Study Guide

Absalom, Absalom! Race

By William Faulkner


"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 n*****s 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 n****es fighting, naked, fighting not like white men, with rules and weapons, but like n****es 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 n****es 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 n****'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 n****, who could neither have heard nor recognized the word "n*****," 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 n*****s, 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 n****" (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?!

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