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.
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