William Faulkner came from an old, proud, and distinguished Mississippi family, which included a governor, a colonel in the Confederate army, and notable business pioneers. He grew up in Oxford, Mississippi which he later renamed Jefferson, Mississippi in his novels. Although Faulkner is a contemporary American, he is already considered one of the world’s greatest novelists. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949. Through his experiences from growing up in the old South, Faulkner has been able to express the values of the South through his characters.
William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom offers a strong condemnation of the mores and morals of the South. Faulkner’s strong condemnation of the values of the South emanates from the actual story of the Sutpen family whose history must be seen as connected to the history of the South (Bloom 74). Quentin tells this story in response to a Northerner’s question: “What is the South like? ” As the novel progresses, Quentin is explaining the story of the Sutpen myth and revealing it to the reader. Faulkner says that the duty of an author, as an artist, is to depict the human heart in conflict with itself.
This attitude is revealed in the conflicts that Henry Sutpen undergoes in Absalom, Absalom. Thomas Sutpen is the son of a poor mountain farmer who founded the Sutpen estate. Thomas Sutpen stands for all the great and noble qualities of the South, and at the same time represents the failure of the South by rejecting the past and committing the same types of acts that his ancestors did (Brodhead 34). He rejects his own father to adopt a plantation owner as his surrogate father, who acts as a model of what a man is supposed to be.
When the plantation owner tells Sutpen to use the back door instead of the front door, Faulkner is using this as an example of the negative southern mores of the Crumley 2 period. This act changes Sutpen from a boy wanting no privileges into a man wanting everything and is what started Thomas Sutpen’s quest to be better than his father. To fulfill his quest, Sutpen spends his entire life trying to repeat the past only to correct it (Bloom 38). He has a grand design to be the son who seized the power of his father and then be the father to keep that same power from being seized by his own son (Hoffman 23).
The first step of Sutpen’s design includes marrying Eulalia Bon and having a pure white son named Charles Bon. When Thomas Sutpen realizes that Charles is partially Negro because of Eulalia’s heritage, he rejects them both and is forced to start his design over. This is Faulkner’s way of condemning racism in the South. Thomas Sutpen later marries Ellen Coldfield and has a second son named Henry and a daughter named Judith. Thomas Sutpen’s design is nearly complete when Charles shows up from his first marriage and falls in love with Judith, nearly uniting the two families.
This incestuous relationship causes Henry Sutpen to kill Charles Bon to save his family from miscegenation. Using incest in this novel is another way that Faulkner condemns the mores and morals of the South. Thomas Sutpen tries two more times to fulfill his design by trying to have a pure white son and refusing to let that son seize the power that he had successfully seized from his father. After devoting his life to fulfilling his design and failing repeatedly, Sutpen asks Wash Jones to kill him.
Thomas Sutpen made the mistake of rejecting the past and leaving humanity out of his plan, therefore causing his own failure. Faulkner makes his reader realize that Sutpen’s failure represents the failure of the South. Crumley 3 In Absalom, Absalom, Faulkner uses three narrators. Of the three narrators, Quentin Compson is the main narrator. Miss Rosa and Mr. Compson are secondary narrators used to express their own sense of hatred and prejudice towards the South (Thompson 99). Faulkner uses these narrators to explain the negative mores and morals of the south.
Each narrator misunderstands the cultural patterns of the South, hates it, and has to find a way to deal with it. Quentin tries to prove that he is a better man than his father is by being a better narrator and taking on the active role (Bloom 67). Quentin possesses the sensitivity and intelligence necessary for narration and he is intensely interested in his subject matter. This interest makes him a better narrator than Mr. Compson (Hoffman 79). Quentin later learns that a man never outlives his father, because a son who seeks revenge against his father turns into that father.
The cycle continues, as the grandson becomes a reincarnation of his grandfather seeking revenge against the father (Brodhead 45). Faulkner emphasizes the competition between Quentin and Mr. Compson to show that, in this southern family, normal competition was used for revenge and therefore continued in a never-ending cycle. Quentin is not involved in the Sutpen family and he is far enough removed from the Sutpen myth to view it objectively. Throughout the novel Quentin learns most of the Sutpen’s family story. He knows that it is part of his life and a part of his heritage.
Therefore, he investigates to see how much responsibility he feels toward the South and toward his own past (Bloom 49). Quentin accepts responsibility for his predecessors by narrating the story of Absalom, Absalom and revealing the evils of the South during this period of time. Crumley 4 Mr. Compson had too little concern about the Sutpen story and tended to view it only as support to his own view of life. To Mr. Compson, the story lies in Thomas Sutpen’s attempt to fulfill his personal design without any outside help (Hoffman 57).
If the design were successful, then it would prove that man could control his own destiny. When Sutpen’s design failed, because of his own great determination, it was proof to Mr. Compson of the weakness of the human race and of man’s inability to determine his fate (Thompson 63). Therefore, for Mr. Compson, the Sutpen myth emphasized how little control man has over his destiny (Bloom 143). By using Mr. Compson as a narrator, Faulkner shows the reader that no man can put his personal aims above another man or above that of humanity. Unlike the Compsons, Miss Rosa is an active participant in the events being narrated.
Being involved in the action while it takes place, Miss Rosa is unable to view the story with objectivity. Miss Rosa is never able to give a logical explanation of how the entire Sutpen family was destroyed (Brodhead 30). Therefore, the myth, the past and the history only has one meaning to Miss Rosa. It is proof that a man has no control over his destiny and that man is the victim of hostile and irrational forces of the universe (Bloom 97). Faulkner points out these hostile and irrational forces of the universe by writing about incest, murder, racism, and unnatural competition between father and son.