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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.