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Absalom, Absalom! | Symbols

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Doors and Gates

Doors and gates represent important changes for the characters, and sometimes the events, in the story. These changes are dependent on the characters' choices to pass or not pass through these openings. Gates and doors appear frequently throughout the story at key moments.

One aspect of the symbol of doors and gates is confrontation. For example, are the characters who are faced with the choice of whether or not to go through a door or gate ready and willing to deal with what is behind the door or beyond the gate? Are they willing to confront the situation, or the change, that going through the door will force them to confront?

A character passing through a door or gate signifies an important change or life-changing event will take place. For example, the Sutpen family's downfall is sealed when Henry walks through the "library door" to hear is father's revelation about Charles being his brother. Once Henry passes through that door, the family is changed irrevocably. The bigamy that bars Charles from marrying Judith is described as a "a gate ponderously locked ... of solid beams." But in New Orleans, Charles and Henry knock on "an adjacent doorway" and they enter through the "solid gates" that "close behind them." When Henry and Charles pass through these doors and gates, they are entering a forbidden realm. In New Orleans Charles escorts Henry "through one of those inscrutable ... lifeless doorways" and "into a place which to his puritan's provincial mind all of morality was upside down." Here, the doorway opens to a new life for Henry of debauched pleasure and dissolution.

Sometimes, however, a character does not or cannot pass through a door or gate. This often represents stasis, an inability to act, or the end of a chapter in that person's life. Perhaps most notably, such a situation directs the entire course of the novel when the young Thomas Sutpen is turned away from the front door of the plantation. He is motivated by his humiliation to create and single-mindedly pursue his "design." The inability to pass through a gate also factors in the final encounter between Henry and Charles; in this case, it literally ends Charles's life and sends Henry into a life of seclusion.

Phantoms and Dreams

Phantoms and dreams are fitting symbols for characters and events that haunt the novel's narrators and come from a history as violent and sweeping as a Gothic tale. In the parts of the text that are remembered and related in a stream-of-consciousness technique, figures from the past are often referred to as phantoms or ghosts. Events are described as if they occurred in dreams or nightmares. These references underline the difficulty of clearly recalling past events. The characters who populate the Sutpen family history have been transformed in the minds of these narrators into fantastic or surreal figures in tragic and unbelievable situations.

Events, too, are remembered and described as being so strange and unbelievable they are like "dreams" or "nightmares." Judith, the product of a dysfunctional family, is the "girl who slept waking." Sutpen's actions are so ruthless and lead to such tragedy they are like nightmares. The supposed good times in the past were so misconstrued by those living through them they acquire an unreal, dreamlike quality.

The Design

Sutpen's plan for gaining the wealth and respectability he craves is often referred to in the text as his "design." The specifics of that design ground him firmly in the antebellum South. He accomplishes his design by building his house and a slave-based plantation; thus, it functions as a symbol for the creation of the culture of the antebellum South and its legacy.

Sutpen's design requires him to make cold, calculating decisions that are often inhumane and lead to great human tragedy, beginning with the abandonment of his first wife and their son, Charles Bon. In turn his design is ruined by the reappearance of Charles and the multiple threats he presents through his engagement to Judith: bigamy, incest, and miscegenation. It mirrors a culture that went to war to defend the inhumane system of slavery and is still haunted decades later by a legacy of racism. The "design" elevates the story of Sutpen beyond a single pathological case to a whole pathological society and culture.

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