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William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!

Absalom, Absalom! research papers discuss William Faulkner's novel that is based in the South and overviews racial and family issues. The writers at Paper Masters can help you explain Absalom, Absalom! according to any aspect of the novel.

The novel Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner, is about the Sutpen family, who once could boast wealth and tranquility but whose lives were torn apart by racial intolerance and a civil war designed to eliminate it. William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!The story is opened by Rosa Coldfield, once engaged to and then the former sister-in-law of the patriarch Thomas Sutpen. But the story is actually retold from different perspectives throughout the novel. What is established is that Thomas Sutpen enjoyed a relatively charmed life until the son he had with a first wife, Charles Bon, emerges and wants to marry his daughter. For Sutpen, it was not the issue of incest that had him concerned as much as it was that his first wife was of mixed race and therefore Charles had black blood.

Thomas Sutpen’s adamant refusal to allow his daughter to marry her half-brother leads to murder, which, along with the devastating repercussions of the Civil War, destroys the Sutpen legacy. Faulkner’s novel Absalom, Absalom! reveals the social pressures of the 19th century American South where it was common to have slaves and essential to have wealth and standing. All three of these conditions worked together to destroy the lives of Thomas Sutpen and his children. Although Sutpen returned to his plantation following the war, he was ultimately murdered for the same reason his family was destroyed – for his lack of tolerance.

Some people think of time as a forward progression of incremental steps, a steady, methodical march of years, days, or minutes.  Their sense of history cannot help but reflect their notion of time passing.  For them, it is the trivia of the past, dead and buried, nothing more than a reference point by which to determine the miles, years or whatever measurement they have progressed.  Oftentimes, such people, look upon the past in retrospect, and in turn create nostalgia.  This is not true for the characters of William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, which are:

  1. The Compsons
  2. Sutpens
  3. Coldfields

The inhabitants of Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi sense that the past is far more real and vibrant than the present.  Hardly ones to nostalgically pine away for earlier years, they instead see the former as an element of their own identity.  They define their lives by a number of critical events, each closely connected to the historical context in which they occurred.  Time, in a sense, does not elapse, but rather, builds.  Moments are connected, but not necessarily in any chronological order.  Events from the past constantly replay, as if recorded on a three-minute tape loop.  History itself consists of the accumulation of such objects as memories and situations.  Like a painting or knickknack it is the property of its possessor, and can be readily displayed to, or examined by any visitor to the living space.  

Faulkner makes sure the reader also experiences time this way through his writing style, and his organization of the narrative.  In swirling prose, the author describes the totality of the events, the people, the complex relationships, and the racial and social injustice that made up the rural Mississippi where he grew up and lived most of his life.  His sense of time and history permeate every subplot contained within the novel, and this seems paramount not just to this book but for all those of the series (starting with The Sound and the Fury), which serve as either sequels, or prequels to each other.  Perhaps, this was because Faulkner was attempting to describe, before a vast, international audience, what it meant to be from the southeastern portion of the United States.  In order to accomplish this, he first had to introduce the reader to the singular rhythm and pace native to the geographic region at that time.

In essence, the plot is fairly simple.  A man who grew up poor in the hills of West Virginia envies the lot of wealthy plantation owners, and aspires to become one.  In an effort to build his estate in Mississippi, the repudiated son of his repudiated first wife exposes a couple of family secrets, and the clan descends into turmoil – the end.  Yet knowing the plot does not allow the reader to know anything about the story, for the events do not occur within a vacuum.  The true tale is one of people interacting and struggling to find meaning in their present lives by examining who they used to be, and where they came from.

Agrarian life consists of laborious periods of tilling, planting and harvesting, perhaps two or three times a year.  In between, there are stretches of idleness. Once the seed is in the ground, there is little that the farmer can do to make the soil give up the crop any faster.  Coupled with the typically stifling, humid heat of the summer months, the pace can be somewhat slow and relaxed.  Faulkner’s writing style illustrates this aspect of southern life.   His sentences are often quite long.  Numerous diversions and lengthy parenthetical comments enter targeted paragraphs at will.  One could imagine the reader being rather frustrated at times, wishing that the author would simply get to the point.  But unlike the impatient reader, the sentences, stories, subplots, and the whole novel for that matter are in no hurry to arrive at their destination.  They will get to the point when it is ready for harvest.  Then, like the cycle of farm life, the seeds of the story are planted again when the time is right.

The deliberateness of Faulkner’s style sometimes leads to a curious irony. Events that in real-time occurred within a fraction of a second take pages to describe. When Judith’s black half-sister, and servant Clytemnestra temporarily restrains Rosa from beholding the corpse of Charles that waits upstairs, the author describes the action in considerable detail, taking advantage of his style to explore the thoughts and motivations of the characters involved.  Rosa could not have had a profound allegiance to Judith’s fiancé, but, driven by her dying sister Ellen’s plea to “protect” the niece that is four years her senior, feels a momentum carrying her upstairs just the same.  She is further compelled to ascend in order to spite what she feels is Clytemnestra’s impudence in addressing her by her first name, an act that she correctly assumes is the ex-slave’s assertion of equality. 

In slowing down the action, Faulkner allows the reader to experience its full significance.  He could have found some other way to relate the impact of the US Civil War – another brother-against-brother conflict –  and slavery to the devastation of the South.  But in examining the totality of these characters lives, something so simple as the placing of one arm on another gives the reader a much more personal view of the devastation caused, not just by patriarch Thomas, but by the circumstances of their lives. Like the author, the characters are also in no hurry to reveal themselves.  In one instance, General Compson waits thirty years for the elder Sutpen to finish his story about life in Haiti.  Retelling this decades later, Compson’s grandson, Quentin, mentions the break, and stops at that point, leaving the listener, his roommate, Shrevlin, to wonder if he will have to wait thirty years too.  In fact, Shrevlin continually prods his southern friend to get to the point, and anticipates it when it is not immediately forthcoming.  Faulkner seems to expect this of Shrevlin for he is from a foreign country of the north, and therefore not likely to understand immediately. 

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