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Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

Why It's a Masterpiece (Week 11)

By Annie KapurPublished about a month ago 8 min read
From: Amazon

Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all

- Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner


From: Wikipedia

William Faulkner is perhaps known best for his works of the Southern Gothic Novel which include novels such as ‘As I Lay Dying’ and ‘The Sound and the Fury’. But, in my opinion, his best work by far is ‘Absalom, Absalom!’. Named for the quotation from the Bible, screamed out by King David when he realises his favourite son has died and wishes it were him instead, this novel showcases a history before the Civil War though written in 1936. As a work of antebellum fiction it seeks to explore how a Shakespearean tragedy would look if it were a novel.

The lives of three families will intertwine under the tragic protagonist, Thomas Sutpen and this book, along with ‘The Sound and the Fury’ should tell you why in 1949, William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is an astounding work of genius.


From: Amazon

Quentin Compson was character of another great work of Faulkner, and, entirely in flashbacks, tells part of the tragic story amassed in this novel. He states that Thomas Sutpen is born into poverty in West Virginia and then, moves to Mississippi. He has visions of becoming powerful and wealthy in a way that I realised were Macbeth-ian the more I read the novel. He wants to make himself a powerful patriarch and so sets about making his dream come true by any means necessary.

The narration of Rosa, Quentin’s father and grandfather and other details are told to us by Shreve - a roommate. These details crossover and sometimes are different than the ones Quentin is giving us, but ultimately it leads to a realisation about the family of Sutpens. An epiphany that is strong and dark, shrouded in lies and shadows. In each narrative of Rosa, Shreve and Quentin, more details are pulled out of similar and different details, allowing the reader to slowly see the story come alive in differing perspectives. We start to also see biases emerge and wonder who knew the most reliable information on the story of the Sutpen family.

Thomas Sutpen buys some land from native Americans and starts to build a plantation and a mansion. He believes that all he requires now are children, particular an heir to the plantation and so, hopefully a boy. He marries a local merchant’s daughter named Ellen Coldfield and they have two children named Henry and Judith.

Thomas Sutpen has romances before Ellen and things happen, children are born of love and war and so, when Henry goes off to the University of Mississippi Thomas Sutpen is a little unnerved. Henry meets a man named Charles and Charles strikes up a romance with Judith.

Sutpen, working on a plantation as an overseer in the French West Indies before his marriage to Ellen, had subdued a slave uprising and was offered the hand of the plantation owner’s daughter, by which they had a son. Unfortunately, the daughter was mixed race and so, Sutpen no longer wanted anything to do with her. Leaving her a bit on money, he left his wife and child and moved on. Thomas Sutpen reveals to Henry that Charles is actually the son of this earlier wife and moves to stop the romance between Judith and her half-brother. Henry does not believe what he’s being told here.

Henry and Charles ultimately end up joining the Confederate Army in the Civil War and during the war, Henry wonders about what his father said about Charles. He thinks he should allow the marriage between his sister and his half-brother until Sutpen reveals to Henry that Charles is part Black. Henry murders Charles at the gates of the mansion and runs away presumably into some kind of self-exile.

Thomas Sutpen’s world is collapsing around him both literally and metaphorically. His plantation is in disrepair and he tries his best to get it up to standard again. He marries Rosa Coldfield, the younger sister of Ellen and demands that there is a son born before the wedding. Rosa walks away, leaving Sutpen on his own to have an affair with the granddaughter of a squares named Wash Jones. Her name is Milly and she is 15 years’ old. Milly gives birth to a daughter and Sutpen is crushed. Wash Jones becomes enraged by Sutpen throwing his granddaughter and the newborn out of the stables. He kills Sutpen, Milly and the newborn before resisting arrest and committing suicide.

Quentin and Rosa are talking about the abandoned plantation and decide to go back there. They find Henry Sutpen and Clytie - the daughter of a slave and Thomas Sutpen. Rosa states she will get medical help for Henry who has returned to the estate to pass away. When she returns, Clytie mistakes them for cops and sets the whole place on fire - killing Henry and herself.

Charles Bon’s black grandson, Jim, is the only one left alive. A man with severe mental illnesses who remains on the burnt land of the plantation.

Into the Book

From: Bookmarks

One of the big themes in this book is the American South and the disappearance of plantation culture. In the book there is a constant disdain that we feel towards the violent and abusive Thomas Sutpen who is, in fact, the embodiment of a plantation owner. I believe his shares similarities (though they are also quite different) with Jane Eyre’s Mr Edward Rochester. Both are these dark and brooding characters who initially have no respect or consideration for others when climbing their ladders - but at least Rochester learns how to accept Jane. Thomas Sutpen has no redeeming qualities. This is similar to our views on the American antebellum culture of plantations. There were really no redeeming qualities and the bits and pieces of criminality and the human rights abuses that were committed on these plantations are included one by one.

The slavery that happened in the pre-Civil War southern states continues to this day to haunt the grounds it was once on and so, we could argue that Sutpen’s own legacy is a visual part of this. His story is told long after he is gone and yet, we have the existence of the story itself in the minds of two roommates sitting at Harvard College.

Sutpen’s discarding of Charles Bon and his mother after discovering they have Black ancestry mirrors that kind of violence against Black people that the South was trying to sustain at the time. The novel’s events may be set before the Civil War, but the narration is set afterwards and so, this is viewed as a tragic error on Thomas Sutpen’s part - leading ultimately to his downfall in an almost Oedipus Rex fashion which includes a horrific coincidence.

“It was a day of listening too—the listening, the hearing in 1909 even yet mostly that which he already knew since he had been born in and still breathed the same air in which the church bells had rung on that Sunday morning in 1833…”

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

Unchecked ambition sounds like a fairly Shakespearean theme and through this novel you can definitely see all the influences of Biblical and Shakespearean tragedy from Faulkner’s plot and themes. Unchecked ambition is buried deep in the heart of the novel, often causing Sutpen to act irrationally and not follow any moral order or boundaries. His quest becomes the sole purpose of his life and, much to the despair of those around him, is not compromised if there are a few short falls. He more than often ignores the policies that have allowed him to succeed. As Compson states that Sutpen is unaware that he has only thrived in this society because he is a white man, not simply by ambition and hard work. It is the appearance of various Black characters that disrupt Sutpen’s plan and remind him of his past abuses.

This leads these people into horrific tragedies as Sutpen refuses to compromise in order to tell the truth about his own life. Charles forces Sutpen to show himself and shatters all delusions that Sutpen is in full control of his own existence. His racially motivated rejection of his first born son removes the illusion that Sutpen’s ambition and hard work have been the centre of his life. In fact, it was actually his use and abuse of other people.

“His trouble was innocence. All of a sudden he discovered, not what he wanted to do but what he just had to do, had to do it whether he wanted to or not, because if he did not do it he knew that he could never live with himself for the rest of his life…”

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

The society of the novel is yet another layer to the overall meaning of the novel. An unknown incest plot that coats the central story as to why Henry eventually goes into exile is part of what leads to the undoing of Thomas Sutpen. It is not only incestuous but it is socially unacceptable to Sutpen more so because Charles is Black. This is used against Henry in order to get Henry to rid Judith of Charles. When Judith and Charles are going to be married, Henry revokes his support of the marriage and murders Charles to prevent it. The depth of Sutpen’s racial prejudice ripples down to his son, Henry who cares less for incest and more for social acceptance. But the proof that this was the wrong way to solve things lies in the self-imposed exile that Henry sends himself into. Judith is a spinster, Henry runs from the law. A society which is meant (at this time at least) to protect the Whites over the Blacks has just sent two of them to their social doom and the latter to a grave. The running message in the book about this kind of society is that murder is murder, no matter who the victim is, it will always haunt you.

“What else can I do now? I gave him the choice. I have been giving him the choice for four years.”

- Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

Why It’s a Masterpiece

From: Amazon

In 2009, the novel was named the greatest Southern Novel of all time by the Oxford American panel and in 1983, the Guinness Book of World Records stated that the (now broken) record for the longest sentence in literature could be found in Chapter 6. Containing unreliable narrators, each with an ideology of their own who paint contradictory images of characters as they add layers to the revelation of the story - there is no wonder as to why William Faulkner’s masterpiece is often regarded as one of the best novel of the 20th century. Faulkner’s South becomes this monolith of experience - everyone intertwined in personal tragedy however the story is told. It is a brilliant achievement of literature and is one of my favourite books of all time.


From: Amazon

So there we have yet another great novel. A Shakespearean tragedy written as a modern novel set in the antebellum era, you can just feel the rage welling up inside the text. It is beautifully written with words that echo people in crisis at different eras and different times. A wondrous achievement of modern literature that reminds us not to tempt fate by putting other people in violent situations, a message about unchecked ambition and how a lack of empathy can destroy us all.

Next Week: Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf


About the Creator

Annie Kapur

200K+ Reads on Vocal.

Secondary English Teacher & Lecturer

🎓Literature & Writing (B.A)

🎓Film & Writing (M.A)

🎓Secondary English Education (PgDipEd) (QTS)

📍Birmingham, UK

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  • Kendall Defoe about a month ago

    Sorry I waited on this one, but Faulkner is one of those figures in literature that have often found frustrating... I read this one, and 'Light in August', and then made the mistake of mentioning this to a friend in university. She simply could not believe I would take the time to read someone like him (I have already written a piece here about my problems with his work). But I think you have something valid and real to say about the man. And I still keep a copy of his Nobel acceptance speech with me when I want to keep going and just feel that my work is senseless and best forgotten. Good work, Ms. K.

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