William Faulkner, 1936
The story of Thomas Sutpen, an enigmatic stranger who came to Jefferson in the early 1830s to wrest his mansion out of the muddy bottoms of the north Mississippi wilderness. He was a man, Faulkner said, "who wanted sons and the sons destroyed him. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—September 25, 1897
• Where—New Albany, Mississippi, USA
• Death—July 6, 1962
• Where—Byhalia, Mississippi
• Awards—Nobel Prize, 1950; 2 Pulitizer prizes; others
William Faulkner was born in New Albany, Mississippi, on September 25, 1897. His family was rooted in local history: his great-grandfather, a Confederate colonel and state politician, was assassinated by a former partner in 1889, and his grandfather was a wealth lawyer who owned a railroad. When Faulkner was five his parents moved to Oxford, Mississippi, where he received a desultory education in local schools, dropping out of high school in 1915. Rejected for pilot training in the U.S. Army, he passed himself off as British and joined the Canadian Royal Air Force in 1918, but the war ended before he saw any service. After the war, he took some classes at the University of Mississippi and worked for a time at the university post office. Mostly, however, he educated himself by reading promiscuously.
Faulkner had begun writing poems when he was a schoolboy, and in 1924 he published a poetry collection, The Marble Faun, at his own expense. His literary aspirations were fueled by his close friendship with Sherwood Anderson, whom he met during a stay in New Orleans. Faulkner's first novel, Soldier's Pay, was published in 1926, followed a year later by Mosquitoes, a literary satire. His next book, Flags in the Dust, was heavily cut and rearranged at the publisher's insistence and appeared finally as Sartoris in 1929. In the meantime he had completed The Sound and the Fury, and when it appeared at the end of 1929 he had finished Sanctuary and was ready to begin writing As I Lay Dying. That same year he married Estelle Oldham, whom he had courted a decade earlier.
Although Faulkner gained literary acclaim from these and subsequent novels—Light in August (1932), Pylon (1935), Absalom, Absalom! (1936), The Unvanquished (1938), The Wild Palms (1939), The Hamlet (1940), and Go Down, Moses (1942)—and continued to publish stories regularly in magazines, he was unable to support himself solely by writing fiction. he worked as a screenwriter for MGM, Twentieth Century-Fox, and Warner Brothers, forming a close relationship with director Howard Hawks, with whom he worked on To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, and Land of the Pharaohs, among other films. In 1944 all but one of Faulkner's novels were out of print, and his personal life was at low ebb due in part to his chronic heavy drinking. During the war he had been discovered by Sartre and Camus and others in the French literary world. In the postwar period his reputation rebounded, as Malcolm Cowley's anthology The Portable Faulkner brought him fresh attention in America, and the immense esteem in which he was held in Europe consolidated his worldwide stature.
Faulkner wrote seventeen books set in the mythical Yoknapatawpha County, home of the Compson family in The Sound and the Fury. "No land in all fiction lives more vividly in its physical presence than this county of Faulkner's imagination," Robert Penn Warren wrote in an essay on Cowley's anthology. "The descendants of the old families, the descendants of bushwhackers and carpetbaggers, the swamp rats, the Negro cooks and farm hands, the bootleggers and gangsters, tenant farmers, college boys, county-seat lawyers, country storekeepers, peddlers--all are here in their fullness of life and their complicated interrelations." In 1950, Faulkner traveled to Sweden to accept the 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature. In later books—Intruder in the Dust (1948), Requiem for a Nun (1951), A Fable (1954), The Town (1957), The Mansion (1959), and The Reivers (1962)—he continued to explore what he had called "the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself," but did so in the context of Yoknapatawpha's increasing connection with the modern world. He died of a heart attack on July 6, 1962. (From the publisher.)
Absalom is the stor of Thomas Sutpen, who in 1833 strives to create a dynasty out of a swamp, and who ultimately self-destructs....Absalom! Absalom! is about the South, taking on one of Faulkner's major themes: the region's destruction, or self-destruction, through human will, racism, slavery, and miscegenation. This is a stunning work—exciting, even breath-taking—and challenging. It is, after all Faulkner. But it's the story that Gone with the Wind never told...
A LitLovers LitPick (Feb. '09)
[Absalom, Absalom!] represents an entirely new departure into complexity for Faulkner. He nas been complex before, but never uncommunicative. Occasionally there are passages of great power and beauty in this book, which remind us that Faulkner is still a writer with a unique figt of illuminating dark corners of the human soul.... For the rest, Absalom, Absalom! must be left to those hardy souls who care for puzzles.
Harold Strauss - New York Times Book Review (11/1/1936)
The critics...now tell us that his style is florid, that his plots are hard to follow, that he sometimes shows bad taste in his choice of material.... On the other hand, I can think of no other living American author who writes with the same intensity or who carries us so completely into a world of his own. There is no American author or our time who has undertaken and partly completed a more ambitious series of novels and stories.... Faulkner has been writing a sort of human comedy that was partly inspired by his reading of Balzac.
Malcolm Cowley - New York Times (10/29/1944)
Faulkner…belongs to the full-dressed post-Flaubert group of Conrad, Joyce, and Proust.
For all his concern with the South, Faulkner was actually seeking out the nature of man. Thus we must return to him for that continuity of moral purpose which made for the greatness of our classics.
For all the range of effect, philosophical weight, originality of style, variety of characterization, humor, and tragic intensity, [Faulkner's works] are without equal in our time and country.
Robert Penn Warren
1. Any reader bewildered by the opening pages of Absalom, Absalom! will realize immediately that its greatest challenge lies in its complex narrative structure, and as with The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, you must learn how to read it as you go. How many narrators are there, and what is their relationship to one another? What are the sources of their authority as tellers of the Sutpen story? What, so far as you can make out, "happened, " as opposed to what is conjectured by the various narrators? Why might Faulkner have chosen such a challenging narrative form, despite the difficulties it presents for his readers?
2. At the center of the novel is the gigantic figure of Sutpen--a man who drives himself to extraordinary lengths in the pursuit of his "design." Sutpen means different things to different people: to Rosa, he is a monster, but one she would have married, whereas to Colonel Compson, he is a human being with sympathetic characteristics. How does your view of Sutpen change as the web of his story emerges? How do you come away from the novel feeling about him? Is he evil? innocent? superhuman? mad? heroic? Does Sutpen's history, which he has told to Colonel Compson, justify his behavior?
3. Why do the various tellers of the story interpret and embroider the tale so differently? What is Faulkner telling us about the human need to order and interpret the past? How does each teller affect your response? Whose version of events do you find most attractive, most compelling? Whose version makes most sense to you? Is "truth" largely irrelevant?
4. Faulkner's original title for the novel was "Dark House, " and as in much of his work,we see in Absalom, Absalom! strong elements of the gothic literary convention: a ruined and possibly haunted house, a demonic hero, family secrets, hints of incest, a melodramatic plot, an overwhelming mood of decadence and decay. Yet in its depth and intensity, the novel clearly transcends the often trivial melodrama of much gothic fiction. How does Faulkner's use of gothic elements contribute to the novel's dramatic effect?
5. Consider Faulkner's brilliant development of the character of Charles Bon, the son that Sutpen has cast off. In both Quentin and Shreve's retelling and in Miss Rosa's, he is a figure of romance, while in Mr. Compson's version he is an opportunist, using both Judith and Henry to revenge himself upon his father. Which of these perspectives is more satisfying to you, and why? Why is the element of doubt about Bon's motivation--even about the extent of his knowledge about his origin--so crucial to Faulkner's plan?
6. The book's title is taken from the biblical story of Absalom, son of King David, told in the second book of Samuel--a dynastic tale of incest, rebellion, revenge, and violent death. How is your perspective on the novel enlarged after reading the Absalom story? How does the biblical tale inflect the novel's themes of incest, dynastic hopes and failures, rivalry between father and son? How does David's grief at the death of Absalom (2 Samuel 18:33) compare with Thomas Sutpen's seeming lack of feeling for his sons--or for anyone else?
7. Charles Bon is at heart of the incest plot, and it is the dual threat of incest and miscegenation that ruins Sutpen's great design. How do incest and miscegenation mirror each other? What is it that makes these two forms of mixing blood--endogamy and exogamy--so taboo? Do you agree that it is the thought of miscegenation, rather than incest, that Henry can't endure? Why do rage, self-loathing, and masochism play such a large role in the stories of Charles Bon's two direct descendants, Charles Etienne St. Valery Bon and Jim Bond?
8. What do you think of Mr. Compson's theory of the incestuous triad formed by Henry, Bon, and Judith, described as follows: "The brother... taking that virginity in the person of the brother-in-law, the man whom he would be if he could become, metamorphose into, the lover, the husband; by whom he would be despoiled, choose for despoiler, if he could become, metamorphose into the sister, the mistress, the bride" [p. 77]? Does Faulkner assume that a strong incestuous component is part of the psychology of every family? Or only of extremely unusual families like the Sutpens?
9. The concept of racial hierarchy is at odds with the domestic intimacy in which blacks and whites lived together in the South. During the Civil War, Judith, Clytie, and Rosa live together as sisters, eating the same food, working side by side. But when Rosa returns to the house in 1909, she warns Clytie not to touch her: "Let flesh touch with flesh, and watch the fall of all the eggshell shibboleth of caste and color too" [p. 112]. How does the novel expose the mental convolutions by which people tried to maintain the notion of an essential difference--a species difference--between black skin and white, even among members of the same family? What, in these circumstances, do you think of Clytie's loyalty and her efforts to protect Henry?
10. To what degree do you see the self-destructiveness displayed by just about all of the figures in this novel as Faulkner's deliberate allegory of the South?
11. Many critics have commented that Faulkner takes his stylistic eccentricity to its most involuted and exaggerated extremes in Absalom, Absalom!, making inordinate demands upon the reader's attention and patience. An anonymous reviewer for Time called this book "the strangest, least readable, most infuriating and yet in some respects the most impressive novel that William Faulkner has written." What use does Faulkner make of repetition, circularity, accumulation, and confusion? Are there aesthetic and intellectual reasons he takes his rhetoric and syntax to such exhaustive lengths, or do you feel that his style is too self-indulgent?
12. Absalom, Absalom! is a novel about the meaning of history, and about the extreme pressure of the past, particularly in the South, upon the inhabitants of the present. More importantly, it is about the doubtful process of coming to know, reconstruct, and come to grips with history. Mr. Compson says to Quentin, "We have a few old mouth-to-mouth tales... we see dimly people, the people in whose living blood and seed we ourselves lay dormant and waiting... performing their acts of simple passion and violence, impervious to time and inexplicable" [p. 80]. Why does Quentin, who is unrelated to Sutpen, seem to understand the tale as bearing directly upon his own identity and fate? If history is "a dead time" [p. 71], as Mr. Compson calls it, why does it command so much mesmerized attention in this novel?
13. Absalom, Absalom! shares certain characteristics with classical tragedy, and Faulkner uses Mr. Compson to make the connection clear. He alludes to Aeschylus's great play Agamemnon with his discussion on pages 48-49 of the name of Sutpen's daughter by a slave, suggesting that Sutpen might have meant to call her Cassandra rather than Clytemnestra. Elsewhere, Mr. Compson sees the story as a dramatic tableau, with "fate, destiny, retribution, irony--the stage manager" [p. 57]. Aristotle noted that a certain blindness, a character flaw he called hamartia, was common to tragic heroes. Whatare the flaws in Sutpen that contribute to his tragedy? If Sutpen is a character who stands for pure, unswerving will, what role does fate play in the story?
14. Why does Faulkner have Quentin tell his story to Shreve McCannon, a Canadian, in a room at Harvard in January, 1910? Why does this reconstruction of a uniquely Southern tale take place on Yankee soil? What is the meaning of the relationship between story and setting, as contained in the following phrase: "that fragile pandora's box of scrawled paper which had filled with violent and unratiocinative djinns and demons this snug monastic coign, this dreamy and heatless alcove of what we call the best of thought" [p. 208]? What do you make of the book's final line, in which Quentin hysterically insists that he doesn't hate the South?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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