Absalom, Absalom!

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Absalom, Absalom!

Post  msistarted on Mon Nov 22, 2010 11:11 pm

Absalom, Absalom! is a Southern Gothic novel by the American author William Faulkner, first published in 1936. It is a story about three families of the American South, taking place before, during, and after the Civil War, with the focus of the story on the life of Thomas Sutpen.

* 1 Plot summary
* 2 Analysis
* 3 Influence and significance
* 4 Trivia
* 5 Notes

[edit] Plot summary

Absalom, Absalom! details the rise and fall of Thomas Sutpen, a white man born into poverty in western Virginia who comes to Mississippi with the complementary aims of becoming rich and a powerful family patriarch. The story is told entirely in flashbacks narrated mostly by Quentin Compson and his roommate at Harvard University, Shreve. The narration of Rosa Coldfield, and Quentin's father and grandfather, are also included and re-interpreted by Shreve and Quentin, with the total events of the story unfolding in non-chronological order and often with differing details, resulting in a peeling-back-the-onion way of revealing the true story of the Sutpens to the reader. Rosa initially narrates the story, with long digressions and a biased memory, to Quentin Compson, whose grandfather was a friend of Sutpen’s. Quentin's father then fills in some of the details to Quentin, as well. Finally, Quentin relates the story to his roommate Shreve, and in each retelling, the reader receives more details as the parties flesh out the story by adding layers. The final effect leaves the reader more certain about the attitudes and biases of the characters than about the facts of Sutpen's story.

Thomas Sutpen arrives in Jefferson, Mississippi, with some slaves and a French architect who has been somehow forced into working for him. Sutpen obtains one hundred square miles of land from a local Native American tribe and immediately begins building a large plantation called Sutpen’s Hundred, including an ostentatious mansion. All he needs to complete his plan is a wife to bear him a few children (particularly a son to be his heir), so he ingratiates himself with a local merchant and marries the man’s daughter, Ellen Coldfield. Ellen bears Sutpen two children, a son named Henry and a daughter named Judith, both of whom are destined for tragedy.

Henry goes to the University of Mississippi and meets a fellow student named Charles Bon who is ten years his senior. Henry brings Bon home for Christmas, where he and Judith begin a quiet romance that leads to a presumed engagement. However, Sutpen realizes that Charles Bon is his son from an earlier marriage and moves to stop the proposed union.

Sutpen had worked on a plantation in Haiti as the overseer, and after subduing a slave uprising, was offered the hand of the plantation owner's daughter, Eulalia Bon, who bore him a son, Charles. Sutpen had not known that Eulalia was of mixed race until after the marriage and birth of Charles, but when he found out he had been deceived, he renounced the marriage as void and left his wife and child (though leaving them his fortune as part of his own moral recompense). The reader also later learns of Sutpen's childhood, where young Thomas learned that society could base human worth on material worth. It is this episode that sets into motion Thomas' plan to start a dynasty.

Henry, possibly because of his own potentially (and mutually) incestuous feelings for his sister, as well as quasi-romantic feelings for Charles himself, is keen to see the two wed (allowing him to imagine himself as surrogate for both). When Sutpen tells Henry that Charles is his half-brother and that Judith must not be allowed to marry him, Henry refuses to believe, repudiates his birthright, and accompanies Charles to his home in New Orleans. They then return to Mississippi to enlist in their University company where they join the Confederate Army and fight in the Civil War. During the war, Henry wrestles with his conscience until he presumably resolves to allow the marriage of half-brother and sister; this resolution changes, however, when Sutpen reveals to Henry that Charles is part black. At the conclusion of the war, Henry enacts his father's interdiction of marriage between Charles and Judith, killing Charles at the gates to the mansion and then fleeing into self-exile.

Thomas Sutpen returns from the war and begins to repair his home, whose hundred square miles have been reduced by carpetbaggers and punitive northern action to one, and dynasty. He proposes to Rosa Coldfield, his dead wife's younger sister, and she accepts. However, Sutpen insults Rosa by demanding that she bear him a son before the wedding takes place, and she leaves Sutpen's Hundred to begin her forty-three years of hate. Sutpen then begins an affair with Milly, the fifteen-year-old granddaughter of Wash Jones, a squatter who lives on the Sutpen property. The affair continues until Milly becomes pregnant and gives birth to a daughter. Sutpen is terribly disappointed, because the last hope of repairing his Sutpen dynasty rested on whether Milly gave birth to a son. Sutpen casts Milly and the child aside, telling them that they are not worthy of sleeping in the stables with his horse, who had just sired a male. An enraged Wash Jones kills Sutpen, his own granddaughter and Sutpen's newborn daughter, and is in turn killed by the posse that arrives to arrest him.

The story of Thomas Sutpen's legacy ends with Quentin taking Rosa back to the seemingly abandoned Sutpen’s Hundred plantation, where they find Henry Sutpen and Clytie, herself the daughter of Thomas Sutpen by a slave woman. Henry has returned to the estate to die. Three months later, when Rosa returns with medical help for Henry, Clytie starts a fire that consumes the plantation and kills Henry and herself. The only remaining Sutpen is Jim Bond, Charles Bon's half-black, idiot grandson, who remains on Sutpen's Hundred.
[edit] Analysis

Like other Faulkner novels, Absalom, Absalom! allegorizes Southern history; the title itself is an allusion to a wayward son fighting the empire his father built. The history of Thomas Sutpen mirrors the rise and fall of Southern plantation culture. Sutpen's failures necessarily reflect the weaknesses of an idealistic South. Rigidly committed to his "design," Sutpen proves unwilling to honor his marriage to a black woman, setting in motion his own destruction. Discussing Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner stated that the curse under which the South labors is slavery, and Thomas Sutpen's personal curse, or flaw, was his belief that he was too strong to need to be a part of the human family.[1] These two curses combined to ruin Sutpen.

Absalom, Absalom! juxtaposes ostensible fact, informed guesswork, and outright speculation, with the implication that any and all reconstructions of the past remain irretrievable and therefore imaginative. Faulkner, however, stated that although none of the narrators got the facts right, since "no one individual can look at truth", there is a truth and the reader can ultimately know it.[2] While many critics have tried to reconstruct the truth behind the Rashomon-like narratives, or to show that such a reconstruction cannot be done with certainty or even that there are factual and logical inconsistencies that cannot be overcome, some critics have stated that, fictional truth being an oxymoron, it is best to take the story as a given, and regard it on the level of myth and archetype, a fable that allows us to glimpse the deepest levels of the unconscious and thus better understand the people who accept (and are ruled by) that myth—Southerners in general and Quentin Compson in particular.[3]

By using various storytellers/narrators expressing their interpretations of the facts, the novel alludes to the historical cultural zeitgeist of Faulkner's South, where the past is always present and constantly in states of revision by the people who tell and retell the story over time; it thus also explores the process of myth-making and the questioning of truth.

The use of Quentin Compson as the primary perspective (if not exactly the focus) of the novel makes it something of a companion piece to Faulkner's earlier work The Sound and the Fury, which tells the story of the Compson Family, with Quentin as one of the main characters. Although the action of that novel is never explicitly referenced, the Sutpen family's struggle with dynasty, downfall, and potential incest parallel the familial events and obsessions that drive Quentin and Miss Rosa Coldfield to witness the burning of Sutpen's Hundred.
[edit] Influence and significance

Absalom, Absalom, along with The Sound and the Fury, helped Faulkner win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Its groundbreaking out of order storytelling and frequent use of stream of consciousness has had critics[who?]. Others[who?] have called Faulkner a pioneer of the modernist movement, along with other authors like James Joyce. In 2009, a panel of judges called Absalom, Absalom! the best Southern novel of all time.[4]
[edit] Trivia

* The title refers to the Biblical story of Absalom, a son of David who rebelled against his father (then King of Kingdom of Israel) and who was killed by David's general Joab in violation of David's order to deal gently with his son. Another parallel to the Biblical story is that Absalom had his half-brother executed for raping Tamar, his sister. Faulkner's novel substitutes a seduction for the rape.
* The 1983 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records has an entry for what it claims is the "Longest Sentence in Literature". It cites a sentence from Absalom, Absalom! containing 1,300 words.
* Faulkner's short story "Wash" tells the story of the birth of Sutpen's illegitimate daughter to Wash Jones' granddaughter, and of Jones' murder of Sutpen, and then his own granddaughter, and his great-granddaughter (whereupon he sets fire to the house the mother and child are in).

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