Study Guide

Absalom, Absalom! Ambition

By William Faulkner


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 n***** 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?

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