January 25, 2006

Adultery, Incest, & Miscegenation! Oh, My!

I just finished Absalom, Absalom! yesterday (yes, it took me quite awhile), and I find that it is the best book about the South that I have yet read. It captures every important facet of Southern history from the Antebellum period to 1910, although putting it that way makes it seem less incredible than it actually is. Also, I think Faulkner is crippling my ability to form short, coherent, and meaningful sentences.

The novel follows Quentin Compson (one of the four narrators in The Sound and the Fury) as he discovers the dark truth behind the story of Colonel Thomas Sutpen, a local legend. The story comes to him in fragments and out of order, from various narrators with varying degrees of reliability: Miss Rosa Coldfield, Sutpen's sister-in-law and almost-wife, who has hated him with a burning passion for most of her life; Quentin's father, recounting information he has heard from his own father, one of the few men who ever got close to Sutpen; and, finally, from a figure straight out of the legend itself, come back to haunt Sutpen's old plantation mansion.

We hear the story first as Quentin hears it, told, as I said, out of order, in bits and pieces, with many details (both major and minor) completely wrong. Many portions are repeated from different angles. Then, Quentin returns to college in Massachusetts where he stays up late one freezing night with his Canadian roommate, Shreve, and attempts to piece together the details he has collected to tell the true story of Colonel Sutpen, which becomes representative of the true story of the entire South.

Sutpen grows up poor in the western part of Virginia which will eventually break off from the rest of the state when the Civil War begins. This is the backcountry, where all men are created equal and individualism is king. However, when Sutpen's mother dies the rest of his family slowly slips back towards the Virginia coastland, eventually settling on a large plantation where his father assumes a servile position beneath the local cavalier.

One day, Sutpen is sent to deliver a message to the house, and finds himself turned away from the front door by a negro servant. The next day he runs away to Haiti, determined to somehow build himself up to a position equal to that of the plantation owner. In Haiti he succeeds in making his fortune, and marries a woman who bears him a son. His plan seems to be well on track. Then, he makes a shocking discovery. His wife is an octoroon (one-eighth black), thus making his son also of African descent. This will never do. Sutpen sets them up for life in New Orleans and abandons them, travelling to Mississippi.

He comes rolling in with a wagonload of "wild negroes," tricks local Indians out of 100 miles of pristine land, and builds an enormous mansion on it with the help of a French architect that he nabbed from New Orleans. In the meantime, he fathers a daughter, Clytie, with one of the few black women in his bunch. Once his plantation is up and running, he finds himself a wife among the locals: Ellen Coldfield (sister of Rosa). Over the course of the next few years, he has a son, Henry, and a daughter, Judith.

They grow up, Henry grows to college, and meets Charles Bon (who is Sutpen's first son, unbeknownst to Henry). Henry brings him home and he becomes engaged to Judith. Bon is prepared to simply walk away from this engagement, and the family, at any time if Sutpen will merely acknowledge their relationship, but instead, Stupen freaks out which causes Henry to freak out and leave with Bon, giving up his inheritance.

The Civil War happens, and Sutpen, Henry, and Bon all get caught up in it, leaving everything else on hold for four years. Henry and Bon return to the Sutpen home after the war is over and Henry shoots Bon at the front gate, delivering this news to his sister as she is putting the finishing touches on her wedding dress, and then disappearing forever. Ellen Coldfield is dead by this point, and Rosa moves out to the plantation. Colonel Sutpen returns home from the war and proposes to Rosa, who accepts. Then, Sutpen proposes that they perform a "test-run" before they get married, and if Rosa has a son, they will go ahead with the wedding. She is carried back to town on a wave of righteous indignation and never speaks to him again.

Sutpen opens a small store on his property, with the help of Wash Jones (a white trash squatter) in order to stay afloat. He eventually seduces Wash's 15-year old granddaughter and fathers a daughter with her. When he discovers that she has not borne a son, he prepares to abandon her, but is murdered by Wash, who then also murders his granddaughter and her new baby before being killed by a posse.

Years pass, and Clytie fetches Bon's son (child of an octoroon mistress, much like Sutpen's) from New Orleans. The child, in a fit of rebellion against his white blood, marries a poor black woman, who bears him a mentally-retarded son. They both die, and Clytie and the son, Jim Bond (great-grandson of Sutpen), take care of what little is left of Sutpen's enormous plantation alone. Finally, a figure from the past returns to the mansion to die, and is discovered by Rosa Coldfield and Quentin Compson. Clytie sets the mansion on fire and dies in the blaze. The only Sutpen left standing is Jim Bond, who continues to haunt the ruins of the mansion indefinitely, wailing and shrieking over Clytie's death.

There is a great deal that could be said about this book, obviously, as it functions on quite a number of different levels simultaneously. Read literally, it is full of questions regarding the nature of memory and history, and the style of Faulkner's prose (the confused, jumbled ruminations and speculations of biased narrators regarding long-gone events) is a theme all by itself. There is the obvious link to the biblical story from which the title of the book is drawn. Many of Sutpen's problems result from his children, both legitimate and illegitimate, and his efforts to sire a suitable heir to what he has created.

Most fascinating to me is the way in which the entire story serves as a metaphorical representation of the South's dark past. I read that Faulkner's original title for the book was "Dark House," a reference both to Sutpen's eerie, foreboding mansion and to the South itself. Just like Sutpen, the Old South had not reconciled its white sons with its black ones, and just like Sutpen's house, it came to ruin. Ultimately, Henry kills his brother not because Bon keeps a black mistress, nor even to save his sister from incest, but because a marriage between Bon and Judith would be miscegenation. This is a horror that no white person in the South will abide.

The other aspect of the story that fascinated me was the role played by Quentin. Quentin is not a Sutpen at all, but it falls to him, as a white child of the South, to receive this story and to try and make sense of it. As the younger generation, this burden of Southern history falls squarely on Quentin's shoulders and he must deal with it as best he can and try to understand why it exists. Late in the novel, as the story of the Sutpens is nearing completion, Shreve and Quentin have a very telling conversation.

"I just want to understand [the South] if I can [. . .] Because it's something my people haven't got. Or if we have got it, it all happened long ago across the water and so now there aint anything to look at every day to remind us of it. We dont live among defeated grandfathers and freed slaves [. . .] and bullets in the dining room and such, to be always reminding us to never forget. What is it? something you live and breathe in like air? a kind of vacuum filled with wraithlike and indomitable anger and pride and glory at and in happenings that occurred and ceased fifty years ago? a kind of entailed birthright father and son and father and son of never forgiving General Sherman, so that forevermore as long as your childrens' children produce children you wont be anything but a descendant of a long line of colonels killed in Pickett's charge at Manassas?"

"Gettysburg," Quentin said. "You can't understand it. You would have to be born there."

"Would I then?" Quentin did not answer. "Do you understand it?"

"I dont know," Quentin said. "Yes, of course I understand it." They breathed in the darkness. After a moment Quentin said: "I don't know."

The novel ends with Quentin lying in bed, trying unsuccessfully to convince himself that he does not hate the South. Anyone who has read The Sound and the Fury knows that within six months of the end of this novel, Quentin will commit suicide. But, of course, that work was published before this one, and this one is set before that one, so the two do not reference each other at all. No literary criticism that I have perused attempts to draw any connection between the events of Absalom, Absalom and Quentin Compson's suicide.

This makes sense from a literary perspective, considering that the two novels were necessarily composed independently of each other. However, if we think of Quentin as a separate entity, a fully realized character with his own, independent existence, the implications of his suicide, and the reasons behind it, become much more interesting.

But I'm not prepared to go into all of that at this juncture. Suffice to say that I have successfully completed my 3rd Faulkner, and loved it. And I'll be sure to read another . . . y'know, sometime.

Posted by Jared at January 25, 2006 11:08 AM | TrackBack