Posted in Fiction

William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!


Maybe he knew then that whatever the old man had done,whether he meant well or ill by it, it wasn’t going to be the old man who would have to pay the check; and now that the old man was bankrupt with the incompetence of age, who should do the paying if not his sons, his get, because wasn’t it done that way in the old days? the old Abraham full of years and weak and incapable now of further harm, caught at last and the captains and the collectors saying, ‘Old man, we don’t want you’ and Abraham would say, ‘Praise the Lord, I have raised about me sons to bear the burden of mine iniquities…’

As with the other William Faulkner novels I’ve read this year, there is so much in Absalom, Absalom! that I don’t have the time to cover everything but I’ll post about a few of the things that jumped out at me. And also again, my ability to suspend my need for certainty became an asset to me while reading this novel.

The novel itself is the story of Thomas Sutpen whose life spans most of the 19th century and who seeks and builds his fortune in Faulkner’s fictional Jefferson, Mississippi. Most of what I’ve read about this novel indicates that Sutpen’s life is an allegory for the rise and fall of the South during the 1800’s. I don’t know if allegory is the right word but Sutpen’s life definitely coincides with the historical South before, after and during the American Civil War.

From the outset, the way this story is told proves unusual and fascinating. Quentin Compson, the middle son of the Compson family from The Sound and The Fury (and other Faulkner stories) is the point of contact for the entire story in spite of the fact that it is easy to forget he’s there. Parts of the story are narrated by various characters as they tell their part of the story to Quentin. A significant portion is told to Quentin by his father who is basing his information on what was told to him by his father (Quentin’s grandfather) who was at least an acquaintance of Sutpen. In another section, we have Quentin’s Harvard roommate “repeating” the story to Quentin in the form of very long questions as if he is making sure he’s heard it correctly. The idea that history is handed down from generation to generation is illustrated beautifully here and the fact that the narrators are not 100% reliable gives an even more realistic notion to the idea of learning history as more detective work than scholarly study although I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.

The title of the novel is an allusion from the Old Testament in which King David cries out at the death of his son Absalom who had spent his adult life attempting to overthrow and usurp the power of his father. This Biblical narrative often is used to illustrate the idea that the sins of the father are cast down to the next generations and this plays into the themes of Sutpen’s story and the Southern United States.  This cry out can be interpreted in many different ways even at the same time. My own opinion is that the cry out is one for an ideal or way of life that is more important than survival. Sutpen and the South would rather see themselves destroyed than change their culture and attitudes.

A story about the American Civil War wouldn’t be considered accurate without including the institution of slavery and the racism that comes with it.  As Sutpen is determining who should marry his daughter, Judith, incest is considered a better option than someone who potentially has mixed blood (even as little as one sixteenth). This is in spite of the fact that Sutpen himself has illegitimate children of mixed race who while may be minor characters, collectively, are written more sympathetically by Faulkner than Sutpen’s legitimate family.

The power in the novel comes with the concept of the generational passing of sins. The sins of the father(s) will be paid for in some form or fashion by the sons or the next generations. And Faulkner doesn’t seem to think that payment will necessarily be an easy one.

The novel ends with a reminder that Quentin Compson is still here in the present (1909) and his realization of Sutpen’s story may or may not hinder his reconciliation to his “Southerness” and while this is not the final line of the novel and it may incorporate more characters than just Quentin, it seems to fit his state of mind:

…he bettered choosing who created in his own image, the cold Cerberus of his private hell.


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