Literary Corner Cafe

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Book Review - Classics - Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner

Absalom, Absalom is one of William Faulkner’s later novels, having been published in 1936, and, strangely, two of its narrators, Quentin Compson and his father, Mr. Compson, both “died” in an earlier Faulkner work, The Sound and the Fury. The Sound and the Fury detailed the decline and fall of the Compson family, while Absalom, Absalom details the fall of another Southern dynasty, that of Thomas Sutpen, a self-made man.

The destruction of the South, and the reasons for this destruction, were questions that Faulkner explored in most of his work. Although quite arrogant and snobbish, himself, Faulkner was well aware that racism was ultimately the downfall of the South. His black characters were never fully developed persons, one of his very few failings, but to his credit, he didn’t shy away from portraying slavery in all its horror. In fact, many historians have made mention of the fact that more can be learned about the post-Civil War South from Faulkner than can be learned from history books.

Absalom, Absalom is one of Faulkner’s most fascinating books, but it is also one of the most complex. In it, Faulkner shows us, though multiple narrators, how history can be manipulated, depending on who is relating that history. The three narrators of Absalom, Absalom, Quentin Compson, a twenty-year-old Harvard college student, his father, Mr. Compson, a born-and-bred Southerner, and Rosa Coldfield, a strange and embittered woman, all relate different versions of the legend of Thomas Sutpen, and all are colored by the individual narrator’s memories and preferences.

The story opens in 1909, as Quentin Compson is summoned to the home of Rosa Coldfield in Jefferson, Mississippi. Rosa, for reasons we will learn later in the novel, is desirous of telling Quentin her version of the legend of Thomas Sutpen, a mysterious man who, though his story is being related by others, still remains the heart and soul of Absalom, Absalom.

Thomas Sutpen came to Jefferson, Mississippi in 1833, purchased one hundred acres of land and built a magnificent plantation, a plantation he named “Sutpen’s Hundred.” Eventually, Thomas becomes one of the wealthiest planters in the area, and desiring respectability, he marries Rosa Coldfield’s older sister, Ellen, with whom he has two children, Henry and Judith. Henry and Judith grow up with privilege and all the luxuries money can buy. However, when Henry enrolls in the University of Mississippi and become friends with another student named Charles Bon, disaster strikes the Sutpen family and things will never again be the same.

If the title of this book, Absalom, Absalom sounds familiar to you, it should. Faulkner took it from the Book of Samuel (18:33). “Absalom, Absalom” is the anguished cry of King David upon learning of the death of his beloved son. Faulkner drew heavily on this biblical story in crafting his novel, and indeed, the novel is far easier to understand if one first familiarizes himself or herself with the biblical story in the Book of Samuel.

Those new to Faulkner will find the structure of Absalom, Absalom quite different from that of conventional novels. The narrative is circular, convoluted, and fragmented and Faulkner presents almost the entire “plot” within the book’s first two chapters. There are constant changes in narrator, form, and style that can be quite disorienting to some readers. Faulkner, however, intended this disorientation. While the story of Thomas Sutpen forms the events around which the novel revolves, Thomas Sutpen’s “story” really wasn’t of prime importance to Faulkner. This is neither a plot nor character driven novel, but a thematic one, and one of the major themes is the quixotic and malleable quality of memory. It is for this reason that Faulkner reveals most of the “story” in the first two chapters. He doesn’t want us to read this novel, wanting to find out “what’s going to happen next;” he wants us to read it and learn how people create history through individual interpretation.

The theme of memory is tied to Faulkner’s overriding questions about the decline and fall of the South. True Southerners live with the memory of the fact that the South lost the Civil War. They live with the terrible legacy of slavery. More than any other part of US, I think, the South, and especially the Deep South, where this novel is set, lives with a tragic past that is still instrumental in shaping its future. Faulkner wanted to explore the emotional resonance of the post-Civil War South; he really wasn’t concerned with providing us with an accurate portrayal of historical facts. He also wanted to explore the many issues surrounding race and the South’s seeming inability to move forward and put the past behind it. For all of his snobbishness, Faulkner, himself, realized that unless and until the South accepts the fact that race does not matter, it will remain “stuck” in the past and unable to move forward.

The first chapter of Absalom, Absalom is narrated by Rosa Coldfield, and we can see, almost immediately, that she’s a narrator who remembers even more selectively than do most. Her memories are fragmented; her thoughts jump from one subject and then loop back; she is highly emotional and subjective. I think readers new to Faulkner will be put off by the complexity encountered in this first chapter, but those of us who love this author will relish what he’s accomplished and turn the page in anticipation of more.

After listening to Rosa Coldfield, Quentin Compson returns home, and the next two chapters are narrated by his father, Mr. Compson. Mr. Compson is a very different kind of narrator than is Rosa Coldfield. He’s far more straightforward, more linear, and far less emotional. At first, the reader might be fooled into thinking Mr. Compson’s narrative of Thomas Sutpen is the more objective, but, as we learn later, this isn’t necessarily true. In some ways, Mr. Compson is just as unreliable as is Rosa Coldfield. Readers will have a hard time figuring out just who Thomas Sutpen was, for Rosa Coldfield depicts him as egomaniacal and given to violence while Mr. Compson paints a far more favorable picture of him. The truth, we are beginning to learn, is going to be difficult to discern.

And, in Chapter Three, Faulkner again returns to his fragmented, circular, convoluted way of narrating. In addition, while Rosa Coldfield’s narration contained standard punctuation, with quotation marks around the dialogue, Mr. Compson’s chapters do not. Even though this may seem affected to someone unfamiliar with Faulkner, it is but part of his genius and causes us to place more credibility in the story of Mr. Compson than in the story of Rosa Coldfield. Faulkner “addicts” will also recognize the juxtaposition of straightforward, linear storytelling with fragmented, convoluted narration as being one of this author’s hallmarks. Those who have read The Sound and the Fury will no doubt be expecting it. From this point on, Faulkner will deal, not with Thomas Sutpen’s rise to wealth and power, but with his fall from grace, and he will ask the reader to participate in the story, to help unravel why Sutpen’s fall occurred and why it was inevitable.

By the end of Chapter Four, the complacent reader will feel that he or she is now in possession of all the facts surrounding the life of Thomas Sutpen, but that reader should beware. Faulkner was one of the greatest writers who ever lived; he doesn’t make things that easy for his readers. Embedded in the middle of Chapter Four, is the most famous sentence in all of Absalom, Absalom and the key to understanding this great and defining novel of the South, words spoken by Mr. Compson:

They are there, yet something is missing; they are like a chemical formula exhumed along with the letters from that forgotten chest, bring them together in the proportions called for, but nothing happens, you re-read, tedious and intent, poring, making sure that you have forgotten nothing, made no miscalculation; you bring them together again and again nothing happens; just the words, the symbols, the shapes themselves, shadowy inscrutable and serene, against the turgid background of a horrible and bloody mischancing of human affairs.

The story of Thomas Sutpen then shifts back to the viewpoint of Rosa Coldfield and Faulkner really beings layering, developing his themes, bringing his characters to life. As we read Rosa’s words, we realize that Faulkner is actually telling us more about Thomas Sutpen with what Rosa leaves out of her narration rather than what she puts in. Yes, this does make Absalom, Absalom a more complex and demanding book, but it makes it a far richer one as well. And, with Rosa’s second chapter, which falls at about the book’s midpoint, Faulkner beings to weave strains of the southern Gothic tradition into his novel as well. We learn that the story of Thomas Sutpen has not yet come to a close, for at the chapter’s end, Rosa Coldfield reveals that “something” has been living in the attic of the ruined Sutpen mansion for four years. In the hands of a lesser author, this revelation could have come off as clichéd and silly; in Faulkner’s it brings the story from the past into the present and heightens our desire to keep turning the pages, to keep creating the narrative along with the author’s characters.

Absalom, Absalom is a novel told in two distinct parts, though there is no formal separation other than standard chapter breaks. Chapter Five ends the first part and Chapter Six begins the second. In this part of the book, which takes place several months later than the first, at Harvard, we hear Quentin Compson as narrator for the first time as he talks to his college roommate, a Canadian named Shreve McCannon. This chapter, rather than concentrating on the different ways Rosa Coldfield and Mr. Compson have remade history, presents new information for the reader to digest, and it presents it, at least initially, through the character of Shreve. Shreve is curious about the South and he wants Quentin to explain it to him. Quentin chooses to do so by telling Shreve about the legend of Thomas Sutpen. The new information also develops Faulkner’s theme of the danger and immorality of racism more fully and completely.

One of the new pieces of information we are given is the fact that Thomas Sutpen had been married prior to his arrival in Jefferson, and Faulkner deepens the mystery of this already mysterious man by letting us know that there was a reason he left that marriage, a reason that didn’t fit in with his design to become a self-made man:

...they deliberately withheld from me the one fact which I have reason to know they were aware would have caused me to decline the entire matter, otherwise they would not have withheld it from me—a fact which I did not learn until after my son was born…this new fact rendered it impossible that this woman and child be incorporated in my design.

In the final two chapters of the book, Quentin gives us his own version of history making as he relates the story of Thomas Sutpen to Shreve McCannon. Together, the two men attempt to piece together bits of the legend and arrive at what they perceive to be, the truth. But is it the truth? Faulkner doesn’t really tell us, for he insists that we participate in the writing of history as well, even the histories of his books. Faulkner does bring Thomas Sutpen to life most vividly at the end of his book, however, and we come to understand why he made the choices he did and how he fell so far from grace. He also returns Sutpen to his roots, if not physically, then at least spiritually.

Although the concluding chapters of Absalom, Absalom are made up largely of conjecture and speculation on the part of Quentin and Shreve, it is fascinating speculation and it is filled with irony. These chapters raise almost more questions than they answer, especially about the very early years of Thomas Sutpen’s life, and they develop Faulkner’s theme of the peril of racism even more fully. They let us know that the life of Thomas Sutpen, as well as the life of Quentin Compson and that of the entire South is, and probably will be, forever haunted by the ghosts of its sins against humanity.


Recommended: Very highly, but though this book contains beautiful, convoluted, flowing prose, the reader needs to be aware that it also contains a highly complex and fragmented narrative structure.

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