Study Guide

Absalom, Absalom! Quotes

  • Family

    Quentin had grown up with that; the mere names were interchangeable and almost myriad. His childhood was full of them. (1.6)

    The Sutpen family has loomed large over Quentin's entire life. They were always the topic of conversation in town, so he grew up hearing all about the strange goings-on at Sutpen's Hundred. Funny how Quentin almost feels more connected to the Sutpens than to his own family (the Compsons).

    "I saw what happened to Ellen, my sister, I saw her almost a recluse, watching those two doomed children growing up whom she was helpless to save." (1.12)

    And Quentin's not the only one: Miss Rosa is also engrossed by the Sutpen family. After her sister Ellen married Sutpen, Miss Rosa herself became a victim of Sutpen's grandiose plans. It seems like it's almost impossible to avoid the train wreck that is Sutpen.

    "I saw Judith's marriage forbidden without rhyme or reason or shadow of excuse; I saw Ellen die with only me, a child, to turn to and ask to protect her remaining child; I saw Henry repudiate his home and his birthright and then return and practically fling the bloody corpse of his sister's sweetheart at the hem of her wedding gown […]." (1.12)

    Because she only knows part of the story, Miss Rosa has no idea why Judith isn't allowed to marry Charles Bon (we don't either, at this point). Even though she's affected by the Sutpen drama, she still has to watch from the outside as the entire family falls apart.

    "In church, mind you, as though there were a fatality and curse on our family and God himself were seeing to it that it was performed and discharged to the last drop and dreg. 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, even if it had not rather been our family, our father's progenitors, who had incurred the curse long years before […]." (1.15)

    Families can be a good thing. A great thing, even. But Miss Rosa believes there is a curse on Sutpen: so by marrying him, Miss Rosa's sister brings the curse upon her family, too. Um, Sutpen? Stay away from Shmoop, please.

    […] though he [Mr. Coldfield] did permit his daughter to marry this man of whose actions his conscience did not approve. (2.17)

    In spite of being a very righteous and ethical man, Mr. Coldfield allows his daughter Ellen to marry an ambitious and unorthodox stranger. He doesn't like Sutpen but still goes out of his way many times to help him. What gives?

    Because until he came back from Virginia in '66 and found her [Miss Rosa] living there with Judith and Clytie – (Yes, Clytie was his daughter too: Clytemnestra. He named her himself. He named them all himself: all his own get […]. (2.3)

    Part of Sutpen's design on the road to world-domination is to create a family. And just like Adam in the Garden of Eden, Sutpen takes the authority to name everything around him. Why do you think he didn't name his son Thomas, after himself?

    Because he [Henry] loved Bon. I can imagine him and Sutpen in the library that Christmas eve, the father and the brother, percussion and repercussion like a thunderclap and its echo as close; the statement and the giving of the lie, the decision instantaneous and irrevocable between father and friend, between (so Henry must have believed) that where honor and love lay and this where blood and profit ran, even though at the instant of giving the lie he knew that it was the truth. (4.3)

    That fateful encounter in the library on Christmas Eve changes everything. Through his actions, Henry demonstrates that he loves Charles Bon more than his own father – even though he knows Sutpen is telling the truth about Bon being his son. Is this a comment on the importance of friendship over family? Or is Sutpen just not to be trusted?

    In fact, perhaps this is the pure and perfect incest: the brother realizing that the sister's virginity must be destroyed in order to have existed at all, taking that virginity in the person of the brother-in-law, the man whom he would be if he could become, metamorphose into, the lover, the husband […] (4.5)

    Things are a little too close for comfort in the Henry-Charles-Judith triangle. Faulkner implies that Henry loves his sister <em>too</em> much and hopes to seduce her through Charles Bon: that means this is a sort of double incest. As if one level weren't enough.

    […] Bon, who for a year and a half now had been watching Henry ape his clothing and speech, who for a year and a half now had seen himself as the object of that complete and abnegant devotion which only a youth, never a woman, gives to another youth or a man; who for exactly a year now had seen the sister succumb to that same spell which the brother had already succumbed to, and this with no volition on the seducer's part, without so much as a lifting of a finger, as though it actually were the brother who had put the spell on the sister, seduced her to his own vicarious image which walked and breathed with Bon's body. (4.10)

    Charles Bon has seen how eager Henry is both to be like him and to hook him up with his sister. Charles Bon doesn't have to do any of the work – Henry will do the seducing for him. What's the deal with this relationship? Is it familial? Erotic? Something totally different?

    Anyway, Henry waited four years, holding the three of them in that abeyance, that durance, waiting, hoping for Bon to renounce the woman and dissolve the marriage which he (Henry) admitted was no marriage, and which he must have known as soon as he saw the woman and the child that Bon would not renounce. (4.12)

    Henry struggles to get Charles Bon to divorce his mulatto wife, even though he doesn't even believe it's a legal marriage. Deep down Henry knows that Charles will never go through with a divorce and will therefore never marry Judith legally. Why the emphasis on legality all of the sudden?

    "We three were strangers. I do not know what Clytie thought, what life she led which the food we raised and cooked in unison, the cloth we spun and wove together, nourished and sheltered." (5.16)

    Miss Rosa reflects on the war days when she lived out at Sutpen's Hundred with Judith and Clytie – all related and yet complete strangers to one another. Families sure do come in all shapes and sizes.

  • The Home

    Then in the long unamaze Quentin seemed to watch them overrun suddenly the hundred square miles of tranquil and astonished earth and drag house and formal gardens out of the soundless Nothing and clap them down like cards upon a table beneath the up-palm immobile and pontific, creating Sutpen's Hundred, the <em>Be Sutpen's Hundred</em> like the oldentime <em>Be Light. </em>(1.2)

    Whoa. Quentin imagines what Sutpen must have looked like as he put his design into action. His image of Sutpen is like a god, making the land conform to his desire by sheer will.

    [S]o into the house (it too smaller than its actual size – it was of two storeys unpainted and a little shabby, yet with an air, a quality of grim endurance as though like her it had been created to fit into and complement a world in all ways a little smaller than the one in which it found itself) where in the gloom of the shuttered hallway whose air was even hotter than outside […] (1.4)

    Here, Quentin goes to visit Miss Rosa, who lives alone in a small house in town. The stuffiness of the room reflects her isolation and inwardness. It's kind of like how dogs and their owners start to look alike after enough time.

    [T]hat Sunday morning in June in 1833 when he first rode into town of no discernible past and acquired his land no one knew how and built his house, his mansion […] (1.6)

    Sutpen's arrival in Yoknapatawpha County is abrupt and surreal. The small town is shocked by his presence and the shadiness of his past. He will forever be a figure of fascination as townspeople try to piece together his story. And of course, the most important symbol of Sutpen's shocking nature is – you guessed it – the house he builds.

    […] a house the size of a courthouse where he lived for three years without a window or door or bedstead in it and still called it Sutpen's Hundred as if it had been a King's grant in unbroken perpetuity from his great grandfather – a home, position […]. (1.10)

    Because Sutpen has only so much money, he builds as much as he can and then schemes to get more funds. His house is enormous and he acts like a king who has inherited an estate rather than a mysterious stranger who threw up his home under pretty dubious circumstances.

    So it was finished then, down to the last plank and brick […]. Unpainted and unfurnished, without a pane of glass or a doorknob or a hinge in it, twelve miles from town and almost that far by neighbor. (2.7)

    With the shell of the house complete, Sutpen must now put on the finishing touches. The house, like Sutpen himself, is large and isolated, but this doesn't prevent the entire town from paying attention to what's going on in there. Hey, everyone's a little bit nosy.

    […] as though his presence alone compelled the house to accept and retain human life; as though houses actually possess a sentience, a personality and character acquired not from the people who breathe or have breathed in them so much as inherent in the wood and brick or begotten upon the wood and brick by the man or men who conceived and built them […]. (3.19)

    Spooky, much? The house had become so important to Sutpen that it was almost a living entity. As he built the house, Sutpen gave life to it, almost as if it were his own child.

    Quentin knew that. He could almost see her, waiting in one of the dark airless rooms in the little grim house's impregnable solitude. (4.1)

    Quentin imagines Miss Rosa sitting in that dark, stuffy house of hers. Just as Sutpen's Hundred reflects its maker, Miss Rosa's home is like her: alone and "impregnable." Shmoop's house is brilliant and hilarious, by the way. Just in case you were wondering.

    […] a huge house where a young girl waited in a wedding dress made from stolen scraps, the house partaking too of that air of scaling desolation, not having suffered from invasion but a shell marooned and forgotten in a backwater of catastrophe. (4.20)

    It takes Judith a long time to realize that Charles Bon won't be coming to marry her. She sits and waits in her scrappy wedding dress made from pieces of fabric that Miss Rosa stole from her father's shop. Pretty sad scene, we must say.

    […] the house which he had built, which some suppuration of himself had created, produced some (even if invisible) cocoon-like and complementary shell in which Ellen had had to live and die a stranger, in which Henry and Judith would have to be victims and prisoners, or die. (5.5)

    Just as Sutpen is possessed by the house, the house comes to possess those who live in it. Sutpen's children fall victim to the house's isolation and are both protected by and imprisoned within its walls. This place sure has a life of its own.

    We see right about what he would intend to do: that he would not even pause for breath before undertaking to restore his house and plantation as near as possible to what it had been. (5.18)

    Coming home from war meant that Sutpen had to face all he had lost in the years he was off fighting. On his return, he is once again determined to resume his design and get back to where he was before the war began. This is a plucky old fellow if we ever saw one.

    And then he said he began to think <em>Home. Home</em> and that he thought at first that he was trying to laugh and that he kept on telling himself it was laughing even after he knew better, home, as he came out of the woods and approached it. (7.9)

    After being rejected at the front door of the mansion, Sutpen wanders around the forest. He thinks deeply about feelings of inferiority, considers what home means, and begins to plan his revenge. [Insert evil cackle here.]

  • Time

    It would be three hours yet before he would learn why she had sent for him because this part of it, this first part of it, Quentin already knew. It was part of his twenty years' heritage of breathing the same air and hearing his father talk about the man […]. (1.6)

    Three hours, eh? That's nothing compared to the wait we had while reading. In any case, Quentin waits patiently to make his visit to Miss Rosa. He has grown up with the mystery of Sutpen and hopes Rosa will be able to fill in some missing pieces.

    "Because I was born too late. I was born twenty-two years too late – a child to whom out of the overheard talk of adults of my own sister's and my sister's children's face come to be like an ogre-tale between supper and bed long before I was old enough." (1.17)

    Even though Miss Rosa barely knows Quentin, she doesn't hold back. She spent her childhood witnessing the spectacle of her older sister Ellen's life and makes no effort to hide her bitterness. How would things have been different for Rosa if she'd been born earlier? If she'd been closer in age to Ellen?

    "[…] so that instead of accomplishing the processional and measured milestones of the normal childhood's time I lurked, unapprehended as though, shod with the very damp and velvet silence of the womb […]." (3.9)

    Most of Miss Rosa's life was spent in the house in which she grew up. Nothing was ever normal for her: she had no mother, her father eventually locked himself in the attic, and she watched in envy and disgust as her sister married Sutpen. How do you think this lack of milestones in life can affect the way someone matures? Is Rosa the victim of arrested development?

    […] as though in the restoration of that ring to a living finger he had turned all time back twenty years and stopped it, froze it. (5.20)

    Sutpen must have been listening to Cher? When he becomes engaged to Miss Rosa, he believes he can continue with his design as though no time has been lost. He is so determined to prevail that he loses all sense of time.

    He didn't remember if it was weeks or months or a year they traveled […] whether it was that winter and then spring and then summer overtook and passed them on the road or whether they overtook and passed in slow succession the seasons as they descended or whether it was the descent itself that did it and they not progressing parallel in time but descending perpendicularly through temperature and climate […]. (7.4)

    Sutpen loses track of time as he travels with his family from what would later be West Virginia into the Tidewater region of Virginia. Having lived a life of isolation, Sutpen is fascinated by all the new people and things he sees as his family leaves the hills of his home.

    […] and this, Grandfather said, more incredible to him than the getting there from Virginia because that did infer time a space the getting across which did indicate something of leisureliness since time is longer than any distance […]. (7.12)

    "Time is longer than any distance." Now <em>that's</em> deep. Help us out here: how do you interpret that?

    […] not two of them there and then either but four of them riding the two horses through the iron darkness and that not mattering either […]. (8.2)

    As Shreve and Quentin sit in their dorm room hashing out the details of Sutpen's story, the two friends begin to blend with the figures of Charles Bon and Henry. Shreve and Quentin are so fascinated that, in a sense, they become the other two men. We dare you to write about this book and not call Quentin "Henry" once in a while.

    They [Bon and Henry] stared at one another – glared rather […] a sort of hushed and naked searching, each look burdened with youth's immemorial obsession not with time's dragging weight which the old live with but with its fluidity […]. (8.4)

    Bon and Henry display a very odd attraction to one another. Each young man is trying to figure the other one out but doing so without any adult sense of urgency.

    They [Shreve and Quentin] did not retreat from the cold. They both bore it as though in deliberate flagellant exaltation of physical misery transmogrified into the spirit's travail of the two young men during that time fifty years ago, or forty-eight rather, then forty-seven and then forty-six […]. (8.22)

    Once again, Shreve and Quentin blend into Charles Bon and Henry. Their obsession with the story sustains them in spite of the profound chill in their room. They are transported into the past through their act of mutual storytelling.

    [Y]et in a second tent candle gray and all are gone and it is the holly-decked Christmas library at Sutpen's Hundred four years ago and the table not a camp table suitable for the spreading of maps but the heavy carved rosewood one at home with the group photograph of his mother and sister and himself sitting on it […]. (8.45)

    As Henry faces his father in the tent, he flashes back to their confrontation years before, when Sutpen told him that Charles Bon was his half-brother. Henry is haunted by how far he has come from life at Sutpen's Hundred and all of the changes he has undergone in just four years. Hey, that's what war will do to you, right?

  • Ambition

    Immobile, bearded and hand palm-lifted the horseman sat; behind him the wild blacks and the captive architect huddled quietly, carrying in bloodless paradox the shovels and picks and axes of peaceful conquest. (1.1)

    What an image! Here Sutpen arrives in town with his crew, bent on establishing his dynasty. To the townspeople, he presents a dramatic spectacle of determination and industry.

    "Then he needed respectability, the shield of a virtuous woman, to make his position impregnable. (1.10)

    Once Sutpen has established his homestead, he must legitimize himself in the eyes of the townspeople by marrying one of their own. He sets his sights on Ellen Coldfield, who will help him realize his dynasty by bearing his children. It's all part of his grand plan.

    [H]e was at this time completely the slave of his secret and furious impatience. (2.2)

    Sutpen conquers everyone who gets in his way, but he himself is a slave to his own ambitions and desires. And his eagerness to fulfill his design eventually does him in.

    Sutpen had not expressed himself. But he wanted it. In fact, Miss Rosa was righter than she knew: he did want it, not the anonymous wife and the anonymous children, but the two names, the stainless wife and the unimpeachable father-in-law, on the license, the patent. (2.18)

    Part of Sutpen's dream is to marry into the right family. Because his background is so sketchy, he knows he has to marry someone who will improve his reputation in town and raise his status in the community. Enter Ellen Coldfield.

    He was the biggest single landowner and cotton-planter in the county now, which state he had attained by the same tactics with which he had built his house – the same singleminded unflagging effort and utter disregard of how his actions which the town could see might look and how the indicated ones which the town could not see must appear to it. (3.11)

    Remember that respect he wanted? Well, it looks like that might be more like envy and fear. Either way, he'll have to get it through the possession of money and property, because these people sure don't like him otherwise.

    [H]e was still playing the scene to the audience, behind him fate, destiny, retribution, irony – the stage manager, call him what you will – was already striking the set […]. (3.11)

    Even as Sutpen put everything he had into building his empire, forces were working against him. He played the role of the arrogant patriarch, but he would soon be brought down by his ignorance. P.S. Check out this awesome theater metaphor. It makes everything that much more dramatic, right?

    Sutpen, the man whom, after seeing once and before any engagement existed anywhere save in his wife's mind, he saw as a potential threat to the (now and at least) triumphant coronation of his old hardships and ambition, of which threat he was apparently sure enough to warrant a six hundred mile journey to prove it [….] (4.8).

    When Sutpen meets Charles Bon, he smells trouble. All that he has worked so hard to build is threatened by the arrival of his half-black son, so he travels all the way to New Orleans to find out the truth.

    "Yes," Quentin said, "The design – Getting richer and richer. It must have looked fine and clear ahead for him now: house finished, and even bigger and whiter than the one he had gone to the door of that day and the nigger came out in his monkey clothes and told him to go to the back." (7.24)

    In stories about Sutpen, the entire driving force for his actions is the day he goes to the front door of a rich white man's house and is sent to the back door by the black butler. Ouch. From that point on, Sutpen is determined to have a better, bigger, whiter house than the one whose door he was turned away from on that fateful day.

    Mrs. Sutpen would have seen to it – ten days of that kind of planned and arranged and executed privacies like the campaigns of dead generals in the text books […]. (8.10)

    Almost as ambitious as her husband, Ellen sets her sights high for her daughter Judith, who she wants to marry Charles Bon. She undertakes the plans with the accuracy and determination of a military general. Guess it runs in the family.

    […] since now that he believed that he had fathomed the lawyer's design in sending him to that particular school to begin with […]. (8.18)

    Charles Bon begins to piece together the extent to which he is a pawn in his mother's plan for revenge. With her lawyer, she has schemed to send Charles Bon to the same school as Henry Sutpen. At least this is how Quentin and Shreve imagine it. Do you think it's plausible?

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    So doubtless General Compson was the first man in the county to tell himself that Sutpen did not need to borrow money with which to complete the house, supply what it lacked, because he intended to marry it. (2.9)

    General Compson is one of the few people with genuine insight into Sutpen. He sees that, having spent everything on building the house, Sutpen will now find a wife to supply the money for its completion. Hey, everyone has a dream.

    […] and the man who owned all the land […] lived in the biggest house [Sutpen] had ever seen. (7.5)

    Sutpen as a kid… weird. In any case, Sutpen's experiences as a poor child living on a huge plantation are formative. He never forgets the wealth and privilege he sees, and its pursuit becomes his one and only dream. And as we learn, he'll do anything to achieve that dream.

    "What I learned was that there was a place called the West Indies to which poor men went in ships and became rich, it didn't matter how, so long as that man was clever and courageous." (7.10)

    Sutpen recalls his brief education and how he learned about the West Indies. With barely a notion of where the West Indies were, he set off determined to realize for himself the stories of great wealth that were associated with the islands.

    "[…] just told Grandfather [Compson] that he had put his first wife aside like eleventh or twelfth century kings did: "I found that she was not and never could be, through no fault of her own, adjunctive or incremental to the design which I had in mind, so I provided for her and put her aside." (7.10)

    With enormous arrogance and self-centeredness, Sutpen rejects his first wife because she is part black. She doesn't fit into his grand scheme, so he puts her aside and moves on as though the marriage never existed.

    "So when the time came when I realised that to accomplish my design I should need first of all and above all things money in considerable quantities and in the quite immediate future, I remembered what he had read to us and I went to the West Indies." (7.12)

    Everyone dreams about having more money, right? Well, Sutpen is no exception. Haiti is Sutpen's initial destination, where he will acquire enough wealth to return to the United States and execute his plan. He knows from a very young age that having lots of money is crucial to his design.

    "You see, I had a design in my mind. Whether it was a good or bad design is beside the point." (7.26)

    As Sutpen explains to General Compson, he had no considerations of morality. To him the design was not good or bad, it was just what he wanted – and so he was determined to get it.

    [H]e must have felt and heard the design – house, position, posterity and all – come down like it had been built out of smoke, making no sound, creating no rush of displaced air and not even leaving any debris. (7.33)

    Charles Bon was <em>not </em>part of Sutpen's dream. This can't end well.

    […] when he realised that there was more in his problem than just lack of time, that the problem contained some super-distillation of this lack; that he was now past sixty and that possibly he could get but one more son, had at best one more son in his loins, as the old cannon might know when it has just one more shot in its corporeality (7.42).

    According to Quentin and Shreve's version of events, Sutpen became desperate after the war. Since he needed a son to continue the dynasty, and Henry was missing, he set his sights on Miss Rosa. It's clearly not about the means, just about the end.

    […] created between this woman [Eulalia] and a hired lawyer (the woman who since before he could remember he now realised had been planning and grooming him for some moment that would come. (8.5)

    Shreve and Quentin believe that Charles Bon's mother planned her revenge against Sutpen by sending her son in to mess up his plans. In their version, Charles Bon slowly realizes that she has been waiting for just the right moment to strike.

    […] but thinking <em>So at last I shall see him, whom it seems I was bred never to expect to see, whom I had even learned to live without, </em>thinking maybe how he would walk into the house and see the man who made him and then he would know. (8.10)

    This is kind of sweet, actually. Charles Bon dreams of meeting his father, and in his fantasy, he will finally be acknowledged as his son. Just like everything in <em>Absalom, Absalom!</em>, that doesn't quite go as planned.

  • Memory and the Past

    […] while the wan haggard face watched him above the faint triangle of lace at wrists and throat from the too tall chair in which she remembered a crucified child; and the voice not ceasing but vanishing into and then out of the long intervals like a stream, a trickle running from patch to patch of dried sand, and the ghost mused with shadowy docility as if it were a voice which he haunted where a more fortunate one would have had a house (1.1)

    Despite her old age, Miss Rosa still appears child-like. She still lives in the home in which she grew, a lonely, isolated woman haunted by the past and her bitter feelings about Sutpen. Not the happy kind of nostalgia for which we might hope.

    And she chose you because your grandfather was the nearest thing to a friend which Sutpen ever had in this country, and she probably believes that Sutpen told your grandfather something about himself and her, about that engagement that did not engage, that troth which failed to plight. (1.8).

    Mr. Compson explains to Quentin why Miss Rosa has asked him to come visit her: it turns out Sutpen and Quentin's grandfather, General Compson, were confidants, and that Miss Rosa is still trying to piece together Sutpen's story after all these years. Why is everyone so obsessed with this guy?

    […] the invoked ghost of the man whom she could neither forgive nor revenge herself upon began to assume a quality almost of solidity, permanence. (1.9)

    Miss Rosa is so obsessed with Sutpen that, even though he is dead, he still retains a very real presence for her. You know what we call that? Haunting.

    […] a picture, a group the last member of which had been dead twenty-five years and the first, fifty, evoked now the airless gloom of a dead house between an old woman's grim and implacable unforgiving and the passive chafing of a youth of twenty […]. (1.9)

    Miss Rosa and Quentin sit in her stuffy small house haunted by ghosts of the past. The history of Sutpen and all the people whose lives he damaged weigh heavily upon those who are still living. Even if they tried to forget, do you think they'd be able to?

    And most of all, I do not plead myself: a young woman emerging from a holocaust which had taken parents security and all from her, who had seen all that living meant to her fall into ruins about the feet of a few figures with shapes of men but with the names and statures of heroes […]. (1.13)

    Miss Rosa lost so much as a child. She never knew her mother. Her sister married Sutpen. Her father died in the attic. She was left to survive on her own. In her great naiveté, she sees Sutpen as a strange kind of idol.

    It was a summer of wisteria. The twilight was full of it and of the smell of his father's cigar as they sat on the front gallery after supper until it would be time for Quentin to start […]. (2.1)

    You know how a certain scent can bring you right back to a moment from your past? Well, throughout the novel, wisteria is a reminder of the past and of the haunting memories of the South.

    Miss Rosa never saw him; this was a picture, an image. (3.12)

    Miss Rosa imagines everything about Charles Bon and even develops a childish crush on him, but she never actually lays eyes on him. He is, in many ways, a figment of her imagination.

    We have a few old mouth-to-mouth tales; we exhume from old trunks and boxes and drawers letters without salutation or signature, in which men and women who once lived and breathed are now merely initials or nicknames. (4.7)

    For the characters in the novel, history is not clear or linear, nor is it narrated by someone with a clear sense of the big picture (although that would be awful helpful!). History comes from fragments of stories, multiple versions, and very subjective opinions.

    That is the substance of remembering – sense, sight, smell: the muscles with which we see and hear and feel – not mind, not thought: there is no such thing as memory: the brain recalls just what the muscles grope for. (5.8)

    Once again, thoughts of the past come through the senses. Memory is not just an intellectual entity; it's experienced through the body and sensory encounters. We all know that feeling, right?

    Four of them were there, in that room in New Orleans in 1860, just as in a sense there were four of them here in this tomblike room in Massachusetts in 1910. (8.19)

    Shreve and Quentin are so obsessed with Charles Bon and Henry that their identities all begin to merge. Time and space collapse as their fascination transports them into the past.

  • Race

    "Out of quiet thunderclap he would abrupt (man-horse-demon) upon a scene peaceful and decorous as a schoolprize water color, faint, sulphur-reek still in hair clothes and beard, with grouped behind him his band of wild niggers like beasts half tamed to walk upright like men, in attitudes wild and reposed […]." (1.1)

    Sutpen's arrival in Yoknapatawpha County is almost like something out of a nightmare as Miss Rosa describes it here to Quentin. Sutpen comes out of nowhere, like a satanic figure surrounded by semi-humans enslaved to do his bidding. Already we can see the oh-so-racist language that's everywhere in this book.

    "[…] down there in the stable a hollow square of faces in the lantern light, the white faces on three sides, the black ones on the fourth, and in the center two of his wild negroes fighting, naked, fighting not like white men, with rules and weapons, but like negroes fight to hurt one another quick and bad." (1.26)

    Sutpen pits his slaves against each other as a spectacle for those who live at Sutpen's Hundred. These fights are absolutely brutal, and sometimes Sutpen even joins in.

    "[…] it was told how even that first summer and fall the negroes did not even have (or did not use) blankets to sleep in." (2.4)

    The slaves who build Sutpen's Hundred are treated like animals. They are simply a means for him to build his dynasty and nothing more. How do you think young Sutpen would have reacted to this?

    Even the two negresses which he [Mr. Coldfield] had freed as soon as he came into possession of them (through a debt, by the way, not purchase), writing out their papers of freedom which they could not read and putting them on a weekly wage […]. (3.18)

    Finally, a guy with some sense. Mr. Coldfield is one of the few righteous individuals in the community. He doesn't want to own slaves and because of slavery, he refuses to fight for the South in the Civil War.

    […] a row of faces like a bazaar of flowers, the supreme apotheosis of chattelry, of human flesh bred of the two races for that sale […]. (4.11)

    Ick. Henry's visit to the brothel in New Orleans is a surreal experience. Women there are kept like beautiful flowers, bred and groomed to please men.

    But let flesh touch with flesh, and watch the fall of all the eggshell shibboleth of caste and color too. Yes, I stopped dead – no negro's hand, but bitted bridle-curb to check and guide the furious and unbending will […]. (5.5)

    Miss Rosa recalls her dramatic visit to Sutpen's Hundred after Henry shot Charles Bon. When Clytie tries to stop her from going upstairs, Miss Rosa pushes her away, explaining to Quentin that she would never allow a black woman to touch her. It's pretty clear that racism exists long after slavery is abolished. After all, it sadly even still exists today.

    And your grandfather did not know either just which one of them it was who told them he was, must be a negro, who could neither have heard nor recognized the word "nigger," who even had no word for it in the tongue he knew […]. (6.31)

    Charles Bon's son, Charles Etienne de Saint-Valery Bon (say that three times fast!), is part black and the only living heir to the Sutpen dynasty. Sutpen clearly would not have been pleased.

    And even then I did not act hastily. I could have reminded them of these wasted years, these years which would now leave me behind with my schedule not only the amount of elapsed time which their number represented, but that compensatory amount of time represented by their number which I should now have to spend to advance myself once more to the point I had reached and lost (7.26).

    Shreve and Quentin speculate about the story Sutpen told General Compson. They imagine the setback Sutpen must have felt when he discovered that his wife from the West Indies was black and he would have to start building his dynasty all over again. To give up everything he had worked for – it's clear that he has some pretty strong feelings about this.

    But they would drink together under the scuppernong on the Sunday afternoons, and on the week days he would see Sutpen (the fine figure of the man as he called it) on the black stallion, galloping around the plantation, and Father said how for that moment Wash's heart would be quiet and proud both and that maybe it would seem to him that this world where niggers, that the Bible said had been created and cursed by God to be brute and vassal to all men of white skin […]. (7.44)

    Wash Jones looks up to Sutpen as the successful white plantation owner. He is proud to be associated with him and believes himself to be above the black slaves, because that's what he read in the Bible. Speaking of the Bible, what was that about "Thou shalt not kill"?

    "He must not marry her, Henry. His mother's father told me that her mother had been a Spanish woman. I believed him; it was not until after he was born that I found out that his mother was part negro" (8.53).

    Sutpen explains to Henry exactly why Charles Bon can't marry Judith. He is part black, and that little tidbit is just not part of his plan. (And you know what happens when something isn't part of Sutpen's plan…)

    "So it's the miscegenation, not the incest, which you can't bear" (8.63).

    This is pretty funny to a twenty-first century reader. Sutpen has no problem with his daughter marrying her half-brother: incest is totally acceptable. It's the mixed-race thing that will be the problem. What?!

  • Society and Class

    No, not even a gentleman. Marrying Ellen or marrying ten thousand Ellens could not have made him one. Not that he even wanted to be one, or even be taken for one. No. That was not necessary since all he would need would be Ellen's and our father's names on the wedding license. (1.11)

    So much for climbing your way up the social ladder. As Miss Rosa explains, Sutpen could never become a person with class or real prominence. His humble origins and questionable business practices make a far greater impression than his ability to marry into one of the town's leading families.

    So they sat on their horses and waited for him. I suppose they knew that he would have to come out sometime. I suppose they sat there and thought about those two pistols. Because there was still no warrant for him, you see: it was just public opinion in an acute state of indigestion. (2.14)

    The entire town is suspect of Sutpen's business methods. They believe he has engaged in dishonest dealings with American Indians in order to get his land. This guy seems to have no regard for the way things are done in Yoknapatawpha County – he just wants property, and fast.

    He was not liked (which he evidently did not want, anyway) but feared, which seemed to amuse, if not actually please, him. But he was accepted; he obviously had too much money now to be rejected or even seriously annoyed any more (2.11).

    Whether or not the townspeople like him, Sutpen is determined to strike it rich.

    […] the island here Sutpen's Hundred; the solitude, the shadow of the father with whom not only the town but their mother's family as well had merely assumed armistice rather than accepting and assimilating. (4.7)

    Everyone in town is just kind of resigned to the idea of Sutpen. They understand that because of his wealth and determination he's not going away, so they decide to live with him. And to be honest, Sutpen doesn't really seem to care.

    […] where what few other people he knew lived in log cabins boiling with children like the one he was born in – men and grown boys who hunted or lay before the fire on the floor while the women and older girls stepped back and forth across them to reach the fire to cook, where the only colored people were Indians […] (6.3)

    Flashing back to Sutpen's childhood, the story describes the modest surroundings in which Sutpen grew up. He didn't even experience classism (or racism) until he came down out of the hills of West Virginia. My how things change.

    That's the way he got it. He had learned the difference not only between white men and black ones, but he was learning that there was a difference between white men and white men not to be measured by hitting anvils or gouging eyes or how much whiskey you could drink then get up and walk out of the room. (7.5)

    In Jefferson, Sutpen gets a crash course in class differences. The things that made people "better" where he grew up – like being the strongest or the best fighter – just don't apply in this new world.

    [Sutpen] had been told to go around to the back door even before he could state his errand. (7.7)

    In this pivotal moment, a black butler sends Sutpen to the back door of the mansion. This is his first direct experience with class discrimination and it changes the course of his life forever.

    "You got to have land and niggers and a fine house to combat them with. You see?" and he said Yes again. He left that night. He waked before day and departed just like he went to bed by rising from the pallet and tiptoeing out of the house. He never saw any of his family again. (7.9)

    Once Sutpen realizes what it will take to build his dynasty and enact his own form of revenge, he never looks back. He leaves his family behind and sets off to reinvent himself.

  • Contrasting Regions: The South

    He came here with a horse and two pistols and a name which nobody ever heard before, knew for certain was his anymore than the horse was his own or even the pistols, seeking some place to hide himself, and Yoknapatawpha County supplied him with it. (1.10)

    Sutpen comes from small town to small city looking for a place to establish himself. He has no past and no name, but he has money and a strong will. Here he is able to build a new identity, for better or worse.

    […] because our father knew who his father was in Tennessee and who his grandfather was in Virginia and our neighbors and the people we lived among knew that we knew and we knew they knew we knew and we knew that they would have believed us about who and where we came from even if we had lied, just as anyone could have looked at him once and known that he would be lying about who and where and why he came from by the very fact that apparently he had to refuse to say at all. (1.11)

    Miss Rosa explains to Quentin how alien Sutpen seemed when he arrived in town. Though she repeatedly uses the word "knew," what she really expresses here is how <em>little</em> they knew about him. Who knew that the difference between West Virginia and Virginia would be so massive?

    And he was no younger son sent out from some old quiet country like Virginia or Carolina with the surplus negroes to take up new land, because anyone could look at these negroes and tell that they may have come (and probably did) from a much older country than Virginia or Carolina but it wasn't a quiet one. (1.11)

    With all the talk of South vs. North, New Orleans vs. Yoknapatawpha County, we forget that there are foreigners around, too. Imagine how out of place <em>they </em>must feel.

    (Jefferson was a village then: The Holston house, the courthouse, six stores, a blacksmith, a livery stable, a saloon frequented by drovers and peddlers, the churches and perhaps thirty residences) the stranger's name went back and forth among the places. (2.1)

    Though Sutpen's Hundred is outside Jefferson, its presence looms large in all of the townspeople's thoughts. This is what happens when you build your empire in a small city.

    […] a small new college in the Mississippi hinterland and even wilderness, three hundred miles from that worldly and even foreign city which was his home… (3.12)

    Ole Miss was founded in 1844, and at the time, was in the middle of nowhere. Especially compared to New Orleans, the college town seems very uncosmopolitan and remote.

    Henry […] the provincial, the clown almost, given to instinctive and violent action rather than to thinking, ratiocination, who may have been conscious that his fierce provincial's pride in his sister's virginity was a false quantity […]. (4.5)

    Henry completely lacks the sophistication of Charles Bon, who grew up in the densely populated city of New Orleans. Because he is really just a country boy, Henry is seen as more impulsive and emotional than intelligent and rational. Hey, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

    […] the labyrinthine mass of oleander and jasmine, lantana and mimosa walling yet again the strip of bare earth combed and curried with powdered shell, raked and immaculate […]. (4.11)

    New Orleans is a town of sensory pleasures. The smells in the brothel are part of the seduction for Henry as he encounters these unfamiliar sights. Like we said, the South may be "the South," but each place brings has its own, unique feeling.

    […] that dead summer twilight – the wisteria, the cigar-smell, the fireflies – attenuated up from Mississippi and into this strange room, across this strange iron New England snow. (6.1)

    Even up in his dorm room at Harvard, Quentin can still smell the wisteria and cigar smoke from his front porch in Mississippi. But Faulkner doesn't let us forget that he's in New England now. And boy is New England strange.

    So he didn't even know there was a country all divided and fixed and neat with a people living on it divided and fixed and neat because of what color their skins happened to be and what they happened to own […]. (7.3)

    Sutpen encounters a whole new world when he comes out of the hills – a world of haves and have-nots divided according to race and class.

    […] doggeries 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)

    When Sutpen's family leaves their remote home, Sutpen sees what the rest of the country is like for the first time. Towns are bigger, caste systems exist, and great wealth and privilege are in the hands of a few white men. And this is just the difference between West Virginia and Virginia.

    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)

    Shreve's fascination with the South stems in part from his Northern-ness. He has many preconceived notions about the South and – being the feisty guy he is – he imposes most of them on Quentin's interpretation of the events of Sutpen's life. Just like any good intellectual, he can weave a story out of nothing.