Study Guide

Absalom, Absalom! Chapter 4

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Chapter 4

  • We're back in the present. It's not yet dark enough for Quentin to take Rosa out to Sutpen's Hundred, so he bides his time imagining what Rosa must look like sitting in the stuffy house in her black sequined bonnet and umbrella. Nice image.
  • Mr. Compson comes out onto the porch to give Quentin a letter from Charles Bon to Judith Sutpen that Judith had given to Quentin's grandmother decades ago. This is a keepsake item, that's for sure.
  • He tells his son that Henry loved Bon so much that he was willing to disown his family because of his father's racism – even though he must have known that Bon really did have a child with another woman.
  • Mr. Compson imagines how the falling out must have happened on that Christmas in 1860. He also discusses how four years later, Charles Bon and Henry would return to Sutpen's Hundred and Henry would kill Bon. Yep, he killed his sister's fiancé.
  • Compson imagines that Sutpen revealed to Henry what he had discovered in New Orleans. (We're left hanging.)
  • Okay, so after Henry and Bon disappeared, Henry forbade Bon to write to Judith. But Judith, back home, had no idea why they left so abruptly. So she was left hanging as much as we are.
  • Also, Henry never confronted Bon about what Sutpen told him because, Compson assumes, he could not stand hearing a lie.
  • In the present, Compson ponders the strangeness of Charles Bon, and why Henry was so attracted to him. Bon was seductive, older, and more experienced than the average college student, so that might explain it.
  • Compson continues to speculate: What must Charles Bon have thought when Sutpen discovered that he had a mistress and a child? And how did Charles Bon seduce both Henry and Judith equally?
  • This is getting pretty complicated, right? Right.
  • Using the word "perhaps" a lot to indicate all of his guesswork here, Compson imagines what Henry must have thought of the situation.
  • He describes Henry as a "provincial" and a "clown" (4.5), believing that he always acted on impulse and without rational thought.
  • Compson even imagines that Henry had an incestuous attraction to both Judith and Bon and that he would "take" his sister's virginity through Bon. Whoa. This is getting weird.
  • Okay, so Bon refused to divorce his mistress in spite of Henry's pleas. Henry's reaction? He killed the guy.
  • The murder might have also been due to the fact that Bon was married to an "octoroon" (a person who is 1/8th black) and has a "n****" son who is 1/16th black.
  • So after all this speculation, Compson admits that he really knows nothing at all: his story is put together from bits and pieces, he never participated in the events, and his information is from "a few old mouth-to-mouth tales, [and letters] we exhume from old trunks and boxes and drawers" (4.7).
  • Oh, and he admits that he may have a tendency to glorify the people in his story. Now you tell us. Well, at least we know now.
  • Mr. Compson then returns to Charles Bon's first visit to Sutpen's Hundred during the Christmas of 1859, when Sutpen, Ellen, and Judith met him for the first time. (Throughout his story, Compson continues to insist that this story is all based on conjecture. Okay, we gotcha, Comp.)
  • So the story continues: Charles Bon began writing letters to Judith, all read by Henry and delivered by hand by Henry's servant.
  • Meanwhile, Sutpen went to New Orleans and learned that Charles Bon was married to a woman with some "n****" blood. When he told this to Henry on Christmas Eve of 1860, Henry left with Charles Bon and returned to New Orleans, unable to reveal what he knew and unwilling to have Bon confirm the information.
  • In the present, Mr. Compson imagines that Charles Bon was actually in love with Henry and only saw Judith as a proxy for her brother. Not cool, Charlie.
  • Henry's journey to New Orleans took him out of his comfort zone. He was a country boy and had no experience with cosmopolitan places like good ol' New Orleans.
  • Compson imagines New Orleans through Henry's eyes as a place of "personal ornaments and voluptuous lives" (4.11). Mardi Gras, anyone?
  • Back to the story: Bon took Henry to one of the city's brothels, a drowsy, erotic place that smelled of mimosa and lantana, where women sell their bodies and men act like predators. Depressing enough for you?
  • As he's recounting this, Compson imagines the shock of the scene to Henry's "puritan's provincial mind all of morality" (4.12). Shmoop's mind, too!
  • Charles Bon finally revealed that he is married to a courtesan (a kind of prostitute) whom he forbids Henry to call a "whore."
  • In Compson's story these women are only "whores" because white men have made them that way. He explains how the mulatto courtesans are raised to please men through elaborate training – they're also faithful, beautiful, and loving.
  • Back in the story, Henry could not accept that Charles Bon actually married the woman.
  • Bon explained that it wasn't not a real marriage because she was part black (remember we're in the nineteenth century here). But Henry was still outraged and wanted Bon to dissolve the marriage, which he refused to do.
  • Henry was clearly not down with his sister being part of a harem. For four years Henry didn't let Charles Bon write to his sister.
  • Charles and Henry enlisted in the regiment: Henry quickly became a lieutenant, which means he got to boss Charles Bon around. Something tells us he liked that.
  • Meanwhile, here's the update on everyone else in the story: Judith was living back at Sutpen's Hundred trying to get by on food from her garden. Ellen was ill and never got out of bed. Sutpen was off with Sartoris' regiment. Wash Jones lived with his daughter and granddaughter at a rotting fishing camp down by the river. Got all that?
  • So, four years later Charles Bon wrote Judith a letter – the one Compson has given to Quentin. Boom, there we are, back in the present.
  • The letter is written with stove polish on souvenir aristocrat's stationery. In it, Bon made clear his intention to marry Judith, having waited "long enough" (4.19), as he puts it.
  • Compson continues to present a very tentative version of the story, full of "maybes." Maybe he should get his facts straight.
  • In any case, in his story, Henry continued to pester Charles Bon about renouncing his wife and child. Having made a wedding dress out of stolen scraps, Judith waited for her groom-to-be to arrive at Sutpen's Hundred.
  • As they're arriving, Henry issued an ultimatum at the gates of the plantation, warning Charles not to "pass the shadow of this post" (4.21).
  • Next thing we know, Wash Jones has announced to Rosa that Henry "has done shot that durn French feller. Kilt him dead as beef." (4.21).
  • Now that's a story.

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