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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Absalom, Absalom! tells the story of Thomas Sutpen, the enigmatic stranger who came to Jefferson township in the early 1830s. With a French architect and a band of wild Haitians, he wrung a fabulous plantation out of the muddy bottoms of the north Mississippi wilderness.

Sutpen was a man, Faulker said, "who wanted sons and the sons destroyed him." His tragedy left its impress not only on his contemporaries but also on men who came after, men like Quentin Compson, haunted even into the 20th century by Sutpen's legacy of ruthlessness and singleminded disregard for the human community.

Excerpt

From a little after two oclock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that-a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them. There was a wistaria vine blooming for the second time that summer on a wooden trellis before one window, into which sparrows came now and then in random gusts, making a dry vivid dusty sound before going away: and opposite Quentin, Miss Coldfield in the eternal black which she had worn for forty-three years now, whether for sister, father, or nothusband none knew, sitting so bolt upright in the straight hard chair that was so tall for her that her legs hung straight and rigid as if she had iron shinbones and ankles, clear of the floor with that air of impotent and static rage like children's feet, and 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, quiet inattentive and harmless, out of the biding and dreamy and victorious dust.

Her voice would not cease, it would just vanish. There would be the dim coffin-smelling gloom sweet and oversweet with the twice-bloomed wistaria against the outer wall by the savage quiet September sun impacted distilled and hyperdistilled, into which came now and then the loud cloudy flutter of the sparrows like a flat limber stick whipped by an idle boy, and the rank smell of female old flesh long embattled in virginity while the wan haggard face watched him above the faint triangle of lace at wrists and throat from the too tall chair in which she resembled a crucified child; and the voice not ceasing but vanishing into and then out of the long intervals like a stream, a trickle running from patch to patch of dried sand, and the ghost mused with shadowy docility as if it were the voice which he haunted where a more fortunate one would have had a house. Out of quiet thunderclap he would abrupt (man-horse-demon) upon a scene peaceful and decorous as a schoolprize water color, faint sulphur-reek still in hair clothes and beard, with grouped behind him his band of wild niggers like beasts half tamed to walk upright like men, in attitudes wild and reposed, and manacled among them the French architect with his air grim, haggard, and tatterran. Immobile, bearded and hand palm-lifted the horseman sat; behind him the wild blacks and the captive architect huddled quietly, carrying in bloodless paradox the shovels and picks and axes of peaceful conquest. Then in the long unamaze Quentin seemed to watch them overrun suddenly the hundred square miles of tranquil and astonished earth and drag house and formal gardens violently out of the soundless Nothing and clap them down like cards upon a table beneath the up-palm immobile and pontific, creating the Sutpen's Hundred, the Be Sutpen's Hundred like the oldentime Be Light. Then hearing would reconcile and he would seem to listen to two separate Quentins now-the Quentin Compson preparing for Harvard in the South, the deep South dead since 1865 and peopled with garrulous outraged baffled ghosts, listening, having to listen, to one of the ghosts which had refused to lie still even longer than most had, telling him about old ghost-times; and the Quentin Compson who was still too young to deserve yet to be a ghost but nevertheless having to be one for all that, since he was born and bred in the deep South the same as she was-the two separate Quentins now talking to one another in the long silence of notpeople in notlanguage, like this: It seems that this demon-his name was Sutpen-(Colonel Sutpen)-Colonel Sutpen. Who came out of nowhere and without warning upon the land with a band of strange niggers and built a plantation -(Tore violently a plantation, Miss Rosa Coldfield says)-tore violently. And married her sister Ellen and begot a son and a daughter which-(Without gentleness begot, Miss Rosa Coldfield says)-without gentleness. Which should have been the jewels of his pride and the shield and comfort of his old age, only-(Only they destroyed him or something or he destroyed them or something. And died)-and died. Without regret, Miss Rosa Coldfield says-(Save by her) Yes, save by her. (And by Quentin Compson) Yes. And by Quentin Compson.

"Because you are going away to attend the college at Harvard they tell me," she said. "So I dont imagine you will ever come back here and settle down as a country lawyer in a little town like Jefferson since Northern people have already seen to it that there is little left in the South for a young man. So maybe you will enter the literary profession as so many Southern gentlemen and gentlewomen too are doing now and maybe some day you will remember this and write about it. You will be married then I expect and perhaps your wife will want a new gown or a new chair for the house and you can write this and submit it to the magazines. Perhaps you will even remember kindly then the old woman who made you spend a whole afternoon sitting indoors and listening while she talked about people and events you were fortunate enough to escape yourself when you wanted to be out among young friends of your own age."

"Yessum," Quentin said. Only she dont mean that he thought. It's because she wants it told. It was still early then. He had yet in his pocket the note which he had received by the hand of a small negro boy just before noon, asking him to call and see her-the quaint, stiffly formal request which was actually a summons, out of another world almost-the queer archaic sheet of ancient good notepaper written over with the neat faded cramped script which, due to his astonishment at the request from a woman three times his age and whom he had known all his life without having exchanged a hundred words with her or perhaps to the fact that he was only twenty years old, he did not recognise as revealing a character cold, implacable, and even ruthless. He obeyed it immediately after the noon meal, walking the half mile between his home and hers through the dry dusty heat of early September and so into the house (it too somehow smaller than its actual size-it was of two storeys-unpainted and a little shabby, yet with an air, a quality of grim endurance as though like her it had been created to fit into and complement a world in all ways a little smaller than the one in which it found itself) where in the gloom of the shuttered hallway whose air was even hotter than outside, as if there were prisoned in it like in a tomb all the suspiration of slow heat-laden time which had recurred during the forty-three years, the small figure in black which did not even rustle, the wan triangle of lace at wrists and throat, the dim face looking at him with an expression speculative, urgent, and intent, waited to invite him in.

It's because she wants it told he thought so that people whom she will never see and whose names she will never hear and who have never heard her name nor seen her face will read it and know at last why God let us lose the War: that only through the blood of our men and the tears of our women could He stay this demon and efface his name and lineage from the earth. Then almost immediately he decided that neither was this the reason why she had sent the note, and sending it, why to him, since if she had merely wanted it told, written and even printed, she would not have needed to call in anybody-a woman who even in his (Quentin's) father's youth had already established (even if not affirmed) herself as the town's and the county's poetess laureate by issuing to the stern and meagre subscription list of the county newspaper poems, ode eulogy and epitaph, out of some bitter and implacable reserve of undefeat; and these from a woman whose family's martial background as both town and county knew consisted of the father who, a conscientious objector on religious grounds, had starved to death in the attic of his own house, hidden (some said, walled up) there from Confederate provost marshals' men and fed secretly at night by this same daughter who at the very time was accumulating her first folio in which the lost cause's unregenerate vanquished were name by name embalmed; and the nephew who served for four years in the same company with his sister's fiance and then shot the fiance to death before the gates to the house where the sister waited in her wedding gown on the eve of the wedding and then fled, vanished, none knew where.

It would be three hours yet before he would learn why she had sent for him because this part of it, this first part of it, Quentin already knew. It was a part of his twenty years' heritage of breathing the same air and hearing his father talk about the man; a part of the town's-Jefferson's-eighty years' heritage of the same air which the man himself had breathed between this September afternoon in 1909 and that Sunday morning in June in 1833 when he first rode into town out of no discernible past and acquired his land no one knew how and built his house, his mansion, apparently out of nothing and married Ellen Coldfield and begot his two children-the son who widowed the daughter who had not yet been a bride-and so accomplished his allotted course to its violent (Miss Coldfield at least would have said, just) end. Quentin had grown up with that; the mere names were interchangeable and almost myriad. His childhood was full of them; his very body was an empty hall echoing with sonorous defeated names; he was not a being, an entity, he was a commonwealth. He was a barracks filled with stubborn back-looking ghosts still recovering, even forty-three years afterward, from the fever which had cured the disease, waking from the fever without even knowing that it had been the fever itself which they had fought against and not the sickness, looking with stubborn recalcitrance backward beyond the fever and into the disease with actual regret, weak from the fever yet free of the disease and not even aware that the freedom was that of impotence.

("But why tell me about it?" he said to his father that evening, when he returned home, after she had dismissed him at last with his promise to return for her in the buggy; "why tell me about it? What is it to me that the land or the earth or whatever it was got tired of him at last and turned and destroyed him? What if it did destroy her family too? It's going to turn and destroy us all someday, whether our name happens to be Sutpen or Coldfield or not."

"Ah," Mr Compson said. "Years ago we in the South made our women into ladies. Then the War came and made the ladies into ghosts. So what else can we do, being gentlemen, but listen to them being ghosts?" Then he said, "Do you want to know the real reason why she chose you?" They were sitting on the gallery after supper, waiting for the time Miss Coldfield had set for Quentin to call for her. "It's because she will need someone to go with her-a man, a gentleman, yet one still young enough to do what she wants, do it the way she wants it done. And she chose you because your grandfather was the nearest thing to a friend which Sutpen ever had in this county, and she probably believes that Sutpen may have told your grandfather something about himself and her, about that engagement which did not engage, that troth which failed to plight. Might even have told your grandfather the reason why at the last she refused to marry him. And that your grandfather might have told me and I might have told you. And so, in a sense, the affair, no matter what happens out there tonight, will still be in the family; the skeleton (if it be a skeleton) still in the closet. She may believe that if it hadn't been for your grandfather's friendship, Sutpen could never have got a foothold here, and that if he had not got that foothold, he could not have married Ellen. So maybe she considers you partly responsible through heredity for what happened to her and her family through him.")

Whatever her reason for choosing him, whether it was that or not, the getting to it, Quentin thought, was taking a long time. Meanwhile, as though in inverse ratio to the vanishing voice, the invoked ghost of the man whom she could neither forgive nor revenge herself upon began to assume a quality almost of solidity, permanence. Itself circumambient and enclosed by its effluvium of hell, its aura of unregeneration, it mused (mused, thought, seemed to possess sentience, as if, though dispossessed of the peace-who was impervious anyhow to fatigue-which she declined to give it, it was still irrevocably outside the scope of her hurt or harm) with that quality peaceful and now harmless and not even very attentive-the ogre-shape which, as Miss Coldfield's voice went on, resolved out of itself before Quentin's eyes the two half-ogre children, the three of them forming a shadowy background for the fourth one. This was the mother, the dead sister Ellen: this Niobe without tears who had conceived to the demon in a kind of nightmare, who even while alive had moved but without life and grieved but without weeping, who now had an air of tranquil and unwitting desolation, not as if she had either outlived the others or had died first, but as if she had never lived at all. Quentin seemed to see them, the four of them arranged into the conventional family group of the period, with formal and lifeless decorum, and seen now as the fading and ancient photograph itself would have been seen enlarged and hung on the wall behind and above the voice and of whose presence there the voice's owner was not even aware, as if she (Miss Coldfield) had never seen this room before-a picture, a group which even to Quentin had a quality strange, contradictory and bizarre; not quite comprehensible, not (even to twenty) quite right-a group the last member of which had been dead twenty-five years and the first, fifty, evoked now out of the airless gloom of a dead house between an old woman's grim and implacable unforgiving and the passive chafing of a youth of twenty telling himself even amid the voice Maybe you have to know anybody awful well to love them but when you have hated somebody for forty-three years you will know them awful well so maybe it's better then maybe it's fine then because after forty-three years they cant any longer surprise you or make you either very contented or very mad. And maybe it (the voice, the talking, the incredulous and unbearable amazement) had even been a cry aloud once, Quentin thought, long ago when she was a girl-of young and indomitable unregret, of indictment of blind circumstance and savage event; but not now: now only the lonely thwarted old female flesh embattled for forty-three years in the old insult, the old unforgiving outraged and betrayed by the final and complete affront which was Sutpen's death:
William Faulkner

About William Faulkner

William Faulkner - Absalom, Absalom!
William Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi, on September 25, 1897. His family was rooted in local history: his great-grandfather, a Confederate colonel and state politician, was assassinated by a former partner in 1889, and his grandfather was a wealth lawyer who owned a railroad. When Faulkner was five his parents moved to Oxford, Mississippi, where he received a desultory education in local schools, dropping out of high school in 1915. Rejected for pilot training in the U.S. Army, he passed himself off as British and joined the Canadian Royal Air Force in 1918, but the war ended before he saw any service. After the war, he took some classes at the University of Mississippi and worked for a time at the university post office. Mostly, however, he educated himself by reading promiscuously.

Faulkner had begun writing poems when he was a schoolboy, and in 1924 he published a poetry collection, The Marble Faun, at his own expense. His literary aspirations were fueled by his close friendship with Sherwood Anderson, whom he met during a stay in New Orleans. Faulkner's first novel, Soldier’s Pay, was published in 1926, followed a year later by Mosquitoes, a literary satire. His next book, Flags in the Dust, was heavily cut and rearranged at the publisher’s insistence and appeared finally as Sartoris in 1929. In the meantime he had completed The Sound and the Fury, and when it appeared at the end of 1929 he had finished Sanctuary and was ready to begin writing As I Lay Dying. That same year he married Estelle Oldham, whom he had courted a decade earlier.

Although Faulkner gained literary acclaim from these and subsequent novels—Light in August (1932), Pylon (1935), Absalom, Absalom! (1936), The Unvanquished (1938), The Wild Palms (1939), The Hamlet (1940), and Go Down, Moses (1942)—and continued to publish stories regularly in magazines, he was unable to support himself solely by writing fiction. he worked as a screenwriter for MGM, Twentieth Century-Fox, and Warner Brothers, forming a close relationship with director Howard Hawks, with whom he worked on To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, and Land of the Pharaohs, among other films. In 1944 all but one of Faulkner's novels were out of print, and his personal life was at low ebb due in part to his chronic heavy drinking. During the war he had been discovered by Sartre and Camus and others in the French literary world. In the postwar period his reputation rebounded, as Malcolm Cowley's anthology The Portable Faulkner brought him fresh attention in America, and the immense esteem in which he was held in Europe consolidated his worldwide stature.

Faulkner wrote seventeen books set in the mythical Yoknapatawpha County, home of the Compson family in The Sound and the Fury. “No land in all fiction lives more vividly in its physical presence than this county of Faulkner’s imagination,” Robert Penn Warren wrote in an essay on Cowley’s anthology. “The descendants of the old families, the descendants of bushwhackers and carpetbaggers, the swamp rats, the Negro cooks and farm hands, the bootleggers and gangsters, tenant farmers, college boys, county-seat lawyers, country storekeepers, peddlers—all are here in their fullness of life and their complicated interrelations.” In 1950, Faulkner traveled to Sweden to accept the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature. In later books—Intruder in the Dust (1948), Requiem for a Nun (1951), A Fable (1954), The Town (1957), The Mansion (1959), and The Reivers (1962)—he continued to explore what he had called “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself,” but did so in the context of Yoknapatawpha’s increasing connection with the modern world. He died of a heart attack on July 6, 1962.
Praise

Praise

“For range of effect, philosophical weight, originality of style, variety of characterization, humor, and tragic intensity, [Faulkner’s works] are without equal in our time and country.” —Robert Penn Warren
 
“He is the greatest artist the South has produced. . . . Indeed, through his many novels and short stories, Faulkner fights out the moral problem which was repressed after the nineteenth century [yet] for all his concern with the South, Faulkner was actually seeking out the nature of man. Thus we must turn to him for that continuity of moral purpose which made for greatness of our classics.” —Ralph Ellison
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of three of William Faulkner's greatest novels: The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Absalom, Absalom! We hope that they will provide you with new ways of thinking and talking about three works that stand as major landmarks in the history of modern American literature, works that exemplify Faulkner's bold stylistic and formal innovations, his creation of unforgettably powerful voices and characters, and his brilliant insight into the psychological, economic, and social realities of life in the South in the transition from the Civil War to the modern era. In their intellectual and aesthetic richness, these novels raise nearly endless possibilities for discussion. The questions below will necessarily be limited and are meant to open several, but certainly not all, areas of inquiry for your reading group.

About the Guide

When he completed Absalom, Absalom! in May 1936, Faulkner said, "I think it's the best novel yet written by an American." He described it as "the story of a man who wanted a son through pride, and got too many of them and they destroyed him." It is the epic tale of Thomas Sutpen, who grows up as a dirt-poor boy in backwoods Appalachia and has his first glimpse of social hierarchy when his family moves to a plantation in Tidewater Virginia. One day he goes to the mansion's front door, carrying a message, and is told by a slave wearing the master's livery that he must go around to the back door. This experience has a searing effect on the boy's consciousness. From that moment forward, he sets in motion his grand design: to become, at any cost, a man of wealth and power. He goes to colonial Haiti and marries the daughter of a plantation owner he has saved from death during the slave revolt there, but he abandons his wife and newborn son, Charles Bon, when he learns that his wife has a strain of Negro blood. In 1833 he arrives in Mississippi with a gang of Haitian slaves, cheats a Chickasaw Indian out of a hundred square miles of land, and begins with a ruthless and fanatical determination to build a mansion in the wilderness, to carve out a plantation, to gather wealth, to acquire a second wife and forge a dynasty that will carry on his name. But the son he left behind returns to haunt him. At the university Charles Bon becomes the best friend of Henry, the son of Sutpen's second marriage, and eventually Henry kills Charles in order to prevent him from marrying their sister Judith. Henry repudiates his father and flees; ultimately Sutpen, with his plantation in ruins after the Civil War, is reduced to selling trinkets in a backwoods general store. After his plan to breed yet a third family with the sister of his dead wife fails, Sutpen impregnates the teenage daughter of a poor white man, who kills him with a scythe when he insults the girl because she has given birth to a daughter. In an ironic coda to Sutpen's dream of dynastic grandeur, the only descendant who survives to carry on the Sutpen blood is the grandson of Charles Bon, another of Faulkner's "idiots."

While it is the most challenging of Faulkner's works, Absalom, Absalom! also contains the most mature and profound examination of his greatest themes: the South's mixture of horror and pride in its own history, the interrelationship of incest and miscegenation, the tragic legacy of slavery, and, as always at the heart of it all, the family drama.

About the Author

William Cuthbert Faulkner was born in 1897 in New Albany, Mississippi, the first of four sons of Murry and Maud Butler Falkner (he later added the "u" to the family name himself). In 1904 the family moved to the university town of Oxford, Mississippi, where Faulkner was to spend most of his life. He was named for his great-grandfather "The Old Colonel," the family patriarch who fought in the Civil War, built a railroad, wrote a best-selling romantic novel called The White Rose of Memphis, and was eventually killed in a duel with a disgruntled business partner. Faulkner identified with this robust and energetic ancestor and often said that he inherited the "ink stain" from him.

Never a brilliant student, Faulkner left high school after the tenth grade. He tried to enlist in the U.S. Air Corps in 1918 but was rejected because of his small height and weight. He went to Canada, where he pretended to be an Englishman and joined the Canadian RAF training program, which he did not complete until after the Armistice. He returned to his hometown in uniform, however, boasting of war wounds, and briefly attended the University of Mississippi, where he began to publish his poetry. Faulkner spent brief periods of time in the literary capitals of the 1920s, Paris and New York; in New Orleans in 1925 he met Sherwood Anderson, who encouraged him to try writing fiction. His first novel, Soldiers' Pay, was published in 1926; it was followed by Mosquitoes and Sartoris. His first undisputed masterpiece, The Sound and the Fury, came out in 1929 and was followed by another masterpiece, As I Lay Dying, in 1930.

In 1929 Faulkner married his childhood sweetheart, Estelle Oldham, after she was divorced from her first husband. They had a premature daughter, Alabama, who died ten days after birth in 1931; a second daughter, Jill, was born in 1933. With the publication of his most violent and sensational novel, Sanctuary (1931), Faulkner was invited to write scripts for MGM and Warner Brothers, which he continued to do for twenty years. Much of the dialogue in the film versions of Hemingway's To Have and Have Not and Chandler's The Big Sleep was written by Faulkner. Light in August (1932) was his first attempt to engage the rending racial issues of the South, an effort continued most successfully in Absalom, Absalom! (1936), and Go Down, Moses (1942). Until the appearance of Malcolm Cowley's The Portable Faulkner in 1946, Faulkner had been seen as a regional writer; afterward critical assessments began to register the major stature of his work.

In addition to several collections of short fiction, his other novels include Pylon (1935), The Unvanquished (1938), The Wild Palms (1939), The Hamlet (1940), Intruder in the Dust (1948), A Fable (1954), The Town (1957), The Mansion (1959), and The Reivers (1962). Faulkner won the Nobel Prize in 1950 and was awarded France's Legion of Honor in 1951. In the 1950s he became a spokesman for the growing movement against racism in the South. He died of a heart attack on July 6, 1962, while hospitalized for a horseback-riding accident.

Discussion Guides

1. Any reader bewildered by the opening pages of Absalom, Absalom! will realize immediately that its greatest challenge lies in its complex narrative structure, and as with The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, you must learn how to read it as you go. How many narrators are there, and what is their relationship to one another? What are the sources of their authority as tellers of the Sutpen story? What, so far as you can make out, "happened," as opposed to what is conjectured by the various narrators? Why might Faulkner have chosen such a challenging narrative form, despite the difficulties it presents for his readers?

2. At the center of the novel is the gigantic figure of Sutpen--a man who drives himself to extraordinary lengths in the pursuit of his "design." Sutpen means different things to different people: to Rosa, he is a monster, but one she would have married, whereas to Colonel Compson, he is a human being with sympathetic characteristics. How does your view of Sutpen change as the web of his story emerges? How do you come away from the novel feeling about him? Is he evil? innocent? superhuman? mad? heroic? Does Sutpen's history, which he has told to Colonel Compson, justify his behavior?

3. Why do the various tellers of the story interpret and embroider the tale so differently? What is Faulkner telling us about the human need to order and interpret the past? How does each teller affect your response? Whose version of events do you find most attractive, most compelling? Whose version makes most sense to you? Is "truth" largely irrelevant?

4. Faulkner's original title for the novel was "Dark House," and as in much of his work, we see in Absalom, Absalom! strong elements of the gothic literary convention: a ruined and possibly haunted house, a demonic hero, family secrets, hints of incest, a melodramatic plot, an overwhelming mood of decadence and decay. Yet in its depth and intensity, the novel clearly transcends the often trivial melodrama of much gothic fiction. How does Faulkner's use of gothic elements contribute to the novel's dramatic effect?

5. Consider Faulkner's brilliant development of the character of Charles Bon, the son that Sutpen has cast off. In both Quentin and Shreve's retelling and in Miss Rosa's, he is a figure of romance, while in Mr. Compson's version he is an opportunist, using both Judith and Henry to revenge himself upon his father. Which of these perspectives is more satisfying to you, and why? Why is the element of doubt about Bon's motivation--even about the extent of his knowledge about his origin--so crucial to Faulkner's plan?

6. The book's title is taken from the biblical story of Absalom, son of King David, told in the second book of Samuel--a dynastic tale of incest, rebellion, revenge, and violent death. How is your perspective on the novel enlarged after reading the Absalom story? How does the biblical tale inflect the novel's themes of incest, dynastic hopes and failures, rivalry between father and son? How does David's grief at the death of Absalom (2 Samuel 18:33) compare with Thomas Sutpen's seeming lack of feeling for his sons--or for anyone else?

7. Charles Bon is at heart of the incest plot, and it is the dual threat of incest and miscegenation that ruins Sutpen's great design. How do incest and miscegenation mirror each other? What is it that makes these two forms of mixing blood--endogamy and exogamy--so taboo? Do you agree that it is the thought of miscegenation, rather than incest, that Henry can't endure? Why do rage, self-loathing, and masochism play such a large role in the stories of Charles Bon's two direct descendants, Charles Etienne St. Valery Bon and Jim Bond?

8. What do you think of Mr. Compson's theory of the incestuous triad formed by Henry, Bon, and Judith, described as follows: "The brother...taking that virginity in the person of the brother-in-law, the man whom he would be if he could become, metamorphose into, the lover, the husband; by whom he would be despoiled, choose for despoiler, if he could become, metamorphose into the sister, the mistress, the bride" [p. 77]? Does Faulkner assume that a strong incestuous component is part of the psychology of every family? Or only of extremely unusual families like the Sutpens?

9. The concept of racial hierarchy is at odds with the domestic intimacy in which blacks and whites lived together in the South. During the Civil War, Judith, Clytie, and Rosa live together as sisters, eating the same food, working side by side. But when Rosa returns to the house in 1909, she warns Clytie not to touch her: "Let flesh touch with flesh, and watch the fall of all the eggshell shibboleth of caste and color too" [p. 112]. How does the novel expose the mental convolutions by which people tried to maintain the notion of an essential difference--a species difference--between black skin and white, even among members of the same family? What, in these circumstances, do you think of Clytie's loyalty and her efforts to protect Henry?

10. To what degree do you see the self-destructiveness displayed by just about all of the figures in this novel as Faulkner's deliberate allegory of the South?

11. Many critics have commented that Faulkner takes his stylistic eccentricity to its most involuted and exaggerated extremes in Absalom, Absalom!, making inordinate demands upon the reader's attention and patience. An anonymous reviewer for Time called this book "the strangest, least readable, most infuriating and yet in some respects the most impressive novel that William Faulkner has written." What use does Faulkner make of repetition, circularity, accumulation, and confusion? Are there aesthetic and intellectual reasons he takes his rhetoric and syntax to such exhaustive lengths, or do you feel that his style is too self-indulgent?

12. Absalom, Absalom! is a novel about the meaning of history, and about the extreme pressure of the past, particularly in the South, upon the inhabitants of the present. More importantly, it is about the doubtful process of coming to know, reconstruct, and come to grips with history. Mr. Compson says to Quentin, "We have a few old mouth-to-mouth tales...we see dimly people, the people in whose living blood and seed we ourselves lay dormant and waiting...performing their acts of simple passion and violence, impervious to time and inexplicable" [p. 80]. Why does Quentin, who is unrelated to Sutpen, seem to understand the tale as bearing directly upon his own identity and fate? If history is "a dead time" [p. 71], as Mr. Compson calls it, why does it command so much mesmerized attention in this novel?

13. Absalom, Absalom! shares certain characteristics with classical tragedy, and Faulkner uses Mr. Compson to make the connection clear. He alludes to Aeschylus's great play Agamemnon with his discussion on pages 48-49 of the name of Sutpen's daughter by a slave, suggesting that Sutpen might have meant to call her Cassandra rather than Clytemnestra. Elsewhere, Mr. Compson sees the story as a dramatic tableau, with "fate, destiny, retribution, irony--the stage manager" [p. 57]. Aristotle noted that a certain blindness, a character flaw he called hamartia, was common to tragic heroes. Whatare the flaws in Sutpen that contribute to his tragedy? If Sutpen is a character who stands for pure, unswerving will, what role does fate play in the story?

14. Why does Faulkner have Quentin tell his story to Shreve McCannon, a Canadian, in a room at Harvard in January, 1910? Why does this reconstruction of a uniquely Southern tale take place on Yankee soil? What is the meaning of the relationship between story and setting, as contained in the following phrase: "that fragile pandora's box of scrawled paper which had filled with violent and unratiocinative djinns and demons this snug monastic coign, this dreamy and heatless alcove of what we call the best of thought" [p. 208]? What do you make of the book's final line, in which Quentin hysterically insists that he doesn't hate the South?

15. In the last few pages of the novel we learn at last, as in a mystery, what Quentin's role in the story has been. He has entered into the final chapter of the nightmare of the Sutpen family with his own eyes, accompanying Miss Rosa to Sutpen's Hundred, where he sees the dying Henry. He seems unable to emerge from this experience into ordinary life. Why does the past have such hallucinatory power for Quentin? What does his meeting with Henry mean to him? Do you see Clytie's burning of the house, with herself and Henry in it, as a final purgation of the family curse? Why then does this history seem to be a nightmare from which Quentin is unable to awaken?

Comparing THE SOUND AND THE FURY, AS I LAY DYING, and ABSALOM, ABSALOM!

1. In all three of these novels the family is central to structure, plot, and meaning. It is the source of grief and identity as well as the locus of all individual psychic struggles. Do you see all of Faulkner's characters eternally trapped within their familial roles? How do the families differ in each of these novels, and how are they similar? How do the particularly important symbolic roles of the mother and the father differ from book to book?

2. Faulkner tries to make himself disappear in these works. Instead of using the traditional third-person narrator that most readers associate with the author, he directs a chorus of voices that intertwine, complement, and contradict one another. As readers, we must rely on what we learn from the characters themselves as to time, place, plot, and matters of cause and effect. Why do you think Faulkner prefers to make his characters speak "directly" to his readers? How does this technique affect your ability to believe in the worlds that exist in these novels? How would more direct intervention by an authorial voice change your experience?

3. In which of these works do you think Faulkner's style, his use of language, and his formal innovations are most finely tuned, most powerfully worked out? In which do you feel that his stylistic quirks are most annoying, most distracting?

4. All of these novels question our assumptions about time as regular, linear, sequential, predictable. What are some of the ways in which time is disrupted in these works?

5. The Compson family of The Sound and the Fury (1929) plays a central role in Absalom, Absalom! (1936) as well. Does Faulkner want readers of Absalom, Absalom! to assume that Quentin's involvement in the Sutpen story is one of the reasons for his suicide, which takes place three months later in The Sound and the Fury? Do you see a seamless characterization of Quentin and Mr. Compson in the two books?

6. Faulkner is interested in the causes and effects of extreme psychological pressures, as we see in Quentin and Benjy Compson, Henry and Thomas Sutpen, Rosa Coldfield, Vardaman and Darl Bundren, and many other characters in these novels. What are some of the forms that psychopathology takes in Faulkner's world?

7. Faulkner has often been accused of an extremely misogynistic representation of women. Consider Caddy Compson, Dilsey, Dewey Dell and Addie Bundren, Judith Sutpen, Rosa Coldfield, the wife of Charles St. Valery Bon, and other female characters in these three novels. How would you describe Faulkner's notion of the feminine, as compared with the masculine? Do you agree with the critic Irving Howe that "Faulkner's inability to achieve moral depth in his portraiture of young women clearly indicates a major failing as a novelist"?

8. Is the work of Faulkner necessarily different in its impact depending upon whether one is from the North or the South, whether one is black or white?


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