion of and belief in the notion that the octaroon mistresses “fulfill a woman’s sole end and purpose: to love, to be beautiful, to divert” produces a sense of certainty about the concept that women can do nothing but function for the benefit of a man (93). The excerpt itself has a sense of beauty to its phrasing; it almost seems able to evoke a sigh if read aloud which makes it appear significantly more pleasant and innocent than sexist and demeaning. The euphonious nature of the phrase masks the danger of the ideology it illustrates and thus allows it to slip cunningly into the subconscious of the twenty first century reader. A woman’s purpose obviously goes beyond the three listed by Bon, but the idea can easily stick with the reader and affect the perception of female characters without a true realization of the origin of the disdain.

This same method of rapid and forgettable sexism appears in deceptively nonthreatening conversations between characters. While discussing Rosa’s story with his son Quentin, Mr. Compson ponders that “maybe women are even less complex than [being able to think politically] and to them any wedding is better than no wedding and a big wedding with a villain preferable to a small one with a saint” (40). The conversation between the father and son does not center on their opinions of women, yet the disparaging language still emerges when they debate the motivations behind female choices. This simplistic and reproachful understanding of women pervades their society so thoroughly that they cannot help but use it as justification for their theories. Though this picture could be disregarded as an outdated representation of marriage, the association of “women” with “less complex” still registers. In conjunction with other negative language, this wording reinforces the sentiments of the male characters that females do not have equally valid judgement, concern themselves mainly with appearances, and cannot reason beyond surface level.

With these attitudes firmly fixed and regularly reiterated, Faulkner insinuates that the main male characters would encounter less trouble and opposition if the women did not intervene. When interpreted through the sexist lens that the author has fashioned, women both directly and indirectly antagonize the men in the novel. As Sutpen develops his land and his reputation, he lives “in the spartan shell of the largest edifice in the county, not excepting the courthouse itself, whose threshold no woman had so much as seen, without any feminized softness or window pane or door or mattress…[with] no woman to object” (30). In Sutpen’s mind, women exist as a means to an end and are in impediment unless they help him accomplish his current goals. This purposeful isolation desired in the antebellum period and long after operated within the mindset that the ability to tolerate a woman’s presence only when the man desired it made the man superior to others who did not have the means to regulate their interactions. Furthermore, the choice of the courthouse as a comparison for the grandeur of Sutpen’s woman-free environment creates a noteworthy contrast. You go to a courthouse to legally legitimize a marriage; to conjure an image of a house and in turn a legacy greater than that of a courthouse and marriage suggests that Sutpen’s vision as the protagonist goes beyond a simple affirmation of a connection to a well-regarded family.

Rosa plays a direct role in upsetting Sutpen’s grand plan by breaking away from her expected womanly role and denying his desires. After Ellen dies, Rosa moves to live with Judith and Clytie. When Sutpen returns from war and proposes marriage, he suggests that he and Rosa “breed together for test and sample and if it was a boy they would marry” (144). Rosa rightfully finds this proposition appalling and immediately moves back to town, thus refuting the regulations of her society. Sutpen suggests the proposition because in his amoral mind, he sees Rosa simply as a logical means to produce another male heir. Since to him women can only fill the “mother sister wife” role, it makes perfect sense for him to expect Rosa to occupy the position as well. The use of the words “test and sample” emphasize the superfluous and expedient view of women in the novel. Sutpen expects to experiment with them as he pleases and fails to acknowledge the inhumanity of this proclivity. He even verbalizes this vexing attitude when he assigns Wash Jones’s granddaughter Milly a place lower than his mares after he “tests” with her and does not favor the outcome (151). Regardless of the degrading nature of his request to Rosa, because he is in a twisted way the protagonist of the novel, Rosa suffers repercussions because she refuses her expected role.

Throughout the novel, Faulkner develops Rosa as a seemingly resilient and determined character that places value in her own independence and maturity which suspiciously diverges from his typical depiction of women. At one point, she even entertains the idea that she “lived out not as a woman, a girl, but rather as the man which [she] perhaps should have been” (116). The use of the past conditional tense in the phrase denotes a sense of regret and a negation of femininity. Rosa easily could have been born male, every human has that fifty percent chance, but instead Faulkner opts for the words “should have” which conveys the sense that one ought to lament being born female. However, in conjunction with and ostensibly in reaction to the thought that a woman could occupy the same mental space and presence as a man, the author razes any hope that a strong female character could exist opposite of Sutpen. As a consequence of her rejection of the restrictive yet overarching womanly position that Faulkner has established, Rosa resorts to slinking around the town picking greens from people’s yards and shows no gratitude for the generosity extended to her by her neighbors (138, 171). Swiftly she develops into a pathetic and destitute character. Since she negates the expected female mold, she can no longer fit into society. This contemptible behavior along with negative phrases regarding women like “less complex” that slyly slither largely unremembered alongside the reader throughout the novel force a palpable disinclination toward Rosa. Exasperatingly though, the only reason perception shifts and she transforms into this unfavorable parasite is because of the rigid and sexist gender role that the time period and Faulkner enforce for women.

The roles of antagonist and inverse exist as the only places left for Rosa to fill because she rebuffs her place as a woman in the highly masculinized world of the novel. She vengefully details the life and detestable influence of Thomas Sutpen, prevents him from having more sons for heirs, and ultimately causes the ruin of everything he has built in her quest to find Henry. As she and Quentin approach the old and now dilapidated mansion, Rosa says under her breath that she “will have to find it [whether Henry is there or not] out” (292). As the negator and antagonist, she no longer has the option of “should,” “could,” or “would” regarding her actions. Rosa loses her place as a true character after stepping beyond the womanly realm, and therefore, she loses her choice in the necessity of her actions. She has to cause the downfall of Sutpen’s legacy because the author has purposefully left no other option for her. Rosa does not conform to the position that Faulkner crafts and the male characters exclusively accept; therefore, she must elicit disdain as a woman and bring about destruction as the anti-Sutpen.

The sexism laced language that Faulkner uses to craft the restrictive ideology surrounding the female role in society frustratingly and unfairly sanctions Rosa as the antagonist opposite the strange protagonist of Sutpen and allows for the fiery resolution of the novel. This conclusion evokes the sentiment that contradiction of the traditional female role begets devastation. If people assume that alternate places in society for women only bring destruction, they create a cyclical pattern of thought that continually reinforces this notion. Faulkner could not have written Absalom, Absalom! without confining women to a rigid box and forcing Rosa outside of that box. In fact, nineteenth century Southern culture could not have functioned without this uncompromising characterization: women had to conform to the expectations of the “mother sister wife” because without it the white males would lose their incorrectly assumed innate role as the protagonists of society.

The Absalom in Absalom, Absalom!

As a classic source of insight and wisdom in the Western heritage, the Bible has been studied, questioned, and alluded to for as long as it has captured the imagination of believers and novelists alike. As such, this perennial text lends itself easily to allusion, but we might well question the point of Biblical allusions, particularly when they are subtle and symbolic as in Faulkner; what extra meaning can be gained by a reference to an ancient tale that can not be said straight out? Part of the answer lies in how biblical themes are reworked in the novel; we must keep track of which Biblical details/themes/plots are brought into the novel, which are left out, and which are purposely drastically altered. Even the details that seem to correspond to some exact parallel in the Biblical text in a one-to-one mapping are meaningful when we consider just which substitution the novelist makes for its Biblical counterpart. Great writers will use all of these methods to comment on the Bible or have the Bible comment on the novel; either way a new masterpiece is created besides these two texts, produced by the interaction between them. The allusive power of the Bible allows for stories to comment on other stories, producing a rich, multi-layered work that not only tells a tale but questions itself at the same time. This is perhaps part of the reason behind the mesmerizing effect the Bible has had on modern novelists – it allows for a new window through which a dialogue on storytelling itself can emerge. Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! is largely concerned with the power of storytelling to reshape memory and give meaning to the past and as such making allusions to the Bible (and other classic texts1) is central to the novel. We will explore how Faulkner reshapes the story of 2 Samuel 13-18 to shed light on the novel, the Bible, and the timeless stories of human passion that link them.

Faulkner reshapes the Samuel story to such an extent that the biggest hint to the reader is given in the novel’s title itself. Nevertheless, there are direct hints that link Sutpen with David, Henry with Absalom, Charles Bon with Amnon, and Judith with Tamar. The novel seems to be mainly concerned with these Biblical characters, and though a case could be made for links to other peripheral characters, the suggestions for this are more tenuous (there are however many direct references to other parts of the Bible as we shall see). Sutpen is established as David early on: he carries the suggestive red beard and somewhat facetiously claims to have cut off a piece of a Yankee coat tail (here we should be cautious in comparing the Yankee forces with Saul – Faulkner often plays with the Biblical tale, not always suggesting a symbolic link). The climatic would-be incest scene and its corresponding murder cues us in to the counterparts to Tamar, Amnon, and Absalom, but these are by no means kept certain as the narrative progresses. While the Biblical Amnon seems to be ruled by a whim of lust after his virgin sister, whom he quickly casts aside after the rape, Charles Bon (ironically carrying the name “good”) seems to become a more dignified character as Quentin obtains more information. While lacking moral scruples (in regards to bigamy and incest, the last of which he is unconscious of) he is unwilling to abandon his octoroon wife and is just as unwilling to leave Judith to whom fate seems to have prearranged a marriage. He is careful not to offend both Henry and Judith in speech and in letters; conscientious till the end, he carries a photograph of his mistress to tell Judith “I was no good, do not grieve for me” (p. 287) before his inevitable death. Judith is also a far cry from Tamar (who is Biblically an innocent, pitied Lucretia) – she seems determined to have the wedding at all costs, even, it is suggested, under the threat of incest, carrying that Sutpen determinism to the bitter end; (there is also an ironic reversal of the death kiss David gives to Absalom when Sutpen kisses Judith before receiving news of Bon’s death). Henry too is not exactly the Biblical Absalom, who is described primarily as someone who seeks justice (for his sister’s rape and his banishment): “Oh that I were made judge in the land, that every man which hath any suit or cause might come unto me, and I would to him justice!” (2 Samuel 15:4). Henry is similar in his firm stance on respecting his sister’s honor, yet he is far less righteous in the novel, and seems complicit in the incest fantasy, “taking that virginity in the person of the brother-in-law” (p. 77). These are just a few of the ways in which Faulkner twists the Biblical story, and the more we read the more complicated the sibling relationship becomes. All three of them seem to have a hint of sexual longing: Henry and Judith have a “relationship closer than the traditional loyalty of brother and sister” and “eat from the same dish” in an ironic reversal of the Biblical scene; Charles and Henry have a curious relationship with Henry being despoiled by Charles if he could only “metamorphose into the sister” (p. 77), yet Charles is also described as wearing “feminine garments” leaving us to question who is the seducer and who is seduced. Even Sutpen, despite his reservations about the Bon-Judith union, seems to have had incestual longing in his childhood seeing “his sister pumping rhythmic up and down above a washtub in the yard, her back toward him, shapeless in a calico dress and a pair of the old man’s shoes unlaced and flapping about her bare ankles” (p. 191). It seems that every permutation of lust is allowed free reign (though often with “unconscious” hopes, “subconscious” desires (p. 75)), at least in Quentin’s and Shreve’s rendering of the story, leaving us to wonder just what remains of the Biblical tale.

The reason behind this becomes clearer when we consider that the narrators are themselves trying to understand the tale, sometimes filling in pieces from their own imagination (as when Quentin and Shreve suggest that Bon had known Judith was his sister). Quentin is trying to “pass that door” (p. 142), to understand just “Why? Why? Why?” (p. 135) it happened and in order to do that he has to “reconstruct the causes”, often with “old virtues” (p. 96). His tale becomes the reversal of the Biblical one, (in which, at least on the surface, the motives seem clear), and by filling in and shifting details he can provide a rational explanation for an inexplicable tragedy. This then is the largest difference between the Biblical tale and novel: the Bible is succinct, giving simple motives to characters that may not explain their full psychology but allow for the larger plot to move faster; while the novel is a Biblical exegesis of the same story, creating details out of thin air in order to explain what seems a harrowing, unnatural tale of incest, fratricide, patricide, lust and power. It is perhaps this chaos and not only his son’s death that David mourns with that recurring eulogy “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33), repeating the same four words endlessly. This brief passage is one of the most moving because the Bible rarely wastes words and this circular repetition seems a chilling reminder of the incomprehensible events that David can not reason through. That passage is mirrored innumerable times in the novel – “I will believe! I will! I will!” (p. 72, 88, 89); “No! No! Not that!” (p. 101); “Judith! Judith!” (p. 110), “Henry! Henry!” (p. 109) – as if presciently mourning the destruction before the end when Quentin gives the final mourning “I don’t hate it!” (p. 303). There he is speaking about the South which is part of Faulkner’s larger preoccupation of Southern myopia and megalomania personified in Sutpen. But we need not limit the novel to a purely racial/regional perspective; we can look at the larger lesson for man in his “courage or cowardice, the folly or lust or fear, for which his fellows praise or crucify him” (p. 123).

The novel refers to other Biblical tales of brotherly strife, mainly the Cain-Abel and Essau-Jacob stories – Rosa’s outburst after the murder “Henry! Henry! What have you done?” (p. 109) echo Genesis 4:10, and Henry giving up his birthright links him with the more impetuous brother Essau. The parallel with the three older brothers (Cain, Essau, Absalom) shows their characteristic of being less intelligent/lucky and more violent (perhaps because of this) than their younger sibling (Abel, Jacob2, Amnon). Sutpen says appropriately “No son of a landed father wants an older brother” (p. 253), yet Charles ironically insists on wanting an older brother just like his father; he gets exactly that and perhaps the novel is implying some inevitable quarrel between the “romantic” and “fatalist” born of the same blood and doomed to strife.

In addition to the brother-brother theme there is the father-son motif; a passing reference to Abraham seeking immortality through his descendants (p. 260) reminds us of the central place that lineage holds in the Hebrew culture (and paradoxically recalls the threat of impotence and infanticide). The Bible is certainly preoccupied with this central theme of lineage which often requires great sacrifices (Lot and his two daughters, Abraham and Hagar). We are told that Sutpen’s ultimate goal was to have a son, as if all the ensuing chaos stems from that simple need of continuing life. Seen from this perspective it is a sad irony that the very progeny is doomed to fight itself, ultimately destroying the patriarchal father-figure as well.

The preoccupation with lineage leads to concern with race as well, and there are many parallels between the Biblical strife for purity and the same Southern ideal. Charles Etienne is compared to Lilith and one of the “sons of Ham” (p. 150-60), both outcasts from the traditional line of descent. Sutpen is repulsed to find his wife has “negro blood” and in the end his rejection of his mixed-blood daughter Milly leads to his death, implying that his vision of passing some pure lineage through a male is doomed to fail. This also has implications for Faulkner’s South, in particular his Yoknapatawpha county where the blacks comprise two-thirds of the population and the whites are “only in the surface matter of food and clothing and daily occupation any different from the negro slaves who supported them” (p. 78). This outcast race is the sacrifice with which the lineage can continue; Charles Etienne, though he can pass as a white, decides to belong to the outcasts, “treading the thorny flint-paved path toward the Gethsemane which he had decreed and created for himself, and where he crucified himself and come down from his cross for a moment and returned to it” (p. 169). The Christ image here is seen more as pointless sacrifice than a source of salvation and indeed most of the Christ references in the novel have that undertone3. This Biblical reversal underscores the despair of both Sutpen’s dynasty and the South as a whole, their legacies filled with suffering but no redeemers.

Sutpen’s ambitious goal to build his “hundred” seems analogous to David’s building of a great Jerusalem (which would imply that his stay in Haiti is David’s Hebron; the time periods of six years in Hebron and thirty three in Jerusalem seem to roughly agree with the novel). That word “hundred”4 permeates the novel as much as Sutpen’s name and image5; when his dream is over we are told that his hundred square miles is better described as “Sutpen’s One”, as if all those repetitions boil down to one man, one obsession, one child. But understanding that singularity is tantamount to understanding existence itself which is why Quentin bifurcates the story into larger branches, trying to fathom what must essentially remain a mystery. In the face of nature and chance, Sutpen built his horrific legacy from a wasteland and some sixty years later nothing of it remains, save Shreve’s story and the tombstones (which may be possible counterparts to Absalom’s pillar that served as his remembrance in place of a child – 2 Samuel 18:18). While Mr. Coldfield had no one to confess his last thoughts to and Sutpen died too soon to even have guilt, the story itself that Miss Rosa is dying to tell leaves that scratch that can “be remembered even if only from passing from one hand to another” (p. 101). That scratch is Faulkner’s text itself; as we make sense of Sutpen’s horrific legacy we also find new meaning in its Biblical counterpart, and the dialogue which emerges between the two brings a new perspective on how stories are told and the historical reality that lies behind them. Though we may never know what deeper roots, motives, and seeds of chance lay behind David’s last cry for his son, we can nevertheless begin to reconstruct that which is central to the timeless tale and its modern renderings by continuing that ancient tradition of storytelling.

Notes

1) Besides the Agamemnon and other mythological references there are several Shakespearean allusions, including this passage mirroring Macbeth and linking the novel with Quentin’s other tale, The Sound and the Fury: “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow beyond the immediate fury” (p. 232). Clearly the Bible is not the only source of allusions for the novel, however the title at least suggest it may be the main one.

2) A case could be made for Sutpen as Jacob as well – he is wounded in the thigh and wrestles with the black man much like Jacob with the angel. Again, Faulkner’s allusions can work on many levels and do not always allow for simple symbolic substitutions.

3) Just a few examples of ironic Christ references:

– The boxes of stove polish Bon’s infantry receives instead of food are described sarcastically as “the loaves and the fishes as was once the incandescent Brow, the shining nimbus of the Thorny Crown” (p. 103).

– Quentin’s grandfather’s reversal of Mark 10:14 – Suffer (‘the’ ironically removed) little children to come unto me: “what did He mean by that? How, if He meant that little children should need to be suffered to approach Him, what sort of earth had He created…” (p. 161).

– Henry can not say to Bon “I did that for love of you; do this for love of me” (p. 72) as if Christian ethics can not apply in their lives.

– Wash thinks of Sutpen before killing him “[He is] bigger than the scorn and denial which hit helt to his lips like the bitter cup in the Book” (p. 231), mimicking Christ’s “let this cup pass from me” in Gethsemane.

4) Some examples of the word “hundred” permeating the novel:

-Rosa and Quentin haven’t exchanged a “hundred words” (p. 5).

– Clytie hasn’t seen Sutpen a “hundred times” (p. 48).

– A description of a “hundred windows” with a “hundred still unbrided widows” (p. 97).

– “He’s not going to come within a hundred yards of those cedars anyway” (p. 153), says Mr. Compson

– The “hundred dollars” for the tombstone (p. 163).

5) Identities are often mixed to the point that the reader has trouble telling who the “he” refers to in the novel (though, we are told, Quentin and Shreve always know). Henry and Sutpen are often linked as one person, as are Judith and Sutpen. A few examples of this merging identity are:

– The fighting scene in the stable where Ellen runs in looking for Thomas and Henry runs out instead (p. 21).

– We are told that Henry was fourteen then, the same age that Sutpen was when running away (p. 40).

– Judith watches Sutpen fight the same way that Sutpen would watch Henry fight (p. 95); and they are described as “too much alike” (p. 96) to the point that they do not need to talk.

– Quentin, his father, and Shreve all blend into one: “Maybe we are both father… or maybe Father and I are both Shreve, maybe it took Father and me both to make Shreve or Shreve and me both to make Father or maybe Thomas Sutpen to make all of us.” (p. 210).

That last phrase points to the significance of the blurring of identity – Sutpen’s shadow is so large that every other character around him (or talking/listening to his story) can be seen as an extension of him.

Narrative Voice in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom

“On or about December 1910 human nature changed. All human relations shifted…and when human relations change there is at the same time change in religion, politics, and literature”; thus, Modernism was born (Woolf qtd in Galens 175). Modernism was a movement that pursued a truthful portrayal of the world by focusing on the human experience through the subconscious. William Faulkner’s novel, Absalom, Absalom! is an excellent depiction of Modernism. Through the narrative technique stream-of-consciousness, Faulkner engages specific aspects of Modernism, including allusions and a focus on the past. Faulkner is able to construct the story of Thomas Sutpen’s influence on Jefferson, Mississippi, through this unique narrative structure.

The Modernist movement was a reaction to Realism. Modernists did not believe that the Realists’ methods of writing simply about the actions of everyday life truly depicted the real world. The Modernists claimed that it was “impossible” to depict real life without concentrating on the character’s subconscious, for “the psyche of the narrator will always be affected by unknown forces and thus is never able to capture reality without any kind of bias or alteration. Rather, people should attempt to simply record thoughts, for by this, the reader can understand things about the narrator that the narrator him-or herself does not” (Galens 181). Therefore, Modernists emphasized the ways in which people think and how these thoughts can effect characters’ decisions and the world around them.

In order to illustrate how humans’ minds really work, Modernist writers use a narrative technique known as stream-of-consciousness. Stream-of-consciousness attempts to record how scattered and jumbled the experience of the world really is and at the same time how deeper patterns in thought can be discerned by those (such as readers) with some distance from them. That humans are alienated from true knowledge of themselves is the implicit contention of the stream-of-consciousness form of narration. (Galens 183) Writers are able to create this complex structure by including elements that have become signature in Modernist works including allusions and a heavy reliance on the characters’ pasts. These elements allow the author to “take away all certainties and call attention to the ways that minds create the world” (Galens 191). This portrays the uncertainty people felt coming out of World War I, and how many were searching for the stability of the past, a common theme in Modern literature.

William Faulkner’s novel, Absalom, Absalom! engages in these specific aspects of modernism through the narrative voices that tell the story of Thomas Sutpen and his influence on the town of Jefferson, Mississippi. Faulkner’s novel has many different narrators, each one telling pieces of the story of Thomas Sutpen, leaving the reader to put these pieces together to create and decipher the entire story and its significance. What is distinctive about Absalom, Absalom! is the “multiple interpenetrating chorus of voices, with one or another rising shrilly over the ever present others” (Rio-Jelliffe 84). There are a total of six narrators in Absalom, Absalom!, including Rosa Coldfield, Quentin and Mr. Compson, Thomas Sutpen himself, Quentin’s Harvard roommate, Shreve, and an omniscient narrator who helps the reader navigate the novel and the many different tales that exist within. All of these narrators are separated by time and place, but are brought together by the story of Thomas Sutpen’s existence in Jefferson. Because of this and his treatment of the narrative structure of Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner is able to employ allusions in his writing and portray characters’ strong reliance on the past throughout the novel.

The story of Thomas Sutpen ultimately comes through Quentin after he gains information from Rosa and his father about the past events of Sutpen’s life. Both Rosa and Mr. Compson orally tell the story to Quentin, who in turn tells the story to both the readers of the novel and his roommate, Shreve. Since the readers are receiving the story through a third party, they need to take into account that much of what Quentin has relayed has been influenced by his own thoughts and opinions on the matter. The same goes for the version of the story that Rosa and his father tell to Quentin. Like Shreve, the readers need to question these past events and come up with their own theories about what truly happened. For example, in chapter seven, Shreve creates many of his own theories:

“Wait,” Shreve said. “You mean that he got the son he wanted, after all that trouble, and then turned right around and –“ “Yes. Sitting in Grandfather’s office that afternoon, with his head kind of flung back a little, explaining to Grandfather like he might have been explaining arithmetic to Henry back in the fourth grade: ‘You see, all I wanted was a son. Which seems to me, when I look about at my contemporary scene, no exorbitant gift from nature or circumstance to demand –‘“ “Will you wait?” Shreve said. “—that with the son he went to all that trouble to get lying right there behind him in the cabin, he would have to taunt the grandfather into killing him first and then the child too?” “—What?” Quentin said. “It wasn’t a son. It was a girl.” “Oh,” Shreve said. (Faulkner 234)

These theories typically prove to be false, but stem from the memories and the stories of the past that Quentin relay to him. As readers we are able to understand where Shreve finds these details to create his own theories because we can see his thought process; we do not have to guess. Faulkner uses the interactions between the characters, as well as the interactions that occur within the mind of the characters in order to show how these past events are effecting their present actions and thoughts, thus developing a stream-of-consciousness narration.

The past and allusions becomes important elements in Faulkner’s novel, their significance being developed through the narrative structure. According to critic R. Rio-Jelliffe, “the story of Sutpen takes a semblance of ‘historicity’ of ‘reality’” (76). In other words, Faulkner is able to successfully incorporate allusions into his writing, so much so that it seems as though the story of Thomas Sutpen is actually true. For example, Sutpen’s story takes place in real states (Mississippi and West Virginia), and even though not all of the counties and towns referred to are real, readers are likely to believe a story that takes place in a familiar state. Also, Quentin bases Rosa’s need to tell the story of Sutpen on the outcome of the Civil War and why the South lost:

It’s because she wants it told he thought so that people whom she will never see and whose names she will never hear and who have never heard her name nor seen her face will read it and know at last why God let us lose the war: that only through the blood of our men and the tears of our women could He stay this demon and efface his name and lineage from the earth. (Faulkner 6) Faulkner is able to create the illusion that the Sutpen story is true because he ties it to a real event: the Civil War.

Allusions to historical events are not the only allusions that Faulkner utilizes in Absalom, Absalom! Each of the characters consistently alludes to past events in either their own lives or the lives of others. According to critic Eric Casero, “The narrative language of Absalom, Absalom! is dependent on constant reference to the past, as we see Quentin’s story refer to his father’s, which refers to Sutpen’s story, which refers to Sutpen’s actual, lived experience, which itself refers to the experiences and ideologies of the community and history within which he lived his life” (89). Faulkner’s narrative technique easily allows for these allusions because Quentin needs to reflect on the different stories he hears and piece the information he gets from Rosa and his father together in order to make sense of what happened in the past and how it effects his present and future.

The past not only works its way into Absalom, Absalom! through allusions, both historical and fictive, but also through the characters’ memories. The narration of the novel and this idea of multiple voices telling one story relies on the memories of both Rosa Coldfield and Mr. Compson as well as his father, and their ability to relay the story as accurately as possible. Yet Sutpen himself must rely on his own childhood memories in order to develop his plan of how he is going to live his life as an adult. For example, when he and Quentin’s grandfather are searching for the architect, Sutpen tells Compson that as a child he had never known of a world where people had their own possessions. He states that it wasn’t until he was fourteen years old that he took the time to evaluate the stories that he did not listen to as a child:

When he was a child he didn’t listen to the vague and cloudy tales of Tidewater splendor that penetrated even his mountains because then he could not understand what the people meant and when he became a boy he didn’t listen to them because there was nothing in sight to compare and gauge the tales by and so give the words life and meaning, and no chance that he ever would (certainly no belief or thought that someday he might), and because he was too busy doing the things that boys do; and when he got to be a youth an curiosity itself exhumed the tales which he did not know he had heard and speculated about them, he was interested and would have liked to se the places once, but without envy or regret, because he just thought that some people spawned in one place and sometimes in another, some spawned rich (lucky, he might have called it: or maybe he called lucky rich) and some not, and that (so he told Grandfather) the men themselves had little to do with the choosing and less of the regret because (he told Grandfather this too) it had never once occurred to him that any man should take any such blind accident as that as authority or warrant to look down at others, any others. So he had hardly heard of such a world until he fell into it. (Faulkner 180)

It wasn’t until Sutpen “fell into” the world in which he had now lived and looked back on his childhood that he remembered that he had indeed heard stories of such a world, but had pushed them out of his mind; avoided thinking about them too deeply back then. This method of revising the past is important to the development of Sutpen’s story, as it shows how small events that one may overlook in life can have a huge impact on their lives in the future.

This revisionary process is not only seen in Sutpen’s childhood recollections, but also in the discussions that Shreve and Quentin have about Sutpen’s story, as well as when Rosa Coldfield is relaying the story to Quentin. Shreve and Quentin spend a great deal of the novel analyzing and piecing together the story of Thomas Sutpen and its significance. As mentioned earlier, Shreve theorizes the outcomes of each of the events and they both speculate the reasons for Sutpen’s actions. It is only because of the narrative structure that we are able to see specifically how Quentin arrives at his speculations and what he had thought prior to what he says in his discussions with Shreve. It is also due to the narrative structure of the novel that we can see how Quentin feels about the story Rosa is telling him, and how he interprets it within his own mind initially before he re-evaluates what he has been told. For example, at the beginning of the novel we see Quentin arguing with himself over whether or not he should tell Rosa’s story, and how it should be told: …the two separate Quentins now talking to one another in the long silence of notpeople in notlanguage, like this:

It seems that this demon – his name was Sutpen (Colonel Sutpen) – Colonel Sutpen. Who came out of nowhere and without warning upon the land with a band of strange niggers and built a plantation – (tore violently a plantation, Miss Rosa Coldfield says) – tore violently. And married her sister Ellen and begot a son and a daughter which (without gentleness begot, Miss Rosa Coldfield says) – without gentleness. Which should have been the jewels (Only they destroyed him or something. And died) – and died. Without regret, Miss Rosa Coldfield says – (Save by her) yes, save by her (And by Quentin Compson) Yes. And by Quentin Compson. (Faulkner 4-5).

These “two separate Quentins” are battling between the amount of detail and whether or not the bias of Rosa Coldfield should effect his own interpretation of the story: “These seemingly individual narrations are filtered through Quentin’s memory, refracted and re-shaped in his manner of seeing and saying” (Rio-Jelliffe 82). These arguments that Quentin has within himself help shape the way in which he tells the story to Shreve, and it also allows the readers to see both the “original” text and Quentin’s version permitting the readers to decide which version(s) they wish to believe as the right interpretation of Thomas Sutpen’s life.

The strong connection that the characters and the novel have with the past allows the reader to better interpret the influence Sutpen has had on his relatives and the townspeople. The reader can surmise from Rosa Coldfield’s desire to have the story told and the fervor in which she narrates the story to Quentin that Sutpen has had, and still has, a wide sphere of influence over the people in his life. Rosa has been hanging onto a hatred for Thomas Sutpen for most of her life, even after his death, because he had “created two children not only to destroy one another and his own line, but my line as well…” (Faulkner 12). Sutpen’s actions when he was alive continued to affect Rosa even after his death because of he destroyed not only his own family, but any future that Rosa may have had as well. We can see here that the chains of events and shifts in consciousness that form the core of Absalom, Absalom! extend to multiple historical levels: Sutpen’s childhood social setting directly determines the condition of his consciousness, which forms his design, which determines his interactions with others in the novel, including Rosa, whose consciousness is made bitter and resentful and broken, causing her to disseminate the narrative of Sutpen which, as far as the novel seems to imply, runs as an undercurrent of human consciousness throughout human history. (Faulkner 96) The path of destruction that Sutpen left after his death consumed Rosa’s whole being, and she was never able to release herself from his past up until her visit to Sutpen’s Hundred forty-three years later. This everlasting influence in turn effects not just Rosa, but Quentin’s, his father’s, and Shreve’s lives in the present. Quentin is the one whom she chooses to tell her story to because not only was he related to Sutpen’s only friend, but he could also assist in her return to the home because of his youth. Rosa’s reliance on Quentin to tell the story of Sutpen and expose the supposed truth of what he had done to her family has heavy effects on Quentin, dominating his thoughts throughout the novel. Without the stream-of-consciousness narration that Faulkner employs, the reader would not see the sheer dominance Sutpen has had over the characters within the novel, both in the past and present.

The narrative voices in Absalom, Absalom!, expressed in a stream-of-consciousness style, convey specific modernist elements including the use of allusions and the characters’ dependence on the past. Faulkner successfully employs these elements within his novel in order to portray the significance of Thomas Sutpen’s story to the characters within the novel, as well as its universal significance. By alluding to both real and fictional events throughout the novel, Faulkner is able to emphasize the importance that the past had not only on his characters in the novel, but also to a society coming to terms with World War I and the uncertainty the future held for them.

Works Cited

Casero, Eric. “Designing Sutpen: Narrative and its Relationship to Historical Consciousness in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!” The Southern Literary Journal 44.1 (2011): 86-102. JSTOR. Web. 21 July 2015.

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! New York: Vintage International, 1986. Print.

Galens, David, Ed. Literary Movements for Students. Farmington Hills: The Gale Group, 2008. Print.

Rio-Jelliffe, R. “Absalom, Absalom! as a Self-Reflexive Novel.” The Journal of Narrative Technique 11.2 (1981): 75-90. JSTOR. Web. 21 July 2015.

Choosing Connnection; Choosing Control

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner is a maze; it is a maze with innumerable detours and dead ends, pathways that lead to a finale and obstacles to be overcome on the way there. One such obstacle is the triangular relationship between Henry Sutpen, Judith Sutpen, and Charles Bon. Not equally balanced is this triangle and the involved parties, each desperate for a means to an end that is other, clinging to one another with proportionally strong grips. They see in one another, or rather, they see in the position one another holds, possibilities that will satiate needs they have as individuals. They are always interconnected, though, and, in the end, no one’s needs are met or motives are exercised. Henry and Judith Sutpen allow themselves to be manipulated by and caught up in the fantastical aura that is Charles Bon, knowing full well it may lead to disaster, but needing to be a part of it just the same.

Henry Sutpen, a walking cauldron of seething emotion, knows not how to regulate, it seems, how to minister his actions to fit his emotions so is thus caught in a torrid torment of frustrating compulsive behavior. “Henry, the provincial, the clown almost, given to instinctive and violent action rather than to thinking, “ (76) is guided by a conscience which has no conscience. An inner core lined with motive or conceivable intention does not seem to exist within his person and he is consequently subject to the whims of his feelings, savage and visceral as they are.

It is from this guidance by emotion that Henry is sucked into the realm of Charles Bon. “This man handsome elegant . . . and too old to be where he [is] . . . with some tangible effluvium of knowledge” (76) contracts Henry’s loyalty, makes him sign his life over to a cause that, in his (Henry’s) case, is actually self-destructive. But Henry does not turn to logic and forethought as guides into this relationship; he relies on his powerful action-ready confidant: emotion. “Yes, he [loves] Bon, who [seduces] him as surely as he [seduces] Judith” (76). He becomes “a follower and dependent of the rejected suitor for four years” (79) not living with and by him, but through and in him, dictating his action to mimic Bon’s, relying on hope that Bon will renounce his marriage and confront his father. Henry’s feelings, Henry’s love, for Charles Bon become a black hole into which Henry falls early on and out of which he seems to have no desire to come. He is consumed by this man, this situation that may be giving him something his life before had never offered – purpose.

To conform to the pattern of his father’s design gives Henry no outlet for personal conviction or decision. By becoming wrapped and warped into this odd, twisted detour of existence, the once trapped, committed son, is able to be, in and of himself. No matter how painful, how ruinous such a path may prove to be, he has chosen it and can perform not as a son-puppet, reading lines previously written for him but as a son-man-individual whose “violent repudiation of his father and his birthright,” (76) his having “to kill Bon to keep [he and Judith] from marrying,” the fact that it was he “who seduced Judith” (79) are actions he sees himself taking as seditiously powerful means of asserting his individual being, even if not breaking free from a mold already cast. Especially with killing bon: Henry knows his father wishes it be done, so he considers it almost to the point of torture, but by this point he has become so entangled in various webs of other persons’ designs that not even he will ever know according to whom and according to which he would kill his brother. Judith Sutpen plays almost a non-role in the triangle, seeming to merely hold a position, a third point that the geometry may work itself out. She, of course, is a person, trapped in the pinnings of the Sutpen design, but more like her father, she lives more through a calmed state of observation, letting the world kneed itself through around her as opposed to barbarous action like that of her brother. “Mrs. Sutpen had Judith and Bon already engaged from the moment she saw Bon’s name on Henry’s first letter, “ (215) a circumstance involving her, thus requiring some sort of reaction and she being a reactor as opposed to that or he which is reacted to, obliges. She falls in love with him (216).

To be in love with an idea is not a foreign concept to mankind, but Judith’s affection or submission seems more toward a convoluted conception of Charles Bon and the possibilities for which he stands than any general notion associated with a single individual. “There does not even seem to have been any courtship” (78) between she and Bon, seeing each other “for an average of one hour a day for twelve days . . . over a period of a year and a half” (79). That she would be in love with him, that she would sit and wait for him, that she would mourn his death the rest of her life, are signs sure enough that she worked her life around the idea of Charles Bon, a sophisticated friend of her brother’s, an abstract other that could erase whatever had been slated as her future and construct for her a bridge by which to exit Sutpen’s Hundred and its constraints. “The fact that [he perhaps kisses her] the first time like [one’s] brother would” and that she responds with only “ a kind of peaceful and blank surprise” (264) shows her willingness to succumb, to subjugate herself, her person, to the other and its ability to ride away. “They [part] without even saying good-bye” (79). She is docile; she is docile to achieve a hidden motive. She will wait, she will love, she will refuse to cry in an effort to attain the impossible.

Without the power or the desire to initiate any intentions, though, she is made the tercery member of this triumvirate of doomed innocents. It was not Judith who was the object of Bon’s love or of Henry’s solicitude. She was just a blank shape, the empty vessel in which each of them strove to preserve, not the illusion of himself nor his illusion of the other but what each conceived the other to believe him to be – the man and the youth, seducer and seduced, who had known one another, seduced and been seduced, victimized in turn each by the other, conqueror vanquished by his own weakness, before Judith came into their joint lives even by so much as girlname. (95) She is the means, the means to Henry’s desired end of somehow uniting with Bon, the means to Bon’s end of retaliation against a father who disowned him so many years ago. She seems not to be considerable, or rather, considered by the other actors in certain aspects of this play, yet, in fact, were she not existent no play would exist. The triangle would be unattainable and perhaps even lines would not form, only dots floating in the sea of tragic circumstance without a way, violent or otherwise, by which to reach the shore.

Henry does not disregard Judith as a non-entity – quite the opposite. In certain facets of his life, of their relationship, this brother and sister are connected implicitly “as though by means of telepathy with which as children they seemed at times to anticipate one another’s actions as two birds leave a limb at the same instant” (79). Henry finds himself, not surprisingly, in a confusing position. To think explicitly of Bon, he is taken in and all else is secondary. To think of Bon marrying his sister he is torn between allowance due to love and a loyalty to his soul mate sister. He becomes obsessed with his sister’s virginity and the connection of that state to Bon. He is in love, too, with his sister. The fantasy of Bon as suitor provides “the pure and perfect incest: the brother realizing that the sister’s virginity must be destroyed in order to have existed at all, taking that virginity in the person of the brother in law, the man whom he would be if he could become . . . the lover” (77).

As a lover – a lover of Judith, – he is concerned not with the morality of Bon as much as the well being of the persons Bon’s intentions involve; he is concerned “ not [with] the fact that Bon’s intention [is] to commit bigamy but that it [is] apparently to make his (Henry’s) sister a sort of junior partner in a harem” (94). He implores Bon to think of their sister (272). He is caught between love and respect, between purpose and duty, but to and for whom is not clear. He moves to please as well as abate and his final actions would tend to indicate to which side he is the most loyal. Or would they? Judith “is bent on marrying [Bon] to the extent of forcing her brother to the last resort of homicide . . . to prevent it” (79). Is it to Judith he shows faithfulness by killing her love and erasing any wisp of a chance she may have at happiness? Is it to Bon that he swears allegiance by taking his life and destroying his opportunity to taste the revenge he has plotted against his estranged father? Is it to himself he remains true by breaking the connections which seem so strong but prove to be delicate with the two persons of most meaning in his life and assuring himself a future of anguish and solitude? Henry wallows in the contorted nature of his state of mind and, perhaps, appreciates the fact that he does not know to whom he should remain loyal thus forfeiting potentially justifiable blame. Judith could take a stand, formulate a decipherable motive, put forth an action, but does not and as these two, who in some cases revel in an ability to inherently understand the other, languish in a web of lack of communication, the lines connecting them dissipate and fray.

Though all three points in a triangle are equally important, Charles Bon is the pinnacle, the point toward which all connecting sides flow. He involves himself in the lives of Henry and Judith with only a limited amount of action on his part, sauntering around campus to be noticed and admired by the brother, to be mentioned in letters home, to be linked in marriage talk to the sister. His ideal circumstance involves being acknowledged by the father, but as four years pass, Bon, the man who knows and is collected passivity embodied, “[doesn’t] know what he [is] going to do and [has] to say, pretend, he [does]” (273).

Bon lives those four years hanging on the hope to hear from Thomas Sutpen, thus, viewing Henry and Judith and all else as secondary to his existence. When Henry speaks of his sister who, initially, he (Bon) may have not even realized existed (78), he (Bon) thinks, “I am not hearing about a young girl, a virgin; I am hearing about a narrow delicate fenced virgin field already furrowed and bedded so that all I shall need to do is drop the seeds in” (261). Henry is not a person who whom Bon is listening, he (Bon) only processes the words spoken to him and synthesizes them to fit his intentions. Judith is not a person, it would seem, toward whom he directs his love. However, “he [knows] all the time that the love would take care of itself. Maybe that [is] why he [doesn’t] have to think about her”(260). He says in his letter to her that he believes the two of them are to be among those “doomed to live” (105) when all is said and done. Bon has no concept of what is to occur, wrapped up in a world of tortuous hope, yet he obviously holds the capacity to conceive what may happen in the future. A misuse or backfiring of ability is a tragic flaw to several characters in this book and makes one think that perhaps different circumstances may not have changed certain situations, but rather, the antagonistic factor exists in the character.

When all is out in the open, when Henry is aware of the truth, and he still remains by Bon’s side, this is when the significant bond of this trifecta emerge. Because each point on a triangle is vital, they may each play a role. Henry holds “all three of them – himself and Judith and Bon – in that suspension while he [wrestles] with his conscience to make it come to terms with what he [wants] to do” (217). There seems no room to move for these three plays. They can twist and convolute any interpretation they want to of what is happening around them, but are trapped, much like Sutpen’s Hundred traps one, within the confines of their geometric connections. They each need each other so desperately, yet are unable to act upon these needs. Instead, they use and beat one another, ravaging emotion by deception and withdrawal, with falsehood and rejection, simply by means of an inability to accept. It is vital that there exist objects, persons toward whom they may direct their rage and despair and as they are so desperate for such objects, once they locate and align themselves in these ‘ideal’ situations there is no where else they can see themselves going.

Henry and Judith Sutpen and Charles Bon are connected much more deeply than simply the father they share. They each live a kind of life both undesirable and, practically, intolerable. In Charles’ case there are critical questions unanswered, in Henry and Judith’s case, there are no questions left to ask. Absalom, Absalom! may in one instance make a case justifying the seemingly horrific actions of any one character and then, in the same stroke of the pen, condemn that same character to a Hell far more excruciating than any reader may conceive. Whether the collective actions of this unfortunate trio were understandable or not is left to the individual. It is certain, though, that each of these Sutpen siblings are willing to be sucked in, willing to play a role, willing to see all through to the tragic end as a threesome, as a single condemned body.