“In my own writing of essays and commentary I find that it limits me too much if my topic is too big: “Jonathan’s Entire Life, Times, Thoughts Both Serious and Otherwise, Opinions, Philosophy, Gossip, and Miscellaneous Musings,” say. “The Theory of Everything Jonathan.” I cannot lasso a horse that big. While I was preparing material for my earlier attempt at essays that involved me to some degree, “Rants, Raves, Ruminations, and Ramblifications: Musings from a Hamlet,” I found that I worked better if I tackled only a small part of the beast. Write about two dogs, Huckleberry and Roscoe, and with them in focus let Tom and Jonathan be sort of glimpsed in the background. And why not write something about what Sawyerville was like when I was a child, or temporary deafness, or Sadie Roberson, or the deaths of two uncles. Write about specific movies and books and writers and directors, and Jonathan can’t help but peek through at times.”
“Telling Tales” was divided into 4 sections: “Country Life” dealt with growing up in a small Black Belt community in the 1940s and 1950s. “City Life” had chapters about my work life and my personal life in New York 1962 – 1989. “Family Lives” described my fascination with 2 families in art, Faulkner’s Sutpens and the Sokurov families (depicted in “Mother and Son” and “Father and Son,” in part as a way to indicate how much literature and movies had meant in my life, and in part as a sort of segue into and preface to the last section, “Family Life,” in which I wrote about my father, my mother, and me.
“Absalom, Absalom!” has been much on my mind lately, and I have elected to pull that chapter from the work and post it on the blog on my Hollow Square Press website. So without further ado:
And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept: and as he went, thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son! 2 Samuel 18:33
When you call your novel Absalom, Absalom! you are biting off a lot. William Faulkner does, and he chews it up and spits out one of the greatest novels, one of the greatest works of art, in history.
No, not an easy read. You are being thrown into the deep end of the swimming pool with this one, and you have to struggle to keep afloat. A better image may be your being caught in a riptide, and to survive you have to try to swim with the current, not against it. It’s a wild ride, and you may well end up gasping for breath.
But each time you go back into the water, you will find that you have to struggle less, now that you know more about the water, its depths and its currents. You may find that you are exhilarated by the swim.
As am I.
I had not re-read the novel in at least forty years. In early March of 2015 I tried to read it in the Library of America volume I have that contains it. To my dismay, the print is now too small for me to struggle with. A few days later I made the decision to get it for my Kindle. Later that day I started reading it on that device to see if it would work for me. I was enthralled! I could not put it down!
The structure of the narration is complex. So many narrators telling the story, sometimes specific persons (most prominent among whom are Miss Rosa Coldfield and the father of Quentin Compson often relaying information gained over time from his own father) sometimes the communal voice of the town, more often than not filtered through subsequent narrators, the ultimate narrative voices being a young student at Harvard, Quentin Compson, as he relates in the winter of early 1910 the recent climactic events of 1909 along with the history going back as least as far as 1833 to his friend Shreve McCannon from Edmonton, Alberta, who serves as listener but also adds his voice as summarizer and commentator.
The story itself is oddly simple, once you manage to pluck it from the narrative thicket in which it is caught. In the past I have suggested that the story is a perfect Ross Macdonald plot, with Quentin and Shreve and ultimately you the reader as stand-in for private detective Lew Archer.
By mid-book we know this:
In 1833 Thomas Sutpen appears as if a demon conjured up out of nowhere in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, acquires a hundred square miles of land, and with his slaves and a French architect builds a large mansion on what becomes known as Sutpen’s Hundred. In 1838 he takes a wife, Ellen Coldfield, daughter of a respectable shopkeeper in Jefferson. They have two children, Henry and Judith. There is an older sibling, Clytie, daughter of Sutpen and a nameless (to us) black slave on the plantation.
In 1859, Henry meets Charles Bon, an attractive, elegant, older man but still a student, at the University of Mississippi. He brings his friend home to Sutpen Hundred. Charles seduces, not physically in either case, both brother and sister. Ellen adores her possible son-in-law, Thomas Sutpen does not. It is assumed that Charles and Judith intend to marry. Sutpen forbids the marriage, forcing his son to repudiate his birthright and leave with Charles Bon.
Henry discovers that his friend Charles is in a formal relationship with an octoroon woman and has a son by her. He seems to want the engagement to his sister broken off, but the two friends go off to war together, a four year delay and probation in which anything can happen. Ellen dies during the war, leaving Judith and Clytie alone on the plantation.
In 1865, the war over, the two men return to Sutpen’s Hundred, where Henry shoots and kills his friend at the gates and vanishes
Upon hearing from overseer Wash Jones of the killing of Charles, Miss Rosa Coldfield, aunt to Henry and Judith (although younger than either), moves from Jefferson to live with Judith and Clytie. The next year, Sutpen, safely home from the war, first proposes to Miss Rosa (he wishes another heir) and then insults her by urging her to permit impregnation, and if it is a boy he will marry her. Insulted, Miss Rosa returns to Jefferson.
Sutpen then impregnates the granddaughter of Wash Jones, and when the child turns out to be a girl, he refuses to marry her and insults her instead. In a drunken rage, Jones kills Sutpen with a scythe.
Bon’s octoroon lover and their son come to visit the grave at Judith’s invitation. Later, when the mother dies, Judith sends Clytie to locate the son and has him brought to the plantation, where they raise him.
The son, Charles Etienne de Saint Valery Bon, gets into trouble. He leaves for a year, returning with a crude Negro woman, nameless, who is pregnant with their son, to be known as Jim Bond.
Judith and Charles Etienne die of yellow fever in 1884. Clytie and Jim remain on the decayed plantation
In September 1909, Miss Rosa Coldfield, suspecting that someone is hiding out in the run-down plantation house, persuades the young Quentin Compson to accompany her there at midnight. And we also learn that in 1910 Miss Rosa has died, from a letter from his father to Quentin at Harvard that he and Shreve read together.
However, don’t for a single moment believe that the information comes to you in anything like that orderly a fashion.
Oh, looks like everybody’s accounted for and for the most part done in, and you say we’re only halfway through the book? Where else can it go? You in the back row with your hand up . . .
You’re absolutely right, my young friend.
Who is Charles Bon?
Why does Thomas Sutpen object vehemently to Bon’s marriage to his daughter?
Why does Henry kill the friend he loves, his sister’s fiancé, by shooting him at the gate upon their return to Sutpen’s Hundred after four years’ absence?
In the first half of the book, we see Thomas Sutpen only from the outside. The single word we see most associated with him is demon. In particular Miss Rosa Coldfield demonizes him. But the town too sees him that way, springing up suddenly in their midst as if from hell itself with a band of naked violent slaves to whom he speaks in strange tongue (which we later learn is French).
In the second half we start seeing the man more clearly, although the picture is still diffused through various storytellers, particularly Quentin’s grandfather who heard some of it from Sutpen himself and on down to Quentin and Shreve “telling” the story to each other in that cold winter Harvard dorm room.
A trigger event: the young Thomas, raised in Appalachia in almost animal-like society, descends with his family to the lowlands where his father takes a position lower even than the slaves on a rich man’s plantation. One day the boy, perhaps twelve at the time, is sent to the plantation house with a message for the master. He goes to the front door, and a house slave refuses him admittance and tells him he must go to the back door. He leaves with the message undelivered. Thomas is awakened from his boyhood torpor into a realization that to be able to go through the front door he must become rich and powerful. In tales read by a schoolteacher during that a brief period when he attended school, he had heard of the West Indies as a place to go to get rich. He is possibly fourteen years old (he himself had lost track of his birth year) when he manages to get a job aboard a ship so heading.
Years later he bravely saves the household at which he works during a slave uprising, and upon his recovery from injuries suffered he takes in marriage the daughter of the household, a rich wife being one of the necessities in his strive toward his plan for building a life. They have a son.
After the birth of the son, Sutpen discovers that something about his wife had been hidden from him, something that will be a barrier to completing his plan. Leaving wife and son with most of his fortune so far accumulated and taking only the score of wild slaves which he brings to Mississippi, he starts afresh on realizing his plan by carving a rich plantation out of the wilderness.
His first son takes the name Charles Bon. Henry’s loved friend and Judith’s fiancé is their half-brother. That is what Thomas had told his son that had precipitated the break with family and then flight into war with his half-brother. But the father had also raised a question: had Charles Bon known all along?
Ah, perhaps that explains the murder. The brother is trying to prevent incest. But no, four years of war teaches Henry that not just war but life is hell, and the possible incest no longer matters as much to him. He gives his permission.
Thomas Sutpen, now a colonel, tracks his son down in the last months of the war. He reveals that not only is Charles Bon the half-brother of Judith and Henry, his mother had Negro blood, a fact that had been hidden from him when he had married her in Haiti, the fact that would upset his “plan.”
Charles Bon had realized the kinship because of how much Henry looked like him. His motivation during those last years was to force Sutpen to acknowledge that he was Bon’s father. Had he done so, Bon would have quietly disappeared. Since he had not and would not, Bon continued with his plan to marry Judith.
Henry kills Charles at the gates of Sutpen’s Hundred to prevent the man who had Negro heritage from marrying his sister. The incest? That could be forgiven. But the other? Never!
In the coda, in 1909 when Miss Rosa and Quentin go out to the plantation at midnight, they find Henry, who has returned there to die. Clytie has been hiding her half-brother for four years. A few months later, Miss Rosa decides to go with law enforcement and medical authorities out to the run-down house to bring her aged and ill nephew to town for medical attention. Clytie, thinking they are coming to take Henry away to be hanged for murder, burns the place down, herself and Henry perishing in the conflagration. Only the idiot Jim Bond remains howling in the darkness, the last earthly remains of the Sutpens and the Bons.
Now it doesn’t get much more Southern than that! It doesn’t get much more Gothic than that! And I’m not the only reader to think that it doesn’t get much more American than that!
But you’ve given away the whole plot! You’ve told what happened and even why!
Well, I assumed that if you attempted to wade through this piece, you either had read the book or a synopsis or had just picked up the content via social osmosis or had no intention ever of reading it in the first place. But if it is new to you and if you are now prompted to pick up the book and give it a try, this synopsis should not spoil. It might even help. How many people these days attempt Othello without knowing that he kills Desdemona and then himself at the end? Everybody knows that Hamlet ends with a stageful of dead bodies.
Would I have had the energy to tackle Absalom, Absalom! for the first time in my old age? I’m not sure. But having plunged through it in my more energetic college days and returned to it at least twice, this time I was prepared to fight my way through the thicket.
That thicket is words. Words pour out of Faulkner to reveal, to contain, to embrace, to structure, to hide, to complicate the tale. There are multiple narrators, often narrating material they have heard from other people or from unspoken town knowledge, sometimes in the narrator’s own voice and sometimes in exalted language and constructions that they could never themselves have put together. Sometimes the words and phrases are hard and specific, like “twice-bloomed wistaria.” Sometimes the words are vague and general and involve mental or emotional or psychological states, like “talking in that grim haggard amazed voice until at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound and the long-dead object of her impotent yet indomitable frustration would appear, as though by outraged recapitulation evoked, quite inattentive and harmless, out of the biding and dreamy and victorious dust.” And that just to use a couple of bits from the very first paragraph!
Sometimes Faulkner will natter on in that more high-falutin’ vein for what seems forever, and then suddenly he will pounce on the concrete detail like a hawk on a field mouse, invariably a concrete detail invaluable to the plot. At the end of that long and poetic Chapter IV, we get this: “—and then Wash Jones sitting that saddleless mule before Miss Rosa’s gate, shouting her name into the peaceful quiet of the street, saying, ‘Air you Rose Coldfield? Then you better come on out yon. Henry has done shot that French feller. Kilt him dead as a beef.’”
Some of those long elliptical poetic musings have other musings tucked inside and others inside them, and if you stop to take a breath you can become lost. Some of the constructions and the images go on for paragraphs (although often there are no paragraph breaks) or pages, and on first reading one often cannot grasp them in their entirety. But then, you can have the pleasure later on of going back and trying to puzzle them out, as you might do with the best and most complex of Shakespeare. Initially, I have found, it is best to keep on rushing through to get the whole as best you can and worry about the details later.
Tackling this great work set me up nicely for One Hundred Years of Solitude and Gravity’s Rainbow in somewhat later years. With those too you have to keep on swimming and hope you reach the shore.
Ah, here’s Gabriel García Márquez finally making his appearance! It is, of course, widely accepted that he was greatly influenced by Faulkner. I had not read Absalom, Absalom! since I first read One Hundred Years of Solitude. Now, having recently read a big hunk of Solitude and then reading all of Faulkner’s novel, I am startled at the kinship. There are passages in Faulkner that could have been transposed directly into the García Márquez without harm to the balance. Those sentences and paragraphs and constructions that just keep tumbling over and over, those repetitions, that sense that this time and all time are bound up together and practically indistinguishable. The word “solitude” itself appears again and again in the Faulkner novel. In the first half, “demon” is the word most associated with Thomas Sutpen. In the latter half, more and more we get “solitude” and “innocence.”
Yes, innocence. Which, I believe, Faulkner does not think a particularly positive attribute.
To some extent, Thomas Sutpen’s innocence stems from ignorance, to the degree that it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. That innocence leads to his belief that if he has a goal, a plan, and if he follows the appropriate steps his plan will be realized. In his case that goal is power. He wants to be the one to turn away the boy from the front door. To get that power he must achieve land, wealth, a family. No doubt he could have achieved all that in Haiti, married to a woman whose mother had black blood. But he required that power to be on American soil. More specifically, the soil of the American South. He believed that he could get out of the inconvenient marriage through legalistic means without regard for other consequences. Later when he wonders to Quentin’s grandfather “What did I do wrong?” that wrong he believes is legalistic, not moral.
It is in this thrust toward power and position that makes this not just a great Southern novel but a great American one. In my novel Siren Song Bartholomew Magnum, musing, about Absalom, Absalom!, writes, “What a picture there of time and generations, and how our lives work out as if destined but never as planned.” Of course that is not the only thing one might bring away from the novel, but it much reflects something on Uncle Bart’s mind as he wrote. In my reading of U. S. history, destiny, manifest or otherwise, seems something imposed on the story later, not part of the plan.
In my unknotting some of the characters and incidents from Faulkner’s novel to present some sort of coherent through-story, I have been guilty of misleading the unsuspecting reader. Very little is as clear as it appears in that synopsis. It is difficult (but not impossible, it has been tried) to tell what is hard fact and what is speculation. What we may get and often do is some character’s unconscious, unacknowledged musings about what he is thinking about on a conscious level as he is telling a “story” that he has heard from someone else who’s telling a story from just a complicated point of view. (“Point” is probably much too specific in that last phrase.) Chapter V, almost totally from Miss Rosa Coldfield’s point(s) of view, begins simply,
“So they will have told you doubtless already have how I told that Jones to take that mule which was not his around to the barn and attach it to a buggy while I put on my hat and shawl and locked the house.” Easy enough. Concrete images and actions easy to comprehend. And in no time we end up in a long phantasmagoria of jumbled time and emotions and moods and facts and words that become one of the densest thickets that Faulkner has given us to fight our way through. And then he does something both funny and apt. At the end of the long italicized section, we get this: “But Quentin was not listening, because there was also something he too could not get past—that door, the running feet . . .” This is not the only time that Quentin has withdrawn from the story that in theory he is listening to. Among other things, this is a sort of comfort to the reader who often finds himself in a similar situation. More importantly, perhaps, is that the reader is made aware that Quentin Compson himself may not be aware of, may not even have heard, may not even have attended to, all the facts/speculations/ramblings thrown in front of him. He is very much the unreliable narrator. Every narrator in the novel is unreliable. We end up with a web of speculation built on speculation. As the novel mounts to its end, as we have the Canadian Shreve and the Mississippian Quentin trying to assemble it all into a coherent narrative, they are inventing as much as summarizing. It is possible, it is likely, that their musings have as much to do with themselves as they do with the story of the Sutpens and the Bons.
Of course we know from reading The Sound and the Fury that Quentin has committed suicide at Harvard the following June of 1910, not two months after the marriage of his sister. And yes, in Absalom, Absalom! he does seem to be almost as interested in the possible incestuous feelings between Henry and Judith and in the possible homoerotic fixation Henry seems to exhibit toward Charles Bon as he is in the “black blood” angle.
Sutpen and Coldfield. Sut. Soot. Dirt. Black. Pigpen. Dirty pen? Dirty penis? (I’ve just discovered that the acronym can stand for System Under Test, and while I can’t imagine Faulkner having that information at the time, I believe he would be amused at its relevance.) Coldfield. There seems no need to try to take that one apart. In any case, the union between Sutpen and Coldfield results in a next generation that leave no offspring.
In choosing the name Shreve Faulkner must have been thinking of shrive, to hear or receive the confession of; to administer confession and absolution to. Certainly the character performs those functions, among others, in the novel.
Bon. Charles is born in Haiti and has more of a French heritage than he does Negro. I think of bon vivant, bon mot, bon appétit: all these phrases could apply to Charles. Bona fide seems relevant. The standard English translation seems apt enough, although Charles is more complicated than merely good. But, I think, he is basically a good man. He does want to do the right thing, but he wants Thomas Sutpen to do the right thing first. He too is a man with a plan that goes wrong. My sense is that he rides willingly to his destiny, his doom, at the gates of Sutpen’s Hundred at the hand of his brother.
Bond. The only one of the families left standing at the end. Jim Bond does join together the Bon and Sutpen lines. He does serve to fetter or chain the women remnants of the lines.
Clytie’s mother and Jim’s mother are never named. The slave. The Negro. That’s all they are. That, and mothers.
Clytie, for Clytemnestra. Faulkner in the voice of one of his narrators muses that perhaps Sutpen had meant to name his mulatto daughter Cassandra and got confused, that speaker going on to muse about Cassandra’s prophesies of doom that would never be believed until too late. I suspect Faulkner himself recalled that he already had a Caddy in The Sound and the Fury and thought that a Cassie (as no doubt she would have been called in the later novel) might be too close to that. We never see Clytie from the inside, never made available to her thoughts. He judge her from her role and her actions.
Judith, that still center of the turmoil around her, she too we don’t get from the inside. What does she think? Feel? We can only guess. Certainly she is an “unravished bride of quietness.” And as Keats instructs us later in the same poem, “. . . do not grieve; She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!” Much later, the poet says, “Cold Pastoral! When old age shall this generation waste, Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’---that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Faulkner (who knew his Keats) could have used that as a tag not only for his novel but for Judith as well. One sees her, somehow, one has a sense of her, and it is almost impossible to analyze why.
Ellen Coldfield Sutpen is very much observed from outside and is commented on, and her interior life, to the degree that she has any, is only hinted at by character and authorial commentary and by some of her actions. Yet she makes an impression. An excellent supporting role.
Miss Rosa Coldfield is one of Faulkner’s great fictional portraits. Always Miss, as if that were a part of her name (although Shreve has a tendency to call her Aunt). Cold is the first syllable of her last name. The Rosa may hint at the heat within, heat that manifests itself as hatred and rage. She is not a pleasant woman. Yet somehow, like Quentin, we get caught up in her story and her web. She outlives by decades her older niece Judith, but she dies just as virginal. She remains “innocent.”
Thomas Sutpen. Demonic. So Miss Rosa sees him. Heathcliff in spades with a dash of Count Dracula, perhaps. An innocent. Somehow to Quentin’s grandfather he had come across that way. But an innocent with great physical bravery and determination. Quentin’s father sees him as a great Civil War hero. And yet, quickly after the war we find him as a country storekeeper, trying to make ends meet by running a small store at the crossroads near Sutpen’s Hundred, hundred no more, boozing it up with the disreputable Wash Jones while trying to get Jones’s granddaughter pregnant and then being cut down by Jones with a scythe. Which is the true picture of the man? It may be that they all are, or none. An elusive, mysterious figure.
We never see him crying for his son, his sons, as King David did for his son Absalom. If he did so, it happened when no one was looking. Even Faulkner. Somehow I cannot imagine him crying. Not for sons. Possibly for his plans that never came to fruition.
Any tears for the dead sons have to come from the heart of the reader.