Absalom, Absalom! | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Absalom, Absalom! | Chapter 8 | Summary



The frame narrative in Chapter 8 again becomes somewhat unstable. Quentin and Shreve conjure up in their minds, or identify with, Henry and Charles Bon. They seem to be transported to 1860 Mississippi and relate the story as if they are the characters. Chapter 8 is narrated primarily by Shreve, who summarizes what Quentin has told him. When he speaks, Shreve speculates about what might have happened, particularly in relation to Charles Bon. At times an omniscient narrator takes over.

Shreve begins by speculating about what Charles Bon knew. He says Charles didn't know about Sutpen's first conversation with Henry (in 1860) and so was unaware Henry was his brother. As a young man in New Orleans, Charles immersed himself in the sensual pleasures of that city. He no longer cared who or what he was. Charles could pursue this idle life because he (may have) received money from a lawyer who controlled and meted out the money Sutpen had left to support his first wife and her son.

The lawyer and the scenarios involving him are a construct of Shreve's imagination. Shreve imagines the lawyer was a crook who devised ways to steal some of the money intended for Sutpen's first family. Shreve suspects the lawyer had found a way to blackmail Sutpen. Perhaps with the connivance of Charles's mother, who uses her son as an instrument of vengeance against Sutpen, the lawyer learned where Henry was going to college. He subsequently enrolled Charles Bon, then 28 years old and with his own wife and son, in the same school. It was all part of the plot to destroy Sutpen.

The lawyer, in Shreve's imagined story, sent a letter to Henry at this small college, introducing him to Charles. Shreve and Quentin imagine Charles might recognize his own features in Henry's face. Henry was in thrall to the sophisticated Charles Bon and began to copy his style and behavior. At one point Henry even says he wished Charles were his brother. Shreve implies Charles knew about Judith from Henry. When he looked at Henry he saw "my skull, my brow, sockets, shape and angle of jaw and chin." The resemblance leads Charles to think maybe he and Henry have the same father. When Charles accepts Henry's invitation home for Christmas, he thinks he'll see for himself "[he] whom I had ... learned to live without." Charles just wants Sutpen to recognize him as his son; he need not even acknowledge him openly. But when they are face to face, "nothing happen[s]." Sutpen gives no sign of recognition.

Shreve and Quentin discuss whether it was possible Charles loved Judith after having been with her so briefly on his visits to the mansion. Was he wooing her for revenge? Was it fate or doom? Charles never really proposes. He waits for Henry's agreement before deciding to marry Judith.

Shreve imagines Charles and Henry's trip to new Orleans, thinking Henry did not realize the implications when Charles introduced him to his octoroon wife and child. More significantly, they imagine the lawyer meets with Charles and all but tells him Sutpen is his father. He says Charles has the chance to wreak vengeance on Sutpen for the dishonor suffered by his repudiated mother and himself. Yet this scenario is questionable, as Charles Bon does not know who his father is or why he repudiated his mother.

Shreve and Quentin then imagine Henry and Charles serving together in the Confederate army. Henry keeps insisting he needs more time to consider what Charles's marriage with Judith means and how he should react to it. Should he consent or refuse to let it happen?

Shreve states it must have been Henry who was wounded in battle, not Charles. Shreve speculates Charles saved Henry's life, but Henry begged him to let him die. Death would free Henry from having to make the impossible decision about Charles and Judith. "Let me die ... I won't have to know it then," Henry is imagined saying. But as the South falls, Henry begins to accept Charles's marrying Judith. He "thanks God" the matter has been settled. He encourages Charles to write that letter to Judith.

Shreve then retells the story of the night Quentin and Miss Rosa went to the plantation to find what was "hidden" there. Suddenly, the omniscient narrator states, both young men are quiet as if they are with Charles and Henry in the Confederate army. They almost experience Henry being summoned to see his father in the colonel's tent. The students imagine a conversation between Sutpen and Henry in which Sutpen tells Henry that Charles Bon's mother was "part negro." That's why he can't let Charles marry Judith. Henry knows what he must do, but it depends on what Charles decides to do.

In an intensely charged exchange, Henry and Charles try to find a resolution to this impossible problem. Charles seems to understand Henry will—must—kill him: "Then do it now," Charles says. The climax of the novel emerges from this revelatory but agonizing exchange in a dialogue between Henry and Charles. In Shreve's version of this exchange, the racism within the taboo against miscegenation is made clear. Shreve speculates Charles knew all along it would come to this. He has Charles say to Henry, "So it's the miscegenation, not the incest, which you can't bear." But Henry doesn't answer. Henry can make the choice to ignore the prospect of miscegenation in his family, but he either does not or cannot. He tells Charles they are brothers, yet Charles will not let Henry get off that easily. He brutally expresses the South's view of what this "brotherhood" would mean ("a nigger sleeping with your sister").

Shreve describes how Henry must have shot and killed Charles as they rode up to the mansion: Henry refuses to let Charles through the gates that lead to the house, rides ahead, turns back toward Charles, and shoots and kills him. He imagines how a tearless Judith found the picture of the octoroon and the boy in Charles's pocket. Judith realizes Charles had removed her picture from the metal case and replaced it with that of his wife and son. Shreve tells Quentin that Charles did this so Judith would not grieve for him after Henry did what Charles knew he was going to do. "Yes," Quentin says.


This chapter is largely about imagined events. Shreve is excited by this strange story of the South and enthusiastically immerses himself in its history. He summarizes some of what Quentin has told him, but then Shreve, the primary narrator here, launches into his own imagined version of what happened. Shreve is eager to tell about what might have been Charles's experience of events. Shreve does reference events that were told to him by Quentin earlier. But there is no way Shreve can actually know if anything in his speculative narrative is true. Some of what he says may have happened, but there's the possibility little or none of what Shreve says occurred.

Still, Quentin joins in embellishing and imagining explanations for the tale. Their enthusiasm illuminates the romantic elements of the Sutpen family tragedy as it underscores the subjectivity of history. Their speculation suggests that in the end, history is made by whoever tells the story best.

Shreve speculates on another type of "design" that might have been at play in the story. Without any evidence, he suggests there was a lawyer in cahoots with Eulalia Bon, Charles's mother, who plotted revenge against Sutpen for abandoning her and her son. The lawyer's cold calculation of how he will fleece Sutpen closely resembles the ruthless calculation Sutpen put into his "design." Shreve suggests the lawyer was somehow keeping an eye on the Sutpen family in Mississippi, and the plan he hatches for Charles to attend Henry's college so he can get close to Henry and insinuate himself into the family is designed for the purpose of Charles marrying Judith and bringing about the downfall of the Sutpens. The other part of this plan is, perhaps, to blackmail Sutpen, get his money, and destroy him that way.

Charles is said not to "care that she [his mother] had been shaping and tempering him to be the instrument for whatever it was" she had planned. Yet it is plausible Charles's attendance at that small college was part of a plot. After all, Charles was already married and had a son. He was 28 years old—far older than most students first entering college. Why would he suddenly choose to go to college? And why that college at exactly the same time Henry matriculated? Shreve even asks, "Why? Why this college, this particular one above all others?"

The symbol of the gate as a portent of great change appears here. At Christmas Henry and Charles ride through "the gates and up the drive to the house" where Sutpen and Judith await them. Shreve imagines Charles knows his relationship to the family, thinking, "All right. I want to go to bed with who might be my sister." In this version of the story, Charles contemplates and accepts committing incest with his half sister. At the end of the chapter, the gate is the doorway to Charles's murder.

Shreve imagines that when Henry finally allows Charles to write to Judith, he realizes what will happen. But he's grateful it's settled (or so he thinks). According to Shreve, Henry would be relieved if Charles Bon married Judith. Then he would be accepting and condoning incest and "they would all be together in hell." But at least, in Shreve's version, they would be together. This echoes Mr. Compson's suggestion in Chapter 4 that Henry had homosexual feelings for Charles—a relationship that is possibly doubled in Quentin and Shreve themselves. The Canadian Shreve looks at Quentin and his strange, undeniably Southern story with much the same fascination Henry held for the exotic, older Charles.

The final tragedy of this chapter is, for Henry, incest within the Sutpen family is a possibility preferable to miscegenation. There could hardly be a greater condemnation of the racist Southern value system.

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