Posted by: Kristen Hicks | October 3, 2012

On Absalom, Absalom

Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner

Absalom, Absalom is one of those books that regularly wows you as you’re reading. I found myself having to set the book aside from time to time to marvel at just how much it was able to pack into the story of a Southern family whose fortunes are created and destroyed in parallel with the experiences of the South before, during and after the Civil War.

It’s a special challenge to try to cull something brief, yet meaningful from a book that deftly covers so many issues so deeply. The characters that inhabit the book become symbols of the destructive influence of racism, the confining roles available to women in the period, the way history is passed along to new generations – in pieces, with some parts always missing, just how much the Civil War shook the reality of those affected by it and a nearly infinite number of possible issues and ideas beyond.

At the center of the all encompassing tale in question is the often mythic, but ultimately pathetic figure Thomas Sutpen and his persistent goal. Inspired by an iconic moment in his youth where the realities of the arbitrary societal hierarchy that assign a person value based on race, wealth and gender hits him like an epiphany, he sets out to secure himself and his future progeny a place at the top of the social order. At the moment that he makes this decision, any considerations of morality or personal responsibility that fail to fit neatly into his plan for success are quickly discarded or, more likely, fail to make way into his mind at all.

It’s precisely his insistence on basing his plan for success on the arbitrary social hierarchy that results in its eventual, dramatic failure. Early in his efforts he marries and has a child with a woman he perceives to be acceptable for his purposes. When he learns she has an indistinguishable amount of blackness in her blood, he unceremoniously dumps her and heads off to a new life, feeling the abandonment justified by her family’s decision to keep this oh-so-important bit of information from him.

Ensuring an epic Shakespearean or Biblical (hence the title) feel to the story, the plight of his abandoned, slightly black (but for all visual purposes entirely white) son ensures the destruction of the new, acceptable family and empire Sutpen manages to build in Mississippi.

Sutpen’s Hundred, the 100 acres that become his realm, is a place that never comes across as happy or beautiful in its various descriptions in the book. To Sutpen, it works as a symbol of his success in his goals and newfound position of power in the society that once scorned him. For his wife, slaves, children (both legitimate and slaveborn) and Miss Rosa, who becomes one of the primary narrators of the tale, it’s a confining setting. One where Sutpen rules and the others exist primarily to bend to his will and live out the lives expected of them.

Most of the slaves in the various re-tellings of the story never rise above general descriptions of wild brutes. The only one that is treated as an individual is Sutpen’s daughter Clytemenestra and even she is often described as almost a shadow of Judith, living a similar life of servitude, minus any possibility of a husband or the new life that comes with one. Some semblance of whiteness is required for any of the storytellers to deem a person worthy of rising to the heights of a character with a name and distinct attributes.

Sutpen’s heir, Henry, befriends his abandoned son, Bon. Theirs is more than a typical friendship, their bond is brotherly before either learns of their actual familial ties and Henry’s regard for Bon is excessively admiring. Henry’s prepared to marry his sister off to Bon long before they make their first trip back together to Sutpen’s Hundred, and his mom and sister are happy to concede to the plan. The only one hesitant is Sutpen, somehow recognizing himself too closely in the features of this new character who has entered into his children’s lives.

Sutpen’s original sin is his belief in and allegiance to the societal hiearchy, which leads to the two primary sins that lead to his destruction: the abandonment of hist first family and his refusal to ever acknowledge Bon as is son — even when it’s clearly the best, least messy method of ending the engagement between son and daughter.

Instead, he treats Henry as an instrument in ending the relationship between the two. First through the revelation of incest. Then, when that’s not enough to set one son against the other, he reveals his knowledge of Bon’s slight blackness, dealing the blow that ensures fratricide. His actions end with one son dead, another on the run from the law, a daughter resigned to a lonely life of spinsterhood and a surprisingly large cast of additional characters whose lives are left in ruins due to a mix of the flawed decisions of this one mythical man and the war that waged alongside his family’s drama – one attempting to topple the arbitrary social hierarchy (or its most troubling offshoot, at least), the other toppled by it.

Note: I somehow managed to write over 800 words without mentioning Quentin Compson, one of my favorite characters in all of literature and one of the storytellers that passes along the tale of Sutpen. While his tortuous feelings towards his sister and tragic fate are never addressed explicitly in Absalom, Absalom, they hang over the novel to anyone who knows him from The Sound and the Fury as he discusses the story of three siblings with a special bond, two of them close to marriage.


  1. I recently wrote a review of “The Artificial Nigger”, a choreographic version by Bill.T. Jones adapted from O’Connor’s short story of the same name.There are photographs from the performance on my blog. The story has some of the same social components as Absalom though in a condensed format.Here is the review:

    Thanks for looking at the Tango vignette. I have not read as much Faulkner as I would like.


    Steven Woodruff

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