Absalom, Absalom! | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Absalom, Absalom! | Chapter 9 | Summary

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Summary

Quentin lies trembling in his ice-cold room at Harvard, perhaps more from emotional exhaustion than the cold. Shreve, the Canadian, says he wants to understand the South better because "it's something my people haven't got ... We don't live among defeated grandfathers and freed slaves." Quentin replies, "You can't understand. You would have to be born there." He begins to speak about the night in September 1909 when he and Miss Rosa drove out to the mansion to see what was "hidden" there. Miss Rosa wails, "I don't know what to do." Quentin thinks, "Go back to town and go to bed." But they continue on.

When Quentin asks her what's hidden in the mansion, Miss Rosa says that's what she's come to find out. Quentin leads her through the dark toward the mansion. The front door is locked, nailed shut. Instead of breaking it down, Quentin finds a rotted window he can open. He steps into the pitch-dark room and feels his way toward the door to open it for Miss Rosa. Suddenly, he hears a match striking behind him. It's Clytie, now an old woman. Quentin opens the door and Miss Rosa enters.

Miss Rosa walks directly to the stairs, but Clytie tells Quentin, "Don't let her go up there." Clytie grabs Miss Rosa's arm, but Miss Rosa pushes her away. Clytie again tries to restrain Miss Rosa, who then hits her and knocks her to the floor. Quentin helps Clytie up and climbs the stairs to get Miss Rosa and take her away. He hears something below and turns to see a "hulking ... light-colored ... negro man ... [a] slack-jawed idiot." It is Jim Bond, Charles Etienne's son. Quentin finds Miss Rosa on the upper landing, looking "bloodless." Quentin realizes that now "[he] must see too."

Quentin enters a shuttered "bare, stale room." Lying on the bed is a man with a "wasted yellow face ... [whose] wasted hands [were] crossed on the breast [like] a corpse." It is Henry Sutpen, who has been hiding in the mansion for four years. He says he came home "to die."

Quentin is shaken. He takes Miss Rosa home, then returns to his own house. He feels he must bathe and scrub himself clean after this experience.

Three months pass before Miss Rosa returns with an ambulance to bring Henry to town so he can get medical care. Shreve wonders about Miss Rosa's motivation. Did she really want to save Henry, or was she preserving her hatred of Sutpen? Or, he thinks, perhaps she wanted Henry to be tried and hanged for the murder of Charles Bon.

Clytie sees the ambulance coming and thinks they are coming to arrest Henry to try him for murder. Clytie had planned for this moment by filling a closet with "tinder and trash" and kerosene. As the ambulance nears the mansion, the closet is set on fire. Smoke billows out of the mansion, and the once-magnificent building begins to burn. Miss Rosa and the ambulance crew rush into the house, but when they open the door the air they let in fuels the flames. The house is consumed in a conflagration. As the mansion burns, they see Clytie calmly looking down at them. She and Henry die in the fire as a screaming Jim Bond flees. Miss Rosa returns to town in the ambulance, and sometime later, she dies.

No one can catch Jim Bond, who lurks furtively around the ruins of the plantation. Yet sometimes Quentin and others in the area hear him howling. Shreve reviews the downfall of the Sutpen family, but he's disquieted by the remaining Sutpen, Jim Bond. The other deaths "clear[ed] the whole ledger," but Bond's survival upsets the equation. He is still heard and, very rarely, seen around the ruined plantation. Finally, Shreve asks Quentin, "Why do you hate the South?" And Quentin replies vehemently, "I don't hate it." To himself he thinks: "I don't hate it. ... I don't. I don't!"

Analysis

The third-person narrator tells the story in this chapter, which brings the tragic history of the Sutpen family to a fiery close. Some questions linger with no explanation. Readers never learn where Henry has been or what he has done in the decades since he disappeared to avoid arrest for murder. And when Miss Rosa returns to the mansion three months later with an ambulance, it is unclear exactly what her intention is. Is she there to save Henry's life? Or, as Clytie believes, is she coming to have Henry arrested and hanged for murder? The narrative seems to indicate Miss Rosa returns in order to save Henry's life, but exposing him to society via medical assistance would also reveal his past. In this novel that is as much about the act of passing on a history as it is about the legacy of slavery in the South, some answers are elusive.

When Miss Rosa and the ambulance men rush into the house, the door is again a symbol of violent change. When they push open the mansion door the outside air "explode[s] like powder among the flames as the whole lower hall vanished." The conflagration ensures the utter destruction of the mansion and of Sutpen's ambitions. Clytie and Henry burn to ashes, and only the mentally challenged descendant, Jim Bond, remains to howl at the desolation.

Shreve makes a crude joke about how many blacks it takes to destroy one member of the Sutpen family. His joke, though in bad taste, reflects the culture that led to the downfall of the Sutpen dynasty. Slavery and racism ultimately destroy Sutpen's family and his ambitions, just as they destroyed the South.

Shreve's final comment is highly ambiguous. He tells Quentin his idea that "in time the Jim Bonds are going to conquer the western hemisphere" and in a thousand years all people "will ... have sprung from the loins of African kings." Does Shreve mean in time all people will be of the same mixed blood and racial hatred will no longer exist in the world? Readers must decide for themselves.

Quentin's last lines establish him firmly as Faulkner's stand-in for the early 20th-century Southerner. He expresses great anguish as he tries to convince Shreve and himself he doesn't hate the South. In Chapter 6 Shreve asked Quentin why people choose to live in the South. Quentin's answer has been the history of the Sutpens, a violent and tragic story that took place near his hometown and involved one of his ancestors. After hearing the full tale, it is not surprising Shreve would ask Quentin why he hates his birthplace. Yet Quentin has also defended the South to Shreve, saying it can only be understood by those who are born there. His anguish expresses his understanding that he both loves and hates a place that is a part of himself.

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