The Thomas Sutpen we come to know in Absalom, Absalom! only exists in the fragmented memories of the narrators: he is long dead when the story begins. But because our narrators are so rich with their stories and imaginative with their visions of Sutpen's life, we get a pretty good sense of who this guy is. He may be mysterious, but we have some ways to unravel him.
Before we get started, let's make sure we know what the basic deal is with this guy. The entire novel recounts, in a very fragmented way, his life plan ("design"), his dramatic rise, and his violent fall.
Sutpen's pivotal moment occurs when, as a young man, a black slave thwarts his attempt to enter the Pettibone mansion through the front door. The insult teaches the incredibly naïve Sutpen a lesson about race and class in the South and becomes the catalyst for his life's design. By acquiring money, slaves, land, and a wife, Sutpen sets out to prove that he is better than the man who barred his entry – better even than his owner.
This arrogant dude goes on to marry and father a son, only to discover that his wife (and thus his son) is part black. This becomes the deep, dark secret of his life (remember, we're in the nineteenth century here – the secrets of ABC Family teen dramas don't apply). After his failed effort to build a dynasty in Haiti, Sutpen moves to Jefferson, Mississippi, where he acquires a hundred square miles of land through a dubious deal with the local Indians.
Unfortunately for Sutpen, the town rejects him because, in Faulkner's words:
They feared him and they hated him because of his ruthlessness. He made no pretense to be anything else except what he was, and so he violated the local mores and they ostracized him […]. To me, he is to be pitied – he was not depraved – he was amoral, he was ruthless, completely self-centered. (Source .)
It's worth considering that Sutpen's own creator (Faulkner) saw him as someone worth pitying, someone who simply lacks moral insight. Sutpen behaves brutally, but he doesn't intend to be cruel – he is just pathologically egotistical. Do you agree? (Just for the record, it's okay not to agree with the author!)
Many critics see Sutpen, with his self-absorption and aristocratic superiority, as a symbol of the worst aspects of the South. Originally from West Virginia, Sutpen saw the Deep South as a place that would allow him to be what he wanted to be. In the South, he could treat people as he pleased, exploit his slaves, and rule his own dominion without guilt or accountability.
For those of you reading this south of the Mason-Dixon line, we apologize. We're just the messengers!
Over the course of the story, Sutpen has relationships with several women. Whether he loves them or not is really beside the point: they exist just to help Sutpen carry out his design by creating a respectable (and white) genealogy and history. Bottom line this guy needs sons.
Let's do a quick overview of Sutpen's ladies and children, just so we're all on the same page: (1) Sutpen's first wife is Eulalia Bon; she's part black (this is scandalous) and together, they have a son, Charles Bon. (2) At some point while he is building Sutpen's Hundred, he has another child – Clytemnestra, or Clytie – by a slave (again, scandalous). (3) With Ellen, his second wife, Sutpen has Judith and Henry (not scandalous…yet). (4) Sutpen's attempt to father a child with Miss Rosa is thwarted… by Rosa. (5) And finally, he has a child with Wash Jones' granddaughter, Milly. That daughter is murdered on the day she is born. (Needless to say: scandalous.)
In Miss Rosa's eyes, Sutpen is a depraved, sexually aggressive man. And he doesn't do much to squelch those opinions. Especially when he says things like this:
"I found that she was not and never could be, through no fault of her own, adjunctive or incremental to the design which I had in mind, so I provided for her and put her aside." (7.10)
But he approaches just about everything with a ruthless and domineering attitude: there is nothing he can't subdue. Even inanimate objects in the novel are described like women for Sutpen to dominate. In that sense, everything in Sutpen's path is like a submissive woman waiting to be controlled, even his house and land:
He was the biggest single landowner and cotton-planter in the county now, which state he had attained by the same tactics with which he had built his house – the same singleminded unflagging effort and utter disregard of how his actions which the town could see might look and how the indicated ones which the town could not see must appear to it. (3.11)
Despite the large number of narrators for this story, we never get any direct narration from our main man, Sutpen. The closest we get is the story he told Quentin's grandfather, General Compson in 1835 – Quentin's grandfather then told Quentin's father, who now tells Quentin (who eventually tells Shreve!). In this way, Sutpen reminds us how fragmented the whole story is. He's our main character – he's who the story is about, after all – but it takes at least three degrees of separation to get back to us.
Through the eyes of Quentin and Shreve, we can see that what we do get of Sutpen's story is missing a lot of information. As much as Sutpen remains deeply focused on his goals, he doesn't really seem to understand them, or himself. As he explains to General Compson:
You see, I had a design in my mind. Whether it was a good or a bad design is beside the point; the question is, Where did I make the mistake in it, what did I do or misdo in it, whom or what injure by it to the extent which this would indicate. I had a design. To accomplish it I should require money, a house, a plantation, slaves, a family – incidentally of course, a wife. (7.26)
Although he is very intent on fulfilling his design, Sutpen is ignorant of the world around him. He has virtually no education or social skills. And as his version of events to General Compson reveals, he acts on instinct and desire alone: he plunges into action without any thought of other people or of the ethical implications of his actions.
In his arrogant, self-absorbed inhumanity (yeah, we're not huge fans), Sutpen has no desire or intention to develop as a person or to be any kinder than the plantation owner who snubbed him – only richer. In trying to see what his mistake is, he passes right over it. We know he will never understand his own flaws, which makes him a tragic figure destined to fail. And fail (read: gruesomely die because of his arrogance) he does.