Tuesday, December 27, 2011

History and the Sense of the Tragic



Absalom, Absalom! seems to get less attention than other Faulkner novels, but as Cleanth Brooks notes,

The property of a great work, as T..S. Eliot remarked long ago, is to communicate before it is understood, and Absalom, Absalom! passes this test triumphantly.

At times, it seems Faulkner is more interested in his narrators' fates than he is his characters in this tumultuous novel which spans at least three generations.  He chooses to tell the story of Thomas Sutpen from multiple perspectives and a variety of settings, working at times from the thinnest strands of memory in piecing together this very compelling narrative.  It is perhaps the most compelling of all Faulkner's narratives, as he seeks to define not only what is black and white, but the many gradients in between, in the Old South.

56 comments:

  1. Although I have much to read and review before the beginning of Spring semester, I will join you in reading this book.

    ReplyDelete
  2. My initial and immediate reaction was to ask, could Faulkner have read and been influenced by James Joyce? He seemed to follow a writing style and narrative pattern that was used by the Irish writer just a few years earlier:

    There were Gothic references, much symbolism, varying perspectives, prolonged sentences, with the past seemingly always present. Death is never too far away.

    Paradoxically, the narrative is both coherent and incoherent at the same time. It's almost as if he has compiled a series of writings from different gossip columns and pasted them together on the same page. You have to wonder where they all came from but in the end there is some measure of coherence and we get to know what Sutpen lived and died for.

    I'm up to p 50 and look forward to the rest and to other's views on the book.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Look forward to you joining us Rick.

    Hard to say what all Faulkner's references were. Rick pointed me to the Cleanth Brooks sometime ago, which I plan to read next, as I near the end of the novel.

    The first time I read the novel, I was drawn into the story, but this time I am more fascinated by the different narrators Faulkner uses. What I also like is the way he circles back on his narrative to fill in holes like that of the hunt for the architect when he tried to escape Sutpen's Hundred, leading to a very interesting discourse on Sutpen's origins, not to mention the lengths to which the architect went in his escape effort.

    ReplyDelete
  4. ''ordered chaos"

    That's the thought that immediately hit me upon starting the book. While it is a seemingly chaotic narrative, the theme is well established by its dreary setting and words such as,

    "hot weary dead"

    "dead old dried paint"

    "eternal black"

    "rigid ... haggard ... impotent ... grim ... static ... long dead object ... coffin gloom"

    Obviously, Faulkner is immediately letting us know this is not a happy story. Yet, the auditor of the narrative is about to enter Harvard for a literary career (perhaps lawyer, country preacher??). Thus, it appears that despite the chaos, there is a promise (or, at least the very real possibility) that order will come out of this chaos.

    ReplyDelete
  5. The different narrators are fascinating. The story as told by Quentin's worldly father is mildly humorous. Sutpen is just a larger-than-life character making his way in the very small world of pre-Civil War Jefferson. And then there's Rosa Coldfield, who reminds me of Lily Tomlin's Edith Ann in that big chair. But the humor can't be sustained, and I have always found that to be a little problematic. Nonetheles, having just read the first two chapters, I am happily moving forward into Faulkner's take on the American identity, southern style.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Telling the story through its odd narrators does take some of the gothic tragedy out of it. Rosa's story is mildly amusing in that she is so hopelessly confused in her telling, yet for her the pain is very real. It is like listening to one of those old Southern belles. For Quentin's father it is just a story, frustrated he couldn't get more out of his own father and Rosa. Since Quentin's father tends to be more of a cynic, it is not surprising that Rosa ultimately chose to tell Quentin the final details, whose own tragic character identifies most strongly with the events.

    ReplyDelete
  7. With Quentin the principal narrator you know this will not have a happy outcome, but then few of Faulkner's stories do. Faulkner looks at the South as a culture decaying from within.

    ReplyDelete
  8. The decaying social milieu in Faulkner's novels often reminds me of Francois Mauriac's Bordeaux. Of course, if you haven't read any of Mauriac's novels the comparison will be meaningless.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I do not recall reading any of Mauriac's writings and just took a look at his Wiki page. His books appear to be writings of great depth and magnitude. He is well regarded in his native France and in Europe.

    ReplyDelete
  10. It has been many moons since I read "Ulysses" but one thing that stood out for me when I read it was Joyce's symbolism and imagery. He had a tendency to defy convention by turning things around such as using dark colors to denote good and light colors to denote bad things.

    In Absalom's Ch II, it begins in summer (symbolically, a good sign - one of fulfillment). But instead of being a time of joy or fulfillment, the narrative reveals a time of mystery, violence, force, naked aggression, with Sutpen as slave driver. He is compared with John L Sullivan (I assume this is the pro boxer of the late 19th century who was a drunk and brawler) and conducts prize fights among his "savage Negroes" and others assorted no goods. He acquires much capital (it is not clear to me how he managed that) and is set upon by town folks. Despite this, he manages to win the hand in marriage of a daughter of a town stalwart. Evidently, she is none too pleased over this event. The chapter which started out with positive symbolism, ends with the symbolism of a Roman holiday [that is, an occasion where people celebrate as others suffer misery], and a blushing/weeping bride whose tears are compared to rain.

    ''... while about the wedding party the circle of faces with open mouths and torch reflecting eyes seemed to advance and waver and shift and vanish in the smoky glare of burning pine" [p 55]

    Fascinating symbolism and imagery used by Faulkner.

    ReplyDelete
  11. The "town" is presented like some kind of demented Greek chorus where only Compson and Coldfield stand out as reasonable persons able to size up the situation. The way the "town" reacts to the wedding borders on a KKK rally, unable to accept this stranger in their midst, marrying one of their their daughters.

    The "close" relationship Sutpen has with his slaves, the fact that he speaks in some unidentified foreign language (Patois) with them sets them off, as much as the dubious way he acquired his "Hundred" and built a mansion that puts their modest houses to shame. Yet, they are all drawn toward him, exceedingly curious in what he will do next (as they are unable to stop him) which becomes the compelling force of the narrative in the early chapters.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I mentioned in an earlier thread wanting to hurl Absalom, Absalom! across the room (or maybe I said out of the nearest window). Now that I am about halfway through chapter five that urge is "doubtless" once again upon me.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Persevere! Faulkner does stretch one's patients but oh the rewards!

    ReplyDelete
  14. Some perspectives about those writers who may have inspired Faulkner:

    http://www.librarything.com/topic/77723

    http://escholarshare.drake.edu/bitstream/handle/2092/986/Untitled.pdf?sequence=1

    A Google search will reveal similar writings. The stream of consciousness, symbolism, time sequence alterations, and other things mentioned above all point to a link between Faulkner and Joyce as well as others. Thus, ''ordered chaos'' as a description for his writing is a fitting term.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I'm still reading, but there are parts of this books that always try my patience.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I'm up to about p 105 and can agree that reading it is quite a challenge.

    Earlier I mentioned that it was not clear as to how Sutpen built up his economic empire. I see now that he built it by relentless hard work on his 100 acre farm and by driving his "savage" Negroes into making it prosperous. I suppose that "savage" Negroes is a reference to Haitian or other West Indian blacks who he forced into slavery and illiteracy. After all, he was "not even a gentleman" [p 11] and was an "ogre or djinn" [p 18].

    ReplyDelete
  17. Sutpen's Hundred refers to a 100 square mile tract of land. I guess Faulkner decided he needed a larger-than-life spread for a larger-than-life plantation owner. Think, Ahab marooned in Mississippi.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I stand corrected - p 30 shows it was 100 square miles rather than acres.

    Land transaction contracts I've read through in the past in my limited experience with farming/tax law measured land in acres. In fact, I just did a Google on current tax/farmland law and saw how farm valuation assessments for tax and estate purposes are still made on acreage. Later on, I looked at a couple of links which dealt with historical farm sales and they also showed dispositions in terms of acreage, not mileage. Makes me wonder if Faulkner did not possibly make a mistake here - that an Indian agent in the 1830s would have sold land only in acreage, not mileage. So that in real life, a Sutpen's 100 would be in acres. Maybe I'll look that up some other time.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Ah, I just saw this from Gintaras':

    This Day in History

    Arthur Guinness Signs a 9,000-Year Lease on His Brewery (1759) -


    A 9,000 year contract!

    In law school we did some research on Yale University's 999 year farm lease contracts. These leases were often for $ 1 per year and the land was measured in terms of acreage, not mileage. The courts ruled that the contracts remain valid and that Yale U is stuck with leasing priceless farm land for only $ 1 per year. This may seem unconscionable but that's how courts have always ruled under the Anglo-Saxon common law and it remains so because time does not invalidate what was a valid contract at the time it was initially executed.

    How propitious it is to have Rick and Gintaras make those two posts at this time! Serendipity anyone??


    EVERYBODY HAVE A TERRIFIC NEW YEAR!

    ReplyDelete
  20. In the old British system of measurement, the square mile was known as an imperial. It was used for extremely large tracts of land. The American system of measurement is based on the British, so I have a feeling you can find some old land grants that were measured in imperials. With regard to Sutpen, a 100 acre tract would have been considered quite small in the 1830s when much of what we now think of as the U.S. would have been virgin forest or prairie.

    ReplyDelete
  21. YALE FARM LEASES NET POOR RESULTS; Buyer of Farm at Lakeville, Conn., Pays University Only Ten Cents an Acre:

    http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F10E17F73A5F13738DDDA80A94D1405B838DF1D3


    Wish I could have taken a leasehold on that land back then!

    ReplyDelete
  22. The details of how he came about his wealth are revealed later in the book. Faulkner does a good job of stringing the reader along, by divulging key details in succeeding chapters. It is not so much used as a suspense device, but rather like archeologists digging and slowly revealing the layers. The entire story is based on what Compson and Miss Rosa and in turn Quentin knows.

    ReplyDelete
  23. I noticed that lease as well. I guess Guinness planned to be around for a long time.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Not much information readily available on the physical size of antebellum plantations, but from my cursory look I noted that the average Mississippi plantation was around 2000 acres, or a little more than 3 square miles. At 100 sq. miles, Sutpen's plantation would have been enormous, but this was still a relatively new frontier ca. 1830. Faulkner does note that after the Civil War, Sutpen was forced to give up much of his land, so whatever deed he had registered was most likely brought into dispute.

    But, I don't worry too much about these details. Faulkner's intent is to create a larger than life character, a Southern Paul Bunyan who carved out his plantation literally by hand, openly defying all the settled plantation owners. Coldfield and Compson became his accomplices, I think because they bore similar grudges to the local plantation owners and took a vicarious thrill in seeing Sutpen outflank his rivals.

    Coldfield wrestled more with his conscience than did Compson, who actually seemed to like Sutpen. Later in the book, two conversations are revealed in which Sutpen tells Compson quite a bit about his past life, which is revealed in a letter from father to son.

    ReplyDelete
  25. ''suspense device''

    Great description.

    This brings to mind how Faulkner's writing parallels ancient Greek tragedies, especially with regard to tragic figures. Remember Aristotle's "Poetics" and how it defined the tragic figure? Such a figure came from royalty, had a quest, but was thwarted in his quest, and affirmed life despite what clearly was an overwhelming adversary or mission.

    Here, Sutpen (despite low origins) builds up a royal empire, seeks to expand it, but is thwarted and ultimately is killed in the pursuit of his quest.

    There are two characters with Greek tragedy names in Cassandra and Clytemnestra though their roles are not entirely evident at this point in my reading. In ancient Greek stories, Cassandra was a prophetess whose words were true but not believed by anyone. Clytemnestra was the wife of Agamemnon who killed her husband though I have forgotten why (I'll remember later on, I'm sure).

    The evil that is being cleansed supposedly gives the audience a cathartic experience in the ancient Greek stories. Faulkner likely used this literary device to help Southern audience purge itself of its collective guilt over its wicked past.

    ReplyDelete
  26. The interesting thing, as you will see, is that he flips this concept of "evil" on its head in the second half of the book. There is a fatalistic quality to most of Faulkner's characters, which they cannot escape no matter how hard they try.

    All the elements of a classical Greek tragedy are there, but he isn't content to let it simply play out along classical lines, which is what makes his use of narrators so interesting.

    Rosa and Quentin are notably affected by the events they are telling. Quentin's father seems to take it all with a grain of salt, as does Shreve, who becomes Quentin's "audience" in the second half of the book. The way the story is filtered through these persons brings the story into the early 20th century, and in turn an interesting psychoanalysis of the characters in the story, especially the way Shreve tries to break the story down so he can understand the characters better. But, for Quentin the story appears to embody his very essence, and helps to explain his mindset to a certain degree in "The Sound and the Fury."

    ReplyDelete
  27. ~ fatalistic quality to most of Faulkner's characters, which they cannot escape ~

    Many images are so utterly ethereal, so haunting, so seemingly impalpable - yet, very real to the characters, and invariably to the reader.

    Consider this long passage:

    "shadowy paragons ... [are] just incredible. It just does not explain ... and we are not supposed to know ... we have old tales ... we see dimly people ... they are there, yet something is missing; they are like a chemical formula exhumed along with letters of the forgotten chest, carefully, the paper old and faded, and falling to pieces ... the shapes shadowy, inscrutable ... horrible and bloody ...''

    pp 102, 103

    ReplyDelete
  28. It is quite a testimony to Faulkner in that he is able to string a reader along on this winding journey without losing their interest. Part of it is that his characters remain in the shadows of time, popping out like figures in a dream and just when you think you have a hand on them they disappear again. This is especially true when the story shifts to the Harvard dorm room and Quentin and Shreve try to put the pieces together between them.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Wrapped up the book last night. I couldn't help wondering if Faulkner was the first American post-modern writer, and sure enough there's a book that explores the subject,

    http://books.google.lt/books?id=o0OSNiBCQbQC&printsec=frontcover&dq=faulkner+and+postmodernism&hl=en&sa=X&ei=VD8FT_DCBsT5sgbc6ZyEDw&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=faulkner%20and%20postmodernism&f=false

    Here'a a review,

    http://www.upress.state.ms.us/books/306

    ReplyDelete
  30. I hope you guys haven't given up? I read the chapter in Cleanth Brooks' book, which I linked in the heading. Fascinating study of the novel, both in terms of its content and relation to other novels, including a mention of Ulysses.

    Brooks made several veiled references to Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, but warned readers of interpreting this as a Gothic tale. He also noted that Faulkner liked to dabble in the detective genre, and that here he seemed to enjoy the idea of Quentin and Shreve trying to piece the story together from the strands Quentin provided. I guess Brooks' book was too early to get much into the postmodern aspects of the novel, although the book linked in my comment above offers some interesting essays, including one by John Barth.

    I think it is important to view this novel through its narrators, taking note that much of what they offer are suppositions. There is very little hard "fact" that is presented. Brooks devoted most of his chapter and notes to this aspect of the novel. It is not so much suspense as it is tension that Faulkner creates in the way he reveals this seemingly Gothic tale through his narrators.

    ReplyDelete
  31. Well, the beginning of semester has caught up with me and I still have about 150 pages to go, which means I probably won't be much help from here on out.

    ReplyDelete
  32. ''given up'' ?

    Heck no ~ it's playoff and college bowl season. Moreover, we had the terrific IIHF major juniors hockey tournament and much of my time was occupied with that. The hockey may well be one of the greatest sports tournaments in the world - sadly it is virtually unknown in the States. But what a series it was!!

    Sorry not to have added more these past few days but I just couldn't keep myself from watching those events.

    :)

    ReplyDelete
  33. I'm currently up to p 170.

    Had some trouble understanding the symbolism of the wisteria which is a sort of clinging vine. While attractive, it can be damaging to the side of a house if its growth is unchecked. Judith said she was a clinging vine in a sense but that this was done out of self preservation ~ she had nowhere to go and stayed at the doomed house of Sutpen in order to eat and lodge. I found it interesting that she and the two other women managed to thrive there despite the hardships. They used the same materials to create clothes, slept in the same bedroom to save on heating and in case of intruders, used surrounding lands to grow foods when none knew of farming methods, yet were resourceful enough to cultivate food and had enough to feed soldiers who were returning from battle. While the setting was hardly ideal, one is reminded of the Fruitlands commune the Alcotts had just a few years before - a ''utopian'' place that wasn't quite so ideal after a while. While one may try to alter their known world, ultimately it is society that dictates how one is to live or die.

    ReplyDelete
  34. There is kind of a "little women" quality to Judith, Rosa and Clytie, now that you mention it, but I think here Faulkner is pretty faithful to the plight of women during the Civil War.

    ReplyDelete
  35. Ch 6 certainly didn't sound like an idyllic "Little Women". Quentin is recounting the old family tales while he was a student at Harvard. Evidently, he was asked by Shreve "Tell about the South. What's it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there.'' [p 181] And while the story is one of violence, tragedy, prejudice, and just about every evil under the sun, there appears to be some measure of sympathy or compassion from the narrator.

    ----------

    As usual, I had a lot of trouble following the stream of consciousness narratives. By chance, I happened to take a long look at the Chronology and Genealogy at the books' end and wished I had done that earlier. It may have helped me understand the narrative or story line a little better.

    ReplyDelete
  36. ''suffer me the little children''

    [p 206]

    Over the years there has been much speculation as to what this passage means. But there is no actual mystery as all it meant was Jesus asking the people to send the little kids to him. Nothing more.

    ReplyDelete
  37. In this case I think it means the children suffer for the sins of their parents.

    ReplyDelete
  38. Gintaras ~ don't be shy: you obviously enjoyed the book so why don't you tell us more than you have already? Some analytical comments and excerpts from your favorite quotes are certainly in order.

    As for your comment on ''suffer me'', yes it does reference to the idea of an Old Testament teaching where iniquity is visited upon the 3d and 4th generations of the sinful fathers. However, as I wrote above, this was not Jesus' intention as it is a misreading of Middle English and how the word 'suffer' was used in the King James Translation.

    ReplyDelete
  39. I'm half way thru Ch 7 which is especially difficult to swallow because of its repeated use of the nefarious N word. Obviously, this is symbolic of the de-humanization of Southern and Creole Blacks which was done through slavery, violence, and exploitation. Sutpin's Machiavellian character evolves as he learns that only through violence and domination does one become prosperous and feared. Faulkner appears to suggest that this is characteristic of the South and that Sutpen's experience is a microcosm of that milieu.

    "Jesus, the South is fine, isn't it. It's better than the theatre, isn't it. It's better than Ben Hur, isn't it. No wonder you have to come away now and then, isn't it."

    ReplyDelete
  40. I also think it was no big deal to use the n-word in 1936, at least as far as publishers were concerned. The Civil Rights movement would hit full tilt until a full generation later.

    I don't think Faulkner is being apologetic of the old South, he is trying to come to terms with it through his characters. What makes his books especially interesting is the way he links the Old South to Jim Crow South, with Cleanth Brooks making several references to C. Vann Woodward. Hence, the idea of "history and the sense of the tragic," which was the title of Brooks' essay on the novel.

    The Old South is a minefield when it comes to memory, and Faulkner seems to be working principally on the concept of memory in this novel, reminding me to a certain degree of Proust.

    ReplyDelete
  41. The second part of Ch 7 was just as confusing to me as the first part. There are repeated references to whiskey and its corrupting influence. Then there is an unclear segment in which Wash Jones kills Sutpen, then is hunted down, and punished for his crime. The lack of rationality for these crimes probably is meant to explain the South and its irrational way of life:

    "the South would realize that it was now paying the price for having erected its economic edifice not on the rock of stern morality but on the shifting sands of opportunism and moral brigandage ... [with elites] getting richer and richer."

    p 271

    Evil begets evil - and the evil lives on in the wicked South.

    ReplyDelete
  42. I would caution viewing what Faulkner describes in a broader sense. This book appears to be written mostly to explain Quentin's actions in The Sound and the Fury (written 7 years previously), at least to some extent.

    To me, the most interesting aspect of the novel was that of miscegenation and the notion of "purity." Sutpen tries to cover up his Haitian past, only for it to come back to haunt him in the form of Charles Bon. A lot is conjectured on the part of Quentin and Shreve as to Charles Bon's origins. As is mentioned later, the folks of Jefferson assumed Charles to be white, but the only way Quentin and Shreve could justify Sutpen's reaction to Bon was not only his kinship but that he was of mixed race, and this is what Henry appeared unable to abide by.

    By contrast, Judith had no trouble raising up Bon's son, although there is mention of the gradations of color in relation to the sleeping arrangements which Clytie imposed, not Judith.

    Judith comes across as perhaps the most memorable character in the novel, due to her quiet strength. She accepts what is dished out, unlike Henry who is unable to come terms with the situation.

    Quentin was drawn mostly to the incest a relationship between Judith and Charles implied. This is what haunted him in The Sound and the Fury, as he deeply loved his sister Candace.

    ReplyDelete
  43. The book reminds me of the movie "Rashomon" in that several different people discuss a given situation from their own viewpoint. As such, a different story emerges with each tale:

    http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_aB7lKAolXtU/S7hEJ_PeTXI/AAAAAAAAA24/MixF6Gt2L4s/s1600/rashomon1.jpg


    Seems as if no one has any real moral values and that they live lives of self justification. Outward appearances rather than the true feelings in one's heart carry the day. Ultimately, all of us are accountable for our actions. But in the meantime, heads roll because of our actions or what happen to us because actions are taken without people considering the consequences.

    All too often, it's a dog eat dog world.

    ReplyDelete
  44. http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL02335D1079AD3BF3

    Evidently, today is Stephen Foster Day. I guess that is a good way of celebrating Southern culture.

    ReplyDelete
  45. I don't see that all, trippler, they are all struggling with their inner demons, Quentin especially. He tries to sort through each of the persons involved in the Sutpen tragedy to find some kind of reason for the events that took place, with the hope that it will give him a greater understanding of the "South" in which he lives. The fact that Shreve takes part in this process seems to be Faulkner's way of bringing the reader into the story by allowing him to speculate on events. I feel the novel had a great emotional depth and resonance.

    Sutpen tried to buy his place in society. As Quentin's father told him, Sutpen objectified everything, including emotions, which is why he failed to understand what he had created. He couldn't understand the emotional needs of his wife, his children, or that of Charles Bon needing to be recognized as his son. As is repeatedly noted, Charles would have dropped all interest in Judith if Thomas Sutpen would only recognize him as a legitimate heir. Instead, Sutpen made his son, Henry, into a hitman, hoping to be rid of Charles once and for all.

    It is an odd story, because despite Sutpen's indomitable will, he seems unable to cope with this intrusion into his life, but Faulkner prefers to remain outside Sutpen, relating his story through others rather than giving us direct access into his thought process.

    It seems Faulkner was more interested in the story telling than the story itself, but as Cleanth Brooks notes in his essay, which I hope you read, this allowed Faulkner to create a heighten sense of suspense and many searing moments that he otherwise could not have created if he had approached the story more directly.

    ReplyDelete
  46. I just now read thru Brooks' writing but found that it is essentially what I've written: In sum, the book is "the story of the curse of slavery" and its consequences upon a given family - ''the story embodied the problem of evil and the irrational ... slavery and its moral blindness" and that the book reads like a Greek tragedy --- all this is precisely what I've written above. The only real difference being that Brooks goes into more detail than I do. Therefore, I did not learn much from the essay but concede that it may help a reader further understand the book.

    As for the book's structure, I agree with you that its construction does add to the sense of suspense. This is exactly the pattern followed in "Rashomon" and why it added much power to its theme.

    ReplyDelete
  47. You must have read what you wanted to read in it, because Brooks talks about much more than that. He talks quite a bit about the use of narrators and how this affects the telling of the story. As he notes, all our information about the Sutpen family is passed through Rosa and Compson to Quentin who in turn imparts it to Shreve in the second half of the book. With so little to draw in, they begin to fill in details themselves, as they try to come to terms with the action.

    The only additional information Quentin had is what he might have gained from an old Henry that night at the crumbling mansion. This confrontation brought the story home for Quentin, making it real where before it had been pretty much viewed as legend.

    You have also skipped clear over the miscegenation, which was why I recommended this book to begin with. You seemed interested in idea of "color" in the South after reading 1493 and so I mentioned Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner's main thrust in the novel is to explore what it means to be white or pure in the South.

    Brooks looks at it as a matter of "innocence," a term that was used in the novel. It was more a matter of naivety on Sutpen's part, thinking he could buy his way into a society that was very conscious of its birthright. A modern man in many respects, at one point referred to as a carpetbagger, Sutpen insinuates himself into a society that doesn't want him, and when it rejects him (again) he simply turns his back on Jefferson like the Virginia plantation had done to him in his youth. The only problem is that his wife and children are forced to bear the weight of these decisions, as Sutpen rules his plantation like a despot.

    ReplyDelete
  48. BTW, it isn't "exactly" the pattern in Rashomon. Very different stories. Interestingly enough, Akutagawa was influenced by many of the same writers Faulkner was, including Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I think if Faulkner used any story as his starting point it was Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, which was also told by an active narrator.

    ReplyDelete
  49. Some of details only become more clear as you read on which is why a reader might miss some of the details. You are correct in that I did not mention miscegenation but that's because you mentioned it previously and the notion of "purity" which is a theme though in my opinion a marginal issue. But I don't quite agree that "Faulkner's main thrust in the novel is to explore what it means to be white or pure in the South." Seems like a broader theme than that to me though every reader views any book differently. That broader theme being the portrayal of an evil society characterized by what is called in the Bible self righteousness. One that is doomed to decline and to damnation because its ways are the very antithesis of the Bible's teachings.

    To illustrate, I recall coming across the word "miscegenation" maybe once or twice. By contrast, we repeatedly see the words "Christmas", "Jesus", and "God" used very frequently. These words are used as if Sutpen and his ilk have been given a special dispensation from the Heavens (or so they thought). Then after all the details of the book have been revealed we are told: "now it won't be much longer and then we won't have anything left: honor nor pride nor God since God quit us four years ago only He never thought it necessary to tell us ... when you don't have God nothing matters ..."

    p 370

    This passage is where I am at in my reading with about 20 pages to go. That passage seems to reveal that after all the self righteousness, unwarranted self justification, and all the evil had taken place in the name of God and the high holy, there is at long last recognition that maybe not not all is as well as they thought.

    While I agree with you that racial purity is a theme here, I see FAR more references to biblical themes such as evil, moral blindness, and self righteousness (with many haunting spectral images as illustrations of the inevitable deaths that are to come because of all this evil). Indeed, Brooks makes such references and that is why I quote him. The fear of miscegenation may have been a motivation for Sutpen or for other people actions, but it does not appear to be an overriding theme in that horrible milieu as portrayed by Faulkner. But then again, every reader sees issues differently and, I guess, we shall have to agree to disagree over what the main thrust really is.

    ReplyDelete
  50. As for "Rashomon" I watched it in 1982 or 83 so my analysis of it may be off a bit. But there appear to be seem parallels between its structure and that of "Absalom". I cannot be more specific as I do not recall the full details of the movie (that's what happens when you get old like me).

    One last thing about "Absalom", let's bear in mind that its title comes from the Bible. It is about a son who rebelled against his father and against the laws of God. That because God's laws were violated an entire family suffers from tragedy. There was no talk of racialism. Instead, we read of the consequences of sin, the consequences of willful failure to obey divine law. That when one fails to obey God, God abandons that person and tragedy is the result both to him and the generation that follows. This is what we also see in Faulkner as you can see from the quote I made above.

    ReplyDelete
  51. Yes, the story can be read different ways, and we see it is read at least four different ways in the novel itself. Ultimately, it comes down to who holds the most information and who carries the most emotional burden.

    Rosa lived with the events, at least those she was a part of, her entire life, yet it would seem Quentin took a lot of the emotional burden on himself that night he went to the dilapidated mansion with Rosa.

    Brooks speculates it was the theme of incest that drew Quentin into the story, as in The Sound and the Fury he was unable to reconcile his feelings toward his younger sister, Caddy.

    But, throughout the novel we see the theme of miscegenation, from the family Sutpen tries to leave in the past, as it didn't fit into his "plan," to Jim Bond in the closing passages, the only surviving member with Sutpen blood. Pretty hard to escape it.

    Yet, you seem drawn mostly to the Biblical allusions and the "evil," which apparently only Rosa saw. No doubt, Faulkner enjoyed playing on Biblical, Greek and Gothic themes in this novel, but I didn't detect an overtly Biblical influence here, other than in the title. Interesting that Absalom is never mentioned in the novel itself, which makes me wonder whether Faulkner or his publisher chose this title.

    The church takes on a rather small, although significant role in the first half of the novel, as this is where Sutpen meets Ellen and ultimately marries her. Apparently, the only two times he set foot in the church. The townfolk vent their disapproval on the wedding day by pelting the carriage with vegetables, but you don't get the sense they are doing so out of any deep seated religious convictions, but rather because they don't like the way Sutpen has insinuated himself into their society.

    It is more the protocol that had been broken here, not a moral order. Sutpen didn't pay any deference to the other plantation owners. He usurped them, by carving out an estate that dwarfed theirs, and building a mansion that similarly made theirs look like country homes. The only "friend" Sutpen apparently had was General Compson, to whom he related his time in the West Indies, along with an uneasy relationship with Mr. Coldfield, both of whom were not landed gentry.

    Compson didn't view Sutpen as evil, but rather as a troubled man unable to come to terms with himself or his family emotionally. This is reflected in Quentin's and his father's narrations. Rosa is the only one who views Sutpen as evil, as she feels he destroyed her sister and the children and ultimately herself by jilting her. Shreve views the whole thing as ludicrous, but enjoyed "playing the game" with Quentin on that cold night in Harvard.

    ReplyDelete
  52. ''it is read at least four different ways''

    Not coincidentally, there are FOUR Gospels in the New Testament which also view the life and deeds of Jesus in their own way. Is there any possible chance that this could be yet another allusion to the Bible and its teaching on good and evil? If not, why are those words "God" and "Jesus" repeated over and over again? Why are other words such as "blood" and allusions to darkness repeated? Other spectral words/images include "demon", "coffin smelling", "crucified child", "sulfur reek", "baffled ghosts", and "ghosts towns" [pp 2, 3] are repeatedly used throughout the book. Is there any possibility that all these usages could be proof that "Absalom Absalom" is a long sermon on evil and its consequences?

    There are dozens and dozens of other words or usages which I can refer to which appear to affirm my interpretation of Faulkner's story as a morality or cautionary tale. But again, if one chooses to view it as a primer on miscegenation, so be it.

    ReplyDelete
  53. Well, you can read it as you will, but I don't see the novel as a "sermon" but rather an evocation on memory. The concept of evil is a part of it. He starts with Rosa who viewed her brother-in-law as evil, but we travel a pretty long distance over the course of the novel and by the second half of the novel, Southern Gothicism has pretty much given way to two young men trying to sort out the many mysteries in an old story that leaves more questions than answers.

    One of things I've notice, trip, is that you try too hard to buttonhole things. Faulkner is a writer of "profound ambiguity," to coin a term Bill Clinton used. There is no one clear interpretation, and Faulkner loved nothing more than to tease his critics who attempted to narrowly define his works.

    ReplyDelete
  54. ''profound ambiguity ... There is no one clear interpretation''

    Which is why I used the terms "seems", "possible", and "appear to affirm" above. As for Faulkner teasing his reader, you will likely recall that Jesus spoke in riddles because he, too, liked to riddle his audience leaving them with more questions than answers. Could this again possibly (oops, there is that word again) lend further credence to my words above? Hopefully, you noticed all the question marks that appear in my postings above. They should show that rather than apply a strict interpretation (or buttonhold as you put it) on the book, I did endeavor to question his intentions thereby allowing some flexibility to its possible interpretation.

    The bottom line is that it is up to the reader to interpret the book as he/she sees it. We can both agree on that.

    ReplyDelete
  55. I guess this was the passage that made be bristle,

    "I just now read thru Brooks' writing but found that it is essentially what I've written: In sum, the book is "the story of the curse of slavery" and its consequences upon a given family - ''the story embodied the problem of evil and the irrational ... slavery and its moral blindness" and that the book reads like a Greek tragedy --- all this is precisely what I've written above."

    Especially, "essentially" and "precisely," when Brooks devoted most of his essay to how the different narrators viewed the story of Sutpen, also noting that all our information was passed through them, with much speculation on the part of Quentin and Shreve, and for that matter Mr. Compson and Rosa. "Essentially," there is no "bottom line," which is why I suppose many find this book difficult to read.

    ReplyDelete
  56. ''difficult to read''

    I'm with you, there. Still, very glad to have read it. There are more biblical symbolisms or parallels that can be drawn between Absalom and New Testament:

    As you wrote, "four different ways" ~ four different Gospels

    Henry, son of the patriarch who built the house of evil, ''waited four years ... '' or as he put it, "For 4 years now I have given chance the opportunity to renounce for me, but it seems I am doomed ..." [p 136]. This is just like Jesus whose ministry lasted 4 years (this is based on the teaching that his years were measured by the four Passovers). It took four years for his society to reject him. He too, was doomed. Both endured ''anguish and suffering that were in vain''. The difference being that Jesus died for others sins, Henry killed and lived on because of other sins.

    There are other parallels (such as the symbolism of the 100 miles of land ~ cf Matt 19:29) but the point has been made and it is up to the reader to determine whether these constitute valid interpretations of Faulkner's intentions. After all, he indeed was a writer of "profound ambiguity".

    ReplyDelete