Study Guide

Absalom, Absalom! Society and Class

By William Faulkner

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Society and Class

No, not even a gentleman. Marrying Ellen or marrying ten thousand Ellens could not have made him one. Not that he even wanted to be one, or even be taken for one. No. That was not necessary since all he would need would be Ellen's and our father's names on the wedding license. (1.11)

So much for climbing your way up the social ladder. As Miss Rosa explains, Sutpen could never become a person with class or real prominence. His humble origins and questionable business practices make a far greater impression than his ability to marry into one of the town's leading families.

So they sat on their horses and waited for him. I suppose they knew that he would have to come out sometime. I suppose they sat there and thought about those two pistols. Because there was still no warrant for him, you see: it was just public opinion in an acute state of indigestion. (2.14)

The entire town is suspect of Sutpen's business methods. They believe he has engaged in dishonest dealings with American Indians in order to get his land. This guy seems to have no regard for the way things are done in Yoknapatawpha County – he just wants property, and fast.

He was not liked (which he evidently did not want, anyway) but feared, which seemed to amuse, if not actually please, him. But he was accepted; he obviously had too much money now to be rejected or even seriously annoyed any more (2.11).

Whether or not the townspeople like him, Sutpen is determined to strike it rich.

[…] the island here Sutpen's Hundred; the solitude, the shadow of the father with whom not only the town but their mother's family as well had merely assumed armistice rather than accepting and assimilating. (4.7)

Everyone in town is just kind of resigned to the idea of Sutpen. They understand that because of his wealth and determination he's not going away, so they decide to live with him. And to be honest, Sutpen doesn't really seem to care.

[…] where what few other people he knew lived in log cabins boiling with children like the one he was born in – men and grown boys who hunted or lay before the fire on the floor while the women and older girls stepped back and forth across them to reach the fire to cook, where the only colored people were Indians […] (6.3)

Flashing back to Sutpen's childhood, the story describes the modest surroundings in which Sutpen grew up. He didn't even experience classism (or racism) until he came down out of the hills of West Virginia. My how things change.

That's the way he got it. He had learned the difference not only between white men and black ones, but he was learning that there was a difference between white men and white men not to be measured by hitting anvils or gouging eyes or how much whiskey you could drink then get up and walk out of the room. (7.5)

In Jefferson, Sutpen gets a crash course in class differences. The things that made people "better" where he grew up – like being the strongest or the best fighter – just don't apply in this new world.

[Sutpen] had been told to go around to the back door even before he could state his errand. (7.7)

In this pivotal moment, a black butler sends Sutpen to the back door of the mansion. This is his first direct experience with class discrimination and it changes the course of his life forever.

"You got to have land and n*****s and a fine house to combat them with. You see?" and he said Yes again. He left that night. He waked before day and departed just like he went to bed by rising from the pallet and tiptoeing out of the house. He never saw any of his family again. (7.9)

Once Sutpen realizes what it will take to build his dynasty and enact his own form of revenge, he never looks back. He leaves his family behind and sets off to reinvent himself.

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