The Bottom Line: If you insist on reading the best book by any author, this one is Faulkners. Not for a casual reader.
Nearly every scholar of his work, considers Absalom, Absalom to be Faulkner’s coup de gras. Many of these scholars also tend to point to this novel as having the most controlled difficult narrative meant to be understood (Finnegan’s Wake and the recently published Only Revolutions are probably more difficult, but they are not meant to be generally understood as is Absalom, Absalom).
The story is as easy to understand as a truly tragic opera. Most operas have simple plots because the focus is on the songs not the story. Instead of music and singing, Faulkner uses a host of nested hearsays to tell his deceptively simple story.
This plot summary is not structured on the non-linear way the novel is presented. On a cold night at Harvard, Shreve McCannon (a Canadian), Quentin Compson’s roommate asks him what living in the South is like. What follows is a narrative war. Quentin learns about the larger than life character of Thomas Sutpen from the smaller than life aunt Rosa Coldfield. Sutpen shows up in Jefferson, Mississippi a few decades prior to the Civil War. He buys a piece of heavily forested land and builds a plantation on the hundred square miles now called Sutpen’s Hundred. The plantation house is built by a basically imprisoned Frenchman (he escapes the wildness after a couple of years by building stilts so the dogs sent to hunt him will never find him). This man from nowhere whose past, and class, cannot be verified, picks the oldest daughter of a Methodist minister and whose history and class are well established to marry. The assumption is that the marriage will raise him above his current stature. It does not. From there, Absalom, Absalom covers all of the Southern Gothic oeuvre except for physical deformity. Possible incest leads to murder. Fear of war leads to the minister starving himself in the attic (you can argue that this would represent the physically deformed that show up in most Southern Gothic tales if you like). Longing leads to an adoption that leads to death by yellow fever. Since the murder leads to Sutpen losing his heir, he tries by other means to produce one, the last attempt leading to his beheading. In the end, as you would expect from this type of story, the house burns to the ground leaving nothing behind but the ashes to build this hearsay buttressed tale.
The narrative war is incredible which is why the scholars point to this tale as the best. Shreve, and the reader by being in his shoes, so to speak, can, at times, be the ninth hearer in line. It isn’t uncommon to run into a story where Quentin reports that Rosa said that Sutpen said that Clytie said that Henry said that Judith said that Sutpen performed this action with Major de Spain who said that what Jason said way back when was a lie—I would quote one directly but it would literally stretch for pages.
As with most wars, there is propaganda. Even a casual read of the first eighty pages should make the reader confused by something fundamental. Rosa calls Sutpen a monster. Rosa, a little woman whose feet do not touch the floor when sitting, is exactly as her name implies: a Cold Field. She hates Sutpen, so she is only going to be filled with ire. Quentin gets the beginnings of the story from Rosa, then he goes home and his father, Jason, tells a slightly different story that is neutral at times and glowing at times about Sutpen’s abilities.
What makes this novel a hallmark is the method of telling. The story is that someone with a huge will but from a poor family, does everything in his power to become part of the landed gentry he was excluded from as a child. In other words, at a different time, this would be one of those tired Horatio Alger stories of poor boy made good. The reason it isn’t is that Sutpen insists on doing this in the South which had a form of the gentry system in Britain—you can’t enter it from outside without the ones who truly belong there slighting you at every turn. Knowing this, Sutpen tries to create an heir so that at least his name will live past him and fewer would slight the heir. This doesn’t happen quite the way he expected and the whole house of very well placed cards comes crashing to the ground because the society surrounding Sutpen simply would not allow him ingress.
Read carefully, Absalom is a type of indictment of both the old way the South ran and of Sutpen; however the indictment of Sutpen only comes after his obsession goes beyond the vaguely unhealthy to the outright cancerous. Pretense built his world and a willingness not to accept the pretense brought it down.
This is not an easy novel to read. It requires vigilant attention because of the nested hearsays and what each level brings by way of unreliability. For those who don’t mind savoring a book, this one is going to be as rich as any dessert you can name. Grab a copy and read the first three pages of the first three chapters. If you can follow what is going on, then you will probably like the book, though find it difficult at times. If you cannot follow it . . . leave it where you found it.
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