Study Guide

Absalom, Absalom! Chapter 1

By William Faulkner

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Chapter 1

  • On a September afternoon, twenty-year-old Quentin Compson sits in the hot, dusty office of Miss Rosa Coldfield listening to her tell a story for hours on end. The subject under discussion is a source of enormous rage to her. Light struggles to enter the dark, decrepit room. (Yeah, we're totally in a gothic story.)
  • The past is totally messing with the present: especially a man named Colonel Thomas Sutpen (referred to as "man-horse-demon" [1.2]… that can't be good) and how he arrived in the town of Jefferson in 1833 with a French architect and a band of slaves and began creating Sutpen's Hundred (as in a hundred square miles). Confused yet? We are, too.
  • But now we get a little background: Miss Rosa had sent Quentin a note asking him to come see her before going off to Harvard. She believes he may be a writer someday and that he may want to write her story and "submit it to the magazines" (1.3).
  • Quentin isn't sure why Miss Rosa has asked him to visit (beyond the whole hearing-a-story thing). What's the story? He thinks maybe she wants to explain why the South lost the war: because of demons like Sutpen. But then he thinks this may not be the reason at all. Dun dun dun.
  • Quentin thinks about what he already knows about Miss Rosa: that she is the town's unofficial poet laureate; that her father starved to death in the attic; and that her nephew shot his sister's fiancé. Not a good run for Miss Rosa, that's for sure.
  • It's September 1909 at the time, but Miss Rosa's story begins in June, 1833, when Colonel Sutpen rode into town with only two pistols. He went on to build a mansion, marry her (Rosa's) sister, Ellen, and have two children with her – and "so accomplished his allotted course to its violent […] end" (1.7). Wow, this is all super mysterious.
  • Quentin recognizes all the names Miss Rosa mentions because he's heard them throughout his childhood. Small town, we guess.
  • In a little aside, we learn that after meeting with Miss Rosa, Quentin goes home and asks his father, Mr. Compson, for more information about the destruction of Miss Rosa's family. He also asks him if he knows why on earth Miss Rosa invited him over.
  • Mr. Compson takes a stab at it: he figures that Miss Rosa is interested in Quentin because of the relationship between Sutpen and Quentin's grandfather, one of his only friends. Miss Rosa probably wants any information Quentin may have gotten from his family. Fishy, Miss Rosa.
  • Back to Rosa's office: Quentin is consumed by a strange feeling in the room. He pictures Sutpen, Ellen, and their two children while Miss Rosa discusses them.
  • Miss Rosa tells Quentin about Sutpen's arrival in Jefferson: "[h]e wasn't a gentleman" (1.10). She says Sutpen arrived out of nowhere, coming to Yoknapatawpha County to hide behind the respectability of her sister, Ellen.
  • Ellen's son would later renounce the family and commit fratricide (that means he killed his brother). We hear about this a bunch.
  • On her deathbed, Ellen asked Rosa to protect her children – Judith and Henry – even though Miss Rosa is younger than they are. Yep, that's right, Rosa is younger than her sister's children.
  • Miss Rosa returns numerous times to the event of Sutpen's arrival in the town and how he built up Sutpen's Hundred and married Ellen to gain respectability in the town. Sutpen was only twenty-five years old at the time. Rosa wasn't even born yet.
  • Once in town, Sutpen began to put on peep shows for the men, which they keep secret from the women. Scandalous!
  • Miss Rosa explains that Sutpen's evil ways doomed Ellen and the children. Talk about a tough marriage.
  • And after Ellen's death, Rosa agreed to marry Sutpen, despite how awful he was. She explains that it was her only chance for survival as a twenty-year-old orphan.
  • Miss Rosa cannot imagine what led her father, a Methodist steward and merchant who never drank or gambled, to befriend someone like Sutpen. How, she wonders, did her family become so enmeshed in Sutpen's mischief? Beats us.
  • She also can't imagine how she could have protected Ellen's children, since she was younger than them and hardly knew them. We repeat: beats us.
  • Quentin sits and listens, totally entranced, as time slowly passes by.
  • Rosa continues, going back in time from where she left off. Sutpen finally went to church with his family and turned the ride there into a dangerous horserace. When the minister chastised him, Sutpen stopped going to church. (Avoidance is not the best policy, FYI.)
  • Ellen continued to go to church with the children, but Judith had a fit when they had to stop the horse races.
  • Miss Rosa and her father rarely made visits out to the Sutpen family. (Thanksgivings must have been super awkward, too.)
  • Another not-so-awesome situation: Sutpen hosted and participated in fights with his slaves in the stable, which townspeople came to watch for entertainment. When Henry and Judith witnessed one of the fights, Henry was traumatized. Judith seemed unfazed, but Ellen was mad Judith even saw the thing to begin with – duh.

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