Human Drive Is Due to the Desire for Power: The Portrayal of Thomas Sutpen
A desire of power is one of the most robust drives of human beings. This desire promotes determination for achieving goals and ambitions. Determination and ambition are two essential forces to allow humans to find reason and purpose in their endeavors. The desire for power expresses in literature through the utilization of a plethora of literary devices. In Absalom! Absalom!, by William Faulkner, Thomas Sutpen’s drive for power can be seen through the symbolism, characterization, and imagery used throughout the novel.
At the beginning of the novel, Faulkner first introduces the wisteria vine, which plays a massive role of symbolism. The text states, “There was a wisteria vine blooming for the second time that summer…” (Faulkner 3). Wisteria vines are overwhelming plants that thrive and overtakes its surroundings. It appears in the novel when Miss Rosa or Quinten recall the past of Sutpen’s claim to power. It represents how his power is overwhelming and unpredicted. The blooming of the wisteria, just like Sutpen’s rise to power, can be interpreted as a negative and positive aspect.
Another idea that demonstrates the lust for power is the symbolism of migration to the West Indies. Sutpen realizes, “‘What I learned 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…’” (Faulkner 195). In the revelation of his pathway to power, Sutpen understands that the only way to achieve his ambition of riches was to abandon his previous life and embark on a new one. Sutpen struggles to free himself from his life of poverty in which he had a wife and a child. The West Indies serves as an escape of his responsibilities to a life of enrichment and allow him to gain riches and ultimately power over his past.
In continuation of his escape, Sutpen establishes his power over others in the form of the house he built when he arrived in Jefferson. Faulkner describes, “‘…a house the size of a courthouse where he lived for three years without a window or door or bedstead in it and still called it Sutpen’s Hundred as if it had been a King’s grant in unbroken perpetuity from his great-grandfather – a home, position…’” (Faulkner 10). Falkner uses Sutpen’s Hundred as a symbol to indicate Sutpen’s rise and fall of power. The building of the estate shows how Sutpen asserted his new-found power and achieved his freedom. The power eventually fades and controls him and leads him through a dark path in which is represented by the estates as it wears down. Eventually, Sutpen’s Hundred is burnt down, indicating the end of a dynasty.
Falkner used the characterization of the Sutpen to display the desire for power within humans. One aspect of Sutpen’s character that illustrated his gain for power over others was through his marital actions. The author states, “‘Then he needed respectability, the shield of a virtuous woman, to make his position impregnable…’” (Faulkner 9). Along with Sutpen’s Hundred drawing attention to the public of his higher status, he also married Ellen Coldfield, the daughter of a well-respected merchant. He used his wife to gain more power as she offered him a shield of innocence and invulnerability.
Furthermore, Sutpen’s characterization can also indicate his mental state. The novel reads, “…he was at this time completely the slave of his secret and furious impatience” (Faulkner 25). Power is the primary desire for Sutpen as he risks many individuals and social aspects of his life to acquire this status. In the process, he begins to lose his new-found freedom by being trapped by his new attitude and changed perspectives due to his status. He begins to damage his mental health to relieve himself of his problems and establishes, but also entrap, himself in power. Along with him establishing his power over others, dislike quickly followed. Faulkner writes, “‘Because when he came back this time, he was in a sense a public enemy’” (Faulkner 33). Due to his immense rule over Jefferson, he controlled and influenced many places of business and areas. This control disrupted the flow of the city and caused people to grow a dislike for the man with the vast estate. The dislike is a direct result of Sutpen’s increased power and status.
Faulkner inputs a wide variety of imagery to display how the desire for power can show through the description of scenery. In one graphic description, the author writes about the pivotal moment of Sutpen’s life and his inspiration for his ambitious drive. Quentin recalls, “‘It must have looked fine and clear ahead for him now: house finished, and even bigger and whiter than the one he had gone to the door of that day and the nigger came out in his monkey clothes and told him to go to the back’” (Faulkner 209). Sutpen arrives at a wealthy man’s home and is mistaken for a commoner and is requested to go through the back door that instance marked the moment that Sutpen wanted to model after the man with the house and to achieve his level of prestige. Sutpen’s drive for power establishes, and he works to achieve it regardless of the sacrifices.
Also, Faulkner uses imagery to describe Sutpen’s power concerning his slaves at the Sutpen’s Hundred. The author portrays “…it was they who told how even that first summer and fall the negroes did not even have (or did not use) blankets to sleep in…” (Faulkner 27). At Sutpen’s manor, he contained many slaves, and as described in the text, they received unequal treatment. Sutpen displays an inhuman power over other humans in which he exercises as an owner. The imagery of the different seasons displays an ideal look into how long this mistreatment continued. Further along, imagery is being used to describe the role of Sutpen and the town’s view of him. Faulkner illustrates, “…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…” (Faulkner 57). Sutpen uses his life to build his ambitions of power and riches. As his goals succeed, his arrogance brings him down and lowers his ability to maintain his power. Sutpen, as the stage manager, will soon come to the end of the show and finish his run.
The symbolism, characterization, and imagery linked to Thomas Sutpen in Absalom! Absalom! display his drive for power. He produces the ability to gain power over others, free himself from power, and eventually entrapped by his power. Thomas Sutpen exhibits theses abilities throughout the novel, in which can be shown with a myriad of different literary devices. As he thrives for power, the text does not mention as to if power is a positive or negative trait to attain. In the case of Thomas Sutpen, there will always be a downfall to an ascent.
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