A Look at the Different Topics in William Faulkner’s, Absalom, Absalom!
Oftentimes, in literature, a certain theme is established to be considered while reading the writing. These themes are used to remind the reader about the background of the book, or to express a message throughout the book. Some books have more than one theme, to express more than one message. In the book, Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner, there are three major theme shown in the book. Set in the South, after the Civil War, the themes in the book are social status, incest, and racism. These theme are constantly shown throughout the plot.
The setting of the book is West Virginia, right after the War Between the States. The book tells a story about Thomas Sutpen, the son of a poor white in western Virginia who has a grand “design,” and the effect his actions have on future generations in Yoknapatawpha County. As an adolescent, Thomas moved with his family from the mountains to the Tidewater region of Virginia and he saw for the first time wealthy planters who owned grand houses and Negro slaves. Ignorant of the aristocratic Southern social code prevalent in his new home, he believed himself equal to his new neighbors until a chance errand taught him otherwise. When delivering a message to a plantation house, a liveried black servant told him to go around to the back of the house, thus destroying his naïve view of life. Realizing for the first time his true social stature, he decided to fight fire with fire: he determined to amass wealth, slaves, and land for himself–in short, to create his “design.” He decided to grow out of his label of white trash. To begin amassing his fortune, he ran away to the West Indies, where he secured a job for a Haitian sugar planter. After heroically defending the plantation during a slave revolt, he married the planter’s daughter, Eulalia, in 1827. Soon after the birth of their son, Charles, Sutpen discovered his wife had Negro blood. Knowing he could never achieve his “design” with a wife who had black blood, he divorced her in 1831, leaving her to raise young Charles alone. Forced to start over, Sutpen arrived in Jefferson, Mississippi in 1833. Since he apparently lacked both possessions and past, the residents considered him an outrage from the very beginning. Nevertheless, he set out to create his design. First, he bought a hundred square miles of fertile bottom land in the northern half of Yoknapatawpha County, near the Tallahatchie River, from Ikkemotubbe, a Chickasaw chief, paid with his last gold coin to have the deed recorded, and disappeared. He returned a month later with a wagonload of wild, naked Negro slaves who spoke no English and a dapper French architect and began to build his house. After two years, the house was completed, and he lived there for another three years in the unfurnished, windowless house, borrowing seed from General Compson to plant his first crop. Five years after his arrival, he furnished the house and reached an agreement with a local merchant, Goodhue Coldfield, to marry his daughter, Ellen. Because of his unsavory reputation among the town residents and their suspicions that he was a thief, however, only a handful attended the wedding. They settled into their plantation, now known as Sutpen’s Hundred, and seldom were seen in town. Sutpen had achieved his goal, and was no longer considered white trash. His main goal, and one theme of the book, was to break the chain of social status in the society, and be something no one expected him to be.
Ellen bore two children, Henry and Judith. In 1859, Henry entered the University of Mississippi, forty miles away in Oxford. There he met and became close friends with Charles Bon, some ten years older than Henry, not knowing Bon was his half-brother. When Bon spent Christmas at Sutpen’s Hundred, he met and initiated a betrothal with Judith, which Henry seemed to approve. On the following Christmas, however, an encounter between Henry and his father resulted in Henry’s renouncement of his birthright and subsequent departure with Bon for New Orleans. When the Civil War broke out the following spring, both Henry and Bon joined a regiment formed at the university, and Sutpen was second in command in Colonel John Sartoris’s 23rd Mississippi Infantry, of which Sutpen was elected Colonel the following year. Bon and Henry remained together throughout the war, but when the war had ended and Bon returned to Sutpen’s Hundred to marry Judith, Henry shot and killed Bon at the plantation gate and disappeared. Bons relationship with Judith was incest, but the closeness of Judith and Henry could also be considered incest as well. Henry killed Bon before their marriage, but why was a mystery. Could it be that Henry loved his sister sexually? This would only strengthen the theme of incest in the book.
The one theme that is constant, throughout the whole book, is racism. Since the book is set in the South, around slavery times, African Americans are portrayed as such. The word nigger appears throughout, and the way Sutpen and others treat their slaves is commonplace, but as seen through the readers eyes, is completely racist. This has to be expected, since Faulkner is trying to portray the South in its true light. If he had chosen not to use certain words or phrases, and not to describe slavery in the way it really was, in order to be politically correct, the full effect of the story would not be felt, thus lowering the magnitude of the book. Though racism is not a good thing, it is used very well as an underlying theme in this story.
William Faulkner wrote a good story, and though writing style is difficult to read and hard to understand, the book is well written. The use of the three themes, social status, incest, and racism, make the book even better, allowing the reader to get the full aspect of the story itself.
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