Study Guide

Absalom, Absalom! Chapter 6

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Chapter 6

  • Change of scenery, folks! We now find ourselves in Quentin's dorm room at Harvard. His roommate, Shreve, hands him a letter from his father dated January 10, 1910, reporting that Miss Rosa has died.
  • Moment of silence for Rosa.
  • Needless to say, Shreve is very curious about Quentin's upbringing and asks him to "Tell about the South. What it's like there […]" (6.2). Shreve is determined to get a clear story of all of the characters from Quentin's past and starts by interrogating him about Miss Rosa.
  • You know, if we had a roommate with as strange a history as Quentin, we'd be asking, too.
  • This is where things get interesting (if they hadn't already). Shreve decides he's going to offer his own interpretation of events, a version skewed by his love of novels and Greek mythology. This should be good.
  • Rather than really listen to Quentin, Shreve hijacks the story, barely allowing Quentin to get a word in edgewise.
  • So, according to Shreve, Sutpen was a devil with hidden horns whose "dirty work" of murdering his daughter's fiancé was undertaken by his son. He continues on to describe Sutpen's bravado, who, he asserts, suggested to Miss Rosa that "they breed like a couple of dogs together" (6.12) so he could continue his family line and his ambitious plan to build an empire.
  • (Remember, this is all coming from Shreve's head. We just met him, and we already think he's a pretty inventive dude.)
  • As he listens to Shreve's interpretation of events, Quentin thinks "He sounds just like father" (6.13), who also weaved subjective tales while knowing few of the facts. (Sounds like most dads we know, come to think of it.)
  • Quentin thinks back to Sutpen's postwar years when he owned a "little country store" (6.13), selling food to poor whites and freed slaves. It was at this point that Sutpen began to seduce the fifteen-year-old granddaughter of Wash Jones, a "gangling malaria-ridden white man" (6.13) who drank with Sutpen but didn't have permission to approach the front door.
  • One day, Wash's granddaughter, Milly, had a baby. (Guess whose?!)
  • Sutpen, the father of the child, came in while she was in labor and said to her, "Well, Milly, too bad you're not a mare like Penelope. Then I could give you a decent stall in the stable" (6.13).
  • Wow, that was harsh.
  • Wash, naturally, was so angry about the remark that he killed Sutpen on the spot with a scythe. What a way to go!
  • Judith found his body later that night and buried him.
  • Quentin recalls seeing tombstones in the cedar forest where Sutpen and other family members had been buried. It turns out Sutpen ordered the tombstones from Italy – fancy.
  • Judith had also saved up money to buy tombstones for Charles Bon and someone named Charles Etienne de Saint-Valery Bon. (So many mysterious people in this story, we know. We're getting there, though.)
  • Quentin continues to think about the past and he recalls his father telling him the story of Charles Bon's octoroon mistress coming from New Orleans with her eleven-year old son, Charles Etienne. (He's still talking to Shreve – don't forget this!).
  • They had come to see the grave of the boy's father, Charles Bon. Soon after that, Clytie retrieved him from New Orleans so that she and Judith could raise him. He had lived all his life in "a kind of silken prison lighted by perpetual shaded candles" (6.29) and looked like a Little Lord Fauntleroy.
  • This kid looked white, but someone had told him he was black. At first he slept in Judith's room, but then he moved to the attic, where he slept with a shard of mirror underneath his mattress. (The Princess and the…Mirror Shard?)
  • As every good small town crowd does, everyone speculated about where the boy came from and who his mother was. But eventually Charles Etienne's behavior got more attention than his background: he got in some fights in town and was arrested at a N**** ball.
  • Quentin's grandfather, General Compson, bailed Charles Etienne out of his legal troubles and sent him out of town.
  • A year later, Little CE returned with a wife who is "coal black and ape-like" (6.33). (We're quoting some of this stuff just to give you an idea of the racist language that was used in this setting. Pretty awful stuff.) The two of them had a son and lived together in a cabin on the Sutpen plantation.
  • Before long, yellow fever reared its nasty head and got to Charles Etienne. Actually, Judith got it, too – and she was the first to succumb (she died).
  • Clytie raised the boy, whose name was Jim Bong, and saved up money to pay for headstones.
  • Soon, people in town began to think that the house and plantation had ghosts. It turned into one of those neighborhood haunts: boys dared each other to enter the house, the plants were all overgrown… you know the drill.
  • Jim Bond was seen farming a small patch of earth on the property.
  • Enter Shreve, who decides to interrupt Quentin's story to share his own two cents. He says that the house is haunted and describes how Jim Bond lives with his mother, now seventy years old, who smokes a pipe and wears a head-rag over her white hair. Got it, Shreve.
  • Shreve also wants to talk more about Quentin's more recent story: you know, the one about going out to the house that one September night to confirm Rosa's belief that someone was still living there.
  • It had been forty-three years since Rosa left.

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