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Absalom, Absalom! | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Absalom, Absalom! | Chapter 3 | Summary



Chapter 3 is again narrated by Mr. Compson, who is speaking to his son Quentin later the same afternoon. He mainly relates the stories of Miss Rosa's life and Ellen's married life. In telling these stories, Mr. Compson's narrative weaves back and forth in time. Faulkner introduces new characters and situations without explaining them. In particular the character Charles Bon is mentioned, but his role in the story is not elaborated here. He's described as a friend of Henry's from New Orleans who has a "worldly elegance and assurance" and whom Miss Rosa would never meet.

Miss Rosa's mother had died in childbirth, and her family is said never to have forgiven Miss Rosa for causing her mother's death. Miss Rosa was raised in her father's house by a spinster aunt, and thus grew up steeped in bitterness. She hated her father while living with him in their "grim mausoleum ... of puritan righteousness."

After the elopement of her spinster aunt, Miss Rosa begins to see more of the Sutpen family. By 1858 Ellen has "bloomed" and embraced her role as wife and mother in a great house. She is frequently seen out shopping with her "dreamy and volitionless" 17-year-old daughter, Judith. She calls upon the ladies of the town, including Miss Rosa. Ellen begins to live in "a world of pure illusion [as wife to] the wealthiest [man and as] mother of the most fortunate [children]." She acts like a "duchess," though she is also giggly and silly. Henry Sutpen and Charles Bon are away at college. Sutpen also leaves for a short time.

Over time Ellen and Judith visit Miss Rosa less and less frequently when they come to town. When she speaks of him at all, Ellen refers to Charles Bon as if he were an "inanimate object ... or furnishing." Yet the reader is introduced to the notion Judith will marry Charles Bon (whoever he is—the reader does not yet know very much about him, though he is mentioned, as when Mr. Compson states Miss Rosa never met him). Miss Rosa begins sewing clothes for Judith's trousseau. While she's working on the trousseau, Ellen stops visiting her.

Mr. Compson says "then something happened," but at that time nobody knew exactly what it was or who was involved. Whatever it was, it occurred during a second Christmas visit to the mansion by Henry and Charles the following year, 1860. The event was dire and momentous. The upshot of this "happening" is Henry renounces his father, his birthright, and the mansion. Henry leaves with Charles Bon, after which Ellen "retired to the darkened room which she was not to quit until she died two years later."

During this period, the Civil War is looming. News arrives of Lincoln's election and the firing on Fort Sumter (in April 1861). Miss Rosa, and likely most of the female characters, "scarce[ly] listens" to the news that is "the knell and doom of her native land." Thomas Sutpen enlists in 1861 with Colonel Sartoris's regiment to fight for the South. As the war progresses, Sutpen's slaves abandon Sutpen's Hundred and follow the Union soldiers away. The Sutpen mansion begins to fall apart.

Mr. Compson then tells Quentin about Mr. Coldfield and how he closed his store when troops began to appear in the town. Mr. Coldfield was a conscientious objector who refused to sell his goods to fighting men. Mr. Compson insists Mr. Coldfield "was not a coward" but "a man of uncompromising morality." Mr. Coldfield nails himself into the attic of his home. For a while, Miss Rosa (his daughter) sends up his food on a rope he pulls in through a window. But then, the reader is told, "he died." Mr. Compson speculates on why Mr. Coldfield starved himself to death. He says perhaps it was the sinful greed he showed in doing underhanded business with Sutpen. Then again, his suicide might have had another cause altogether.

After her father starves himself to death in 1864, Miss Rosa is both "an orphan and a pauper." She remembers Ellen's deathbed wish in 1863 that Miss Rosa "protect" Judith, so she moves out to Sutpen's Hundred, but she does not move right away. She goes after a character named Wash Jones, whose place in the story is not otherwise explained, rides to her house one day and calls her name. When she does go to Sutpen's Hundred, Miss Rosa finds Judith living with Clytie, Sutpen's daughter with a slave woman. She knows Henry has disappeared, but she does not know why.

Compson explains that Miss Rosa's disconnectedness and isolation in the world leads her to contemplate marriage with the "demon" Sutpen. This marriage is only alluded to, and the reason why Miss Rosa might possibly agree to marry Sutpen is not fully explained. It's impelled by a "catastrophe," but readers must wait to learn what form this event takes.


Readers should note this chapter is formatted differently from the previous one, though Mr. Compson is still the narrator. This chapter contains no quotation marks, so it's sometimes difficult to tell who is speaking. The chapter seems to be a continuation of the story as presented in Chapter 2.

This chapter begins with Mr. Compson's perspective on Miss Rosa's early life. Though his account is subjective, his story humanizes the tormented, hate-twisted woman the reader met in Chapter 1. However, as with the other narrators, Mr. Compson's version of Miss Rosa's life is not definitive. He rarely cites the sources he uses for the information he provides and frequently uses the words perhaps and doubtless to indicate how speculative this part of his narrative is.

It is Mr. Compson who compares the Sutpen story to a "Greek tragedy," meaning a tragedy fated to happen. These references reinforce the mythical qualities of the story previously introduced by Miss Rosa's talk of ogres and demons and by Mr. Compson's account of the creation of the mansion. They also highlight Mr. Compson's particular outlook and philosophy. For example, to speak about these events as a Greek tragedy elevates and ennobles the events. Yet the theatrical allusions also suggest the actors are merely actors—puppets controlled by some impersonal force of fate or history of which they, and Sutpen most of all, are ignorant.

The themes of racism and miscegenation are introduced in this chapter by the first mention of Clytie, Sutpen's child with one of his female slaves. Sutpen is said to have named all his "wild niggers" in order "to assimilate them." Clytie's full name is Clytemnestra, a figure from ancient Greek tragedy who murdered her husband (Agamemnon) and was then killed by her son (Orestes). Though the Greek Clytemnestra is sometimes portrayed as a noble woman, others interpret her character as vengeful and without remorse. In Absalom, Absalom!, as readers will discover, Clytie acts nobly, as a kind of glue that helps the Sutpen women survive the Civil War. In a sense, though, Clytie symbolically helps to kill Sutpen (her father). Like Wash Jones's granddaughter and the child Sutpen will beget upon her, she represents the utter callousness toward human life and dignity that will bring about his destruction. Clytie's actions at the end of the novel will give her more of the "remorseless" quality of her Greek namesake.

This chapter introduces the character Charles Bon. The reader is told very little in this chapter about who he is and how he figures in the Sutpen story. He is mysterious, "appear[ing] phoenix-like, fullsprung from no childhood, born of no woman, and impervious to time." Bon's mysterious origins are like Sutpen's: they appear seemingly out of nowhere and without explanation, forcing readers to do the same sort of investigation and speculation the characters must do.

The river again represents change. Charles Bon goes home to New Orleans via the river. Mr. Compson then states Sutpen was "away on business" just afterward. However, he also speculates Clytie knew Sutpen, too, had taken the river to follow Bon to New Orleans. What Sutpen confirms through this river journey will reshape his family and the events in the rest of the novel.

Finally, ghosts and dreams appear symbolically in this chapter. Faulkner refers to the dreamy unreality of life on Sutpen's Hundred several times. Ellen is described as having "succeeded at last in evacuating not only [her] puritan heritage but reality itself," having "escaped at last into a world of pure illusion." Mr. Compson says the daughter, Judith, was a "young girl dreaming, not living, in her complete detachment and imperviousness to actuality." The symbol of a dreamlike life and almost ghostly existence is underlined.

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