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Absalom, Absalom ~ A Capsule Book Review

1936 first edition cover

1936 first edition cover

Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

William Faulkner (1897-1962) is arguably the best American novelist of the twentieth century, the supreme literary stylist. His works are deep, cerebral, rich and complex. His style is dense, sometimes fragmented, wordy and difficult to read. He has the longest sentences and the longest paragraphs of any other writer. If you are trying to follow the thread of a sentence, you might have to go back and break it down into its many parts to figure out exactly what is being said. If reading a novel by Faulkner is frustrating and tedious at times (a painful slog), you must also know that it is worth the effort or you wouldn’t be doing it.

When I first started reading Faulkner’s 1936 novel, Absalom, Absalom, I found the first chapter (told in the voice of Miss Rosa Coldfield in 1909 when she is 64 years old) so difficult that I almost gave up. If you are able to make it through the first chapter, however, the following chapters are easier. Not easy, but not quite as difficult. (There’s no linear structure to the novel.)

Absalom, Absalom is the multilayered family saga of the Sutpen and Coldfield families in the American South in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Thomas Sutpen confounds the town of Jefferson, Mississippi—and particularly the Coldfield family—when he comes from nowhere and acquires a huge tract of land, called the Sutpen Hundred (square miles, not acres), and builds an enormous house on the edge of a swamp with the help of his band of wild black men and a French architect, who he more or less treats as a captive.

For years after the house is built, Thomas Sutpen entertains a band of his male friends with wild hunting and drinking parties and wrestling matches, until the day arrives when he decides he wants to acquire respectability in the form of a wife and children. He drives away his male friends and proposes to a town girl named Ellen Coldfield. (Faulkner compares her throughout the novel to a butterfly.)

To the unlikely union between Thomas Sutpen and Ellen Coldfield are born Henry and Judith. (Thomas Sutpen also has a half-black daughter named Clytemnestra, or “Clytie,” that he had with a slave woman.) Ellen Coldfield has a sister, Miss Rosa Coldfield, who is twenty-seven years younger than she is (younger than her own children). The first part of the story is being told by the elderly Rosa Coldfield to Quentin Compson, whose grandfather was the best friend of Thomas Sutpen. The part that Rosa Coldfield plays in the novel is more of an observer than active participant in what is going on.

When Henry Sutpen is grown (or almost grown), he goes away to college in Oxford, Mississippi. There he meets and becomes good friends with one Charles Bon. Charles is older and more worldly-wise and sophisticated than Henry. (Henry is clearly infatuated with Charles Bon. Faulkner later suggests more than just simple friendship between the two, especially on Henry’s part.) When Henry writes home about Charles Bon, his mother immediately sees Charles as a likely husband for Judith. Charles visits the Sutpen home with Henry on more than one occasion. His interest in Judith seems perfunctory. Will he propose to her or won’t he? We learn later a dark secret about Charles Bon, which I won’t reveal here, and that his association with the Sutpen family is part of an elaborate scheme of revenge. This element of the story drives the narrative for much of the second half of the novel.

The Civil War obtrudes upon the lives of the characters. The three principal male characters (Thomas Sutpen, Henry Sutpen, Charles Bon) all find themselves in battle. (Thomas Sutpen achieves the rank of colonel.) The war, of course, doesn’t turn out the way many Southerners hoped it would or expected it would. (Faulkner points out that the Southern army had the highest mortality rate of any army in history.) The men who survive, defeated not only in war but also in spirit, return home starving and in tatters to discover that everything they loved or cared about has been swept away. It is this defeat that is subtext to everything else.

Absalom, Absalom (the name derives from a character in the Bible) is a dark story, full of revenge, incest (or almost incest), miscegenation, family secrets, hubris, intentions gone awry, class distinction, loss and suffering. There’s no redemption for anybody, no life-affirming conclusion. Nobody writes about these things (or about the South) the way Faulkner does. 

Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp

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