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Absalom, Absalom! | Chapter 6 | Summary

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Summary

Chapters 6–9 take place in January 1910 at Harvard College in Massachusetts, in the room shared by Quentin and his roommate, Shreve. In answer to Shreve's question about why people choose to live in the South, the two young men discuss the history of the Sutpen family.

The story is told intermittently by Quentin and by Shreve. Quentin relates what he remembers hearing about the story from both Miss Rosa and Mr. Compson, his father. Some of the narrative in these chapters is taken up by Shreve, a Canadian. He summarizes and extrapolates his own version of events based on what he's heard from Quentin, prompting Quentin to think, "I have heard too much, I have been told too much; I have had to listen to too much, too long."

Shreve gives Quentin a letter that just arrived for him from his father. The letter announces the "painless" death of Miss Rosa Coldfield. Shreve wants to know if Miss Rosa was related to Quentin, and Quentin explains their relationship—she was an old lady he knew who "died young of outrage" in 1866. Shreve presses Quentin to tell the story of Miss Rosa and the Sutpen family.

Quentin begins his story by remembering going to the Sutpen mansion with Miss Rosa after her unsettling statement about things being "hidden" there. Shreve is amazed Quentin would go with her to find this "hidden" thing or person after decades of avoiding the mansion. Shreve, seeming to sum up what Quentin has told him so far, skims over Miss Rosa's history as a deprived child in a barren, loveless household. He describes how her father starved himself to death during the Civil War. Then Shreve reveals what Sutpen said to Miss Rosa that so insulted her she broke off their engagement: Sutpen had demanded Miss Rosa have sex with him until she became pregnant and bore him a son. Only then—when she had given him a male heir—would he marry her. The proposition justifiably outraged and insulted Miss Rosa, which is why she abandoned him and his family for the next 43 years.

The story of the "demon" Sutpen is retold in obvious amazement by Shreve, who questions parts of it. Quentin responds, "Yes" to the astounding story Shreve is retelling. Shreve understands, and Quentin confirms, Henry fled to avoid being hanged for murdering Charles Bon. He realizes Sutpen, now near 60 years old, clung to the "illusion that time and change had not elapsed" as he tried to rebuild his ruined plantation. Shreve references "the Creditor" and "Faustus" as higher (devil-like) powers with whom Sutpen sealed a bargain in order to achieve his ambition. Shreve even realizes with this "bargain" Sutpen had "set his children to destroying one another before he had posterity" and tried to remedy that by suggesting he and Miss Rosa "breed together for test and sample and if it was a boy they would marry."

Quentin notices Shreve's account makes him sound like Mr. Compson. "He sounds just like Father ... Just exactly like Father if Father had known as much about it the night before I went out there as he did the day after I came back." Quentin is referring to his discoveries from the trip he took to the old plantation with Miss Rosa. Quentin thinks of Sutpen's "hereditary evil" and of the "mad impotent old man who realized there are limits ... [even] on a demon."

After the war, Sutpen can no longer sustain himself and his family off the Hundred. He and Wash Jones open a small country store to try to eke out a living, but it does not do well. Sutpen becomes intensely frustrated at how little money he makes from the store, which sells goods mainly to freed blacks. Sutpen and Wash become drinking partners and rage about the humiliating defeat of the South. Quentin talks about the rusty scythe Sutpen lent to Wash and how it becomes the instrument of Sutpen's death because of yet another insult Sutpen utters: this time to Wash's granddaughter, Milly.

Quentin remembers Sutpen's death and how the man's body was taken to the church. The mules pulling the wagon are whipped so savagely the wagon overturns and Sutpen's coffin spills onto the road. Eventually, Sutpen is in his grave and Judith, tearless, says a few words at the gravesite.

This reminds Quentin of the time he and his father visited the graves of Thomas, Ellen, and Judith Sutpen and viewed their tombstones. Judith had also bought a tombstone for Charles Bon. The grave of Charles Bon's son by his octoroon wife, Charles Etienne St. Valery Bon, was also there.

It seems Judith had written to Charles Bon's widow, who brought her son with her to visit his grave. She is a "magnolia -faced woman," but her thin and delicate 11-year-old son seems lonely and despondent. When his mother dies in New Orleans, Clytie travels there to bring the boy to live at the plantation. The 12-year-old French-speaking boy cannot communicate with the others in the mansion, and he becomes withdrawn and morose. The boy is traumatized, and Judith treats him "with a cold unbending detached gentleness," without love or much attention. He is cared for, but without affection. Judith and Clytie believe he is at least one-sixteenth black because of his parentage.

Charles Etienne has a miserable childhood in Mississippi, which affects his self-worth and his racial identity. His mixed blood is a curse. As a young man, he hangs out with black men, but they seethe at the sight of him and he sometimes gets in fights. The (white) justice system seems to identify him as white; after he is arrested, the justice calls him a "white man." Quentin's grandfather gets the indictment quashed, so Charles Etienne is freed from jail. He spends a short time at the plantation but then disappears for a year.

Charles Etienne returns to the plantation with a woman who has dark black skin, who some refer to as "apelike," and who is portrayed as uneducated, even backward. His wife bears Charles Etienne a son, Jim Bond, who like his mother is described as slow-witted; he is light-skinned. Charles Etienne flaunts his dark-skinned wife before blacks and whites alike, as if wanting to provoke them. Judith offers Charles Etienne money to move North, but he refuses. He stays to live with his wife in "the Gethsemane which he had decreed and created for himself, where he had crucified himself." Meanwhile, Clytie takes Jim Bond under her wing and teaches him how to farm and do other tasks on the plantation.

Soon both Charles Etienne and Judith are struck down by yellow fever, and both die of the disease. Jim Bond remains and helps Clytie out on the plantation. When the story picks him up later, Bond is in his 20s and Clytie is a keen-eyed, sharp-witted, but wizened old lady who lives on the plantation with him.

Analysis

The narrative layers become very difficult to disentangle in this chapter, with italics and parentheses marking shifts between past and present, speech and thought, but not providing much more clarity than that. For example, in the long italicized passage beginning "Just exactly like Father," the participle thinking apparently refers to Quentin, who'd just been "glancing" and "smelling" and "seeing," but the passage also describes Sutpen as a "demon" (Miss Rosa's language, picked up by Shreve), refers to "whatever dragon's outcropping of Sutpen blood the son might sow" (recalling how in Chapter 3 Mr. Compson spoke of Sutpen's "ironic fecundity of dragon's teeth"), and includes mention of "Faustus" and "the Creditor" (terms Shreve introduces in his retelling of the story). So whose voice (or interior monologue) is this in the italicized passage? It's not Quentin's, or not exactly, since unlike Quentin's this voice doesn't know if Henry is alive or dead ("if the son still lived").

Further complicating the narration is the fact Shreve is an outsider, not a Southerner, and so cannot really understand what's going on. At the same time, as an outsider, he has some distance from the events he has learned about from Quentin and can offer special insights into them.

The novel continues to represent a picture of the South itself. Sutpen, once a big landowner, is reduced to a small-time storekeeper, his social status not much higher than Wash Jones's. Now, with the introduction of Shreve's character, Quentin also becomes the stand-in for the early 20th-century Southern male. Shreve treats him like an authority on a world in which Quentin was simply born.

The chapter opens with Quentin receiving a letter telling him Miss Rosa has died, and much of the chapter refers to the death of various characters. Death is related to the failure of Sutpen's ambition. Quentin says "when [Sutpen] came back home ... [he] found his chances of descendants gone." So Sutpen turns to Miss Rosa as his last chance (or so he thinks) to produce a (white) heir, but he insults her unforgivably by asking her to prostitute herself. Even if she agreed to have sex with him, had the child she bore been a girl, Sutpen would have abandoned her and the child. Sutpen thus wanted to use her only to help him continue his "empire" and fulfill his lifelong ambition. He is even described as a "Caesar" intent only on maintaining this empire.

When Miss Rosa flees Sutpen and his plantation in outrage and horror, the total ruination of Sutpen's ambition becomes clear. Other parts of the chapter refer to the tombstones of all the members of Sutpen's family who have died, including Ellen, Judith, and Charles Bon. Yet none of them had, or were accepted as having, produced an heir for Sutpen. In some ways it was Sutpen himself who prevented them from producing the heir he so desperately wanted. Shreve states Sutpen had "set his children to destroying one another before he had posterity."

General Compson offers to help Charles Etienne relocate to the North, but Charles Etienne refuses. Perhaps he is determined to be what he is—or to be accepted as a white man—in his native South. Yet Charles Etienne does leave the plantation for a while (though no one knows where he's gone.) When he returns to the plantation after his time away, Charles Etienne is married, and his wife is described as "coal black," simpleminded, and "ape-like." It is as if Charles Etienne has aligned himself with a stereotype of blackness. He "flaunts" her everywhere he goes, as if daring others to say something disparaging so he can fight them. And so, despite having a "body and limbs almost as light and delicate as a girl's, [Charles Etienne gives] the first blow" when racial slurs are flung at him. He fights with "fury and implacability and physical imperviousness to pain and punishment ... laughing." He knows no other way to relate to the world because of how it has boxed him in.

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