26, 1936, by Random House.
proclaimed Faulkner’s greatest masterpiece, Absalom, Absalom!
tells the story of Thomas
Sutpen, the son of a poor white in western Virginia who has
a grand “design,” and the effect his actions have on
future generations in Yoknapatawpha
County, especially Quentin
Compson. The novel is written in dense, often intricate prose,
but for the reader who is willing to struggle through the novel’s
difficulties, it offers one of Faulkner’s most compelling
explorations of race, gender, and the burdens of the past.
Though the novel is ostensibly set in the
“present” of 1909-1910, events depicted in the novel
actually date from Sutpen’s
birth in what is now West Virginia in 1807. At the heart of the
novel is a mystery: why did Sutpen’s son, Henry,
kill Charles Bon, his friend
and classmate and suitor to his sister, Judith?
A Formative Experience
an adolescent, Thomas
moved with his family from the mountains to the Tidewater region
of Virginia and he saw for the first time wealthy planters who owned
grand houses and Negro slaves. Ignorant of the aristocratic Southern
social code prevalent in his new home, he believed himself equal
to his new neighbors until a chance errand taught him otherwise.
When delivering a message to a plantation house, a liveried black
servant told him to go around to the back of the house, thus destroying
his naïve view of life. Realizing for the first time his true social
stature, he decided to fight fire with fire: he determined to amass
wealth, slaves, and land for himself — in short, to create
To begin amassing his fortune, he ran away
to the West Indies, where he secured a job for a Haitian sugar planter.
After heroically defending the plantation during a slave revolt,
he married the planter’s daughter, Eulalia,
in 1827. Soon after the birth of their son, Charles,
Sutpen discovered his wife had Negro blood. Knowing he could never
achieve his “design” with a wife who had black blood,
he divorced her in 1831, leaving her to raise young Charles alone.
Outrage to Society
Forced to start over, Sutpen
arrived in Jefferson, Mississippi
in 1833. Since he apparently lacked both possessions and past, the
residents considered him an outrage from the very beginning. Nevertheless,
he set out to create his design. First, he bought a hundred square
miles of fertile bottom land in the northern half of Yoknapatawpha
County, near the Tallahatchie
River, from Ikkemotubbe,
a Chickasaw chief, paid with his last gold coin to have the deed
recorded, and disappeared. He returned a month later with a wagonload
of wild, naked Negro slaves who spoke no English and a dapper French
architect and began to build his house. After two years, the house
was completed, and he lived there for another three years in the
unfurnished, windowless house, borrowing seed from General
Compson to plant his first crop. Five years after his arrival,
he furnished the house and reached an agreement with a local merchant,
to marry his daughter, Ellen.
Because of his unsavory reputation among the town residents and
their suspicions that he was a thief, however, only a handful attended
the wedding. They settled into their plantation, now known as Sutpen’s
Hundred, and seldom were seen in town.
Love and War
Ellen bore two children, Henry
and Judith. In 1859,
Henry entered the University of
Mississippi, forty miles away in Oxford.
There he met and became close friends with Charles
Bon, some ten years older than Henry, not knowing Bon was his
half-brother. When Bon spent Christmas at Sutpen’s Hundred,
he met and initiated a betrothal with Judith
which Henry seemed to approve. On the following Christmas, however,
an encounter between Henry and his father resulted in Henry’s
renouncement of his birthright and subsequent departure with Bon
for New Orleans.
When the Civil War broke out the following
spring, both Henry and Bon joined a regiment formed at the university,
and Sutpen was second in command in Colonel
John Sartoris’s 23rd Mississippi Infantry, of which Sutpen
was elected Colonel the following year. Bon and Henry remained together
throughout the war, but when the war had ended and Bon returned
to Sutpen’s Hundred to marry Judith, Henry shot and killed
Bon at the plantation gate and disappeared.
A Design in Ruins
Sutpen returned home a few months later to find his design in
ruins: his wife had been dead for three years, his son was a fugitive,
and his daughter was doomed to spinsterhood. In an effort to beget
a male heir, Sutpen became engaged to his dead wife’s sister,
Rosa, who had come to
live at the plantation, but when he suggested they have a child
first and if it were a boy they would marry, she broke off their
engagement in outrage. In a last-ditch effort to produce an heir,
Sutpen bedded with Milly,
the granddaughter of Wash Jones,
a poor-white-trash squatter who claimed to have looked after “Kernel
Sutpen’s place” while he was away fighting the war.
But when Milly gave birth to a daughter, Sutpen made a fatal mistake
when he told her, “Well, Milly, too bad you’re not a
mare like Penelope. Then I
could give you a decent stall in the stable.” Overhearing
this remark, Wash Jones killed Sutpen with a scythe and later took
the lives of Milly and the newborn child.
After her father’s death in 1869, Judith
continued to live in the house with her mulatto half-sister, Clytie.
In 1871, Judith sent Clytie to New Orleans to bring back Charles
Etienne de Saint Velery Bon, Charles Bon’s son from his
relationship with an octoroon mistress. Judith and Clytie raised
the child, and even though he appeared white in appearance, they
taught him to think of himself as black. In 1881 he married a black
wife, who the following year bore him an idiot son, Jim
Bond. In 1884, Etienne caught yellow fever. While nursing him,
Judith also caught it, and both died.
In September 1909, Rosa
Coldfield summons Quentin
Compson to her home to tell him her story concerning “that
and she reveals she has discovered that someone other than Clytie
and Jim Bond are living at
the dilapidated plantation house.
Accompanied by Quentin, she drives out to
Sutpens Hundred and finds Henry
Sutpen living there, now old and sick and being cared for by
Clytie. Three months later, Rosa brings an ambulance to Sutpen’s
Hundred to take Henry to a hospital, but Clytie, believing Henry
was being sought for the murder of Charles
Bon more than forty years before, sets fire to the house, killing
both herself and Henry. Thomas Sutpen’s sole living heir,
Jim Bond, is left howling over the ashes of the house.
In late December 1909, Rosa slips into a coma
and dies two weeks later. The mystery of the events is thus left
to Quentin Compson
and his Harvard roommate, Shreve,
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