Absalom, Absalom! | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Absalom, Absalom! | Context

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Absalom, Absalom! is a story of the American South spanning from the early years of the 19th century through the Civil War and on through Reconstruction to the narrative present in 1909. This crucial period of Southern history entails a host of influences and issues the novel takes up.

Southern Culture and Economics

In the pre-Civil War period, the Southern economy was based on agriculture. Rich plantation owners derived their wealth from the labor of chattel slaves. Large-scale agriculture (especially cotton crops) and the wealth it brought depended on slave labor. Slavery and racism—and all the evils that attended them—infuse Absalom, Absalom! with much of its underlying conflict and tragedy.

Wealthy white Southern women of this era were treated as delicate greenhouse flowers whose purity and fragility had to be protected. The code of honor that underpinned every rich, respectable Southern family was based, at least to some extent, on the inviolable purity of its women.

The Civil War (1861–65) began after the anti-slavery candidate Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860 and the South seceded from the United States. The devastation of the Civil War largely destroyed the Old South. Plantation land was confiscated or rendered useless for agriculture. Slavery was abolished, so the labor needed to work the land was unavailable. With most Southern men off fighting during the war, Southern women formerly considered too fragile for work now often had to engage in hard labor, including farming, to keep from starving.

In 1860 the population of Mississippi was 55 percent black, and the plantation economy was totally dependent on slave labor. Mississippi was the second state, after South Carolina, to secede from the Union to create the Southern Confederacy. Mississippians suffered greatly during the Civil War, which left their state in physical and economic ruin.

Racism, Miscegenation, and the "One-Drop Rule"

Miscegenation refers to mixing (especially in sex or marriage) between people of different races, primarily between whites and blacks. Miscegenation may result from the intermarriage of black and white persons, but it also encompasses any form of interracial sex. Because enslaved women were considered property to be used in any way their owner saw fit, enslaved women could be and often were raped by their owners; mixed-race children were often the result. The 1860 census counted 588,532 mixed-race persons in the United States. White slave owners might claim paternity and care for the offspring they fathered with their female slaves, though most often they did not.

Different words were used to designate the amount of black "blood" a person of mixed race had. A mulatto was a person with half white and half black blood, such as the offspring arising from a recently arrived African slave and a white slave owner. A quadroon was a person who was one-quarter black; for example, a person with one black grandparent. In this novel several characters are referred to as octoroons. An octoroon is a person who has one-eighth black blood; for example, a person with one black great-grandparent. Octoroons or people with less black blood could often "pass" for white in general society because they were so light skinned.

The United States is the only nation whose history involved laws tied to the "one-drop rule," which applied only to people with African American blood. In essence the one-drop rule, adopted as law in many Southern states beginning in 1910, stated a person was considered black if he or she had even "one drop" of black blood or the most remote black ancestry. The one-drop rule, and in some cases laws prohibiting miscegenation, have historically been applied only to blacks. The one-drop rule and the obsession about miscegenation is a direct outgrowth of the South's culture of racism arising from its history of slavery.

Mixed-blood characters, particularly octoroons, play a pivotal role in the tragedy of Absalom, Absalom! "Passing" for white while having black blood could have devastating consequences. The curse of the South, as frequently mentioned in the novel, is the legacy of slavery and a persistent and virulent racism that cannot look beyond race as the key criterion for one's place in society. In this way readers can think of the novel as a modern-day Greek tragedy. Its characters are caught in the social and cultural trap of Southern society. They are "cursed" primarily by the South's age-old demons—slavery and racism—which make them fated, tragically, to act in ways that lead inevitably to their downfall.

Readers should be aware that, as a novel of the antebellum South, the word nigger is used frequently in the novel, as it was in ordinary speech of that time and place. William Faulkner often uses the word to denote a gross racist insult. He uses the words black and Negro when a general designation is intended.

The Biblical Absalom

The title Absalom, Absalom! refers to the biblical story of King David's son Absalom as told in 2 Samuel:13–20. The Old Testament story recounts how Absalom has his older brother Amnon killed because Amnon had raped their sister, Tamar. Absalom then flees his father's lands and goes into exile. After a few years, King David misses Absalom and calls him back home. Absalom's house and family are returned to him, but he is denied any position at his father's court. Absalom then begins a program of winning the "hearts and minds" of the populace. At the same time, he challenges his father's reputation, and the people begin to grumble about King David. When David is away, Absalom foments a rebellion and takes over as king. Meanwhile, David is assembling an army to regain his throne. During the ensuing battle, Absalom and his forces are defeated; Absalom subsequently dies. The Bible states King David mourned more for Absalom than he had for Amnon.

The biblical story is not a direct match to the narrative of this novel, but it has sufficient parallels that Faulkner thought the title appropriate. The similarities include sibling incest, fratricide, and rebellion against the father. In the novel Charles Bon most closely represents Amnon, Henry embodies some of Absalom, and Judith is similar to Tamar. Thomas Sutpen is, of course, King David.

When it was published, Faulkner described Absalom, Absalom! as "the best novel yet written by an American." Critics have called it "the greatest Southern novel ever written." Yet Faulkner wanted to broaden the meaning of his story beyond the South. The biblical reference in the title elevates the story of an ambitious and ruthless, but otherwise anonymous, figure like Sutpen to the status of a noble figure like King David. This is not unlike how Joyce's "mythic method" in Ulysses arguably elevates Leopold Bloom to the level of an epic hero.

Shifting Narrators

The novel is written as a story told primarily to and by Quentin Compson, whose grandfather was a close friend of the main character, Thomas Sutpen. The story told to Quentin is also the story told by him—for example, to his college roommate, Shreve. (Late in the novel, Shreve, too, relates what he imagines happened at various points in the story.) The history of the Sutpen family is told to Quentin by various individuals who knew, or believed they knew, what had happened to cause the tragedy that befell this family. Each narrator tells his or her own version of the story or part of the story. Thus the narrative is framed by the different characters, each with their own knowledge and understanding of events. The narrative is built up in layers, each layer provided by another narrator. One character may narrate her version or experience of events (and feelings about these events), while in a later chapter another character tells a new and different, sometimes even contradictory, version of the same events.

For example, Mr. Compson tells a large part of the story to his son Quentin; Compson heard the story from his own father, General Compson. Quentin relates what he heard from his father to his roommate, Shreve. By the end of the novel, the facts of the Sutpen family history come into clearer focus. However, the interpretation of the family history—what the characters make of these facts—is relative, because the past is lived and remembered differently by different narrators.

Stream-of-Consciousness Technique

Some of the novel is written in a stream-of-consciousness technique, which presents the narrative in an uninterrupted flow of seemingly rambling thoughts or spoken words that attempt to capture actual thought and speech. Stream-of-consciousness writing is often nonlinear and may not be logical, as the human mind rarely produces thoughts in a straightforward and logical way. But this technique is highly evocative. For example, Miss Rosa hates Sutpen and everything he did and stands for. Her feelings pour out of her in her stream-of-consciousness narration. Through this technique, the reader gets a vivid and intense sense of the characters and events in the story.

Stream-of-consciousness writing can be hard to follow. The narrator's thoughts may veer off the main subject and wander to other things. A narrator may fail to make clear who or what he or she is talking about. In Absalom, Absalom! the confusion produced by the use of the technique is intentional; the author intended for meaning to build cumulatively.

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