Southern Gothic Fiction, Tragedy, Folklore, Modernism
Southern Gothic Fiction
This novel may not have elements of the supernatural like a classic gothic novel, but there are definitely ghosts (in the form of people haunting other people); super spooky moments (Quentin and Miss Rosa at the "big house"); and a serious sense of dread. Everyone is a little off-kilter, suffering from various forms of obsession, arrested development, and bitterness.
The big gothic element is the house, which acts almost like a character in the novel. Each person projects his or her own feelings onto that big house: it's a dream, a nightmare, a prison, and a safe haven. Because Sutpen built it, the house suffers from something like an evil spirit: it's got some really bad mojo. In fact, Faulkner believed that, because of the legacy of slavery, the entire South had evil spirits and everyone there was haunted by that violent past. And the fact that Sutpen has slaves build the house and funds the whole deal through dubious means implies that Sutpen's Hundred is a place of particularly bad blood.
And of course, in typical Southern gothic fashion, Absalom, Absalom! features a lot of ruins – not just crumbling houses and graveyards, but also demolished lives.
Okay, so you may not think it's tragic that Sutpen loses everything and dies a violent death. We get it: he's not the most lovable character. But the book does have many of the elements of a tragedy, so the genre is worth exploring for a minute.
Sutpen is a character with grand plans: what he calls his "design." However, like every tragic figure, Sutpen has a so-called "tragic flaw." But what exactly is Sutpen's tragic flaw?
Some critics believe that it's innocence or naiveté: you know, making a big deal out of not being let in the front door, marrying a woman who he doesn't realize is part black… the list goes on. On the whole, Sutpen tends to catch on to things kind of late in the game.
Other critics claim that Sutpen's tragic flaw is his arrogance. The fact that he believes he can ride to the top, treat humans like objects, and behave like an animal in a civilized world indicates a certain self-centeredness on his part. He can only see the world through his own desires.
Whether it's innocence or arrogance (or something else altogether), Sutpen definitely has a tragic flaw, which leads to his big, ugly downfall.
Folklore, Legend, and Mythology
In Mr. Compson's narrative more than anywhere else, Sutpen's story is told as a Greek tragedy, drawing on oral tradition to make sense of a grand episode or a tragic hero. His story is driven by the actions of a larger-than-life, ambitious man concerned with fate and eternity. He must fulfill his design, he will be thwarted by a fatal flaw (an "ancient curse"), and he is partly motivated by the desire to create a genealogy that will last for generations to come. This is definitely the stuff of legends.
Let's talk Modernism. "Modernist Literature" is a hefty phrase that pretty much refers to literature written between 1899 and 1945, and involving experimentation with the traditional novel format. Modernist literature plays all kinds of games with time and order, perspective, and point of view. There was a lot of play with form, it was more common to see a fragmented plot than, say, a clear beginning, middle, and end. Many critics see these radical experiments as a response to the violence of the World Wars.
Need we say more? Well, we will anyway. Here are just a few of the ways that Absalom, Absalom! fits snugly into this category of modernist experimentation: multiple narrators, stream of consciousness narrative, complex play with time, long sentences, and persistent examination of notions of truth and reality. Take that, Virginia Woolf. (And a slightly less forceful "how about that?" to James Joyce .)