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William Faulkner: Absalom, Absalom!

Some critics have proclaimed this Faulkner’s greatest novel and it certainly is a very fine novel. You can take it as a metaphor for the downfall of the South or merely as the story of the rapid rise and descent of a Southern family. More particularly, it is the story of a family which is totally accursed. All the major characters in this book suffer a sad fate and, in a few cases, an unpleasant and often violent death. Indeed, the only major character not to suffer such a fate is Quentin Compson who actually plays only a minor role, in that he either hears the story of the Sutpen family from others or relays it to his friend Shreve. More importantly, as we know from an earlier work, he will kill himself in a few months, though that is barely hinted at here.

As in all good novels, the story is not told in a strictly linear narrative. We hear bits here and there from various key players in 1909 (the now of the book), culminating in Quentin’s telling it to his friend Shreve early in 1910, though the key action takes place many years before. The story concerns the Sutpen family and those linked to them, particularly the Coldfield family, in and around Jefferson. Thomas Sutpen was born in the early nineteenth century in what was then Virginia but now West Virginia. His family moved to the Tidewater area of Virginia and, aware that he was looked down on, he ran away to the West Indies, after his school teacher told the class that men could earn their fortunes there. He worked on a sugar plantation and married the planter’s daughter. We met him as he turned up in Yoknapatawpha County and bought some fertile land with a gold coin he had. He struggled to make a go of it but, once he had built and furnished a house, he was able to propose to Ellen Coldfield, daughter of the local store owner.

The Sutpens were rarely seen in town but had two children, Judith and Henry. Judith became engaged to Henry’s university friend, Charles Bon, but, as we soon learn, something is wrong and it ends up with Henry killing Bon at Sutpen’s Hundred during the period of Sherman’s March and then disappearing. We only find the real reason near the end of the book but there are false leads, including the fact that Bon is already married and that he is Thomas Sutpen’s son from his first marriage. Thomas and Henry Sutpen and Bon all go off to the Civil War, though the significance of this is not revealed till near the end and, of course, it is connected with Bon’s antecedents and is related to the downfall of the South, which Faulkner is portraying.

Thomas Sutpen returns home to find his wife dead, his daughter now a confirmed spinster and his son disappeared. In order to have a male heir, he proposes to Rosa, his wife’s younger sister (younger than his two children) but she backs off when he makes it a condition of their marriage that she get pregnant with a male child before they marry. Miss Rosa, as she is known, is the one whose story starts the novel. He then has sex with Milly, granddaughter of Wash Jones, a white squatter on his land, and gets her pregnant. When she delivers a baby girl, Sutpen insults her and Wash Jones kills Sutpen, Milly and the child, before he himself is killed by the sheriff. Finally, the only heir left is Jim Bond, son of Charles Bon’s son from his first marriage and a black woman but he disappears when the house is burned down by another of Sutpen’s illegitimate children, Clytie. In short, pretty well everyone is dead, except for Quentin Compson who will die very soon.

Whether you see it as an allegory on the South or just a story of a family gone wrong, it is a powerful tale and a grim one too. Faulkner spares neither us nor his characters. Indeed, even the minor ones suffer, such as Goodhue Coldfield, father of Ellen and Rosa, boarding himself up in an attic. You cannot but be failed to be moved by this work and the sense of doom that hangs over the Sutpen family.

Publishing history

First published 1936 by Random House