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Absalom, Absalom! | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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Absalom, Absalom! | Themes


Racism, Miscegenation, and Incest

Absalom, Absalom! begins in 1909 and relates events from the antebellum South through the post-Civil War era. Racism as a legacy of the enslavement of black Africans is a core element of life in the South during this period. For the novel's white characters, racist views affect not only the black people they encounter, but also their own fates.

Narratives by former slaves, such as Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, have documented the fact many enslaved women were sexually assaulted by their white owners. Generations of black-white sexual contact gave rise to a significant population of light-skinned blacks, some of whom married other light-skinned blacks or even whites. Miscegenation refers to the intermarriage of black and white men and women: in the context of the novel, miscegenation was an ineradicable blot on a white person's reputation. No offspring from such a match could be acknowledged as a true heir. This was Sutpen's motivation for abandoning Eulalia and Charles Bon, and for Henry's murder of Charles Bon. Henry is willing to accept Charles's marriage to Judith, the man's own half sister; but the thought of a mixed-race man marrying Judith is intolerable.

In the story of Sutpen, the novel presents a type of allegory of the South and its "curse" of slavery and racism. Sutpen seems unconcerned with race until he has a humiliating experience at the Virginia plantation. He realizes not only race, but class, determines how a person is treated in the South. Although Sutpen is an overseer on a West Indian sugar plantation where some of the worst abuses of slaves occurred, and though he buys 20 male slaves to build his mansion and work his Mississippi plantation, he personally does not seem to have any deep, inbred racism. He works alongside his slaves and engages in competitive fights with them. He feels responsible for and supports his first part-black wife and child. He seems to treat Clytie well. For Sutpen it is the cultural racism of the South that has the greatest impact on him. He is bound to his "design" by the terms of respectability imposed on him by racist Southern culture.

History and Subjectivity

The story told in Absalom, Absalom! is anchored in the history of the South: a house is built, a plantation is started, cotton is grown, the Civil War is fought and lost, and Reconstruction follows. But this history is revealed not as a set of objective facts, but through the viewpoints of those who received the information, often secondhand.

Miss Rosa is the only narrator in the novel who has had any firsthand experience or participation in the events she describes, and even she narrates events she couldn't actually remember (events that occurred when she was three or four years old, or events for which she was not present). Mr. Compson, Quentin, and Shreve are all retelling the story from received tales. They comment on how they are working from scraps and fragments and conjuring up characters and stories that may or may not be true. Because of this, readers must ask: how can they tell us much about the things they purport to be narrating? How much can these stories tell us, not about their subjects, Sutpen and the rest, but about the characters telling them?

Thus, the same incident may be described one way by one character and in a completely different way by another character. With this technique, William Faulkner presents different aspects of people and events. He also demonstrates how malleable history and the past can be. In some cases the reader cannot know which version of an event is "real" or "true," but sometimes it doesn't really matter. The layers of narrative enrich and reveal the depth of the events and people described. History is what is lived—or is sometimes imagined to be—and the many people who live through it will necessarily construct a multifaceted version of that history.

Innocence versus Ambition

Thomas Sutpen is frequently referred to in the novel as "innocent," even though his actions are often vile, ruthless, self-serving, and demonic. As is made clear in Chapter 7, Sutpen's innocence reflects his ignorance of the social stratifications of race and class and private property and a worldview defined by luck. Sutpen seems to think his innocence is a problem that outlasts his childhood and is underpinned by Southern culture.

Sutpen's innocence in some ways remains intact while he acts out his ambition—his determination to rise above his impoverished childhood and in his pursuit of respectability. After a particularly humiliating experience, a young Sutpen realizes he must gain wealth in order to earn respectability (and never again be humiliated). He decides on, and single-mindedly executes, what some might characterize as a coldhearted and evil plan to ensure he is never humiliated again. Yet some narrators in the novel assert Sutpen retains his innocence even while pursuing the "design" that will help him realize his ambition.

This innocence seems to arise from the belief, expressed by Sutpen himself, that his ambition is good and right because it is sanctioned by Southern culture. That his reasonable, "calculated" design to realize this ambition is heartless and ultimately ruinous to other people and himself is beside the point. In fact Sutpen can't understand why problems keep arising that block him from carrying out his "design." Like the biblical characters Adam and Eve, who eat from the Tree of Knowledge and are cast out of paradise, to understand fully would require the loss of innocence. And in a story where Sutpen's rise and fall parallels that of the South, loss of innocence in his case would require an acknowledgment of the evils of slavery, something Sutpen cannot fathom.

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