Absalom, Absalom! | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Absalom, Absalom! | Chapter 5 | Summary

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Summary

This chapter is narrated by Miss Rosa as she describes what happened after Wash Jones fetched her to Sutpen's Hundred. She is telling Quentin about the events that occurred after Charles Bon was murdered, when Miss Rosa is living in the Sutpen mansion. Ellen has been dead for two years, so the events in this narrative occur in 1865. Miss Rosa recounts the story with the burning bitterness and hatred she's always had for Sutpen, who, she will explain, ruined her family. The mansion, too, is a ruin.

When Miss Rosa arrives at the mansion, she rushes inside expecting to see Henry. Instead she first sees Clytie and her "coffee-colored" Sutpen face standing "rocklike ... antedating time and house and doom and all." Clytie's "immobile antagonism" stops Miss Rosa in her tracks, though Miss Rosa calls out for Judith. Clytie tries to prevent Miss Rosa from going up the stairs, even grabbing her wrist to stop her. Outraged "at the black arresting ... hand on my white woman's flesh," Miss Rosa launches into a racist rant. Filled with "amazement and outrage at that black arresting and untimorous hand on my white woman's flesh," she says, "Take your hands off me, nigger." She thinks of the situation as a "nightmare" from which she will awaken. She realizes she is too late to "protect" Judith as she had promised Ellen she would.

Judith calls to Miss Rosa from the second floor, and she races up the stairs. Judith is standing in front of a closed bedroom door holding a small picture. Miss Rosa then gets a bit sidetracked in her story as she begins to reminisce. She tells Quentin some things about her "barren" youth, when she felt almost as if she did not exist. She then recalls or imagines the time Henry brought Charles to the mansion, though she admits she never saw Charles then—or ever. Yet Miss Rosa speaks about the time in 1860 when, on New Year's day, Henry and Charles stop at her home. She does not see Charles then (or ever), but his existence stirs a kind of "romantic quickening" in her. It's possible she fell in love with the idea of Charles, the elegant stranger she's never seen. Back in her recollection from 1865, Miss Rosa does not go into the closed room Judith is blocking, but the reader knows Charles's dead body is in there when men "carr[y] the coffin up the stairs" and into the room. Throughout, Miss Rosa describes Judith as "cold and tranquil," noting "she did not even weep" at Bon's makeshift funeral.

Miss Rosa stays at the mansion with the two other women, waiting for Thomas Sutpen to return. They know when he comes back he will try to rebuild his plantation and mansion. The three women live "like nuns" or three "creatures," surviving by their own labor. Their hand-to-mouth existence lasts seven months, until Sutpen rides up on his horse. Miss Rosa then makes a strange and unbelievable statement—that she "became engaged to marry him [Sutpen]"—an astonishing turn of events.

Sutpen asks Judith where Henry is, and she tells him Henry murdered Charles Bon, then ran away and is not at the mansion. Judith weeps for Henry, as she had not done for Charles. Miss Rosa describes Sutpen as a "shell" who is barely present. Yet he begins almost immediately, as Miss Rosa had predicted, to try to rebuild his plantation. His will and determination to rebuild are steely as he focuses solely on resurrecting his plantation. Miss Rosa notes that, unlike other men in the county, Sutpen "kept clear of the sheets and hoods" of the Ku Klux Klan, and he avoided or ignored the carpetbaggers who began to overrun the South. With Wash Jones and a few other men, Sutpen evaluates the state of his empire. They work tirelessly to bring the plantation back to its former condition.

One afternoon, Sutpen begins looking strangely at the 19-year-old Miss Rosa. Then, astonishingly, Sutpen asks her to marry him. Though she has hated him all her life, Miss Rosa longs for something resembling a life for herself, so she consents. She realizes she's the only marriageable white woman available to Sutpen, and she desperately wants to change the barrenness of her life. He gives her an engagement ring, but then neither looks at nor speaks to her for two months—as if she's not there. After two months of silence, on the day when Sutpen realizes just how much (or how little) of his land he will be able to save and keep, he suggests something to Miss Rosa that grossly insults her. Miss Rosa leaves the mansion, abandoning the family.

Back in her own house, Miss Rosa is destitute. She survives by scavenging or by stealing vegetables from her neighbors' gardens. She refuses, however, to accept gifts of food from her neighbors, as she doesn't want charity. Miss Rosa tells Quentin about her disbelief when she learns Thomas Sutpen is dead.

By the end of the chapter, Quentin is barely listening to Miss Rosa. He is imagining what must have happened in the mansion when Henry ran in to tell Judith and Clytie he'd killed Charles Bon. Quentin imagines Henry saying to Judith, "Now you can't marry him ... Because he's dead ... I've killed him."

Finally, when Quentin is again listening to Miss Rosa she tells him "There's something in that house ... hidden in it." It's a disquieting, almost terrifying revelation.

Analysis

As with Miss Rosa's previous narration, this chapter is written in the stream-of-consciousness technique: it is largely presented in italics and contains no dialogue tags such as "Miss Rosa said." It is possible the narrator is Quentin as he thinks about his conversation with Miss Rosa from earlier in the afternoon.

In this chapter Miss Rosa repeatedly references what others may have said about her. For example, she'll say "So they will have told you [Quentin] doubtless already how." As the chapter unfolds, Miss Rosa fleshes out the character of Sutpen and reveals part—but not all—of the reason her hatred for him has grown so poisonous. She seems quite preoccupied with the stories circulating about her.

Wash drives Miss Rosa up to the gate of the mansion. As in other parts of the book, passing through the gate refers to change; it will shatter Miss Rosa's life. She will be changed forever in her hatred of Sutpen will intensify and become all-consuming.

Miss Rosa reveals her racism when she enters the mansion and Clytie tries to stop her from going upstairs. Rosa describes Clytie as having "rocklike ... antagonism" toward her, which in some ways echoes Miss Rosa's own hatred of Sutpen. Clytie is, after all, a Sutpen herself. Miss Rosa is outraged and offended when Clytie uses her first name—"Don't you go up there, Rosa"—and dares to tell her, a white woman, what she can or cannot do. Clytie's touch seems to break the ghostly spell Miss Rosa and others live under in their solitude. Faulkner emphasizes this point by saying the touch of flesh cuts through decorum and causes the "eggshell shibboleths of caste and color" to fall away. (A shibboleth is an empty phrase shared by a particular group.) Though the touch outrages her, it also reminds Miss Rosa she shares a humanity with Clytie—a reminder too disturbing for her to contemplate.

Later, Miss Rosa wonders why she stayed on at the mansion after Charles Bon is buried. Perhaps, she thinks, she should have left to be in town with those "who were at least of my own kind ... who thought [of race] ... as my forbears thought." Instead of leaving, though, Miss Rosa stays to wait for Sutpen to return from the war. During this period at the mansion, Miss Rosa admits the three women became "as one being, interchangeable and indiscriminate." The hardship of the war and its aftermath seem to reconfigure social relationships: everyone is joined in the struggle for survival. Living with Clytie seems to allow Miss Rosa to give up at least some of her inherent racism. Miss Rosa describes her relationship with Clytie during this time: "She and I were open ... honorable enemies"—a description which may indicate at least some improvement in her racist attitude.

When, after the women have been scraping a living together for seven months, Sutpen returns, his renewed ambition, brazen but calculating, is shocking yet at the same time heroic. When Sutpen hears of Henry's murder of Charles Bon, he seems unmoved, with "the same face ... the same ruthless eyes" he'd always had. He is too preoccupied with his undertaking to restore his house and plantation. Miss Rosa describes his "incorrigibility of undefeat" and even begins to view Sutpen as "not the ogre ... but a mortal fallible one less to invoke fear than pity." While his efforts are doomed, he is nonetheless admirable, like literary antiheroes such as Milton's Satan and Melville's Captain Ahab.

Throughout this chapter, there is a sense of unreality even as the references to the Ku Klux Klan root it in the history of the South. Miss Rosa's time at the mansion is sometimes referred to as a "dream" because life is unrecognizably changed. Especially after Sutpen proposes marriage to her, Miss Rosa refers to the dreamlike quality of what has happened. She calls Sutpen's life a "mad dream" that impels him to the impossible task of trying to rebuild his plantation. Rosa recognizes his "design," his "compelling dream" as insane. Yet Miss Rosa misunderstands Sutpen's motives when she says, "O furious old man, I hold no substance that will fit your dream." Readers must wait to learn how Sutpen sees her fitting into his all-consuming "design."

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