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Absalom, Absalom! | Chapter 2 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 2 occurs later on the same day as Chapter 1, after Quentin has returned from Miss Rosa's. The chapter is told both by the omniscient narrator and from the point of view of Mr. Compson, Quentin's father. He tells Quentin the story of Thomas Sutpen's early years in Yoknapatawpha County. Mr. Compson has been told much of this by his father (Quentin's grandfather), General Compson.

Sutpen arrived in the county in 1833, when he was about 25 years old. At this time, no one knows him, where he comes from, or anything else about him. Mr. Compson describes him as looking "sick," as though he had been "through some solitary furnace experience which was more than a fever." Sutpen is a big, gaunt man with a short reddish beard and "alert, ruthless" eyes. Sutpen seems impoverished, but his "secret and furious impatience" to realize his "design" will soon change that. Townspeople ask Sutpen questions about himself, but he discloses nothing. When they learn Sutpen has bought his 100-square-mile plantation from some American Indians "with gold Spanish coin," they are astounded.

Sutpen leaves his newly acquired land and travels somewhere via the Mississippi River. Sometime later, he returns with a French architect and 20 "wild negroes." Sutpen has the architect design his mansion, and eventually Sutpen and his slaves begin to build it. During this period Sutpen and his black slaves are almost indistinguishable, all going naked except for a coating of dried mud. As Miss Rosa told Quentin, "[they were] distinguishable one from another by his beard and eyes alone and only the architect resembling a human creature." This observation reinforces the idea, propounded mainly by Miss Rosa, that Sutpen was "uncivilized."

After two years of intense and backbreaking labor, Sutpen's mansion is completed. Sutpen lives alone in the windowless, doorless, unfurnished house for three years. He often invites the men of the county to visit his mansion, where they play cards and drink. He also arranges fights between his male slaves that are popular entertainment for the visiting men of the county. Sometimes, to the shock of the onlookers, Sutpen himself fights with one of his slaves—usually winning the fight. During this period, Sutpen seems to blur or be uninterested in the difference between white and black men. The difference doesn't seem to matter to him; he seems to vie the racial caste system as a luxury for the wealthy and well-established. Yet it is the difference between the races that will prove to be his undoing when, later, he is forced to be acutely aware of race.

Sutpen's slaves clear the land and plant cotton. While they work the fields, Sutpen oversees the work from his perch on a horse. A rumor goes around Sutpen wants to marry for money. But the county learns it is not wealth Sutpen wants in a wife, it is respectability. Sutpen targets Goodhue Coldfield, a puritanical Methodist minister, as the father of a prospective bride. Coldfield is not rich, but in his "Puritan uprightness" he is unquestionably respectable. Sutpen determines to marry Ellen Coldfield.

Sutpen originally arrived via the river with his slaves. After he decides to marry, Sutpen disappears by traveling on the river. When he returns, he brings with him windows, doors, lavish furnishings, rugs, drapery cloth, chandeliers, and all the other fancy accoutrements needed for life in a fine mansion. He stays at the town hotel, brings flowers to the Coldfield family home, and emerges from there officially engaged to Ellen. But when he leaves the Coldfield home he is arrested. The townsfolk think Sutpen must have broken the law in order to have acquired such rich furnishings for his house. General Compson and Mr. Coldfield intercede and have Sutpen released on bail. Sutpen is never indicted or brought to trial, so no one knows how he got the money to furnish his mansion. A few months later, in June 1838, Sutpen marries Ellen Coldfield.

Ellen weeps on the day of her wedding, possibly because nobody in town attends; the church is empty and instead the townsfolk assemble outside. Mr. Compson claims Ellen's tears are not because she is marrying Sutpen. But when the ceremony is over and Ellen gets into a carriage, some townsmen throw clods of dirt at the carriage and at Sutpen, who stands "motionless" throughout. Ellen begins to cry again, but the mob disperses. Sutpen "did not forget that night," and he never again invited the townsmen to his mansion for parties.

Analysis

Chapter 2 is primarily narrated by Mr. Compson, Quentin's father. General Compson, Quentin's grandfather, was the closest thing to a friend Sutpen ever had. So Mr. Compson's telling of Sutpen's story gives the reader a fuller (and somewhat more positive) view of the man and the events surrounding him. This new perspective on Sutpen may offer a more balanced view of the man. But as with all subjective history, it is hard to know what is true and what isn't. The story Mr. Compson tells is secondhand. So just as parts of Miss Rosa's account might be true or untrue (given the bias created by the intensity of her feelings), parts of Mr. Compson's account may also be true or untrue, depending on what he remembers of the things he heard from his father. Throughout the novel, readers must bear in mind that what each narrator says may contain kernels of truth as well as fabrications based on rumors or bias. Readers should also note instances in which Compson's narrative references and affirms or denies the validity of things Miss Rosa says in Chapter 1.

Mr. Compson's telling is far less emotional and far more matter-of-fact than the tale told by Miss Rosa. This does not necessarily mean his version of events contains more truth or is more reliable; he simply has a more unemotional, down-to-earth character. In Mr. Compson's telling, Sutpen is not the evil force Miss Rosa depicted. Instead he is like a "visionary" who is "alert" and "ruthless." Sutpen is drawn as a character who is "a slave of his secret and furious impatience" and determined to make his mark. He is fixated on his ambitious "design," and his will to achieve it is powerful and indomitable. To this end, Sutpen is said to have "alertness for measuring and weighing event against eventuality, circumstance against human nature" to see his ambition fulfilled. He is cold and calculating in pursuit of his ambition.

Mr. Compson, like Rosa, recognizes Sutpen sought a wife to cement his reputation as a respectable gentleman. Also like Rosa, Mr. Compson admits Sutpen's "design" to realize his ambition was cold and calculating even in choosing a wife. In fact, the women of Jefferson remark "he had now come to town to find a wife exactly as he would have gone to the Memphis market to buy livestock or slaves." To achieve his aim, he allies himself with the one man in town with whom he has nothing in common: an upright minister. In matters of marriage and childbearing, the novel's women are emblematic of all women in the antebellum South: they figure only as the means to one end or another, whether it is respectability or a son and heir.

Mr. Compson states that the townsfolk thought of Sutpen in terms of "ruthlessness rather than justice and of fear rather than respect." But the town overcomes its fear when Sutpen disappears on the Mississippi River again, returning with lavish furnishings for his mansion. The river here, as elsewhere in the book, signals a significant change in events or conditions. Characters in the book who travel on the river are almost always changed by some event or new realization. Here, too, Sutpen's river journey changes not only his fortunes—he now has the belongings to set up a household fit for a pure Southern wife—but the way the townsfolk view him. After Sutpen's mistaken arrest, Mr. Coldfield is able to have Sutpen freed from jail. Having Mr. Coldfield vouch for his innocence reinforces Sutpen's respectability, and thus furthers his "design."

Sutpen may have gained respectability through his new wife and her family, but he has earned the enmity of most of the townspeople, as demonstrated by the empty church and the men throwing dirt clods. Ellen weeps, but Sutpen does not care. She and the townsfolk are immaterial to his design, so he is indifferent to what they do or what they think.

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