Absalom, Absalom!: The Downfall of Thomas Sutpen
Absalom, Absalom! is a novel that explores the tumultuous and traumatic history of the South through the retelling of the tale of Thomas Sutpen. The varying perspectives of the characters within the novel create a holistic image of Sutpen’s rise to prominence within the town of Jefferson, Mississippi. By delving back in time to reevaluate Sutpen’s life, Faulkner manages to simultaneously explore the history of the South before the Civil War. The decline and fall of Thomas Sutpen possesses undeniable underpinnings of racial prejudice. In the same nature, the fall of the South is one plagued by racial tension and discrimination. Faulkner utilizes an intricate narrative structure in order to provide insight into the events surrounding Thomas Sutpen and how they inextricably reflect upon the racially charged history of the South.
The historical context within Absalom, Absalom! lays the foundation for the entirety of Faulkner’s novel. In many ways, history is constantly being revisited through the retelling of Sutpen’s story, which has been handed down from generation to generation. The first account of Thomas Sutpen that Faulkner introduces is Rosa Coldfield’s, the younger sister of Thomas Sutpen’s second wife Ellen. According to Quentin, Rosa insists that the story be told “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,” (Faulkner 6). This excerpt is vital in drawing an undeviated connection between Thomas Sutpen’s narrative and the convoluted history of the South.
Rosa asserts that Sutpen’s story must live on in order for future generations to avoid repeating the same mistake of possessing prejudices against people solely due to their social class or race. Rosa believed that ultimately, these racial attitudes and divisions resulted in Sutpen’s fall and the loss of slavery. In order to fully dissect the pretext of this fall, Faulkner includes several narrations of the same story with the intention of provoking emotions within the readers and enmeshing them within the conflict. The readers, in many ways, become involved in the search for answers as the plot of the novel unravels and new details are revealed that shed light upon Thomas Sutpen’s story and the story of the South. As these new details emerge, there is an element of inaccuracy, as each narrator possesses a unique perspective of the story. Due to this, Thomas Sutpen’s story cannot be pieced together without any errors. This element of uncertainty within Sutpen’s history is similar to that of the history of the South. Tales about the South that detail events related to slavery and aristocracy cannot be fully comprehended because regardless of the amount of perspectives we are shown, certain attitudes held by those telling these stories have the effect of casting doubt upon the validity of these accounts. Thus, Faulkner utilizes Sutpen’s story and the narrative fabric of his novel to assert that though history can inform the present, our knowledge of the events of the past is restricted.
Faulkner also exemplifies the link between Sutpen and the South when he sheds light upon Sutpen’s past through the narration of Quentin’s father, Mr. Compson. Through Mr. Compson’s narration, it is revealed that Sutpen’s desire to become rich and well settled came from his introduction to the “country all divided and fixed and neat with a people living on it all divided and fixed neat because of what color their skin happened to be and what they happened to own,” (Faulkner 179). Sutpen grew up in what is now West Virginia, a territory in which “the land belong[s] to anybody and everybody” (Faulkner 179), and where “the only colored people [are] Indians,” (Faulkner 179). The Indians are only looked at “over rifle sights” (179), already forming a divide between races and classes of people. These elements of Sutpen’s young life relate to a great extent to an early South filled with racial bias and prejudice. In his early years, Sutpen had an experience in which he was rejected from the front door of a rich white family’s mansion. This experience further cultivated a sense of class difference within Sutpen. Sutpen acknowledged his vast innocence regarding class hierarchies and remained “quite calm” (Faulkner 189).
Sutpen theorizes that in order to climb the class ladder and rid himself of innocence, he will require “land and niggers and a fine house to combat [the other whites]” (Faulkner 192). This marks the commencement of a life-long endeavor to collect vast riches and possess power of his own. By learning the details of Sutpen’s past, readers are exposed to the attitudes, prejudices, and biases possessed by those in the South. Sutpen’s observation of the class divide between himself and the rich family, as well as his attitudes towards “Indians” and people of other races highlights the ideas that shaped the early history of the South. In sharing this anecdotal information, Faulkner is able to express the point that early exposure to racial divide and class resentment in communities creates characters like Sutpen. Sutpen is a reflection of the South. Not only does he possess and express Southern customs, but he is a direct product of Southern principles.
Sutpen sets himself up for failure by formulating his plan based on the attitudes of Southern aristocracy, which comprises of a social divide between races and classes of people. Sutpen, completely unaware of this fatal flaw in his plan, constantly reassures himself that in order to have everything he wants, all he needed was “money, a house, a plantation, slaves, a family— incidentally of course, a wife,” (212). Sutpen does actually acquire all of what he desired to possess, but due to his tendency to remain ignorant regarding the racial prejudice that runs rampant throughout society, his plan crumbles in the end.
Both Sutpen and the Southern community remain blissfully unaware of the reality of racial injustice and the detriments they pose to society, this leads to the falls of both Sutpen and the foundational principles of slavery in the South after the Civil War. Sutpen is tormented with racial bias from the start of the novel. The only time the novel unveils and exposes the racial prejudice is when it is revealed that Sutpen leaft his first wife and son because they may have had some negro blood, “a fact which [he] did not learn until after [his] son was born,” (Faulkner 212). Although Sutpen now has a son to continue on his name and legacy, he does not regard it as a blessing or symbol of good fortune, but only considers the time he spent with his wife to be “wasted years” (Faulkner 212). Sutpen’s quick betrayal of his son and wife “merely explain[s] how this new fact rendered it impossible that this woman and child be incorporated in [his] design,” (Faulkner 212). Sutpen’s intolerance for people of different races triggers his ultimate downfall. He willingly gives up his family, plantation, and heir all due to a mere difference in race between himself and his wife and child.
In the end, Sutpen’s aspirations of wealth and power dramatically plummet. The sole reason behind Sutpen’s downfall is that his design was based on personal gain and did not contain any compassion or consideration for others, an attitude also possessed by the South. The utter ignorance of the racially fueled divisions within society, generate irreversible effects that lead to the South’s fall after the Civil War and Sutpen’s downfall. Sutpen’s past returns to the forefront when Henry, his second son from another marriage, meets Bon. Bon decides to marry Judith, Sutpen’s daughter from his second marriage. Sutpen, clearly outraged regarding the possibility of this, sets out to destroy Bon. Sutpen’s racial prejudice and bias culminate to form the final immoral act that leads to his downfall. The murder of Bon leads to Supten’s demise, as Sutpen is eventually left without a rightful heir to his property. As a result, Sutpen loses his plantation.
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Absalom, Absalom! is a novel that explores the tumultuous and traumatic history of the South through the retelling of the tale of Thomas Sutpen. The varying perspectives of the characters […]