Study Guide

Absalom, Absalom! Chapter 7

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Chapter 7

  • Shreve is clearly entertained by Quentin's stories about the South: he even compares them to theatre (we actually kind of see what he means).
  • Quentin thinks back to a story about Sutpen's architect, who had tried to escape from Sutpen's Hundred into the swamp, only to be chased down by slaves and dogs. Even General Compson had helped look for him. And – here's why it matters to us – while hunting with Sutpen, General Compson learned about Sutpen's early years.
  • Boom – early years. Thank you Compson, we'd love to hear more.
  • Quentin begins to tell Shreve the story, but Shreve can't stop himself from interrupting with his own guesses and thoughts. What a peanut gallery!
  • In case you'd forgotten, we're now reminded that everything Quentin knows about the story comes from his grandfather, General Compson, and from details he's been able to fill in based on information from Miss Rosa. He's kind of like an unintentional detective.
  • So, here we go: Sutpen was born in what by 1909 was West Virginia and he grew up in a cramped little log cabin. Everyone shared the land, so Sutpen had never known anything about owning land, riding fancy horses, or having slaves do your work for you.
  • One day, the family suddenly decided to move, putting all their belongings onto a lopsided cart. Sutpen had no idea how long they traveled: it could have been a week or a year. (He needs to get himself a Swatch.)
  • Along the way, he began to notice men on fine horses and various black men. Towns grew bigger, and it turned out his father was unwelcome in taverns.
  • It's on this trip that Sutpen began to learn about social class. He learned that there was a social hierarchy based on money, and that his family, at the bottom, was looked down on.
  • Tough news.
  • His family moved into another small cabin, this time on a big plantation owned by a rich man.
  • One day, when he was about thirteen years old, everything changed for Sutpen. His father sent him up to the main house to deliver a message, and a slave, described as a "monkey-dressed n***** butler" (7.6) (again with the beyond-racist language) answered the door.
  • This guy told Sutpen that when he came to the house he had to go to the back door, never to the front. Sutpen was totally stung by this insult and realized that the only way to combat the treatment was "to have what they have" (7.9).
  • Make it happen, Sutpen.
  • So in 1823, Sutpen went to the West Indies to make his fortune. He became a sugar plantation overseer, and during a huge revolt, he subdued the slaves and saved the plantation.
  • From there, he got engaged to the plantation owner's daughter, whose name he didn't even know until after the siege. Not super romantic, as you can imagine. In fact, he cast her aside when he found out she had black blood (meaning she couldn't be part of his plan).
  • Okay, so you'll remember that Sutpen was telling Compson this story (who then told Quentin, who's now telling us…whew). While Sutpen was telling this story, he and Compson finally found the architect (after "fifty-odd hours" of searching [7.18]) and dragged him back to Sutpen's Hundred.
  • Compson didn't hear the rest of the story for thirty years. And you thought we were being patient for details.
  • Sutpen eventually moved back to America to set his "design" into motion. He's definitely got something up his sleeve.
  • And, by the time he finally spoke to Compson again to finish the story – thirty years later, mind you – he had become a wealthy landowner himself.
  • He spent his free time in hand-to-hand combat with his slaves and also got into some shady dealings with Mr. Coldfield and made a bunch of money.
  • Sutpen explained to Compson that he disowned his first wife and their child and took twenty slaves with him to America in order to see his plan through. As he explains, "You see, I had a design in my mind. Whether it was a good or a bad design is beside the point […]" (7.26). Hmm, interesting way of looking at things.
  • Sutpen justified leaving his wife by placing the blame on someone else. He said it wasn't cool that the family had deliberately withheld the fact that she had N**** blood and (meaning their children would, too).
  • Now, flash forward to Christmas 1859. Henry brought Charles Bon home from Haiti. Charles Bon is – gasp! – Sutpen's long-lost son.
  • Of course Shreve has something to say about this. He speculates about what Sutpen must have thought when Charles Bon came into his house and he recognized himself in Bon's face: Sutpen must have seen his whole design going up in smoke.
  • Back to the story (sans Shreve commentary). Meanwhile, Ellen Sutpen was orchestrating her daughter's engagement to Bon. When Henry announced that he would bring Bon home again for Christmas, Sutpen went to New Orleans to investigate him.
  • We know what you're all wondering: did Bon know he was Sutpen's son? Well, Quentin's not sure: no one ever found out if Bon had come just to blackmail Sutpen.
  • Sutpen sent for Henry that Christmas Eve and told him the truth about Bon – that Bon is Henry's brother. Henry pretended not to believe his father, but in reality, he did.
  • Now Quentin imagines what must have gone through Henry's mind when he and Bon returned to the university and joined the army.
  • Meanwhile, Sutpen struggled with the decision to play his "trump card" (7.35). Should he tell Henry that, not only is Bon his brother, but he's also black?
  • After the war, Sutpen returned to his plantation a changed man. And Sutpen's Hundred had drastically changed as well: Sutpen found out that Henry had killed Charles Bon, and that Miss Rosa was living at the plantation. Yeah, we'd say that's a pretty big change.
  • Sutpen was now really anxious about his plan. He was getting old and needed a male heir to finish out his plan. And Henry was missing, so he didn't really count.
  • That's when Sutpen made an outrageous and offensive proposition to Miss Rosa. We still don't find out what it was (we get that later in the chapter, so sit tight), but Rosa was so offended that she promptly left the plantation.
  • That was when Sutpen began to sleep with Wash Jones's fifteen-year-old daughter, Milly. Naturally.
  • Wash more or less condoned the relationship, delivering gifts from "Kernel" Sutpen to Milly and turning a blind eye to the situation.
  • Wash totally resented the way Clytie treated him. She wouldn't allow him in the house, and she made sure that he had fewer privileges and rights of access than a black slave.
  • Things also weren't great between Wash and Sutpen. Wash was okay with Sutpen giving his daughter beads and ribbons, but he got upset when she started wearing a new dress.
  • And now, the moment you've all been waiting for (not really, since we pretty much knew this already), we now find out Sutpen's proposition to Miss Rosa: that they would have a baby and then get married – but only if the baby was a boy.
  • That sounds not awesome to us.
  • Since things didn't work out with Miss Rosa, Sutpen went for plan B: he got Milly pregnant.
  • One day, when Sutpen didn't come home for supper (the same day the "mare had foaled" [6.45]), Judith sent a boy down to ask Wash where Sutpen was.
  • And that's when the boy must have found Sutpen's body. Wash had killed him with a rusty old scythe, having overheard him say to his granddaughter, "Well, Milly, too bad you're not a mare too. Then I could give you a decent stall in the stable" (7.45). (Sounds familiar, right? That's cause we've heard it before – as with most things in this story!).
  • Back in the present, Quentin imagines what Wash Jones must have done after killing Sutpen. He figures he must have prepared himself for the men with guns and dogs who would come to hunt him down. Wash must have known he could never outrun them: he was much too old.
  • And here's the rest of that story: along came the men and the sheriff, Major de Spain, with dogs and lanterns.
  • Wash told them that, before whatever was about to go down went down, he just wanted to check in on his granddaughter. So he went into the house, got a butcher knife, and killed his granddaughter and her newborn daughter.
  • Holy. Moly.
  • The men outside later claimed that they could hear the sound of the knife on their neckbones. Ugh. Wash came out and started to attack the men with his scythe, too, but they overpowered him.
  • Well, that was intense.

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