Absalom, Absalom! | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Absalom, Absalom! | Chapter 7 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 7 takes place in the cold room where Quentin and Shreve are talking together at Harvard College. Shreve is fascinated by Quentin's story, but Quentin is quiet and brooding. He is relating what he's presumably heard from his father, who heard it in turn from his father (General Compson), who heard it from Sutpen. Although parts of the story may have been changed somewhat in all its retellings, it's the first time the basic tale comes from Sutpen himself.

Quentin takes up the story at the time when Sutpen was building his mansion. The French architect can no longer stand working for Sutpen, and he tries to escape through the swamp. With the help of General Compson (Quentin's grandfather), some men and their dogs, and Sutpen's 20 "wild" slaves, Sutpen tracks down the architect and brings him back to finish the job. During the prolonged search for the Frenchman, Sutpen tells General Compson some things about his past life.

Sutpen was born to a dirt-poor family in the mountains of western Virginia (West Virginia was not yet a state). When Sutpen was 10 years old, his father moved the family south and east to work on a plantation in the Tidewater region of Virginia. Quentin stresses the "innocence" of young Thomas Sutpen. He is ignorant of social class and even racial distinctions. He can't imagine people owning land or having the power to make others work for them while they live in leisure. He thinks some people are born lucky or rich and others aren't, and it's just a matter of chance and nothing by which to judge a rich man as better or superior to a poor one. He thinks "only a crazy man" would "want more than he could eat or swap for powder and whiskey."

On the Tidewater plantation, the family is still impoverished. Crucially, it is on the Virginia plantation where Sutpen first notices the plantation owner spends much of his time in a hammock, while a black slave constantly fans his owner to keep him cool. Sutpen also notes the black slave is better dressed and better fed than he and his white family. Yet Sutpen still has his innocence because he had no envy.

Thomas Sutpen's life changes on the day his father tells him to bring a message to the plantation owner. Wearing his usual ragged clothes, Sutpen knocks on the front door of the plantation house. The door is opened by a black slave wearing fine clothes. The black man looks askance at Sutpen's ragged clothes and appearance and then tells him never to come to the front door again—he must go to the back door only. Sutpen turns and runs away. He sits in a cave to figure out what has just happened to him and why—and what he should do about it. How can he escape a "future ... of cut-down and patched ... garments" and create one where he will command respect? After considering several courses of action, Sutpen finds the answer: "You have got to have what they have."

Sutpen abandons his family and somehow makes his way to the West Indies, where he becomes the overseer on a sugar plantation. How he got there is never revealed. He learns French and island patois and puts down a slave rebellion. He is "shrewd" and "unscrupulous." Sutpen marries Eulalia, the daughter of the sugar plantation owner, and has a child with her. But the reader is told he "put his first wife aside," as she was "unsuitable to his purpose ... to the design which [he] had in mind." Sutpen's "design" is his ruthless and calculated plan to become a plantation owner, which he believes is his "destiny." It will become clear later why Sutpen abandoned his first wife.

Thirty years later, in 1864, Sutpen resumes telling General Compson about his early life. Sutpen is established on Sutpen's Hundred and making money. Sutpen explains he did not feel guilty about abandoning his first wife because her parents had "misrepresented" her to him. The enormity of this "misrepresentation" becomes clear to Sutpen only after his first wife bears him a son.

Sutpen never says explicitly what the "fact" was that had been misrepresented by the planter and his daughter and which was revealed in the child she bore. The planter is identified as French, and Sutpen told General Compson "the old man's wife had been a Spaniard." From this General Compson concludes Sutpen hadn't seen much of the girl he was to marry, which may imply General Compson suspects something about the racial makeup of the planter and his family that Sutpen was too "innocent" to notice. Still, neither the wife nor the child are explicitly identified as black: Sutpen continues to refer to it merely as a "fact."

It is Shreve who, with surprising quickness, realizes the son is Charles Bon. So Shreve, who's the farthest removed from all of this and for whom all this is evidence of the crazy South, becomes the one to "confirm" elements of the story, and Quentin reaffirms them.

Sutpen makes provisions for supporting his wife and child and thinks he's rid of them forever until the Christmas Day in 1859 when Henry brings Charles Bon with him to Sutpen's Hundred. The text implies Sutpen told General Compson he recognized Bon immediately as his son. This seems to indicate Sutpen's later objections to Charles Bon marrying Judith are not just because of bigamy, but because of miscegenation and incest. However, these details are only hinted at and not explicit.

Sutpen goes to New Orleans, where Eulalia and her son live, and confirms the truth about Charles Bon. When Henry and Charles return to the mansion the next year, Sutpen realizes Judith and Charles are forming a relationship. This is why Sutpen tells Henry that Charles was his brother (he does not yet tell him Charles is part black). After this revelation Henry leaves the mansion and cuts all ties with his family.

Then the Civil War begins and the three men enlist to fight for the South. Sutpen and Henry hope Charles will be killed in battle, which will solve their problem. Henry is torn by having to decide what to do about Charles. During the war, Sutpen finds Henry's regiment, and he asks for and gets permission to speak to his son. It is again Shreve who draws a conclusion from this fact: Sutpen "played that trump after all," meaning Sutpen told Henry that Charles was part black.

Sutpen is now in a dilemma. He has acted honorably toward his first wife. He still sends her money to support her. His honor forbids him to divorce her, however. Marrying Miss Rosa (without first "testing her out") exposes Sutpen to the prospect of having a female child, not the male heir he so desperately wants. It also seems Sutpen's "design" is threatened by Charles Bon and his "betrayal" in possibly marrying Judith. The progeny from that union would be unacceptable as heirs to Sutpen's dynasty.

Sutpen decides he must have a white male heir. He begins giving small gifts to Wash Jones's 15-year-old granddaughter, Milly. Then he has a sexual relationship with her, despite her low status, ignorance, and poverty. Wash permits this, as he adores Sutpen. One year later, Milly gives birth to Sutpen's child. When Sutpen sees the infant, he insults Milly viciously: "Well, Milly, too bad you're not a mare ... Then I could give you a decent stall in the stable." As he leaves their shack, Sutpen beats Wash with a whip. Outraged, betrayed, and humiliated, Wash grabs the rusty scythe Sutpen has loaned him and uses it to kill Sutpen. Later, a search party finds Sutpen's body. They come to arrest Wash Jones. Before they do he asks them if he can "see about his granddaughter." Wash goes into his shack, takes a butcher knife, and kills Milly and her infant.

Shreve is astonished by these events. He can't understand why Sutpen so gravely insulted Milly and Wash. Shreve understands when Quentin tells him Milly's child was not the son Sutpen required, but a girl.

Analysis

This chapter is the first in which Quentin really takes over the narration in direct discourse. Shreve now just interrupts him from time to time, as when he says, "Jesus, the South is fine, isn't it. It's better than the theatre, isn't it." The telling of the tale is taking an increasing toll on Quentin, as if he will never escape the story—or his origins, since the story represents the history of the South itself.

This chapter is vital in showing Sutpen's past and how he becomes the obsessed man readers see. The story is told by Quentin, who has gotten it thirdhand from his father, whose own father told it to him. Readers should keep in mind that in so many retellings (by so many biased, limited, and subjective narrators) it might have lost some of its veracity. Also the original story is told to General Compson by Sutpen himself. Although General Compson was Sutpen's best friend, the reader might question how truthful the ambitious Sutpen would be in telling about his life.

At one point in the chapter, Quentin thinks about history as being "like ripples ... on water after a pebble sinks, the ripples moving on, spreading" in a pool that is "attached by a narrow umbilical water-cord to the next pool" where things have been "seen, felt, remembered, reflect[ed] in a different tone." Quentin's idea may be interpreted in two ways. He may be saying what happens in the past continues to happen in a sense, its meaning or significance not diminishing with time. Or he may be expressing the way an event seems to have consequences that expand outward and alter other events within the same history. This would mean the same history can be experienced in different ways. "Maybe nothing ever happens and is finished," he thinks.

The primary theme in this chapter is the way innocence and ambition cannot coexist. Quentin says "[Supten's] trouble was innocence," and "he discovered ... what he just had to do whether he wanted to or not," because "if he did not do it he knew that he could never live with himself."

In his early life, Sutpen's innocence is expressed through his contentment and lack of envy. He does not even know "there was a country all divided [up] and fixed and neat" with "people living on it all divided ... and neat because of what color their skin happened to be." Young Thomas Sutpen has no notion some people had "authority or warrant to look down at others, any others." His view of life changes when his father takes the job on a plantation in southern Virginia. A new and crucial realization hits Sutpen: not only was there a difference between white and black, but "there was a difference between white men and white men."

Sutpen maintains his innocence even as he realizes "the difference in comfort between the presence and absence of shoes and warm clothing." Yet Sutpen is still not even aware he is innocent. His life—his innocence—changes on the day his father asks him to carry the message to the plantation owner in his mansion. Sutpen is astounded he, a white boy, is turned away from the white man's house and treated with contempt by an enslaved black man who has more and better things than he does.

Sutpen picks up his story 30 years later, again speaking with General Compson. By now his design—to get "richer and richer"—is taking shape. Sutpen explains he has a conscience but "he had argued calmly and logically [with it] until it was settled." It's as if "the ingredients of morality were like the ingredients of a pie or cake" and if measured properly, "nothing but a pie or cake could come out." Sutpen's innocence resides in his calculating mind. No matter what he does, if he rebalances the "ingredients" of any action, the morality of the act will be guaranteed. Morality for him is malleable and can be balanced by him into acceptability to further his design.

Sutpen tells General Compson his family and his ambitions are being destroyed because of some "mistake" he must have made in his design. Sutpen analyzes events and his behavior from every angle to find out where the mistake occurred. He feels if he can find this mistake he "might repair whatever injustice [he] might be considered to have done"—particularly to his first wife, Eulalia, and her son, Charles Bon. He insists on the justice of his abandoning his first wife and son because they did not fit into his "design." Yet he cannot understand his past has caught up with him. The first marriage poisons Sutpen's life, yet he refuses to or cannot see why that happened since his "design" required a white wife and family. The "bad luck" Sutpen is having with his current family is, he believes, "not moral retribution" but rather "just an old mistake ... which a man of courage and shrewdness ... could still combat" if he could only figure out what it was.

If Charles Bon, Sutpen's black son, is the source of the mistake, Sutpen must find a way to deal with or remove him. Sutpen hopes Charles Bon will be killed fighting the Civil War, but this does not happen. As a result Sutpen sets Henry up to kill Charles Bon, as this is one way to rectify the mistake. But Henry loves Charles Bon and is unable to kill him in cold blood. Sutpen seems not to realize how making Henry a murderer will affect the family and his dynastic ambitions. For him it is a way of correcting the earlier mistake, but the tragedy of his ambition will be played out differently.

Sutpen further denies the immorality of his actions when he determines to start a third family to produce the white male heir he must have for his ambitions to be realized. He rationalizes and justifies this plan as coinciding with his "design" and because his first wife's true identity "had been foisted upon [him] without [his] knowledge ... which meant the absolute and irrevocable negation of the design." Sutpen feels abandoning or altering his design would be "a betrayal of that little boy who approached that door fifty years ago and was turned away." Yet his ambition is everything. Those who obstruct it must be sacrificed. Sutpen tells General Compson if nothing else worked he'd "play his trump card." Sutpen thinks this will further his design, but it will prove his undoing.

His obsessive ambition, and the calculating shrewdness he thinks he uses to further it, make Sutpen tone-deaf. He thinks Miss Rosa is his last best hope for a white male heir, yet he is so insensible of others and their feelings he approaches her in the way that would most offend her. In the same way, he can't stop himself from insulting Milly after she gives birth to a girl because she's upended his design and ambition. He is totally self-absorbed, and so he pays the ultimate price and is murdered.

The theme of racism is also apparent in this chapter. The young Thomas Sutpen cannot help but notice the slaves he sees "had better clothes" than he and his family. He understands hitting them would not get him what he wants for they are only like a "child's toy" or a "balloon with a face painted on it"—objects, not humans. When Thomas Sutpen's father gleefully describes how he and some other men brutally attacked one of the plantation's black men, he says the man was no "actual ... living creature, [no] living flesh to feel pain and writhe and cry out."

The door is a powerful symbol of change in this chapter. It is when he is denied entry to the front door of the Virginia mansion that young Thomas Sutpen discovers his innocence and devises his "design" to have what the rich slave owners have. His refusal to betray his young self standing by that door and being denied entry by a black man largely motivates Sutpen to pursue his "design." Interestingly, toward the end of the chapter the reader learns that for most of his life Wash Jones, who is white and who idolizes Sutpen, is never allowed to approach the Sutpen mansion from the front door. He is only allowed to use the back door. So Sutpen has no compunction about disrespecting those he sees as lower than himself, though at the same time he has elevated himself from a childhood that was very like the life Wash Jones and Milly are forced (by him) to lead.

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