Absalom, Absalom!: Literary Criticisms Review
The Relevance of William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! Transcends Eras
William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! has been reviewed by many writers across various publishing platforms, who all seem to agree to describe it as one of the most chaotic narrative styles they have read yet. However, they owe the greatness of this book to Faulkner’s artistic vision and style, which allow the novel to transcend the Southern backdrop and delve deep into a realistic understanding of the complex way of human life. Faulkner breaks the mold and takes the less traveled road to narrate the story of Thomas Sutpen through the looking glass of Miss Rosa, Mr. Compson, Quentin, and Shreve, characters central to the development of the plot. Reviewers throughout try to understand Faulkner’s purpose for writing Absalom! Absalom! through highly complex, fragmented narratives and how this method only added to his theme of memory through the emotional echo of the post-Civil War South and issues surrounding racism.
Arthur Hirsch in his review in The Baltimore Sun describes Absalom! Absalom! as Faulkner’s magnum opus, “a karmic soup that permeates contemporary American culture.” It was his best novel yet and the epitome of The Great American Novel. While Larry Nolan refers the novel as a “mosaic,” in the OF Blog, Hirsch calls it a “tapestry in which the past and present are woven together.” The book is written as a series of “second-hand account[s], with traces of yet another level of storytelling to indicate that what was being recounted was through the viewpoint of a potentially biased person.” The Literary Corner Café blog sums up the varying characteristics of two of the narrators very well. Miss Rosa’s narrative style is more selective and fragmented, which suggest her emotional instability. Her tendency to jump from one memory to another frustrates readers, but a curiosity to learn more about Sutpen makes them turn the to the next page. Contrastingly, Mr. Compson has a much more linear, formulaic fashion, sometimes misunderstood as objectively telling us more about Sutpen. These opposing approaches enable Faulkner to “ask the reader to participate in the story, to help unravel why Sutpen’s fall occurred and why it was inevitable.” Much like how Hirsch described it, Absalom! Absalom! is most probably parallel to “computer hypertext novels in which the reader helps shape the story.” However, Faulkner’s writing sometimes gives the readers more information that they can understand while other times he doesn’t give enough information to be able to understand what is going on. This “incommensurate” (Ford) representation is carried throughout the book.
If it is so difficult to follow, why do we continue to read it? It’s simple. Our curiosity gets the better of us as we try to piece together the snippets of stories retold through the four narrators. Bernard Norcott-Mahany in his Kansas City Public Library review gives an explanation. Even though we will never be able to say for sure what Sutpen’s “whole” or “true” story really is, our “wiring” forces us to piece together the stories that others tell us, much like a 2-year-old toddler trying to solve a 500-piece puzzle. “Ultimately, we fail” in trying to “take into account their framing of any given story, and their peculiar way of telling that story, as well as our own blinders in receiving the story.” It feels like Faulkner is, in an interesting, droll way trying to tease the readers by purposefully hiding a few pieces of the puzzle and letting us bang our heads on a table until we eventually give up and find another game. However, in this case, Faulkner wins. His wonderful book, Absalom! Absalom! transcends generations of time to be as relevant to readers in the 21st century as it was in 1936.
Faulkner purposefully chose to write his story in a disoriented, convoluted fashion, switching between narrators, form, and style constantly. To begin, Faulkner utilized the black and white conflict of the South to “create a mosaic portrayal of the Sutpen family” (Nolan) through the eyes of the narrators. He then, amusingly, reveals the entire plot in the first two chapters of the book to portray to the reader that this is a novel driven by its theme, one of “quixotic and malleable quality of memory” (Literary Corner Café). Faulkner throws conventional ways of story-telling out the window to expose how “people create history through individual interpretation” (Literary Corner Café), making the readers more aware of the content they are trying to piece together, which is part of the reason why the impression that the novel leaves on its readers is “that Absalom! Absalom! ought to be a thousand pages long, so full is it of everything in the world” (Ford), whether it is read in 1964, 1979, or 2016. Henry Ford describes his experience when he read the book in The Threepenny Review. “It buoyed me, it sunk me, it turned me upside down. I loved it, I loathed it. It was familiar, it was alien.” Ford was as equally enthralled as was confused by Faulkner, like he was riding a roller coaster. He was expecting the huge drop and upside down loops to come, but the experience was indescribable to those who haven’t experienced it themselves.
It is also important to address Faulkner’s second theme, the danger and immorality of racism, which is developed in the second half of the book, when Quinton and Shreve begin to put together the story behind Thomas Sutpen and his first wife and eldest son, two important details left unspoken by Miss Rosa and Mr. Compson in the first half. Faulkner clues us into the reasons behind Sutpen’s actions and decisions towards the end of the book, which slowly help the readers to understand him. However, even though we are told the truth in Quinton’s and Shreve’s viewpoints, it is really the truth? Or is Faulkner just playing 20 Questions with his readers? Through the underlying theme of racism, Faulkner manages to use his unique, liquid writing style “to dramatize historical consciousness itself, not just human lives but the forest of time in which the whole notion of human life must find its only meaning” (Sullivan) and that is the reason why Faulkner can still be deemed relevant today.
We are still facing and dealing with racism and discrimination in current society, and it has become more dispersed than it has ever been throughout history. Faulkner, who was once seen as a rebellious author, “variously boring, baffling, [and] unreadable” (Hirsch), is now acclaimed for his novel Absalom! Absalom!, viewed as one of the “most fascinating” yet “most complex” (Literary Corner Café) books. Not only the subject matter, but also the way Faulkner’s chaotic writing parallels with life is relatable in any time period. Life is chaos and it is human nature to try and make sense of this chaos in any way possible. At the end of the day, it is like the battle of Yin vs. Yang—while there is a thunderous “maelstrom…swirling, plunderous,” (Ford) we attempt to construct a “beautiful artifice” (Ford) within it, each opposing, like Miss Rosa and Mr. Compson, yet balancing. It is fair to say that Absalom! Absalom! may as well be William Faulkner’s magnum opus, his greatest work that transcends eras.
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