by William Faulkner
Where It All Goes Down
West Virginia; Tidewater Virginia; Haiti; Jefferson, Mississippi; New Orleans; Cambridge, Massachusetts.
We get three different temporal (time) settings in Absalom, Absalom!:
(1) Sutpen's family history (recounted by people in the other two time periods): before, during, and just after the American Civil War.
(2) Rosa and Quentin's interactions: September 1909 (and briefly, three months later)
(3) Quentin and Shreve in their dorm room: January 1910.
Even though the story takes the reader to very precise locations – West Virginia, Virginia, Mississippi, Massachusetts, Haiti, and New Orleans – we can't necessarily trust what we hear about these settings. Most of Absalom, Absalom! takes place in its characters' heads: our narrators are so influenced by Southern guilt and loyalty – as well as a love of legends, myth-making, and denial – that the settings are rarely based on much tangible fact.
That said, we do get some descriptions of these places, so we might as well take a quick look. First, when Sutpen is on his way from West Virginia to Virginia, we get this description of the change:
"[D]oggeries and taverns now become hamlets, hamlets now become villages, villages now towns and the country flattened out now with good roads and fields and niggers working in the fields while white men sat fine horses and watched them." (7.5)
Again, we're hearing this through two degrees of separation, but it does give us a nice image of what we're dealing with. And once we reach Mississippi, we see this image explode: plantation agriculture flourished in Jefferson thanks to slave labor.
How about the other settings? Well, there's Haiti, with its prosperous sugar plantations, which is represented as a place of haziness or a lack of knowledge. And of course, we have Harvard: the seat of knowledge and symbol of Northern elitism. Just like Charles Bon and Henry were represented as city slicker and country boy, Shreve's and Quentin's hometowns say a lot about them, too:
Shreve, the Canadian, the child of blizzards and of cold in a bathrobe with an overcoat above it, the collar turned up about his ears; Quentin, the Southerner, the morose and delicate offspring of rain and steamy heat in the thin suitable clothing which he had brought from Mississippi. (8.22)
Is Faulkner passing judgment here? Does he favor the South over the North? The North over the South? Or is he leaving it up to the reader to decide? Read on!
Looks like a strange word, but it's the county in which Faulkner set fifteen of his novels, including Absalom, Absalom! And what goes down in this southern town? A whole lot of mess, that's what. Faulkner's Southern characters – who seem pretty questionable in the morals department – are completely self-destructive. And do you remember who won the Civil War? So yeah, it seems like Faulkner was passing some judgment.
But remember, Faulkner was a Southerner himself, so we might see it less as criticizing and more as… loving regret. The South clearly has a special place in his heart.
At the Heart of the Issue
You're probably not surprised to hear that Faulkner spent the majority of his life within forty miles of his birthplace in Oxford, Mississippi. Still, he majorly struggles to narrate the social and racial complexities of his world as he tries to answers Shreve McCannon’s request that Quentin “Tell about the South" (6.1).
So much of what we hear about the novel’s black characters comes from stereotypes and projection by white characters. Needless to say, this isn't super helpful in the truthiness department. To our narrators, the “monkey-dressed nigger” (7.6), the octoroon, Clytie, Charles Bon, Charles Etienne, the “Spanish” mistress, and Jim Bond aren't individuals as much as they are symbols, historical representations, and myths.
The novel is full of black characters of very diverse social levels and skin colors. But even some of the novel’s most sympathetic characters—Henry Sutpen and Quentin Compson—are trapped in Southern racist imagination.
Black and White
Speaking of racist imaginations, white people kind of had the tendency to call people black even if they weren't. The “one drop rule,” which was popular at the time, meant that even if you only had one drop of black blood (that would be pretty impressive, actually) you would still be considered black.
Now think about Charles Bon. This guy looks so much like a white person that even his best friend (Henry) doesn't know the difference. But nosiree, Sutpen still doesn't want Charles to have anything to do with his family. When Bon tries to marry Judith, Sutpen totally freaks out. No! That would taint the entire family!
Unfortunately, what was in the slave-owners' heads in the Civil War era was also translated into reality. Light or dark, all blacks were, to a certain degree, “owned.” Basically, the white owners were allowed to treat them like property. The white master was able—even expected—to use his female slaves for sex, whether it was for sexual gratification or to create more slaves.
It is this mentality that creates the whole Sutpen-Bon tension to begin with. Sutpen abandoned his wife and child when he found out that they were part black. After all, people with black blood were not meant to be family, they were meant to be property. Ugh.