Narrative Voice in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom
“On or about December 1910 human nature changed. All human relations shifted…and when human relations change there is at the same time change in religion, politics, and literature”; thus, Modernism was born (Woolf qtd in Galens 175). Modernism was a movement that pursued a truthful portrayal of the world by focusing on the human experience through the subconscious. William Faulkner’s novel, Absalom, Absalom! is an excellent depiction of Modernism. Through the narrative technique stream-of-consciousness, Faulkner engages specific aspects of Modernism, including allusions and a focus on the past. Faulkner is able to construct the story of Thomas Sutpen’s influence on Jefferson, Mississippi, through this unique narrative structure.
The Modernist movement was a reaction to Realism. Modernists did not believe that the Realists’ methods of writing simply about the actions of everyday life truly depicted the real world. The Modernists claimed that it was “impossible” to depict real life without concentrating on the character’s subconscious, for “the psyche of the narrator will always be affected by unknown forces and thus is never able to capture reality without any kind of bias or alteration. Rather, people should attempt to simply record thoughts, for by this, the reader can understand things about the narrator that the narrator him-or herself does not” (Galens 181). Therefore, Modernists emphasized the ways in which people think and how these thoughts can effect characters’ decisions and the world around them.
In order to illustrate how humans’ minds really work, Modernist writers use a narrative technique known as stream-of-consciousness. Stream-of-consciousness attempts to record how scattered and jumbled the experience of the world really is and at the same time how deeper patterns in thought can be discerned by those (such as readers) with some distance from them. That humans are alienated from true knowledge of themselves is the implicit contention of the stream-of-consciousness form of narration. (Galens 183) Writers are able to create this complex structure by including elements that have become signature in Modernist works including allusions and a heavy reliance on the characters’ pasts. These elements allow the author to “take away all certainties and call attention to the ways that minds create the world” (Galens 191). This portrays the uncertainty people felt coming out of World War I, and how many were searching for the stability of the past, a common theme in Modern literature.
William Faulkner’s novel, Absalom, Absalom! engages in these specific aspects of modernism through the narrative voices that tell the story of Thomas Sutpen and his influence on the town of Jefferson, Mississippi. Faulkner’s novel has many different narrators, each one telling pieces of the story of Thomas Sutpen, leaving the reader to put these pieces together to create and decipher the entire story and its significance. What is distinctive about Absalom, Absalom! is the “multiple interpenetrating chorus of voices, with one or another rising shrilly over the ever present others” (Rio-Jelliffe 84). There are a total of six narrators in Absalom, Absalom!, including Rosa Coldfield, Quentin and Mr. Compson, Thomas Sutpen himself, Quentin’s Harvard roommate, Shreve, and an omniscient narrator who helps the reader navigate the novel and the many different tales that exist within. All of these narrators are separated by time and place, but are brought together by the story of Thomas Sutpen’s existence in Jefferson. Because of this and his treatment of the narrative structure of Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner is able to employ allusions in his writing and portray characters’ strong reliance on the past throughout the novel.
The story of Thomas Sutpen ultimately comes through Quentin after he gains information from Rosa and his father about the past events of Sutpen’s life. Both Rosa and Mr. Compson orally tell the story to Quentin, who in turn tells the story to both the readers of the novel and his roommate, Shreve. Since the readers are receiving the story through a third party, they need to take into account that much of what Quentin has relayed has been influenced by his own thoughts and opinions on the matter. The same goes for the version of the story that Rosa and his father tell to Quentin. Like Shreve, the readers need to question these past events and come up with their own theories about what truly happened. For example, in chapter seven, Shreve creates many of his own theories:
“Wait,” Shreve said. “You mean that he got the son he wanted, after all that trouble, and then turned right around and –“ “Yes. Sitting in Grandfather’s office that afternoon, with his head kind of flung back a little, explaining to Grandfather like he might have been explaining arithmetic to Henry back in the fourth grade: ‘You see, all I wanted was a son. Which seems to me, when I look about at my contemporary scene, no exorbitant gift from nature or circumstance to demand –‘“ “Will you wait?” Shreve said. “—that with the son he went to all that trouble to get lying right there behind him in the cabin, he would have to taunt the grandfather into killing him first and then the child too?” “—What?” Quentin said. “It wasn’t a son. It was a girl.” “Oh,” Shreve said. (Faulkner 234)
These theories typically prove to be false, but stem from the memories and the stories of the past that Quentin relay to him. As readers we are able to understand where Shreve finds these details to create his own theories because we can see his thought process; we do not have to guess. Faulkner uses the interactions between the characters, as well as the interactions that occur within the mind of the characters in order to show how these past events are effecting their present actions and thoughts, thus developing a stream-of-consciousness narration.
The past and allusions becomes important elements in Faulkner’s novel, their significance being developed through the narrative structure. According to critic R. Rio-Jelliffe, “the story of Sutpen takes a semblance of ‘historicity’ of ‘reality’” (76). In other words, Faulkner is able to successfully incorporate allusions into his writing, so much so that it seems as though the story of Thomas Sutpen is actually true. For example, Sutpen’s story takes place in real states (Mississippi and West Virginia), and even though not all of the counties and towns referred to are real, readers are likely to believe a story that takes place in a familiar state. Also, Quentin bases Rosa’s need to tell the story of Sutpen on the outcome of the Civil War and why the South lost:
It’s because she wants it told he thought 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: 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. (Faulkner 6) Faulkner is able to create the illusion that the Sutpen story is true because he ties it to a real event: the Civil War.
Allusions to historical events are not the only allusions that Faulkner utilizes in Absalom, Absalom! Each of the characters consistently alludes to past events in either their own lives or the lives of others. According to critic Eric Casero, “The narrative language of Absalom, Absalom! is dependent on constant reference to the past, as we see Quentin’s story refer to his father’s, which refers to Sutpen’s story, which refers to Sutpen’s actual, lived experience, which itself refers to the experiences and ideologies of the community and history within which he lived his life” (89). Faulkner’s narrative technique easily allows for these allusions because Quentin needs to reflect on the different stories he hears and piece the information he gets from Rosa and his father together in order to make sense of what happened in the past and how it effects his present and future.
The past not only works its way into Absalom, Absalom! through allusions, both historical and fictive, but also through the characters’ memories. The narration of the novel and this idea of multiple voices telling one story relies on the memories of both Rosa Coldfield and Mr. Compson as well as his father, and their ability to relay the story as accurately as possible. Yet Sutpen himself must rely on his own childhood memories in order to develop his plan of how he is going to live his life as an adult. For example, when he and Quentin’s grandfather are searching for the architect, Sutpen tells Compson that as a child he had never known of a world where people had their own possessions. He states that it wasn’t until he was fourteen years old that he took the time to evaluate the stories that he did not listen to as a child:
When he was a child he didn’t listen to the vague and cloudy tales of Tidewater splendor that penetrated even his mountains because then he could not understand what the people meant and when he became a boy he didn’t listen to them because there was nothing in sight to compare and gauge the tales by and so give the words life and meaning, and no chance that he ever would (certainly no belief or thought that someday he might), and because he was too busy doing the things that boys do; and when he got to be a youth an curiosity itself exhumed the tales which he did not know he had heard and speculated about them, he was interested and would have liked to se the places once, but without envy or regret, because he just thought that some people spawned in one place and sometimes in another, some spawned rich (lucky, he might have called it: or maybe he called lucky rich) and some not, and that (so he told Grandfather) the men themselves had little to do with the choosing and less of the regret because (he told Grandfather this too) it had never once occurred to him that any man should take any such blind accident as that as authority or warrant to look down at others, any others. So he had hardly heard of such a world until he fell into it. (Faulkner 180)
It wasn’t until Sutpen “fell into” the world in which he had now lived and looked back on his childhood that he remembered that he had indeed heard stories of such a world, but had pushed them out of his mind; avoided thinking about them too deeply back then. This method of revising the past is important to the development of Sutpen’s story, as it shows how small events that one may overlook in life can have a huge impact on their lives in the future.
This revisionary process is not only seen in Sutpen’s childhood recollections, but also in the discussions that Shreve and Quentin have about Sutpen’s story, as well as when Rosa Coldfield is relaying the story to Quentin. Shreve and Quentin spend a great deal of the novel analyzing and piecing together the story of Thomas Sutpen and its significance. As mentioned earlier, Shreve theorizes the outcomes of each of the events and they both speculate the reasons for Sutpen’s actions. It is only because of the narrative structure that we are able to see specifically how Quentin arrives at his speculations and what he had thought prior to what he says in his discussions with Shreve. It is also due to the narrative structure of the novel that we can see how Quentin feels about the story Rosa is telling him, and how he interprets it within his own mind initially before he re-evaluates what he has been told. For example, at the beginning of the novel we see Quentin arguing with himself over whether or not he should tell Rosa’s story, and how it should be told: …the two separate Quentins now talking to one another in the long silence of notpeople in notlanguage, like this:
It seems that this demon – his name was Sutpen (Colonel Sutpen) – Colonel Sutpen. Who came out of nowhere and without warning upon the land with a band of strange niggers and built a plantation – (tore violently a plantation, Miss Rosa Coldfield says) – tore violently. And married her sister Ellen and begot a son and a daughter which (without gentleness begot, Miss Rosa Coldfield says) – without gentleness. Which should have been the jewels (Only they destroyed him or something. And died) – and died. Without regret, Miss Rosa Coldfield says – (Save by her) yes, save by her (And by Quentin Compson) Yes. And by Quentin Compson. (Faulkner 4-5).
These “two separate Quentins” are battling between the amount of detail and whether or not the bias of Rosa Coldfield should effect his own interpretation of the story: “These seemingly individual narrations are filtered through Quentin’s memory, refracted and re-shaped in his manner of seeing and saying” (Rio-Jelliffe 82). These arguments that Quentin has within himself help shape the way in which he tells the story to Shreve, and it also allows the readers to see both the “original” text and Quentin’s version permitting the readers to decide which version(s) they wish to believe as the right interpretation of Thomas Sutpen’s life.
The strong connection that the characters and the novel have with the past allows the reader to better interpret the influence Sutpen has had on his relatives and the townspeople. The reader can surmise from Rosa Coldfield’s desire to have the story told and the fervor in which she narrates the story to Quentin that Sutpen has had, and still has, a wide sphere of influence over the people in his life. Rosa has been hanging onto a hatred for Thomas Sutpen for most of her life, even after his death, because he had “created two children not only to destroy one another and his own line, but my line as well…” (Faulkner 12). Sutpen’s actions when he was alive continued to affect Rosa even after his death because of he destroyed not only his own family, but any future that Rosa may have had as well. We can see here that the chains of events and shifts in consciousness that form the core of Absalom, Absalom! extend to multiple historical levels: Sutpen’s childhood social setting directly determines the condition of his consciousness, which forms his design, which determines his interactions with others in the novel, including Rosa, whose consciousness is made bitter and resentful and broken, causing her to disseminate the narrative of Sutpen which, as far as the novel seems to imply, runs as an undercurrent of human consciousness throughout human history. (Faulkner 96) The path of destruction that Sutpen left after his death consumed Rosa’s whole being, and she was never able to release herself from his past up until her visit to Sutpen’s Hundred forty-three years later. This everlasting influence in turn effects not just Rosa, but Quentin’s, his father’s, and Shreve’s lives in the present. Quentin is the one whom she chooses to tell her story to because not only was he related to Sutpen’s only friend, but he could also assist in her return to the home because of his youth. Rosa’s reliance on Quentin to tell the story of Sutpen and expose the supposed truth of what he had done to her family has heavy effects on Quentin, dominating his thoughts throughout the novel. Without the stream-of-consciousness narration that Faulkner employs, the reader would not see the sheer dominance Sutpen has had over the characters within the novel, both in the past and present.
The narrative voices in Absalom, Absalom!, expressed in a stream-of-consciousness style, convey specific modernist elements including the use of allusions and the characters’ dependence on the past. Faulkner successfully employs these elements within his novel in order to portray the significance of Thomas Sutpen’s story to the characters within the novel, as well as its universal significance. By alluding to both real and fictional events throughout the novel, Faulkner is able to emphasize the importance that the past had not only on his characters in the novel, but also to a society coming to terms with World War I and the uncertainty the future held for them.
Casero, Eric. “Designing Sutpen: Narrative and its Relationship to Historical Consciousness in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!” The Southern Literary Journal 44.1 (2011): 86-102. JSTOR. Web. 21 July 2015.
Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! New York: Vintage International, 1986. Print.
Galens, David, Ed. Literary Movements for Students. Farmington Hills: The Gale Group, 2008. Print.
Rio-Jelliffe, R. “Absalom, Absalom! as a Self-Reflexive Novel.” The Journal of Narrative Technique 11.2 (1981): 75-90. JSTOR. Web. 21 July 2015.
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