Arts Books Muse

Old Favourites: Absalom, Absalom!

Ciaran Brass gives his verdict on the novel often regarded as Faulkner's masterpiece

Upon publication of Absalom, Absalom!in 1936, author William Faulkner had already established himself as one of America’s foremost prose stylists and an essential figure in literary modernism. Writing in an era populated by seminal novelists such as James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Virginia Woolf, Faulkner’s command of stream of consciousness techniques, interlocking points of view, and dense, complex prose enabled him to stand his ground with the murderers’ row of talent that was active during the modernist period.           

Faulkner wove Homeric, Shakespearean, and Biblical allusion and style into what are ostensibly family stories of strife and struggle in the Jim Crow South. This formula won widespread success and acclaim in his novels The Sound and the FuryAs I Lay Dying(another personal favourite), and Light in August. In spite of this enviable collection of dyed-in-the-wool classics, Absalom, Absalom!stands as Faulkner’s crowning achievement—it is a caustic, spectral fable detailing one family’s rise and fall in the American South, doomed by the actions of its patriarch, Thomas Sutpen.             

Similar to the famous Japanese film Rashomon, the actual story of Absalom, Absalom!is revealed to the reader early in the narrative. Within the first ten pages, protagonist Quentin Compson (whose family are the main characters inThe Sound and the Fury) learns the story of Sutpen’s Hundred from imperious spinster Rosa Coldfield, and how “the demon” Sutpen purchased one hundred square miles of land from Native Americans upon his arrival to Jefferson, Mississippi, raised a plantation from the earth itself, fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, and saw his dynasty ruined before being killed by a squatter. But the devil is in the details—as the novel progresses, Quentin and the reader unearth new details about Thomas Sutpen’s past and family history, connecting a web of intrigue, bitterness, and racial anxiety that shed light on the actions of the Sutpen family. Quentin obsesses over unravelling the central mystery, one which precipitated the downfall of the Sutpen dynasty—why Sutpen’s son Henry, at the behest of his father, murdered his sister’s fiancé outside the gates of Sutpen’s Hundred. 

Faulkner’s unique approach to the nature of memory and storytelling is one of the most ingenious and absorbing aspects of Absalom, Absalom!Rosa Coldfield repeatedly couches descriptions of Thomas Sutpen in demonic and malevolent terms, while Quentin’s father Mr. Compson sees the rise and fall of the Sutpen dynasty more akin to a Greek tragedy. Furthermore, Quentin is reciting the tale to his Harvard roommate Shreve, a Canadian and outsider, forcing Quentin to explain the minutiae of Southern life and the stratified social and racial tensions that existed and still prevail in his generation. By using Shreve as an additional framing device, Faulkner forces Quentin into the role of reluctant Southern apologist, explaining a society whose fundamental flaws and contradictions he recognises but cannot bring himself to repudiate.             

All of Faulkner’s efforts in creating clever storytelling devices and conflicting points of view to muse on the nature of history and myth would be useless without a compelling subject. Luckily for the reader, Thomas Sutpen proves to be one of the most intriguing, enigmatic characters in American literature. The contradictory, unreliable accounts of Sutpen expressed by Rosa Coldfield, Mr. Compson and Quentin Compson give him an air of mystery and perhaps a touch of the supernatural, adding to the novel’s ghostly nature. In spite of his status as slaveowner, tyrant, and Confederate soldier, when Faulkner finally reveals Sutpen’s penniless origin (which stretches from the mountains of West Virginia to the Caribbean sugar plantations) readers may be surprised that, if they don’t find him entirely sympathetic, they understand his motivations.     

The knotty, multifaceted history of the Sutpen family and their patriarch are used by Faulkner to critique the larger aspects of American structures. To paraphrase Fran Kubelik from The Apartment, Thomas Sutpen learns at a young age that “some people take and some people get took,” and deems the former to be preferable. The notion of slavery as America’s original sin applied to the Sutpen family is an easy connection to make—Sutpen’s Hundred, made in accordance to his “grand design,” is doomed to destruction by Sutpen’s bifurcated bloodline. Sutpen’s twin families, the aristocratic white son and daughter who are recipients of the Antebellum social structure, and his offspring of mixed heritage, swathed in secrecy, are supposed to exist independently of each other. When fate conspires that the two intersect, it destroys the fabric of the Sutpen dynasty. Faulkner even broaches the topic of Lost Cause, a romanticised ideal of the Antebellum South which some still cling to today—poor white squatter Wash Jones, who proudly defends the old plantation system that impoverished him and still refers to Sutpen as “Colonel”, is the last character to be exploited by Sutpen.            

It might be an overstatement to say that you need a strong stomach to read Absalom, Absalom!but the startling language, violence, and incest would probably rule it out from making an appearance at your mother’s book club. Nonetheless, it is one of the most powerful stories in the American literary tradition, and its dizzying, imaginative prose has few equals within the canon. As someone who lived in the American South for half a decade, I find it to be a fascinating and considered take on the complex psychology of the region. One passage is particularly striking—as Quentin begins to realise The South is his birthright, he cannot reconcile the negative feelings towards his homeland revealed to him in his conversations with Shreve. 

“I dont hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark; I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!” 


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