“I am Telling”: Narrative and Identity in Absalom, Absalom!
Who says what – and how and when – may be the most compelling way William Faulkner constructs his characters in Absalom, Absalom! Storytelling is not just an act in which the saga of the Sutpens is recounted, revised, and even recreated; it is a gesture of self-disclosure. Each revelation about the past provides a glimpse into the present state of the narrating character’s mind. The rhetoric, the digressions, the strange (and often obsessive) fixations of each character’s account are the products of a range of personalities and view points, unable to agree on a definitive version of the story.There are, to be sure, overlaps; these are the events in the stories that transcend the proclivities of each narrator and are probably, though not certainly, the basic facts of what happened. We know there was a man named Thomas Sutpen; who came to Jefferson, Missippi; who married Ellen Coldfield; who had two children with his wife; whose son befriended and later killed a man named Bon; whose daughter was Bon’s betrothed; who fought in the Civil War; and who longed for a male heir to carry on the Sutpen legacy. The passion of the storytellers makes us forget that these are the only uniformly corroborated elements of the story. Neither Bond’s identity nor Sutpen’s mysterious past, though they seem so essential to our understanding of the novel, are indisputable. It is not impossible, indeed, that they are inventions of the narrators, perhaps unconscious embellishments of the story in order to do away with all its troublesome lacunae. Like the reader, the characters have had to infer and imagine a great deal to arrive at a plausible rendering of how things really happened.These discrepancies, as bewildering as they often are, do not exist to indict the narrators for taking creative liberties with history. Faulkner does not see them as liars or manipulators and we should not either. Indeed, there is no “authentic” version of the Sutpen story, and so, within the bounds of the basic facts we have established, there can be no wrong version. This is not objective reporting; what we have instead are personal interpretations. What we also have are expressions of personality. The story Quentin tells says as much about Quentin Compson as it does about the Sutpens and their travails. He brings his own experiences and opinions to the story, which the reader may discover embedded in the narrative he recounts. The same, of course, is true of Miss Rosa, Mr. Compson, Shreve, and all the others. At any point in the multiple narratives in Absalom, Absalom!, it is essential to keep in mind that there are two stories being told: one, the tragic history of the Sutpens, the other, the unwitting autobiography of the raconteur.This essay attempts to examine the different narratives in the novel in order to identify and analyze the traits of each of the narrators. By doing this, I also hope to clear up some of the ambiguities of the narration in the novel. The question in Absalom, Absalom! is often “Who is speaking?” rather than “How does this character speak?” Shifts in font, the passing on of stories (“I heard it from A who heard it from B…”, etc.), and the long sentences and paragraphs obfuscate which character is telling the story. With a better understanding of the “voice” of each of the characters, much of the confusion surrounding these parts of the narrative should clear up a bit.Miss Rosa is the first of the characters to tell the Sutpen saga. She is also a participant in the story and her version is perhaps the most impassioned and aggressive. Her relationship with Sutpen (first as sister-in-law, then as bride-to-be) has left her angry and bitter. Indeed, even after the passing of several decades, she still recalls the man through “outraged recapitulation.” A completely ruthless and nefarious Colonel Thomas Sutpen serves as the central figure of her story.Before Rosa tells her story, though, she chooses a listener: Quentin Compson. Quentin is confused by her selection. She sarcastically claims that she is telling him the story because he may one day “enter the literary profession” and if his wife should ever want a new gown, he could “write this and submit it to the magazines” for money. He knows that “she dont mean that” but he struggles to discover the real reason she has beckoned him into her dark, wisteria scented room. His next hypothesis approaches the truth but fails to account for some of the specifics: “it’s because she wants it told…so that people…will read it and know at last why God let us lose the War: that only through the blood of our men and the tears of our women could He stay this demon and efface his name and lineage from the earth.”This is part of Miss Rosa’s motivation, but it still does not answer the question “Why Quentin?” Couldn’t anyone pass on the story? Mr. Compson offers a very simple, practical explanation which proves to be true later in the novel. “It’s because,” he tells Quentin, “she will need someone to go with her [to Sutpen’s Hundred] – a man, gentleman, yet one young enough to do what she wants, do it the way she wants it done.” He then adds: “And she chose you because your grandfather was the nearest thing to a friend which Sutpen ever had in this country.”Although Quentin later – and somewhat comically – disappoints Rosa by failing to bring an ax on their excursion to Sutpen’s Hundred, as a listener he serves two purposes for Rosa. First, he can help her bring her story to its close by confronting the last physical and human remnants of the Sutpen legacy. And second, he can be receptive to the story in a way only an “insider” could be; there was a connection between the Sutpens and Compsons two generations ago and it exists still “through heredity.” Because Rosa needs Quentin much more than Quentin needs her, she knows she must shape her story in such a way that it presents a persuasive case for going to Sutpen’s Hundred.It’s not surprising, then, that she waits to reveal her real reason for wanting to visit Sutpen’s Hundred until after the most exciting events of the story (along with her most melodramatic rhetoric) have been divulged. Her timing is impeccable. At the beginning of chapter five, she commences her account of the showdown between Henry and Bon, Sutpen’s return from the Civil War and the dilapidated state of the property and family. As usual, though, Miss Rosa’s main focus is the character of Sutpen and in this chapter she gives some of the most stirring images of him in the book. Before she even begins her account of what happened, she describes him as”the brute instrument of that justice which presides over human events, which incept in the individual, runs smooth…but which, by man or woman flouted, drives on like fiery steel and overrides both weakly just and unjust strong, both vanquisher and innocent victimized.”In tone and syntax, her portrayal of Sutpen is wrought with frenzied, Biblical, and apocalyptic language. He is, in her mind, the source of all the evil ever done unto her and her family. Rosa follows this with a more subtle rhetorical tactic. Near the end of the chapter, she plaintively sums it up by saying “that was all. Or rather, not all, since there is no all, no finish; it’s not the blow we suffer form but the tedious repercussive anti-climax of it, the rubbishy aftermath to clear away from off the very threshold of despair.” Quentin, by now, is engrossed in the saga. Miss Rosa knows that she can tantalize him into accompanying her to the house with the enigmatic claim that “there’s something in that house…something living in it. Hidden in it.” Here is a chance to rid the family of the “rubbishy aftermath.” Here is a chance to indulge Quentin’s curiosity and relieve Miss Rosa’s uneasy superstition.It has been pointed out by many critics that Absalom, Absalom! is full of Gothic overtones. The women in the novel seem to embody these Gothic elements more than anyone or thing else in the novel, with Miss Rosa, because she is the most fully developed female character, being somewhat of a gothic ingenue. Her descriptions are informed by a sense of dark, brooding fate and archetypes – the maiden, the demon, etc. – playing out lives whose outcomes were determined long ago. Her story has, like the gothic novel, three main registers, which may exist either independently or intermingled: the romantic, the monstrous, and the tragic. Most of the romance of her story naturally involves the two couples in the Sutpen saga, Thomas and Ellen and Bon and Judith. The marriage between Ellen and Sutpen is, according to Rosa, both “a living fairy tale” and “an edifice like Bluebeard’s.” Similarly, she notes that in the garden where Judith and Bon would stroll, she felt a “fairy tale come alive.” The romantic is always teetering on the monstrous, though, as the Bluebeard comparison (and the potential incest) highlights. When treating her own “romance” with Sutpen, Rosa does away with any pretence of tenderness and describes the whole affair – including the man himself – as a monstrosity. He was, she says, an “ogre” and “a madman who creates within his very coffin walls his fabulous immeasurable Camelots and Carcassonnes.” In the end, she sees the whole story subsumed by its tragic ending and she proclaims her sister’s very first encounter with Sutpen to have been unnoticed evidence of a “fatality and curse on the South and on our family.”Mr. Compson, removed from the heart of the Sutpen saga by a generation, approaches his storytelling with distance and without personal grievances. His version of the story rivals Rosa’s in its grandiosity, but it is more a classical tragedy than a gothic novel. Mr. Compson’s tendency is to aggrandize where Rosa’s was to romanticize. He is not willing to dismiss Sutpen as pure evil; indeed, he considers him a tragic hero, a man with “alertness for measuring and weighing event against eventuality, circumstance against human nature, his own fallible judgment and mortal clay against not only human but natural forces.” The whole saga is an epic tragedy, with “people too as we are and victims too as we are, but victims of a different circumstance, simpler and therefore, integer for integer, larger, more heroic and the figures therefore more heroic too.” In this schema, Sutpen has no agency either to cause or to prevent the horrible things that happen to his family and himself. Mr. Compson explains, rather swept up in his own rhetoric, that Sutpen was”unaware that his flowering was a forced bloom…and that while 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 and dragging on the synthetic and spurious shadows of the next one.”It is likely that Mr. Compson inherited his sympathetic view of Sutpen from his own father, who was Sutpen’s one friend in Jefferson. Sutpen confided in the elder Compson the story of his childhood and early adulthood – everything, that is, that took place up until his appearance in Jefferson. Mr. Compson repeats Sutpen’s story to Quentin and, although it is being passed on for a third time, Sutpen’s frank, detached narrative comes through with as little adulteration as Quentin’s memories of Miss Rosa’s story.Thomas Sutpen’s narrative is unique in the novel. It covers most of, but not all, the years of his life preceding his arrival in Jefferson. He is, it would seem, mysterious even to himself, for he recounts his own life story from a faraway, even dreamy point of view. Colonel Compson recalls being unsettled by Sutpen’s utter divorce from his earlier life: “He was not talking about himself. He was telling a story. He was not bragging about something he had done; he was just telling a story about something a man named Thomas Sutpen had experienced, which would still have been the same story if the man had had no name at all, if it had been told about any man or no man over whiskey at night.” Sutpen seems to have transcended all personal entanglements in order to establish his vast dynasty in Jefferson. Rosa may not have been far from the truth when she declared Sutpen to be no more than “a walking shadow.”It is evident, though, that his past is not so neutral a topic as he would have it seem from his tone. His trouble when he was younger, Sutpen tells Colonel Compson, was “innocence.” He explains that “all of a sudden he discovered, not what he wanted to do but what he just had to do, had to do it whether he wanted to or not, because if he did not do it he knew he could never live with himself for the rest of his life.” The use of the word “innocence” followed by this description of Sutpen’s almost impersonal ambition makes it clear that the purpose of his “design” was never pleasure and wealth for their own sakes. Rather, he set out to settle scores and to triumph in order to avenge the mistreatment he had received in the world. He has no personal targets just as he has no personal attachments to the process. He is, however, determined to succeed.In spite of – or perhaps because of – his detachment as a narrator, Sutpen tells his own story like a myth, which later becomes the inspiration for Mr. Compson’s version of the entire Sutpen saga. “What I learned,” Sutpen recalls of his brief period of schooling, “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.” This candid recollection tells us two things. The first is that the “design” is every bit as calculated and deep-rooted as Sutpen claims. Apparently, too, the rancor Miss Rosa suspects to be the basis of Sutpen’s actions is in fact callous solipsism. The second is that Sutpen envisions himself on a kind of heroic quest and his honor is invested in its success. He manages to make his position extraordinarily convincing and sympathetic to Colonel Compson, who observes that “destiny had fitted itself to him, to his innocence, his pristine aptitude for platform drama and childlike heroic simplicity.”By the end of Sutpen’s life, though, these heroic aspirations have become an ironic prelude to an impossible situation. With Bon’s return, Sutpen’s design quickly comes undone. If he acknowledges Bon, the legacy splits between his two sons, one of which has negro blood. If he doesn’t, Judith will marry Bon and there will be both incest and miscegenation in the Sutpen line. When he comes to Colonel Compson to finish his story, then, his tone has changed a great deal. He no longer assumes that the success of his design is inevitable. Indeed, it seems unlikely. Before, it was Sutpen as a young Ulysses; now he comes before Colonel Compson as a bedraggled old Lear. He still believes in fate, but he now appreciates its ironic blindness, as he gives a “clear and simple synopsis of his history,” all the while “trying to explain to circumstance, to fate itself, the logical steps by which he had arrived at a result absolutely and forever incredible.” Sutpen never takes responsibility for the outcome of his life and Colonel Compson never levels blame at him either. With his naive will to power (and his perfectly serene articulation of his “fate”), Sutpen dies, at least in his own eyes, a tragic hero, brought down by his tragic flaw: an “abysmal and purblind innocence.”Quentin and Shreve, the last of the narrators in Absalom, Absalom!, are also the most difficult to identify since they are often more of a narrating tag-team than individuals telling their own stories. Shreve does not always wait for Quentin to finish parts of the story; he’s perfectly happy to come up with his own ending, supply his own details, and anticipate outcomes with gleeful zeal. This is not the first time since coming to Harvard that Quentin has had such an eager – and unsought – audience. He has been approached multiple times with the same round of inquiries: “Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.” Faulkner significantly omits the question marks here, morphing the nominally interrogative into a series of staccato commands. Like the others, Shreve is not initially receptive to Quentin’s careful narration. He just wants some abbreviated anecdotes about the stereotypically “Southern” way of life. His motivation at first is only enthusiastic curiosity; it takes some time before he begins to ask rather than tell Quentin what happened.At the beginning of the shared narrative (chapter 6), Shreve assumes almost complete control. Quentin is still mulling over his father’s letter about Miss Rosa’s death and he does little more than interpolate a “yes” into Shreve’s enormous monologue. Clearly, Shreve has heard bits and pieces of the Sutpen story before. He playfully reverses their roles by ending enormous sections of his narrative with a simple yes-no question so that he is really just asking and answering the questions at once. Quentin is merely a tangential participant in Shreve’s enormous feat of memory and creative reinterpretation. With a touch of irony, he recasts the story in grandiloquent language and the kind of imagery and allusions one would expect of a Harvard undergraduate:”If [Sutpen] hadn’t been a demon his children wouldn’t have needed protection from him and [Rosa] wouldn’t have had to go out there and be betrayed by the old meat and find instead of a widowed Agamemnon to her Cassandra an ancient stiff-jointed Pyramus to her eager untried Thisbe.” Because Shreve, as a Canadian, is a complete outsider to the story, he comes to it with no personal affinities to any one character or aspect of the saga. Unlike Rosa’s gothic and Mr. Compson’s classical interpretation, Shreve’s account is a mixed-bag of genres, blending the comic, the tragic, the farcical, and the absurd. His only one consistent tone is “exciting” and he does all he can to make his story evocative and even self-consciously scandalous.With all this frenetic rhetorical vim, it soon becomes apparent what Shreve is attempting to do with the story: dramatize it. After his exhaustive recapitulation of the story, he remarks to Quentin “Jesus, the South is fine, isn’t it. It’s better than the theatre, isn’t it. It’s better than Ben Hur, isn’t it. No wonder you have to come away now and then, isn’t it.” Again, Faulkner omits the quotation marks, leading the reader to believe that Shreve is simply asserting his pre-conceived notions of the South rather than actually reacting to the story. His view of the Sutpen saga as a Southern drama proves just how much of an outsider he is. He has very little conception of the people involved in the story and thinks only in terms of sweeping conflicts and transgressions followed inevitably by some wholesale, melodramatic finale.Shreve also has a deep appreciation for ironic endings and, half in jest, he begins to shift the focus of the story from Thomas Sutpen himself to his three children. The “character” Sutpen seems to have impressed Shreve much less that either Rosa or Mr. Compson. Indeed, Sutpen was interfering with the action of Shreve’s narrative, with his psychological ambiguities and waning life span. Shreve wants a story of passion and youthful impetuosity and the aging Sutpen is no longer an acceptable protagonists. He is perfectly delighted to concentrate on Henry and Bon, whose ironic secret is far more in keeping with Shreve’s idea of a good story.Quentin, unhappy at the prospect of Shreve taking the Sutpen saga and running amok with it, finally jumps in and takes control of the narrative. Shreve summarizes the story with his hyperbolic language up until the point when Rosa and Quentin arrived at Sutpen’s Hundred. Quentin keeps his distance from the narrative at first, but midway through Shreve’s energetic if inaccurate story telling, Quentin thinks to himself “Yes, I have had to listen too long.” The thought occurs to him twice more. Faulkner signifies Quentin’s growing involvement in the story by alternating increasingly longer passages of Quentin’s interior monologue with Shreve’s story. By the end of chapter six, the two sections are of equal length; Quentin is ready to be the story teller.Unlike Shreve, Quentin puts a great deal of effort into telling the story as coolly and as calmly as possible. He speaks with a “curious repressed calm voice” and refuses to indulge Shreve by acknowledging the Canadian’s frequent, semi-sarcastic interruptions. Quentin’s goal as narrator is to make sense of what happened to the Sutpens and to reconcile himself to it. His discourse is deliberate and assertive, his attitude “brooding.” For Quentin, the Sutpen story is no drama, but an incomplete puzzle requiring serious attention and a very minimal sense of humor. Shreve is intrigued by the story but a bit exasperated -“but go on…go on” – with Quentin’s narrative style as well.It is not until Quentin begins discussing Sutpen’s children that the narrative act becomes collaborative. Quentin is amenable to Shreve’s request that he discuss Henry, Judith and Bon, but there is a slight hesitance. This is clearly the part of the story that is both the most fascinating and the least lucid, for Quentin as well as for Shreve. Nonetheless, Quentin chooses to proceed and, just before beginning, he formulates in his mind the crucial analogy articulating the relationship between the past of the story and the present of the narrators:”Maybe nothing ever happens once and is finished. Maybe happen is never once but like ripples maybe on water after the pebble sinks, and ripples moving on, spreading, the pool attached by a narrow umbilical water-cord to the next pool which the first pool feeds, has fed, did feed, let this second pool contain a different temperature of water, a different molecularity of having seen, felt remembered.”Quentin is very unsure, as the multiple “maybes” no doubt indicate, about the significance (or even the validity, for that matter) of his analogy. But by finally realizing that the actions of the past come to bear on the outcomes of the future, the Sutpen history becomes much more accessible to him. He no longer feels a need to be quite so distantly reverent; it is, after all, his story too and he has every right to poke and prod at it for personal reasons.At last, Quentin and Shreve compromise on their understanding of the proper way to relate the history of the Sutpens – that is, rather than assert their own versions of the story, they allow the story to assert itself over them. Henry and Bon are brought to the forefront of the narrative and the pace of the story slows down so that the focus is not on the dramatic aspects, but on the personal. These changes intensify the emotional impact of the story immensely. Quentin and Shreve, full of bravura, are at first embarrassed by their deep investment in the story and try to disguise their “youthful shame of being moved.” The intimacy the story creates between the two boys is so acute, in fact, that Faulkner begins to use sexual analogies to describe their joint narrative. At first, Quentin and Shreve are reluctant and regard each other “almost as a youth and a very young girl might out of virginity itself – a sort of hushed and naked searching.” As they progress further into the story, Faulkner describes their narrative process as “creating between them…people.” And ultimately, Quentin and Shreve unite in a “happy marriage of speaking and hearing…in order to overpass to love” and create a story in which “there might be paradox and inconsistency but nothing fault nor false.”This narrative “marriage” is not only between speaking and hearing but between past and present as well. As Quentin glimpsed in his pebble and pool analogy, the present frequently just reiterates what has already happened. History, in this sense, is a pattern appearing again and again over the course of time. This is why what happened to Henry, Bon, and Judith is not simply an inscrutable story (as Quentin originally thought) or grand drama (as Shreve believed with great joviality). Indeed, it is something that could happen to the two of them. With this in mind, the boys really do imagine themselves as Henry and Bon, converging in experience through the use of narrative, “so that now it was not two but four of them riding the two horses through the dark over the frozen December ruts of that Christmas: four of them and then just two – Charles-Shreve and Quentin-Henry.” Notably, it is at this point also that Faulkner notes (for the first of perhaps half a dozen times) that the story has gone beyond an exchange of words and understanding between two people: “it did not matter (and possibly neither of them conscious of the distinction) which one had been doing the talking and which the listening.” Through their imaginative involvement in the story, Quentin and Shreve overcome both narrative and temporal convention and finally, after much exhaustion, bring the story a close. At least, that is, for now.Quentin is very little comforted by the end of his and Shreve’s narrative. Shreve, retreating back to his ironic, macho posturing of before, chases the post-story silence away by exclaiming, “The South. Jesus. No wonder you folks all outlive yourselves by years and years and years.” Quentin retains his brooding, pensive silence, lying rigidly in the cold dorm room and thinking to himself “Nevermore of peace. Nevermore. Nevermore. Nevermore.” The story of the Sutpens has ended, but there has not been (nor will there be) any sort of resolution. Miss Rosa, Mr. Compson, Sutpen, Quentin and Shreve have all tried to bend the story into the shape they most desire, be it a gothic romance, a classical tragedy, a heroic epic, a mystery, or a Southern farce. It is pliable enough, but the story cannot resist being “re-bent” by any narrator who happens upon it. The story, alas, will never be in the exact shape of history. It can, however, be a very close approximation of the patterns of the narrator’s mind.
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