Classic Review: Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

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Friday, March 7, 2014

One of my favorite quotes is: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That statement from Faulkner’s 1951 novel, Requiem for a Nun, could be said of all of Faulkner’s writing, and for Absalom, Absalom! (1936) especially.

I chose this book for my September classic review because the framing story begins in September 1909, as Quentin Compson gets ready to head to Harvard. Those who have read The Sound and the Fury already know Quentin as one of the narrators of that work. Here Quentin has a rather complicated position – he is both audience and narrator in a story of tremendous complexity.

The novel tells the story of Thomas Sutpen, a poor man from West Virginia, who made money in the West Indies and then settled in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, to live as landed gentry there. With his own hands and the efforts of slaves he brought from Haiti, he carved out a 100-mile section of Mississippi to be the site of his great estate and plantation – land that came to be known as Sutpen’s Hundred.

Sutpen’s story covers the years from the early 19th c. through the beginning of the Reconstruction period. Sutpen’s story, though, is not told simply, nor is it told in a linear fashion. It is pieced together by four narrators: Rosa Coldfield, to whom Sutpen was engaged to be married in the years following the Civil War (he had been married to Rosa’s sister, Ellen, who died in the closing days of the war); Jason Lycurgus Compson, Quentin’s dad, whose father, General Jason Lycurgus Compson, had been Sutpen’s only real friend in the county; Quentin Compson, who tells the story as he heard it from Miss Rosa and his father, and as he reconstructs it to his Harvard roommate, Shreve McCannon; and finally, Shreve himself, who himself offers a version of Sutpen’s story.

Sound confusing? Well, it is. And it’s meant to be. Thomas Sutpen, though a man of humble birth, ranks up there with the protagonists of many of the Greek tragedies – larger than life, full of pride, not particularly likeable, making his way in life through pure determination, and ultimately succumbing to life’s inevitable end.

But Faulkner’s point in writing this work was not simply to tell Sutpen’s story, as interesting as it is, but to comment on the very nature of story and (his)tory. Just as Miss Coldfield, Quentin, Mr. Compson and Shreve are characters in the book we have before us, Sutpen is a character in the stories they all tell. And we learn Sutpen’s story the way we generally learn stories in our lives (and unlike the way most novels tell stories) – piecemeal.

Just like Quentin, we try to piece together the snippets we get from different sources and put together a sensible narrative. And we do what Shreve and Quentin do as they retell the story in the last four chapters of the novel – we try to figure out from the pieces of story we have what the “whole” story or “true” story is.

Ultimately, we fail in that endeavor. Because of our personal blinders, we will always frame the information we get, and there’s always gaps in the story. And as we get stories from others, we have to take into account their framing of any given story, and their peculiar way of telling that story, as well as our own blinders in receiving the story.

Just because failure is certain does not mean that we give up trying to figure out our stories and those others tell us – we continue to try to make sense because we’re wired that way. And, in calling attention both to the power of telling, and the difficulties of telling, Faulkner makes us more aware of the conventions of storytelling, conventions that are often hidden in more conventional ways of telling.

And for those who think they can escape the stories of their past, and of their parents’ past, Faulkner puts a lie to that as well.

Quentin Compson in 1909 is influenced by the whole narrative of his father’s life, his grandfather’s life, and the narrative of Jefferson in Yoknapatawpha County, Miss., during and after the Civil War that his grandfather and Thomas Sutpen fought in. In other words, we learn, as Faulkner says elsewhere: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Fun Fact:
The Guinness Book of World Records says that the longest sentence in English literature is a 1,287-worder (2 ½ pages long) in Absalom, Absalom!

About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.