Study Guide

Absalom, Absalom! Themes

  • Family

    Faulkner is obsessed with dysfunctional families, in particular dysfunctional Southern families. And boy do we get that in Absalom, Absalom!. This family tree is full of intertwining and incestuous branches that make the genealogy very complicated. And on top of all the confusion, family is far from a happy place in this novel. Instead, we see a son who disowns his father, a man who kills his brother, a husband who abandons his wife and child… the list goes on. And pretty much everyone's guilty. Sutpen might even be the worst offender, though, since he's using his family (or potential family) just to build his dynasty. Of course, we know how that turned out for him. So maybe Faulkner is trying to remind us: be nice to your fam, no matter how nuts they may be. Otherwise you might get killed with a scythe – or something like that.

    Questions About Family

    1. Do any of <em>Absalom, Absalom!</em>'s characters see family as a priority?
    2. What is the most dysfunctional aspect of the Sutpen family?
    3. Why would anyone want to marry into the Sutpen family?
    4. Do any families in the novel seem "normal" or have any positive associations?
    5. Which type of family relationship (parent-child; sibling-sibling; husband-wife) is the most messed up in this novel?

    Chew on This

    Sutpen is a family man: by ignoring Charles Bon, he's just trying to protect his other children, Henry and Judith.

    Yeah right. Sutpen cares about no one other than himself. Family is on the priority list right below "stage fights between slaves."

  • The Home

    As is almost always the case in literature, the home in Absalom, Absalom! is about more than just having a roof over one's head. Many of the novel's characters are seeking both a place to live and a sense of belonging, a source of food and a source of support. Sutpen is under the mistaken impression that by building an enormous mansion he will create a feeling of home for himself. But because of his ego and misguided ambition, he is able to build a house but never creates a sense of home. The thing about a home is that it can never be destroyed: a house, on the other hand, most certainly can (and in this novel, most certainly is).

    Questions About The Home

    1. What is the difference between a house and a home in the novel?
    2. How is Sutpen's house like a character in the story? How is it described?
    3. What are the positive and negative associations with houses in <em>Absalom, Absalom!</em>?
    4. Check out our discussion of "Houses" as a symbol. Do you agree with our interpretation? What might you add?

    Chew on This

    Homes serve many symbolic purposes in the novel, but it's never associated with domestic comfort.

    The idea of the home is not a feminine one in this novel; it carries a very masculine implication.

  • Time

    In case you didn't notice (i.e. you didn't read the book), Absalom, Absalom! really messes with narrative and the passage of time. Instead of any sort of chronology, we get the same story told from several different perspectives. Often throughout the story, time simply collapses: people find themselves haunted by past events, sometimes even living through characters who died long ago. Lucky for us, Faulkner decided to include a chronology with this masterpiece. But we suggest you read it first without the help – after all, that's how it's meant to be read.

    Questions About Time

    1. What is the difference between the novel's plot and the actual chronology of events?
    2. What role does time play in the execution of Sutpen's design?
    3. Do the characters behave as though they are outside of time? Or are they trapped by time?

    Chew on This

    The order of events is irrelevant: this is a story about characters, not actions.

    We read about Sutpen's arrival in Jefferson so many times, from so many different narrators, that it seems almost like a moment frozen in time.

  • Ambition

    Sutpen's ambition (referred to as his "design") drives the entire story of Absalom, Absalom!. His formative experience at the door of a white man's mansion changes the direction of his life. And from that point on, Sutpen is determined to have a big estate, money, and unrivaled power. But Sutpen's greatest strength is also his greatest weakness (great for job interviews!): he will let nothing stop him from building Sutpen's Hundred according to his vision, even if that means buying slaves, abandoning his wife and child, and repudiating his wife. In the end, Sutpen's ambition isn't realized because it's flawed: his inhumanity in the face of his ambition is what kills him in the end.

    Questions About Ambition

    1. What drives most of the novel's characters? Is anyone else as ambitious as Sutpen?
    2. For Sutpen, is there a difference between ambition and revenge?
    3. What are the main elements that thwart Sutpen's ambitions?

    Chew on This

    Sutpen's ambition grows out of the naïve belief that people can completely recreate their lives. He fails to consider that some people do not want to be puppets in the service of someone else's plan.

    Other characters in the novel are just as ambitious as Sutpen, but they just aren't as amoral or resourceful.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    Sutpen's grand design is thwarted, but he is not the only one driven to accomplish a goal. Everyone in Absalom, Absalom! has hopes and plans, but few are realized. The women dream of being married, the sons want recognition from their fathers, and everyone wants more money and power. In the end, it's actually Sutpen's plan that ruins everything for the rest of them: Judith's desire to marry Charles Bon (and her mother's drive to make that happen), Miss Rosa's hope for a husband, Henry's plans to gain Charles Bon as a brother-in-law, and Wash Jones' aim to marry into the Sutpen dynasty. Way to stomp on everyone's dreams, Sutpen. It's amazing how much power one man can have.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. How do characters' plans get in the way of their happiness?
    2. Do anyone of the characters' hopes come true? Why or why not?
    3. Whose dreams clash, and whose dreams (if any) coincide?

    Chew on This

    It's never clear what Quentin hopes to gain from learning Sutpen's full story.

    Wash Jones is one of the novel's most pathetic and sympathetic characters. He dreams of being accepted by Sutpen, who ruthlessly exploits his ignorance of the truth.

  • Memory and the Past

    Nobody knows Sutpen's entire story. The narratives we read in Absalom, Absalom! – whether second-hand or fourth-hand – are all very partial and flawed through the influence of sorrow, bitterness, regret and revenge. The notion of the past is tied up with the crises that the various characters experienced. The past bears down very strongly on the present, and no one can escape Sutpen's influence. In fact, the narrators' version of events is more about misremembering and fantasy than recounting facts. All of the characters are at once overly intimate with their own pasts and completely incapable of representing reality. Sound complicated? That's because it is.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Who is the story's most reliable narrator of past events?
    2. How does memory get in the way of reality in <em>Absalom, Absalom!</em>?
    3. Which characters are reconciled with the past? Does anyone seem able to "move on"?

    Chew on This

    The entire story is based on people's memories. As "living" as Sutpen is to the reader, we never actually seem him in real time.

    Miss Rosa would have been a lot happier if she didn't spend so much time dwelling on the past.

  • Race

    Most of Absalom, Absalom! is set in and around the American Civil War, so it's no wonder there's a lot of talk about race. Mostly, it seems to be an issue for Sutpen: it's the wrench in his otherwise flawless plan. As a child, Sutpen is unaware of racial hierarchies, but he quickly learns about inferiority and adopts a radical interpretation for himself. Brace yourself for a whole lot of racism in this one.

    The novel presents many combinations of race, from black to white and everything between. But there's one thing that's glaringly missing: no one with black blood gets to tell their own version of events. What's this all about? How would it change the story if we got to hear from Charles Bon or Clytie, for example?

    Questions About Race

    1. How does race play into Sutpen's undoing?
    2. What exactly is Sutpen's problem with black people? Why does he shift from someone unaware of race to someone obsessed with it?
    3. Why do only white people get to narrate the story?
    4. When does Charles Bon discover that he is part black? And how do you think this affects him?
    5. Would Henry have accepted an incestuous marriage between Charles and Judith if Charles didn't have mixed blood?

    Chew on This

    Charles Bon never reflects on his race, which is strange because everyone else is obsessed with it.

    William Faulkner is a racist, no questions asked.

  • Society and Class

    When he comes down out of the mountains of West Virginia as a young man, Sutpen realizes that not only are blacks considered inferior to whites, but poor whites are considered inferior to rich ones. (As he bitterly learns at the door of the white man's mansion, not all whites are created equal.) Because Sutpen comes to Jefferson without any social connections or money, he must marry into them: he believes that having money and the right wife will bring him power. He's definitely right in some respects, and he gets his rags-to-riches story, but at what cost? Absalom, Absalom! is clearly a story about the danger of racism, but we can't forget about the classism that tinges the whole story, too.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. What factors go into considering someone's class in Jefferson society?
    2. What does Faulkner suggest about a person's ability to transcend class levels?
    3. Is Sutpen more preoccupied by race or by class?

    Chew on This

    Sutpen's preoccupation with social status is second only to his concerns about race.

    Rags to riches? No way. Try rags to premature, violent death.

  • Contrasting Regions: The South

    Characters in Absalom, Absalom! can never transcend their origins: Sutpen will always be a country rube; Quentin, though at Harvard, will always be from the South – which fascinates his Northern roommate, Shreve; Charles Bon is very much a product of the cosmopolitan city of New Orleans where he grew up. The list goes on. Bottom line: characters are very influenced by the regions where they live, and each place represents very different qualities. We won't go into too much detail here (check out the "Quotes" for a bunch of examples), but we will say this: don't be fooled by discussions of "the South" – in Absalom, Absalom! every state, every city, every home has its own unique identity.

    Questions About Contrasting Regions: The South

    1. In what ways do the characters in <em>Absalom, Absalom! </em>embody the beliefs of the regions from which they come?
    2. What do we learn about regional America from reading this novel? Do you feel like you understand the nineteenth-century South any better after reading it? Or is everything too subjective to really give you a solid idea?
    3. Does Faulkner favor the South over the North? Or vice versa?

    Chew on This

    No matter how much he criticizes, it's clear from his tone that William Faulkner loves the South.

    The regions we see throughout the novel are imagined: they are not real geographical spaces.