Absalom, Absalom! | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Absalom, Absalom! | Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

In September 1909 Miss Rosa Coldfield summons young Quentin Compson to her "airless" and "shuttered" home to tell him what she knows and how she feels about the plantation owner Thomas Sutpen. Miss Rosa wants Quentin to know her family's history before he leaves for Harvard College in Massachusetts. She fears history may be lost forever if she does not pass it on. Sutpen was the husband of Miss Rosa's sister, Ellen. Miss Rosa hates Sutpen for his ruthlessness and mistreatment of her sister (whom he married solely for the respectability she conferred on him), his family, and eventually Miss Rosa herself. She refers to Sutpen as a "demon," "devil," or "ogre." Miss Rosa is described as a "small figure in black" who is so physically fragile and tiny her feet are "clear of the floor" when she sits in a chair. A Methodist minister's daughter, she is extremely controlled, with an "air of impotent and static rage."

Quentin thinks about Miss Rosa's father, Goodhue Coldfield. He refused to fight in the Civil War, and he became a recluse and died in his attic. Quentin listens for hours as Miss Rosa tells of how Sutpen "first rode into town out of no discernible past" in 1833, acquired his 100-square-mile plantation ("Sutpen's Hundred"), and eventually chose to marry Ellen.

In an aside Quentin asks his father, Mr. Compson, why Miss Rosa chose to speak to him. Mr. Compson then says Miss Rosa will want Quentin's help later on. Mr. Compson also refers to his father's (and Quentin's grandfather's) friendship with Sutpen, as well as an "engagement that did not engage," a subject that will be further explained later in the novel.

Miss Rosa describes the two Sutpen children, Judith and Henry. She briefly mentions exile and murder in relation to Henry and a nonengagement in reference to Judith. She describes her sister's married life as "doomed" and a "desolation." That family's life, she says, was one of "formal and lifeless decorum," implying relationships were all on the surface, with no emotional attachment behind them. Miss Rosa talks about Sutpen as a man seeking "respectability" to protect him from "strangers who might come seeking him." Miss Rosa implies Sutpen's past contains some vile actions. He must protect himself from the "outrage" of others who know or find out about them. She speaks of the "wild" and "savage" black slaves he brought with him when he arrived in Mississippi and began building his plantation.

Miss Rosa became intimately involved in the family when Ellen, on her deathbed, asks Rosa to "Protect her. Protect Judith at least." In this role in the Sutpen family, Rosa comes to hate Sutpen even more intensely and to recognize how the family represents the "curse on the South ... on the land and the time already cursed." Rosa becomes involved in another aspect of Sutpen's "design" that feeds her hatred of him. The reader will learn more about that later in the novel.

The chapter ends with a description of Ellen's shock at having seen the fights Sutpen organized between his black slaves. She is aghast her children have witnessed such violence. Henry is put off by the fighting scenes, but Judith is riveted and not shocked or alarmed at all. Ellen is particularly shocked when she learns Sutpen himself sometimes fights one of his own slaves. The lack of compatibility between Sutpen and Ellen is underscored by Sutpen's seeming inability to comprehend Ellen's emotions. He claims, probably falsely, he had no idea his children had witnessed the fights.

Analysis

Miss Rosa's telling of the Sutpen story is presented primarily as a stream-of-consciousness narrative. Her thoughts are disjointed, and she introduces a variety of characters and events that, at this early stage in the book, are not explained.

Miss Rosa's narrative is also one of the clearest examples of the subjectivity of lived history. Her view of the history of the Sutpen family is extremely biased. Her account is also improbable, as her memories of the time when she was quite young are likely not wholly reliable. Miss Rosa's narrative is the most personal and emotionally fraught of all those in the book. She nurtures an intense hatred for Sutpen, whose actions bring nothing but destruction to anything and everything he touches. She sits "bolt upright" in her eternal black dress as if she must maintain her rigidity to prevent the violence of her hatred from tearing her apart. She even refers to his "doomed" children (her niece and nephew) as "half-ogre children." Miss Rosa states that during her sister's marriage Ellen lived a life of "tranquil and unwitting desolation ... as if she had never lived at all." She refers to Sutpen as "a demon ... who came out of nowhere and without warning ... [and] tore violently a plantation" from the land. As Quentin listens to Miss Rosa's account, he sees in his mind Sutpen and his slaves "overrun suddenly the hundred square miles of tranquil and astonished earth and drag [the plantation] ... violently out of the soundless Nothing."

Miss Rosa hates Sutpen for a "crime committed that would leave [her] family cursed to be instruments not only for that man's destruction" but for their own. Miss Rosa wonders what "crime" her grandfather or father may have committed that their family should have run afoul of Sutpen.

In her narrative Miss Rosa provides an outline of the entire story. But because her telling is so subjective, it will take the rest of the novel to make clear what she just hints at. Much of what Miss Rosa says in this chapter is not intended to be understood fully at this point. Not only are people and incidents only briefly touched on, they are presented in a highly personal and subjective way. What happened is known, and most of the events in the novel are presented in this first chapter. The essential question is: Why did these events happen? The answer to this question becomes clear as the narrative unfolds.

Miss Rosa's narrative also expresses the racial prejudice of the time and the way the South was cursed by the immorality of slavery. Sutpen's violent history is the history of the slaveholding South, whose slaveholders desperately need to achieve "respectability" to conceal and justify their barbarism. Miss Rosa's tale contributes to Faulkner's larger project of telling the story of the American South's rise and fall. She refers to Sutpen's slaves as "black beasts" and as a "band of wild niggers like beasts half tamed to walk upright like men." Yet Miss Rosa also recognizes slavery is the South's curse that led to the Civil War and to the region's ruination. She considers Sutpen and his actions the embodiment of the "curse" of the South that led to war: "Only through the blood of our men ... could He stay this demon." With men like Sutpen, she avers, "Is it any wonder that Heaven saw fit for us to lose [the war]?"

Miss Rosa had been watching Sutpen for decades, and she'd figured out how he used people to realize his ambition, his "design." This was particularly relevant to his treatment of her and her family. She understands "he needed respectability, the shield of a virtuous woman, to make his position impregnable," and she notes "it was mine and Ellen's father who gave him that." Rosa correctly identifies respectability as a key part of Sutpen's "design." After Ellen's marriage, because there was nothing else her father could provide him, "not even sheer gratitude ... could force him to forego his own pleasure."

Miss Rosa remembers the past as a dream and the people she knew in the past as ghosts. Sutpen and the war have destroyed everything. Memories of Sutpen and what he did are "nightmares" for Rosa. For Southerners, Faulkner suggests, the past is the only thing real.

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