Study Guide

Absalom, Absalom! Contrasting Regions: The South

By William Faulkner

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 n****es to take up new land, because anyone could look at these n****es 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 n*****s 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.