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Absalom, Absalom!:
The Unvanquished Next Novel

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The following editions of Absalom, Absalom! are available for purchase online:

Absalom, Absalom! (Vintage Paperback Edition) Absalom, Absalom!: The Corrected Text

Vintage International


ISBN: 0679732187

Published 1990

Absalom, Absalom! (Modern Library Edition) Absalom, Absalom!: The Corrected Text

Modern Library


ISBN: 0679600728

Published 1993

Novels, 1936-1940 Novels, 1936-1940: Absalom, Absalom!, The Unvanquished, If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, The Hamlet

Library of America


ISBN: 0940450550

Published 1990

Published October 26, 1936, by Random House.

Often 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.

The Story

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

Sutpen GenealogyAs 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 his “design.”

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, Goodhue Coldfield, 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

Thomas 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.

More Bons

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.

The Present

In September 1909, Rosa Coldfield summons Quentin Compson to her home to tell him her story concerning “that demon Sutpen,” 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 Sutpen’s 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, to ponder.

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How to cite this page (MLA style):

Padgett, John B. “Absalom, Absalom!: Commentary.” William Faulkner on the Web.

This page was last modified on Thursday, June 26, 2008, at 05:16 AM CDT.
Copyright © 1995 – 2008 by John B. Padgett.
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