The exclamation point in Absalom, Absalom! doesn't quite do it justice. Shmoop thinks it should have been something more like this: Absalom, Absalom!?! This story has it all – multiple narrators, mysterious characters, shifts in time – and that's kind of the problem. William Faulkner's novel is so rich and complex that it can be tough to follow. But don't let that scare you off: after all, it's a pretty big deal. And, of course, we're here to help.
Published in 1936, Absalom, Absalom! was one of the main reasons Faulkner won the Nobel Prize in literature. In 2009, the magazine Oxford American voted Absalom, Absalom! the best Southern novel of all time (yep, it beat To Kill a Mockingbird – how about that!). And critics of modernist literature cite the book alongside James Joyce's Ulysses as one of the masterpieces of the period, in particular for its work with the then-popular stream-of-consciousness narrative style.
When we read this story about a mysterious man named Sutpen and his messed-up nineteenth-century family, it's hardly surprising to learn that its author spent the majority of his life within forty miles of his birthplace in Oxford, Mississippi. Our guy can barely distance himself from his own effort, as his character Shreve McCannon puts it, to "Tell about the South" (6.1). That makes this a really intimate book to read. And who doesn't love a little intimacy with a Nobel Prize winner?
If you just haven't had enough of these characters, you can find them in other Faulkner novels, such as The Sound and the Fury (1929) and Intruder in the Dust (1948). All told, Faulkner set fifteen of his novels in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County. But with Absalom, Absalom! he decided for the first time to include a map and a chronology. Thanks, Mr. Faulkner: those will definitely come in handy.
Why Should I Care?
If you don't have a weird family, you can skip this section. Okay, everyone still here? That's what we figured.
Sure, this book takes place in the nineteenth-century. Sure it's teeming with racism and incest. And hey, we've never been to West Virginia. We can't really relate to any of these things, so why do we get so drawn in? Our answer: family drama. Now that is something we can all relate to.
If you've ever rebelled against your parents, you know what it's like to be Henry. If your family doesn't approve of your romantic relationship, you know what it's like to be Charles Bon. And if you've ever killed your sister's fiancé who's also your half-brother… oh wait. But you get the point. If nothing else, after you read Absalom, Absalom!, you'll feel like you have the best family in the world. And you know what, you just might. Shmoop sure does.
In case you're not convinced, here are few more Why Should I Care? nuggets for you:
- Absalom, Absalom! is a central text in the American literary canon
- William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for literature
- The rich historical background of the novel helps us dive into the study of the American Civil War
- The words and actions of the characters get us talking about tough topics like racism
- And finally: we dare you to find a book that challenges you so much. (We know you don't like to turn down a dare.)