Study Guide

Absalom, Absalom! Analysis

  • Tone

    Curious, Bitter, Sad, Guilt-Ridden

    Like everything else about Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner's attitude toward his subject matter is very complex. Like his characters, the author is clearly fascinated by the South, both for its beauty and its moral failure in supporting slavery. Through his four main narrators, Faulkner expresses deep bitterness, sorrow, and guilt about the events leading up to and following the Civil War.

    In an interview, Faulkner was asked about the curse of the South, to which he responded, "The curse is slavery, which is an intolerable condition – no man shall be enslaved – and the South has got to work that curse out […]" (source). These feelings permeate the novel. There are no moments of joy or celebration here; characters are too preoccupied with working out the past or working toward the future.

    In addition to a feeling of deep reflection, a mythic tone surrounds all discussion of Sutpen, who has been a larger-than-life figure since his arrival in Yoknapatawpha County. He is a legend and a mystery, and the narrators' shared fascination with him infects the tone of the stories they tell. Sutpen has become a myth, central to the oral tradition of Jefferson. The biblical references in the title and throughout the novel contribute to this tone of mythic greatness – and mythic failure.

  • Genre

    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.

    Tragedy

    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.

    Modernism

    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 .)

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Absalom, Absalom! We've got the same word twice and an exclamation point. Got your attention, right?

    But there's more to it than that – at least Shmoop thinks so. In fact, the title of this book runs back a long way, from a story in the Bible. (Don't get too excited: despite what the sassy exclamation point might suggest, Absalom, Absalom! is not the Broadway version of a biblical story.)

    So where in the Bible are we, exactly? Well, we're in 2 Samuel13-20. These chapters recount the story of Absalom, son of King David, who killed his brother Amnon when he raped their sister Tamar. (Sounds racy, but this is just regular Bible stuff for you.) After arranging the execution, Absalom fled Jerusalem, only to return and win the hearts and minds of the people of Israel. And to top it all off, eventually his father fled and Absalom himself became king. Things went south from there, though: he went to war with his father and was ultimately killed by David's general, Joab, who – oops – was supposed to handle things more diplomatically.

    Now let's cut to the chase: why did Faulkner choose this title? Well first, he is really into using dramatic literary allusions as titles (example: The Sound and the Fury comes from Shakespeare). And even though the biblical narrative isn't exactly replicated in the novel, the incestuous love triangle, fratricide (brother-murder), and rebellion against the patriarch are all there. Faulkner takes many of the dramatic elements from the biblical story and applies them to a southern, Civil War setting.

    Let's take a closer look. The characters from the Bible and from the novel roughly match up: Charles Bon as Amnon, Henry as Absalom, Judith as Tamar, and Sutpen as King David. (Go Sutpen!) Oh, and there's a war in both works. Not a perfect fit, but we'll take it.

    You know what else happens when you use a biblical allusion for a title? You open up the meaning of the novel, suggesting that the themes are universal and, of course, timeless. In other words, dysfunctional families are not going away – they've been around since biblical times and they're still around.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    What is up with the ending? It's super dramatic, that's for sure. More importantly, though, it provides a pretty important revelation (spoiler alert!): the ghost of Henry is in fact a flesh-and-blood man, who has been hiding away in the mansion for years.

    (Gasp!)

    Though Sutpen's story is finally cleared up at the end, let's be honest: there's still something dissatisfying about the fragmented way in which the story was told. Things are definitely still fuzzy by the end. And to top it off, we never find out what Henry said to Quentin in their confrontation. Faulkner leaves it up to us to imagine what vital information Quentin may have received in those moments in his room.

    Then, of course, at the very end, the house burns, Clytie and Henry die, and Jim Bond disappears into the wilderness. Everything breaks down and Sutpen's longed-for dynasty is gone for good. Actually, it's almost as if it never existed: no one connected to the dynasty, not even Miss Rosa, is alive, and the house itself is burned to the ground. Spooky.

    But Faulkner doesn't make things easy on the reader here. Are we supposed to feel that the ending is tragic? Are there any heroes in the end? Should we be relieved that everyone is put out of his or her misery? What do you think?

  • Setting

    West Virginia; Tidewater Virginia; Haiti; Jefferson, Mississippi; New Orleans; Cambridge, Massachusetts.

    The When

    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.

    The Where

    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!

    The South

    Yoknapatawpha.

    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.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (8) Snow Line

    We can't lie: this one's a doozy. The sentences are long, the chronology is all mixed up, the story is full of flashbacks and speculation, and you can't trust the narrators. Absalom, Absalom! is known to be Faulkner's most difficult book – and his others are not exactly The Cat in the Hat.

    That said, with the right tools – a family tree, a dictionary, a chronology, and of course, Shmoop – you can enjoy the book for its intricate story and eloquent writing. Here's our advice: take your time as you read this book. If you get confused, keep reading – most (most) of the story will eventually become clear.

  • Writing Style

    Stream of Consciousness; Complex; Non-Linear

    Complicated. Difficult. Frustrating. Confusing. Challenging. You see where we're going with this? We just want to let you know that Shmoop knows what you're going through. This is not an easy book to get through.

    But wait: Absalom, Absalom! was considered Faulkner's most successful novel in terms of style, and we have to give him some credit. As complicated as it is, this means he's able to pack in a whole lot of style: stream of consciousness, flashbacks, embedded narratives, multiple narrators. Mix in some crazy the long sentences and a huge dose of fantasy and conjecture, and you've got yourself a tough read. To top it all off, Absalom is also a highly literary text, full of allusions to mythology, the Bible, and literary works.

    Let's take a look at one of these long-sentence, stream-of-consciousness moments:

    It was a summer of wisteria. The twilight was full of it and of the smell of father's cigar as they sat on the front gallery after supper until it would be time for Quentin to start, while in the deep shaggy lawn below the veranda the fireflies blew and drifted in soft random – the odor, the scent, which five months later Mr. Compson's letter would carry up from Mississippi and over the long iron New England snow and into Quentin's sitting room at Harvard (2.1).

    Gulp. Faulkner packs a lot of words and ideas into that one sentence. Look at the shift in the middle of the sentence right after the dash: "the odor, the scent." Faulkner shifts time and place right there, and the shift takes place around smell. He doesn't tell us what the odor and scent did, he just jumps from "the front gallery after supper" to five months later in Quentin's sitting room, where he will smell that same combination of wisteria and cigar smoke on the letter his father sends.

    The past haunts characters through all of their senses, and Faulkner expresses that haunting in the very style of his prose. (By the way, Faulkner was super influenced by the eerie tone of Edgar Allan Poe, and the long sentences of Henry James.) In fact, the style reflects the complexity of the characters' (and so, the author's) feelings about the past. So even if it's tough to unpack, in the end, it's really fitting.

    Faulkner definitely asks a lot of his reader. But you know what, Faulkner? We're ready to rise to the occasion.

    P.S. You might not be surprised to learn that Faulkner wrote poetry before he wrote novels.

  • Biblical Allegory of Absalom

    Since it's in the title (twice!), we couldn't leave this one out. To hear our take on the biblical allegory, check out "What's Up With the Title?"

  • Haunting, Curses, and Ghosts (Oh My!)

    The past weighs heavily on all the characters in Absalom, Absalom! and acts as a prominent image throughout the novel. Characters have unresolved issues, unanswered questions, and deep resentment and regret. As we mention in our discussion of "Tone," the curse of the South influences all the characters – even Quentin, who wasn't even alive during the Civil War. Part of what makes this novel a "Southern gothic" is the feeling that the dead are still present.

    Even living people, like Miss Rosa, are pretty ghostlike. In meeting Quentin, Miss Rosa is described by Faulkner as "the ghost [who] mused with shadowy docility as if it were the voice which he haunted where a more fortunate one would have had a house" (1.3). Sutpen actually haunts Rosa's speech (as opposed to her house, like in most scary stories). Creepy, right?

    And while she's haunted specifically by Sutpen, Miss Rosa is haunted by the past in general: "Yes, fatality and curse on the South and on our family as though because some ancestor of ours had elected to establish his descent in a land primed for fatality and already cursed with it…" (1.15). In fact, most of the characters in the story feel this presence of the ghosts of slavery, of having gained wealth through the oppression of others.

    So this may not be a ghost story, but we sure wouldn't want to hear it around a campfire.

  • Voices

    There are many voices, opinions, narrative perspectives, and versions of the truth in the novel. (That's why it's so stinkin' hard to read.) The storytelling is fragmented, and the voices reflect the sense of multiple meanings.

    Remember, the stories all come out through conversations between characters: Miss Rosa and Quentin, Quentin and Mr. Compson, Shreve and Quentin, and Sutpen and General Compson. Many of these voices overlap, and in a sense we must allow them to do so in order to make sense of the story. We often can't tell who is speaking, especially when the omniscient narrator enters or when Shreve and Quentin speculate on events.

    This multiplicity of voices may reflect the ambiguity of Faulkner's feelings toward the South. It allows us to understand the Civil War through various perspectives and see that even within the South, everyone had their own opinion.

  • Civil War

    Some critics suggest that Faulkner used the Civil War as a backdrop to the novel in order to reflect the idea of domestic conflict. The war between the North and the South is played out on a more personal level as the war between brothers, or even father and son. Whatever the two sides represent, the Civil War symbolizes the violence and discord going on in the lives of the characters on a much grander scale. And, of course, the bloody events of both the war between territories and the war within the Sutpen family relate back to feelings about race.

    Which war do you think is more central to this book?

  • Houses

    There sure are a lot of important houses in Absalom, Absalom!. We've got everything from big plantation mansions to small cabins to prison-like houses. Who gets to enter a house, and through which door, matters a great deal.

    In fact, for Sutpen, being prohibited from entering the Pettibone mansion is a pivotal moment: it's what sets his whole plan in motion. And then he puts everything he has into building Sutpen's Hundred, which serves as a symbol of his dynastic achievement. The house, with its "formal gardens and promenades, its slave quarters and stables and smokehouses" (2.7), reflects his stature and wealth, showing how far he has come from the shack in which he grew up. Meanwhile, the slaves who built the house often sleep outside with no roof over their heads or blankets to keep them warm. And of course, the novel ends – spoiler alert! – with Sutpen's house burning to the ground. If the house is a symbol of his dynastic achievement, well… that one's pretty self-explanatory.

    Miss Rosa's character is also reflected in her home, which is colorfully described as having "a grim mausoleum air of puritan righteousness and outraged female vindictiveness" (3.1). Who knew a house could have so much personality? And so much utter bitterness?

  • Wisteria

    Smells are very important in the novel, and they often evoke the past. Wisteria is a very Southern vine, and its smell is associated in the novel with Miss Rosa, who is obsessed with the past. When the smell of wisteria wafts through a scene, it's often accompanied by thoughts of the past. The smell even follows Quentin all the way to his dorm room at Harvard. Like the past, the scent is unshakable. (Keep your eye out for this one, too: wisteria shows up in other Faulkner novels as well, like The Sound and the Fury).

  • Royalty

    Imagery of royalty runs throughout the novel. Faulkner compares Sutpen's "design" to the attitude of a king, suggesting his outsized sense of entitlement. Sutpen clearly seeks to run Sutpen's Hundred like a grand empire of which he is the unquestioned head. As Miss Rosa bitterly points out, he named his plantation "Sutpen's Hundred as if it had been a King's grant in unbroken perpetuity from his great grandfather" (1.11). The irony is that Sutpen has no past and is anything but a king in terms of lineage and history. He came from nowhere but assumed the attitude of a king. This arrogance is offensive to the people of Jefferson, who resent that Sutpen lives in "baronial splendor" (2.8).

    In an interview, Faulkner uses the language of royal privilege in describing Sutpen: "The important thing to him was he should establish a line of dukes, you see. He was going to create a dukedom. He'd have to have a male descendent. He would have to establish a dukedom which would be his revenge on the white [sic] Virginian who told him [through the black butler] to go to the back door" (source). Even the author sees Sutpen in terms of royalty, so that tells us we should probably pay attention.

  • Heroic Imagery

    Sutpen is a hero, through and through. Or at least that's how he's described: heck, even people who hate his guts (we're looking at you, Rosa!) use heroic terms to talk about him. Legendary figures from literature, history, and mythology are employed to make Sutpen's character more dramatic. And boy do we mean dramatic.

    For examples, check out our "Shout-Outs."

  • Narrator Point of View

    Multiple (and boy do we mean multiple) Narrators

    Figuring out the narrative in this novel is no easy feat. There are four main narrators – Rosa, Mr. Compson, Quentin, and Shreve – plus lots of flashbacks, personal opinions, and guesswork. There are even embedded narrators: for example, interspersed within the four main narrators' accounts are stories told by Sutpen, but through the voice of the Compsons. Oh, and there's also a bit of third-person omniscient narration thrown in from time to time. In fact, the novel is a big mishmash of first-, second-, and third-person narrative. So yeah, this isn't a walk in the park, that's for sure.

    Unreliable Doesn't Even Begin to Describe It

    Faulkner definitely doesn't hide the fact that his narrative is tricky. For example, the omniscient narrator actually tells us that Quentin and Shreve are "creating between them, out of the rag-tag and bob-ends of old tales and talking, people who perhaps never existed at all anywhere" (8.5).

    The book is basically a collection of highly subjective first-person narratives about other people. These narratives are far from reliable. Much of what we hear is colored by the narrators' feelings about the story they're telling. In fact, a good amount of what they say is total conjecture: it's completely imagined, based on what they think happened or even what they want to have happened. Sounds fun, but it's pretty difficult to piece together.

    As you read, remember this: trust no one. Okay, maybe that's a little paranoid, but it's good advice: there is no clear narrative authority, so we never know who to believe. You just have to live with the ambiguity. And we say, go ahead and embrace it.

    Up Close and Personal

    You'd think the closer the narrators are to Sutpen's story, the more biased they'd be – right? Well actually, it seems like all of the narrators in Absalom, Absalom! are equally as subjective. Miss Rosa – who was actually shunned by Sutpen himself – is biased by her personal interactions and involvement in what went down. Shreve, on the other hand, is the most detached from the events being recounted: he'd never even heard of these people until his college roommate started telling the stories. But because of this distance, his version of events might be the furthest from the truth: he's never even been to the South and everything he knows is based on stereotypes.

    All of this subjectivity is actually a disadvantage for the reader because each character narrates through the lens of his or her own biases. The story we read is made up of first-hand experiences, witness testimony, common knowledge, rumor, and guesswork. Interesting? Yes. Frustrating? Absolutely.

    The Race Card

    All our narrators do seem to have one thing in common: they all use black characters to fill in the blanks where things don't add up. For example, Mr. Compson is obsessed with the mulatto in New Orleans and Quentin and Shreve are trying to figure out how much Charles Bon knew about his own racial background. This fascination with black characters points to one other very important fact about our narrators: they're all white. How does this change things? What would be different if we heard from a black character?

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      We're going to be honest: this book doesn't quite fit the rags to riches plot. It's more like rags to riches to burned-down house. But we'll take a look anyway, and see how it goes.

      Initial Wretchedness at Home and "the Call"

      Sutpen realizes that it's a big, cruel world out there.

      When his family moves to a plantation in Tidewater Virginia, Sutpen witnesses the race and class divisions in the real world. It's no longer about being strongest, it's about being rich and white. His poor treatment by a black butler prompts his "design."

      Out Into the World, Initial Success

      Sutpen gets a good job, marries, and fathers a son. The ball is rolling.

      Acting on information he learned during his brief education at the plantation, Sutpen leaves his family behind and goes to the West Indies. There he makes his fortune, quells a slave rebellion, and marries the plantation owner's daughter. They have a son. Things are looking up.

      The Central Crisis

      Sutpen discovers that his wife (and, therefore, child) is black.

      Sutpen can't leave Haiti and his family fast enough. He arranges to have his wife and son taken care of and leaves to start over again in Jefferson, Mississippi. Having a black wife and son is not part of his plan.

      Independence and Final Ordeal

      Sutpen works a ton and gets the family and big house thing going.

      Sutpen sets himself up like a king, with the estate, the wife, and the kids – the whole nine yards (or hundred square miles, actually). There's only one problem: that darn son from the first marriage is back and wants to (a) be acknowledged and (b) marry Sutpen's daughter (his own half-sister). Charles Bon is a serious wrinkle in Sutpen's design. Plus, Sutpen's other son, Henry, is taking his brother's side!

      Final union, completion, fulfillment

      Henry shoots Charles but then disappears. Now Sutpen needs to get another son.

      Faulkner just cannot give his characters a break. Sure, Sutpen gets really rich and he gets the son he always wanted, but then the whole "past" thing catches up with him. He ends up being killed by one of his own farmhands, and later his own daughter burns down the house. So yeah, like we said, rags to riches, maybe, but then back to rags (or, should we say ashes?).

    • Plot Analysis

      Time for a quick lesson in literary terms (this one will definitely impress). The plot of a story is how it all goes down, right? What happens, and in what order? Well, in a novel like Absalom, Absalom!,that can be frustratingly difficult to follow. So what we're going to give you here is the fabula. This is the chronological order of events: from Sutpen's birth in 1807 to Quentin's cold night of speculation in his Harvard dorm room in January 1910. This should clear things up for anyone who's still a little lost. Ready? Okay.

         

      Initial Situation

      Thomas Sutpen's Childhood

      Thomas Sutpen is born to a poor white family in what will later be West Virginia. When his family moves to Tidewater, Virginia, Sutpen is exposed to new sights and experiences. Most importantly, he sees that society is structured according to the color of people's skin and the amount of money they have. This is not cool now, and it wasn't cool then, but it does set us up for what's to follow.

      Conflict

      No Entry

      Sutpen's family settles on a plantation owned by a rich white man named Pettibone. One day, Sutpen is sent to take a message to the "big house," but the black butler tells him he has to use the servant's entrance. Ouch. This just won't do for Sutpen and creates a major conflict for him: how can he beat the system and become as rich as Pettibone. He wants to be the one deciding who can and can't use the front door. And so, Sutpen begins planning his "design."

      Complication

      Life in the West Indies

      In the first step of his big ol' plan, Sutpen moves to the West Indies, where he becomes a plantation overseer. So far so good. After pretty much single-handedly quelling a slave uprising, he marries Eulalia Bon, the plantation owner's daughter and together, they have a son. Still sounds pretty solid. But wait, here's where things get complicated: when Sutpen finds out that Eulalia is black, he leaves her and their son, Charles Bon, and heads off to Jefferson, Mississippi, to build his dynasty. Sounds more complicated for Eulalia and Bon than for Sutpen, right? But as we'll soon learn, Charles Bon becomes a major complication for Sutpen.

      Climax

      Sutpen Pulls It Together

      A lot of stuff happens that leads up to the climax. (And in a book like this, we have to admit, there are a lot of climactic moments). So, with a troop of slaves and a French architect, Sutpen builds a "big house" to rival Pettibone's. He marries Ellen Coldfield, the daughter of an upstanding citizen, and they have two children, Henry and Judith. Of all the crazy coincidences (or is it?), Henry befriends his own half-brother, Charles Bon, at the University of Mississippi. He brings his cool new friend home to meet Dad. Judith falls in love with Charles Bon and it all seems really well and good until Dad forbids the marriage. In a big (we might say climactic) moment, Henry repudiates his birthright and heads off with Charles Bon.

      Suspense

      Who Knows What?

      Does Henry know that Charles Bon is his brother? Will he be cool with it? Will Charles and Judith ever get together? Will Charles Bon because the next Sutpen? Well, over the course of four years of fighting in the Civil War, Henry tries to convince Charles Bon to divorce his mulatto wife so that he can legally marry Judith. Until, that is, Sutpen summons Henry to his tent on the battlefield and tells him: by the way, Charles Bon is half-black. Determined to marry Judith in spite of it all, Charles Bon returns to Sutpen's Hundred and – wait for it – he's shot by Henry right at the gate. (P.S. That's another climax right there.) Henry bails. Judith mourns. No one is happy.

      Denouement

      Down with Sutpen

      In spite of efforts to rebuild his plantation, Sutpen just can't catch a break. He tries to restart the dynasty with the help of Miss Rosa and Milly Jones (or at least their eggs) but ends up getting himself killed (more climax!). Charles Bon's son, Charles Etienne, dies of yellow fever, along with Judith. Sutpen's dynasty has come to an end.

      Conclusion

      It's All History

      Many years later, Miss Rosa, Quentin, and Mr. Compson all tell their version of the events that went down in Sutpen's life. When Miss Rosa discovers that Henry Sutpen is dying out at Sutpen's Hundred, she decides to save him by sending an ambulance. Unfortunately, Clytie thinks it's the police coming to get Henry for killing Charles Bon, so she sets fire to the house. Henry and Clytie both die in the fire, and Charles Bon's grandson, Jim Bond, runs like a lunatic into the forest, never to be seen again. And finally, Miss Rosa – the last almost-connection to the Sutpen dynasty – dies, too. Sutpen's Hundred is officially no more.

    • Three-Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      After a tough childhood and a few missteps, Thomas Sutpen finally establishes his dynasty by acquiring land, building Sutpen's Hundred, marrying Ellen Coldfield, and having two children with her. His "design," it seems, has come to fruition. Sounds pretty good.

      Act II

      Sutpen's son Henry brings home Sutpen's long-lost son, Charles Bon. Now there's a snag in the design because Charles Bon is part-black and wants to be acknowledged as part of the family. Oh, he's also in love with his half-sister, Judith. Sutpen does everything he can to prevent the marriage but ends up angering Henry, who repudiates his birthright and heads off with Charles Bon.

      Act III

      This is where things really take a turn for the worse. Charles Bon is dead (killed by Henry). Henry is who-knows-where. Sutpen tries to rebuild his empire but ends up offending everyone and getting himself murdered. And, to top it all off, Sutpen's mansion burns down. Looks like the design wasn't a success after all.

    • Allusions

      Literary References

      • Sir Walter Scott (3.15)
      • Arabian Nights (4.5)
      • Lothario (4.8)
      • Camelot (5.18)
      • Pyramus and Thisbe (6.8)
      • Faustus (6.10)
      • Oscar Wilde (6.29)
      • Fauntleroy (6.29)
      • Ben Hur (7.1)
      • Coke on Littleton (8.5)
      • Lancelot (8.10)

      Historical References

      • General Sherman (4.18, 6.13)
      • General Lee (6.8)
      • George Washington (6.13)
      • Abraham Lincoln (6.13, 8.20)

      Biblical References

      • Absalom (title)
      • Jehovah (4.11)
      • Moloch (5.3)
      • Beelzebub (6.10)
      • Lilith (6.29)
      • Ham (6.30)
      • Gethsemane (6.34)
      • Abraham (8.16)

      Greek Mythology References