In September 1909, in Yoknapatawpha County, near Jefferson, Mississippi, Quentin Compson is sent a handwritten note from an old woman named Miss Rosa Coldfield, summoning him to meet her that afternoon, so that he can hear the story of her youth and of the destruction of her family. Quentin, a young man from a prominent Jefferson family—his grandfather was a general in the Civil War—is perplexed as to why she would want to talk to him, and asks his father about it. Mr. Compson explains that Quentin's grandfather had been involved in the story, because he was a friend of a man named Thomas Sutpen, whom Rosa Coldfield considers the demon responsible both for her family's ruination and her own.
Quentin goes to see Rosa Coldfield; they sit in the musty room she calls the "office," with the shutters shut so tightly that only thin slits of light shine into the room, and he listens to her story. She explains to him that she has heard he is preparing to attend Harvard—perhaps he will have literary ambitions, and perhaps he would like to write down the story one day. Quentin realizes that she wants the story to be told, so that its hearers will understand how God could have let the South lose the war—because the South was in the hands of men like Thomas Sutpen, who had valor and strength but neither pity nor compassion.
Miss Rosa's narrative is told with an intense, smoldering bitterness: she has spent the last four decades burning up in her obsession with the events she now recounts. In 1833, she says, Thomas Sutpen descended upon Jefferson with nothing more than a horse and two pistols and no known past (with a group of savage slaves and a French architect in tow, Sutpen at their forefront like a demon—this is how Quentin pictures the event). Through violent force of will Sutpen had managed to raise up a house the size of a courthouse on an estate he carved out himself and named Sutpen's Hundred. Sutpen was little better than a savage himself, holding fights between his slaves—fights in which he often participated—and horse races, luring men to his plantation for events undescribable to young girls. Thirsting for respectability, Sutpen married Ellen Coldfield, the older sister of Miss Rosa, who was yet to be born), and the daughter of a local Methodist merchant. Sutpen had two children by Ellen, Henry in 1839 and Judith a year later, but being a father did not temper his wild, violent behavior. One night Ellen discovered her husband participating in a fight with a negro before a bloodthirsty crowd, with the children watching—Henry crying and upset, Judith (who had snuck there to watch with a little negro girl) in rapt attention. Judith seemed to possess her father's temperament: when his reckless carriage races before the church were stopped by the minister's complaints, the six-year-old girl began to cry insensibly.
Later details in the story become somewhat vague in Miss Rosa's narration: Thomas Sutpen and his son Henry each fought in the war, she says, and she describes Ellen on her deathbed. Just before she died, Ellen asked Rosa, then a young girl, to look out for Judith—even though Judith was older than Rosa. Rosa replied that the only thing the children needed protection from was themselves. But other than these glimpses, details are scarce— except for one central event which Rosa refers to several times: on Judith's wedding day, just before the wedding was to take place, her brother Henry killed her fiance in front of the gates of Sutpen's Hundred.
Absalom, Absalom! is an unusual book in that its first chapter summarizes nearly the plot of the rest of the book. The events Miss Rosa recounts in the life of Thomas Sutpen and his family are the same events that subsequent chapters will examine in depth and from many different perspectives and angles. Part of Faulkner's project in this novel is to show the way in which people relate to, think about, and interpret the past; to achieve that end, he eschews a straightforward chronological narration in favor of a sequence of events—Sutpen building the house and marrying Ellen, the war, Henry Sutpen killing Charles Bon just before Charles would have married Judith—that will be repeated and deepened throughout the novel. The events will be held up to the light by many different characters, each of whom will give the characters in the Sutpen saga different motivations, and will read a different meaning into the story as a whole.
Most of the first chapter is narrated by Miss Rosa, whose relationship to her past is one of frantic and traumatic bitterness, in which everything has intensified and grown out of proportion: Sutpen is a demon, an ogre, a monster; his slaves were savage animals; and so forth. In addition to exploring the nuances of man's relationship to the past, Faulkner sets out in Absalom, Absalom! to present a metaphor for the history of the South. It is important to note that even at this early stage, Quentin (who will supply the consciousness that unifies the whole book, just as Sutpen is the figure that dominates it) connects the story of Sutpen to that of the South itself, speculating that the South lost the war because shrewd, strong men like Sutpen lacked compassion or pity, and so earned the enmity of God. Later, Quentin's roommate at Harvard will ask him to explain the South, and Quentin will tell the Sutpen story in answer. As the novel progresses, Quentin's and the other characters' interpretations of the Sutpen story become increasingly a struggle with the larger questions (family, race, honor, violence, morality, power, innocence) that define the history of the South.
I think this is William Faulkner's magnum opus and ought to be on every relevant syllabus. This is the novel Americans should have been reading when they were reading Gone With the Wind. More accomplished technically than The Sound and the Fury, its statement is also more devastating. Sutpen's crimes reflect the culture's, and the consequences reflect the culture's abiding flaws.
Thanks for the spoiler alert on The Sound and the Fury.