Study Guide

Absalom, Absalom! Memory and the Past

By William Faulkner

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.