Study Guide

Absalom, Absalom! Introduction

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Absalom, Absalom! Introduction

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 Mockingbirdhow 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.

What is Absalom, Absalom! About and 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.)

Absalom, Absalom! Resources


We Like You
It may be a blip on the radar compared to some celeb pages, but we're pretty impressed by the number of fans our lovely book has.

The Man
Check out this great site for audio, video, and text relating to Faulkner's award of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949. P.S. The Nobel Prize is a really, really big deal.

Touring Oxford, Mississippi
Here you'll find an affectionate description of the region that inspired Faulkner and served as his home for most of his life. Is Sutpen's Hundred on the map?

Movie or TV Productions

Fun fact time!
Fun fact time! Most of Absalom, Absalom! was written while William Faulkner was living in Hollywood. Exciting home base, yes, but he was writing for the movies in part because he wasn't making enough dough from his writing to support his family. Faulkner received official screenwriting credit for six theatrical releases. He actually wrote the screenplay for Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not (1944), the only time in film history that two Nobel Prize-winning authors were associated with the same movie. Booya. But no one ever thought a screen version of Absalom! would draw big box-office dollars (can't you just see Johnny Depp as Charles Bon, though?). And before you ask, there are no great Lego interpretations either. Bummer, we know.

Historical Documents

In the News
This 2010 article recounts the discovery of primary documents that served as source material for "names, incidents and details that populate [Faulkner's] fictionalized Yoknapatawpha County." Awesome.


Speech, Speech!
Check out the award ceremony for Faulkner's Nobel Prize win. Not a bad showing, Bill.


Questions Answered
Faulkner was Writer-in-Residence at the University of Virginia in the 1950s and while he was there, he answered a lot of questions (many of which were about Absalom, Absalom!). Now you can listen to what he had to say – they got it on tape!


Judge It
Here are some book covers throughout the years. Which one do you prefer?

Smoking Man
Our guy's signature was a pipe. And boy, did he wear it well.

We want Steven Longstreet (the painter) to do one of these for Shmoop.

July 17, 1964
Yeah, that's right: cover of Time magazine.

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