Absalom, Absalom!: Essay Q&A

1. Why does Faulkner structure the novel as he does, with chapters that tell and re-tell the same basic sequence of events, though with some varying details and perspective?
Faulkner famously remarked in his Nobel Prize speech that the only thing worth writing about was the “human heart in conflict with itself.” This novel states most of the facts up front, with only a few to discover as the novel develops. This structure makes the internal struggle-such as Henrys agonizing decision to kill his half-brother to protect his sister-the subject of the novel. The fact that Henry kills Bon is known before the end of the first chapter, but the details of the reasons are not clear until almost the end of the book. The difference in the two accounts of Henrys murder of Bon becomes very important as a result.
The telling and re-telling of the same story emphasizes two things that were important to Faulkner. First, hearing the same story in a different way forces the attention onto the teller and the way that the tale is being told. The narrators in the story make a great show of their means of presenting information, and Faulkner wanted his readers to notice Rosas ponderous yet masterful rhetoric and Mr. Compsons vacillations between folksy humor and lofty abstraction. Second, this approach makes small differences seem important, such as small details that change from one telling to the next, or small differences in perspective. Mr. Compson struggles to explain why Rosa finally moved out to Sutpens Hundred after the war. Because of this struggle, Rosas explanation of her reasons in a later chapter becomes more important or more interesting.
Another explanation for this structure might best be termed “reverberation” or just echo. The murder of Bon is mentioned and described so many times in so many ways that by the final account, the words seem to carry enormous weight. Faulkner often repeats and re-uses words to emphasize a particular effect; here he re-uses an event in the same novel repeatedly until it seems to be the most important event in the novel.
2. What is the connection between the Compson family and the Sutpen family, and how do the Henry-Judith and Quentin-Caddy relationships parallel each other?
Thomas Sutpen and his family is the focus of this novel, and Faulkner said that Quentins involvement in this novel was only incidental. However, there are strong connections between what happens between Henry and Judith and what happens between Caddy and Quentin.
In The Sound and the Fury, Quentin becomes obsessed with his sisters virginity and is very upset when he sees her taking it lightly. For Quentin, Caddys sexuality is tied to the fate of the South, and her inability to keep it sacred represents a profound moral failure of both her and of the South. Quentin thinks he has incestuous thoughts about his sister, and he tells his father that he has committed incest with Caddy, but his father doesnt believe him. Quentin tries to kill Caddys boyfriend and is humiliated.
In Absalom, Absalom, Henry has a close bond with his sister that makes him fiercely protective and troubled by the reality that she will eventually be married to another man. He says that he doesnt want to think about other men touching her in places that he cant touch her, and one of his reasons for pushing Charles Bon toward his sister is that he wants the man who can do that to be a man that he likes and trusts.
Henrys murder of Bon, and Quentins highly-sexualized fantasy of Henrys discovery of Judith awaiting her husband-to-be feed Quentins obsession with his sisters tragic loss of purity. More than that, too, Henry seems almost willing to allow the incestuous marriage between Judith and Bon; what pushes him into the decision to kill Bon is the revelation of his African heritage. This also feeds Quentins fantasies of incest as a way to preserve purity: if incest with Bon is almost acceptable, why not incest with Henry when Bon is no longer appropriate?
3. How might the story of Thomas Sutpen and the Sutpen family relate to or represent the history of the South?
Sutpens family history is based on several key elements of Southern culture, including racial purity and large-scale agriculture using slave labor. His obsession with racial purity leads directly to his familys downfall, and the dependence on large-scale agriculture and slave labor makes it impossible for him to completely recover when slavery collapses.
Sutpens first wife is the product of a slave system that encourages interbreeding by making light-skinned female slaves a valuable commodity. By having children with their slaves, slaveowners create profit by selling their own light-skinned children. As this process continues, slaves become more and more light-skinned, until it becomes difficult to tell the difference. But the slave system says that any amount of slave heritage means that mixed-race slaves stay slaves. At the same time that Sutpen is abandoning a wife who has a trace of African heritage, he is fathering children on his slaves and creating mixed-race children (like Clytie). In other words, he advances the system that hurts him. Charles Bon is another example. With a small percentage of African heritage, Bon is not pure enough to be Sutpens heir. But because he looks as white as anyone else, he is easily taken as white by Sutpens other children and brought into dangerous relationships with the family.
One of the most important ingredients in Sutpens legendary appearance in Yoknapatawpha County are his wild slaves, whose labor allows him to build his house and plant his cotton, and become rich. When they abandon him during the Civil War, he loses one of his most valuable tools for making money, and he cannot recover the labor he needs to continue to plant and harvest crops on a large scale.
So, by dramatizing the various ways that slavery can hurt a Southern landowner, Sutpens fortunes can be used to illustrate the fate of the South.
4. Is this story a tragedy, the story of a great man who achieves wisdom through suffering, or the story of a “demon” being punished for his crimes against humanity?
Mr. Compson seems to see an element of tragedy in the story of Thomas Sutpen. He expresses admiration for Sutpen in describing what he accomplished in Yoknapatawpha County in building his house and growing rich, and also in what he does in Haiti, and in his simplicity. It could be said that Mr. Compsons repeated references to Sutpens “simplicity” is his way of describing or naming Sutpens tragic flaw. Sutpen fails because he lacks the sensitivity to notice the inhumanity of his so-called “conscience.” His “design” stems from a desire to prove the Southern system of status meaningless, and to help people overcome that system. He doesnt seem to intend to be cruel, he just doesnt notice the feelings of others very acutely.
Rosa Coldfield, on the other hand, would argue that Sutpen deserved his disastrous fate because of his failure to treat people as people, and not as pawns in a larger scheme. What eventually gets Sutpen killed is his inhumanity to Milly and Washs resulting anger. To call this a tragedy is to ignore the damage that Sutpen does to other peoples lives (such as Charles Bon, his own son), and excuse cruelty with noble intentions.
While much of the structure of a traditional tragedy is there (accepting his innocence as his tragic flaw, and the shambles he finds his home in when he returns from the war as his fall), it doesnt seem that Sutpen changes or learns from his experience, which is a key element in traditional tragedy. If Sutpen has acquired wisdom, it is a wisdom that helps him be a more effective scoundrel, not a better person. In the end, there are elements of the book that seem tragic, but Sutpens story falls short of a tragedy.
5. Does Faulkner succeed in creating a strong female character in this book?
Rosa Coldfield manages quite a few amazing things in this novel, and can be considered a strong female character. The only condition or caveat on this, though, is the fact that she is a sexless or de-sexed character by the time she is seen as effective, and her potency in her old age is tied to her manliness, not to anything like her power as a woman.
Rosa, first, speaks for two important chapters in the novel, Chapters 1 and 5. She bookends the three chapters spoken by Mr. Compson. And, like Mr. Compson, she continues to be relevant later the book. For example, she is a major actor in the final chapter, and the subject of the letter that opens the first Quentin-Shreve chapter, and closes the last.
More important, though, than just her importance to the plot of the novel, is the way that she can speak with a seemingly unfiltered voice. While Mr. Compson does this too, it is fair to say that she manages to compete with Mr. Compson, perhaps even bettering his eloquence with her flowery speech in Chapter 5.
As an element of the plot, too, she is a strong woman. She stands up to Sutpen and refuses both his proposal to breed and marry if its a male and his earlier marriage proposal. She maintains her independence through a forced fiction that involves Judge Benbow. And, of course, she punches Clytie to the ground at the end of the book.