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Absalom, Absalom!

William Faulkner

Chapter 4

Chapter 3

Chapter 5

Summary

It is still too dark for Quentin to depart on his mysterious errand, so he sits on the front porch imagining Miss Rosa sitting in the dark in her black bonnet and shawl. Mr. Compson comes out of the house with a letter—a letter from Charles Bon to Judith Sutpen that Judith entrusted to Quentin's grandmother many decades ago. Mr. Compson tells Quentin about the relationship between Charles Bon and Henry Sutpen, how they met at the university, where Charles was a debonair, ironic, and indolent man, looked up to by the local students, and how Henry fixated on him and imitated his appearance and behavior. When Charles went home for Christmas with Henry in 1859, speculation began—originating largely with Ellen—that Charles and Judith were to be engaged. Then Charles left for New Orleans, followed closely by Thomas Sutpen, and the next Christmas, Henry Sutpen was renouncing his birthright and fleeing Sutpen's Hundred with his friend.

Mr. Compson tries to imagine the confrontation between Henry and his father that led to the break, and describes a scene, behind closed doors, in the library at Sutpen's Hundred, during which Thomas announced to Henry that he refused to allow Charles to marry Judith, because he had discovered in 1859 that Bon was secretly keeping a octoroon (a woman with a "drop" of negro blood; technically, a woman who was one-eighth black) mistress in New Orleans, to whom he was probably already married. Henry refused to believe it, sided with his friend over his father, and abandoned Sutpen's Hundred. He went to New Orleans with Charles, who slowly indoctrinated him into the pleasures and corruptions of life in the sultry French-influenced city before revealing to him that he was, in fact, married to a French-negro courtesan, whom he also owned, and whom he had obtained in a strange underground circle of women raised specifically to be won by wealthy men. Bon discounted the marriage as a sham and reminded Henry that the woman, as a "nigger," was without rights—she did not "count" as his wife. But Henry was nevertheless shattered and enraged: he wanted to believe his friend, but felt pulled apart by inner conflict.

Then the war broke out. Henry and Charles Bon enlisted in a company, where Bon was quickly promoted to lieutenant. Henry remained a private, and refused to allow Bon to write to Judith while he tried to decide what to do. Mr. Compson hints to Quentin that Henry's fascination with Bon had sexual overtones, which may have spurred him to see Bon married to his sister; and also hints that Henry's deep connection with his sister had overtones of incestuous desire, which may have spurred him to see her married to his friend. In any event, after four years of fighting, life at Sutpen's Hundred, like life all over the South, was reduced to a scrabble for food and sustenance: Sutpen, a colonel, was off fighting; Judith kept a garden to feed herself and Clytie; Wash Jones squatted in the rotten fishing camp by the river and occasionally brought food to them.

After four years of fighting, Bon finally wrote Judith a letter—the enigmatic document that Quentin now holds. The letter, which Quentin reads, is a statement of Bon's intention to find Judith and marry her ("We have waited long enough," he wrote)—though he also wrote that he could not say when he would come, because he did not know himself. Mr. Compson describes how Judith and Clytie made a wedding gown out of scraps and rags after Judith received the letter; and Quentin imagines the scene before the gates at Sutpen's Hundred, Henry warning Bon not to come past the shadow of the post, Bon warning Henry that he was going to pass it. The next thing Mr. Compson describes is Wash Jones sitting on his mule outside Rosa Coldfield’s house, shouting to Miss Rosa that Henry Sutpen has killed Charles Bon.

Commentary

This section is important because it clarifies and deepens our understanding of the relationship between Charles Bon and Henry Sutpen, and further clarifies our sense of Mr. Compson as a speculative, analytical thinker to whom everything is a sign of the predestined doom of men great and small. But this is also the most difficult section in the novel in some ways, because Mr. Compson's description of events is based on incomplete information, and is therefore misleading. As we will learn in subsequent chapters, Thomas Sutpen did not ride to New Orleans simply to investigate Bon, and did not merely discover that he was keeping an octoroon mistress or wife whom he also seemed to "own." Sutpen rode to New Orleans because he recognized Charles Bon as his own son, his child with the part-negro daughter of the Haitian plantation owner and Sutpen's first wife; if Bon married Judith, Sutpen's daughter would be marrying not only a man with negro blood, but her own half-brother.

Mr. Compson is also wrong when he imagines Henry's confrontation with his father to be centered on the problem of Bon's mistress; the break actually occurred, as Quentin and Shreve later realize, when Sutpen told Henry that Bon was his brother. During their subsequent trip to New Orleans, then, Bon was unlikely to have worried much about showing Henry his mistress/wife; Henry probably would have taken her as lightly as Bon did. But Mr. Compson does not know at this point that Bon was Sutpen's son, or that Bon's mother had negro blood, and his analysis is limited by his lack of knowledge. He tries to construct a whole picture but cannot.

Faulkner does not mislead his readers simply to complicate his plot, or even to preserve the mystery surrounding the story. Part of his project is to show how the past is reconstructed by those who come after it, how the examination of the past is in some sense a creative act on the part of the examiner, who must provide motives, thoughts, and feelings for the people whose lives he examines. Mr. Compson reconstructs the past no more imaginatively than do Quentin and Shreve later, but his factual framework is based on less information. Furthermore, the reconstruction of the past in the individual's mind is dependent on the personality of the individual, and on the relationship of the individual to the past. So Rosa, who lived through what was to her a nightmare, can stew in her own bitterness for decades, constantly recreating Sutpen in her imagination as a demon from hell and an ogre; Mr. Compson, more distant from the events of Sutpen's life, can view the story as proof of the role of fate in human life; and Quentin, quite distant from the Sutpen story but still strangely preoccupied with it, can construct the most factually accurate version of the story, and then connect the story abstractly to the overall history of the fall of the South. But he also ranges further into speculation than either his father or Miss Rosa.

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I like it

by fixasso, October 01, 2013

Great sparknotes. I like it!

No mistake in Absalom, Absalom

by achilles28, November 29, 2013

Many believe Faulkner made a mistake in describing Sutpen's house as built of brick at the beginning of the story, but in describing the fire that destroyed it we are made to see a wooden house burning to the ground.

This was no mistake. Consider the fall of Sutpen. He built a brick house, big as a courthouse, when he came as a symbol of his power over the people around him. A common wooden house would never suit Sutpen as we first know him. By the end of the story Sutpen is destroyed with no hope of redemption. A brick house, with w... Read more

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21 out of 21 people found this helpful

Thank you, thank you, thank you

by Susie937, June 20, 2014

I am reading this book for the first time for a classics book club. I've had a hard time following the story because the narrators seemed to change, description overtook plot and I lost who was who as the story developed. It was great to have a short synopsis and also a clarification about how Faulkner writes. The conclusion of the first chapter notes reminded me of when I see my optometrist and he tries out the different lenses to find a better view for me before he writes a prescription.

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