Study Guide

Absalom, Absalom! Family

By William Faulkner

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.