50 pages 1 hour read

Absalom, Absalom

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1936

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936) is one of the many texts in Faulkner’s oeuvre that is set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. Faulkner is considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, a designation earned due to his innovative and stylistic modernist techniques, which he uses to investigate the history and identity of the American South. Faulkner, who grew up in Mississippi and spent the majority of his life there, was deeply interested in the American South as a place of complex culture, identity, and histories of violence and slavery; these ideas permeate his novels and short stories. Faulkner was an American modernist writer who also worked within the Southern Gothic subgenre. In 1949, Faulkner received the Nobel Prize in Literature for his contributions to the American novel.

This study guide is based on the 1990 edition of Absalom, Absalom! published by Vintage International.

Content Warning: This guide contains references to slavery, racial violence, rape, incest, and suicide. The source text uses racial slurs including the n-word, which is reproduced and obscured in quotations in this guide.

Plot Summary

Absalom, Absalom! delves into the intricate tapestry of the American South, unwinding a tale of ambition, tragedy, and the profound consequences of a tormented legacy. At its core is Thomas Sutpen, an imposing figure whose arrival in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, sparks a series of events that reverberate through generations. Sutpen’s audacious pursuit of wealth and status manifests in the construction of Sutpen’s Hundred, a mansion that becomes both a symbol of his grandiosity and a testament to the South’s decline.

The narrative unfolds through the lens of Quentin Compson, who, in 1909, is drawn into the haunting saga by Miss Rosa Coldfield, Sutpen’s former fiancée and sister-in-law. Although the narrative begins with Miss Rosa, its perspective shifts frequently between Rosa, Mr. Compson, Charles Bon, and Quentin. In the same way the story jumps between narrators, it also jumps across time, revealing the truth of the Sutpen family’s decline in small portions that are permeated with untrue speculation and subjective storytelling.

Through these various narrators, the plot—and the corresponding demise of the Sutpen family—is revealed. When Sutpen decides to enhance his socioeconomic standing in the county, he marries Ellen Coldfield, and they have two children: Henry and Judith. While the Civil War grows more inevitable in the background, Henry meets Charles Bon while away at University. They share an inexplicable affinity for one another, which is eventually explained by the fact that they are half brothers through Thomas Sutpen. There is a gossipy, speculative understanding that Charles Bon and Judith, Henry’s younger sister, will eventually marry. In private, Thomas Sutpen tells Henry that Charles Bon is his half brother, and therefore, the marriage between him and Judith would be incestuous. Henry renounces his claim to the Sutpen plantation and abandons his family and legacy as a result; his mother, Ellen, dies during this time.

When the war breaks out, the Sutpen men join the Confederacy. As the fighting continues, the county is ravaged by poverty and destruction; those who were formerly enslaved on Sutpen’s Hundred escape and join the Union cause. One day, Walsh Jones, a poor citizen of the county who squats on Sutpen’s land, alerts Miss Rosa to a murder on Sutpen’s Hundred. Miss Rosa learns that Henry shot Charles Bon just as Bon intended to propose to Judith. Miss Rosa moves to Sutpen’s Hundred to live with Judith and Clytie, Sutpen’s daughter by an enslaved woman, and they bury Charles Bon’s body while they wait out the end of the war.

When the war ends, Sutpen returns to the plantation. He is a shadow of his former self, just as his plantation is only an empty, desolate echo of the land that once gave him his wealth and social status. Sutpen soon proposes to Miss Rosa, though he insults and dehumanizes her so deeply that she leaves the Sutpen House to return home. There, she spends the rest of her life, lonely and reclusive— until she wishes to retell the story to Quentin in 1909.

About midway through the novel, the narrative trajectory shifts to Quentin‘s unraveling, mirroring his obsession with the Sutpen saga. He recounts the story to his Harvard roommate, Shreve, highlighting the interplay of memory, storytelling, and the South’s tumultuous history. The climactic visit to Sutpen’s Hundred with Miss Rosa exposes the residual ruins of a once-mighty dynasty, embodied by the aged Henry Sutpen awaiting his demise. The subsequent fiery destruction of the Sutpen plantation, orchestrated by Clytie, becomes a metaphorical cleansing, purging the remnants of the Sutpen legacy.

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