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Absalom, Absalom! | Chapter 4 | Summary

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Summary

Quentin waits for night to fall before returning to Miss Rosa's house. He pictures the dark, grim place and the woman who lives in "impregnable solitude." While Quentin is sitting on the porch, Mr. Compson brings out a letter Charles Bon had long ago written to Judith. Judith wanted to save the letter, so she gave it to Quentin's grandmother for safekeeping. Later in the chapter Quentin will read the letter.

Mr. Compson explains Henry had met the older Charles in college, where Henry came to love him as a friend. It is implied Henry may have also had homosexual feelings for Bon. Henry adored Charles Bon so much he began to emulate his actions, his dress, and his sophisticated "manner of living." Judith is also taken with Charles. Although they spend little time together, when Charles and Judith first met at Christmas in 1859 they seem to become romantically attached to each other. Sometime in the months that follow they become engaged.

Mr. Compson tells what he thinks occurred at a critical turning point in the Sutpen family history. This event takes place in 1860 when Henry and Charles visit Sutpen's Hundred for the Christmas holiday. Mr. Compson describes Charles as an "intending bigamist," because Charles carries a picture of an octoroon woman and child. This seems to indicate Charles is already married.

Mr. Compson imagines the crucial confrontation during the 1860 Christmas holiday that occurred between Sutpen and Henry and caused Henry to forsake his father, inheritance, and home. The consequences of the revelations, Mr. Compson says, led Henry to "cast his lot with [his] single friend," though "he must have known ... that what his father had told him was true" and "that he was doomed and destined to kill [Charles]." This is the first time Henry is connected by name to the murder of Charles Bon. The reader learns, too, Sutpen had traveled to New Orleans (Charles's home) to confirm who and what he was. Mr. Compson thinks Sutpen was there to confirm Charles's marriage, though this assumption will later prove to be incomplete.

Henry refuses to believe what his father has told him even though on some level he knew "that it was the truth." Henry does not tell Charles about his break with his father because he does not want Charles to lie and deny what Henry senses is true. At the same time, Charles lets Henry know he will act in accordance with Henry's wishes regarding his marriage to Judith.

Henry and Charles then travel to New Orleans. Charles introduces Henry, the puritan country boy, to debauched and "voluptuous" behavior. During Henry's stay in New Orleans, Mr. Compson implies, Henry also found out the truth about Charles's marriage. Henry confirms Charles's marriage to the octoroon (one-eighth black) woman and is troubled by it. The mother of his son is part black, Charles states, so she doesn't count as a wife. His marriage is therefore not official and should not be seen as an obstacle to his marriage to Judith. Henry wants to believe all this, but he is terribly conflicted, telling himself, "I will believe! ... Whether it is true or not, I will believe!" Yet the more time Henry spends with Charles in New Orleans, the less Henry realizes he knows about his friend.

As he tries to figure out why Sutpen objected to Charles, Mr. Compson essentially throws up his hands and says, "They don't explain and we are not supposed to know." He mentions the clues that others have to try to understand the Sutpen tragedy, such as old tales and letters, "yet something is missing." He describes rereading, poring over the clues, but in the end, he says, people have "just the words, the symbols ... against that turgid background of a horrible and blooding mischancing of human affairs." He does, however, observe shrewdly that the bond between Henry and Judith was strong, and perhaps in wanting to believe in the possibility of a marriage between his close friend and his sister, Henry was fulfilling his own incestuous desires.

Henry and Charles return to college, but then the Civil War starts. They enlist together in the same regiment to fight for the Confederacy. Mr. Compson speculates both hoped the war would solve their problem. If one of them were killed in battle, their awful predicament would be resolved. Mr. Compson says Judith had no idea what transpired between Henry and his father. In the four years they fought in the war, Henry did not allow Charles to write to Judith. During the war years, Judith and Clytie (along with Wash Jones) live on the plantation, growing their own food and trying to survive as best they can. Then in 1863 Ellen dies. At war's end Judith gets the letter from Charles, and Miss Rosa moves into the mansion.

Mr. Compson finally gives Quentin the letter from Charles to Judith. It begins by describing the hardships of war and the shame of its loss. Referring to their engagement, Charles writes, "We have waited long enough." Yet he does not say when he will be able to come to see her, as he does not know. While bemoaning "the best of the South is dead," Charles writes, "I now believe that you and I are ... included among those who are doomed to live." The implication is the problem of Charles's first marriage, and Henry's conflicted thoughts about it, continue to live as well. Henry demands Charles renounce his first wife, but he refuses.

After receiving the letter, Judith and Clytie immediately begin sewing together whatever scraps of cloth they can find to make Judith's wedding dress. As he listens, Quentin imagines Henry and Charles returning to Sutpen's Hundred after the war. The chapter ends by repeating an event revealed in Chapter 3: Wash Jones is sitting on his mule outside Miss Rosa's house. The reader now additionally learns Wash tells Miss Rosa she must come with him because Henry has killed Charles Bon.

Analysis

This chapter is as much about Henry and Bon as it is about how Mr. Compson imagines them. His story is compromised by his lack of understanding of what Sutpen knew about Charles, why Sutpen went to New Orleans, and what he actually told Henry at that fateful encounter in the mansion library. Mr. Compson believes Sutpen told Henry only about Charles's octoroon first wife. He frequently uses phrases such as "I can imagine" and "must have [happened]" because he does not really know the truth of what occurred. Instead, he imagines what probably happened, using his own ideas and words. The passage in which he describes the clues others can use to try to piece together a story is exactly what Mr. Compson and Quentin are trying to do in the novel, and just what Faulkner demands of the reader.

Mr. Compson continues to view the characters as heroic, larger than life, "not dwarfed ... but distinct," not "diffused and scattered creatures drawn blindly ... from a grab bag and assembled." Here again there is a mythic dimension to the story that distinguishes it from a fallen present day.

Mr. Compson also states it is Ellen who initiates the supposed engagement of Judith to Charles Bon. Mr. Compson says the "formal engagement existed nowhere yet save in Ellen's mind." He views Ellen as concocting the engagement to free herself from "her unreal and weightless life." There is no evidence to substantiate Ellen's role as the sole instigator of the engagement. In fact, elsewhere in the chapter, Mr. Compson refers to Judith being transformed from a "blank shape, [an] empty vessel," a "young girl ... vague and dreamy" into a "mature woman in love ... [who had found] repose." The narrative is unclear as to which of these scenarios is true: Was Judith in love with Charles, or did Ellen manufacture the whole drama? What role did Henry and Bon play?

Mr. Compson uses the figure of Bon as a vehicle for a kind of social critique of the Southern world. Bon is an elegant, thoughtful, sardonic cosmpolitan; Henry is a passionate, unthinking, provincial clown. Mr. Compson supposes Bon "found Sutpen's action and Henry's reaction [to the news of Bon's marriage to be] a fetich-ridden moral blundering which did not deserve to be called thinking." He also describes Charles contemplating the Sutpen family from behind a barrier of sophistication "in comparison with which Henry and Sutpen were troglodytes." The long-imagined scenario of Bon introducing Henry to the world of New Orleans is a kind of allegory of innocence and experience. This seems to be a big preoccupation of Mr. Compson's.

The drama of Judith and Charles is evoked as a kind of dream. Henry has a "dream of change" in Charles Bon's circumstances. He hopes he will wake from this "dream" to find all the problems are resolved or have disappeared. The letter Judith received from Charles is finally revealed at the end of the chapter. In it Charles writes "the best of the South is dead" but he and Judith "are doomed to live." They must live on as ghosts in a dead world which has had its culture destroyed.

A gate divides the past from the future in this chapter—the gate at which Charles Bon is murdered. Charles and Henry ride side by side "to the gate of the mansion ... Inside the gate ... a young girl waited in a wedding dress." But Henry will not let Charles pass through: "Don't you pass the shadow of the [gate]post," Henry warns Charles. Charles replies, "I am going to pass it, Henry." For both of them, passing that gate would have life-altering consequences. Yet Henry's not allowing Charles to pass through the gate has its own devastating effects. At the end of the chapter, Wash Jones rides up to Miss Rosa's house to tell her Charles Bon has been killed. Clearly, Henry murdered Charles rather than let him pass through that gate.

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