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Absalom, Absalom! | Plot Summary

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Summary

The main action of Absalom, Absalom! takes place in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, near the (also fictional) town of Jefferson in northern Mississippi. The plot revolves around the character and actions of Thomas Sutpen, a poor boy from what will become West Virginia who pursues a burning ambition to be respectable, to never be shunned or disrespected by those with more money than he has, such as other plantation (and slave) owners. The genesis of his ambition is described in Chapter 7 as the cold, calculating Sutpen who devises a "design" to realize his ambition. When Sutpen somehow amasses enough wealth, he buys 100 square miles of land in northern Mississippi ("Sutpen's Hundred"), builds a magnificent mansion, has countless slaves working his land and making him money, and sets about establishing what he hopes will be a powerful family dynasty. The plot tells how Sutpen rose from an impoverished Appalachian boy to the most powerful and richest man in Yoknapatawpha County and shows the effect of Sutpen's actions on others and on his own legacy.

In Chapter 1 Miss Rosa Coldfield speaks to Quentin Compson, a young man whose grandfather knew Sutpen well. Miss Rosa needs to tell Quentin the story of the Sutpens before he leaves for Harvard College in Massachusetts. Miss Rosa has her own version of the history of Thomas Sutpen and his family and fate. Quentin hardly knows Miss Rosa, but she feels compelled to keep her story alive by passing it on to his generation. She says she must relate the story to Quentin so people will "know at last why God let us [the South] lose the War."

Miss Rosa proceeds to talk about how Thomas Sutpen, a complete stranger, arrived in Yoknapatawpha County in 1833 with a band of slaves and set about realizing his ambition to own a plantation and start a family dynasty. Miss Rosa says Sutpen was never a gentleman, and she has harbored an intense hatred for Sutpen for 43 years. She almost always refers to him as a "demon." Quentin interprets her stream-of-consciousness ramblings as "invoking [the] ghost" of Thomas Sutpen who, at the time of this telling, is dead. Miss Rosa says Sutpen sought respectability and tried to attain it by marrying her sister, Ellen Coldfield. Yet issues of race, of irredeemable past actions, and Sutpen's implacable, calculating, and stony coldness destroy his family, leading to Ellen's death in the process. For these and other reasons, Miss Rosa nurtures a burning, obsessive hatred for the "ogre" who "conceived [the] nightmare" of his and his family's life and the "desolation" that was his undoing—and the undoing of all who were associated with him, including Miss Rosa.

The rest of the novel tells how and why Thomas Sutpen's life—and the lives of those around him—unfolded as it did. There are two narrative threads. The history thread tells the story of Sutpen and his family, which begins with Sutpen's origins in western Virginia, through the Virginia Tidewater and Haiti, then to Mississippi. He creates the Hundred and starts a family, but tragedy leaves the grand plantation and the family in ruins.

The character thread tells how the story is told to, and retold by, Quentin Compson. This covers his visit to Miss Rosa in September 1909, his conversation later that day with his father, and his long conversation with Shreve in Cambridge in 1910. One strand of the novel is about Sutpen's life in Mississippi, after he has established his plantation.

Both strands revolve around Charles Bon, Sutpen's son with his West Indian first wife, and how having a mixed-blood son brings about the downfall of the Sutpen family in Mississippi. Each chapter adds another layer to the reader's understanding of Sutpen's tragedy.

Absalom, Absalom! Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 In the West Indies, Sutpen marries Eulalia.

Rising Action

2 Sutpen and Eulalia have a son, Charles Bon.

3 Sutpen comes to Mississippi and buys Sutpen's Hundred.

4 Sutpen marries Ellen Coldfield for her respectability.

5 Henry and Judith are born to the Sutpens.

6 Henry meets Charles Bon at the University of Mississippi.

7 At Christmas, Charles and Judith fall in love.

8 Sutpen tells Henry that Charles is his brother.

9 Sutpen tells Henry that Charles Bon is black.

10 Charles tells Henry to be his brother or kill him.

Climax

11 Henry kills Charles Bon.

Falling Action

12 Sutpen insults Rosa, so she won't marry him.

13 Sutpen impregnates and insults Milly.

14 Wash Jones kills Sutpen.

Resolution

15 Sutpen's mansion burns down with Henry inside.

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