Considered one of the greatest novels of all time, William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! focuses on the story of Thomas Sutpen and his dream of establishing a new Southern plantation dynasty. His desire fails to last due to several crises within the Sutpen family and the entire South. The piece provides a sharp critique of Southern society, utilizing an intricate structure and complex metaphors to create an almost allegorical work. The novel’s structure characterizes the post-Civil War South as obsessed with preserving the legacy of antebellum planter culture and ensuring contemporary Southerners are viewed as proud of their heritage and noble for their defense of it. The story of Thomas Sutpen is conveyed to the reader through several tellings and retellings from multiple characters, gathered unwillingly by Quentin Compson, a young man starting college at Harvard. He grows increasingly frustrated because he is forced to constantly revisit Sutpen’s story, which slowly imbues Quentin with a distaste for his own culture; while discussing Sutpen with his roommate Shreve, Quentin shows his disdain by thinking “I am going to have to hear it all over again I am already hearing it all over again I am listening to it all over again I shall have to never listen to anything else but this again forever” (Faulkner, 222).
Quentin’s culturally mandated preoccupation with Southern lore fragments his mind, resulting in his suicide described in the novel The Sound and the Fury, published before Absalom, Absalom! (Sullivan, 3). While Quentin allows Faulkner to encourage Southerners to advance beyond the Civil War, Faulkner also uses the extensively analyzed saga of Sutpen and Sutpen’s Hundred to display plantation culture’s flaws and further push the 1936 South to evolve. Faulkner turns Sutpen and Sutpen’s Hundred in to metaphors for specific elements of the pre-war South, using Sutpen’s origins, downfall, and his relationship with the Southern social hierarchies to convey his disgust toward Southern slavery, racism, and social stratification to the reader.
Thomas Sutpen spent his childhood in the mountains of what would become West Virginia, and became introduced to the plantation system in “Tidewater” Virginia (Faulkner, 180). His father found work overseeing on a plantation; while running a routine errand for his father, the young and unsuspecting Sutpen embarked upon his true character arc of legacy-building. Tasked with delivering a message to the plantation owner, Sutpen naively approaches the manor’s front door and is told by “the monkey nigger” opening the door “to go around to the back before he could even state the business” (Faulkner, 189). The order, given by a member of a race Southern culture had raised him to view as inferior, and on behalf of a fellow white man who saw the Sutpens as inferior to himself inspires Sutpen to join the white elite through sheer willpower. Sutpen’s need to found a dynasty thus stemmed from his desire to overcome his perception by a member of the planter class, evidenced when he says “To combat them you have got to have what they have that made them do what he did. You got to have land and niggers and a fine house to combat them with” (Faulkner, 192).
After some time and a brief marriage in the West Indies, he appeared in Jefferson, Mississippi in 1833, towing dozens of slaves “from a much older country than Virginia or Carolina” (Faulkner, 11). Faulkner writes, “Inside of two years he had dragged house and gardens out of virgin swamp, and plowed and planted his land with seed cotton” (Faulkner, 30). He then married Ellen Coldfield, a minister and merchant’s daughter, to become accepted by the townspeople. He fathered two children with Ellen, Henry and Judith; he also conceived a daughter, Clytemnestra (Clytie), with one of his slaves.
Faulkner designed numerous parallels between the rise of Thomas Sutpen and the development of the plantation system, which show Faulkner’s opinion that traditional Southern society had been born corrupt. The most obvious similarity would be the use of slave labor to build and maintain the wealth and prestige of the white planters. The Southern plantation economy relied entirely on slaves to develop and prosper, a characteristic mirrored by Sutpen’s use of slaves to build Sutpen’s Hundred; Sutpen’s wealth and power were thus achieved because of his exploitation of foreign-born black slaves, “most of whom [were] unfamiliar with any European tongue” (Sullivan 4). The “wild” nature of the slaves used in the construction of Sutpen’s Hundred further reinforces the parallel, as they could represent the original, African-born slaves first brought to the South that laid the plantation system’s bedrock. In his article “How Faulkner Tackled Race-and Freed the South from Itself”, John Jeremiah Sullivan describes how the parallels between Sutpen’s possible ancestry from Jamestown and the Old World nature of his slaves contributes to the novel’s theme of history repeating itself. He writes “the region keeps generating Sutpens, repeating its themes: Indian removal, class resentment, as well as a stubborn racial hatred that coexists with intense racial intimacy” (Sullivan 5).
Faulkner provides further evidence for common themes of racial subjugation in the fights for sport between Sutpen and his slaves. Faulkner writes, “Perhaps as a matter of sheer deadly forethought toward the retention of supremacy, domination, he would enter the ring with one of his negroes himself” (Faulkner, 21). The fights’ description presents a clear allusion to racial domination; the white slave-owner leaves his manor and travels to the dirt and muck in the stables to wrestle and subdue a black, foreign slave until his superiority is affirmed. The battle between master and slave echoes the historical capture and enslavement of Africans, and further contributes to the criticism of Southern culture’s very foundation.
Despite his initial successes, Sutpen’s dynasty came to an end following the Civil War. The war ravaged Sutpen’s Hundred, motivating him to restore the estate. Sutpen’s main goal was to produce a new heir, as Henry had renounced his inheritance before the war and killed Judith’s fiancé, Charles Bon, after. With his wife dead (of disease during the war), Sutpen became engaged to her sister, Rosa. Their engagement ended when Rosa balked when he “suggested they breed like a couple of dogs together,” motivating him to mate with his overseer, Wash Jones’s granddaughter (Faulkner, 147). After conceiving a son, Sutpen is killed by Jones, who then kills his granddaughter and her newborn.
Faulkner crafted Sutpen’s collapse to thematically represent Southern society’s downfall and shed new light on the reasons for the end of the plantation system. Faulkner’s argument focused on the refusal of either party to accept defeat or alter their lifestyles; their desire to preserve their barbaric customs at any cost led to the complete loss of those behaviors. In the novel, Rosa Coldfield describes Sutpen and his resolve upon returning from the war; “he would not even pause for breath before undertaking to restore his house and plantation as near as possible to what it had been” (Faulkner, 129). Sutpen’s determination to salvage his dynasty from its deathbed resulted in his death because it encouraged him to adopt increasingly desperate
methods, such as sleeping with Jones’s granddaughter. Sutpen’s motives and methods bear similarity to the antebellum South’s actions up to and during the Civil War; Southern culture grew more and more hostile and defiant toward any perceived threat to their way of life, which included slavery. Historian Mary Ellen Snodgrass elaborates on this system, stating “Southern land ownership concentrated wealth in the hands of a shrinking plutocracy, the members of which prided themselves on keeping acreage in the family by passing on a generations-old tradition to their sons” (11). The plantation system could thus endure beyond its economic viability, becoming obsolete in the face of industrialization. However, this “racially stratified hierarchy” affected all aspects of Southern society, “set[ting] the South apart from the rest of the nation in terms of culture, productivity, and philosophy” (Snodgrass, 11).
Despite the economic stagnation of slavery and the growing anti-slavery movement in the increasingly more powerful North, the South stubbornly clung to its traditions, resorting to more radical and extreme means. Prime examples would be the violence between pro-slavery and anti-slavery groups in Kansas to determine its status as a free or slave territory, as well as the caning of abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner by a South Carolina Representative after delivering a speech condemning slavery. As calls for change mounted, the South responded by attempting to remove itself from those calls through secession, a decision which led to the collapse of the old system through war. Instead of adapting to the changing times, the South chose violent defense of their legacy of repression and subjugation to the planter class. The similar manner of destruction for both Sutpen and planter culture, through an inflexible response to outside pressure to evolve, supports the theory that Sutpen is a metaphor for the South.
Sutpen not only serves as a metaphor for the South in general, but Faulkner also uses him to make his strongest critique of antebellum culture: Southern social hierarchies. Unlike many writers, Faulkner depicts both Southern class systems in Absalom, Absalom!: race-based and wealth-based. Sutpen belongs to both systems and represents their abuses. Regarding race, Sutpen left his first wife and child, Charles Bon, after learning his wife had some African heritage. The South, at that time, demanded white blood purity, meaning any non-European ancestry marked one as non-white. Whites could only marry other whites, and only their pure-blooded white children would be considered legitimate. Sutpen’s leaving represents the Southern need for blood purity; if he wanted a lasting dynasty, he would need recognized heirs and society’s respect, unattainable without a white wife. Sutpen’s adherence to social norms thus prevented him from accepting his son. After Sutpen’s Hundred had been established, Bon met and befriended Henry, Sutpen’s heir, at the University of Mississippi; he became a fixture in the Sutpen family, visiting Sutpen’s Hundred and even becoming engaged to Judith. Yet his true purpose, obtaining Sutpen’s recognition, remained unfulfilled, as Sutpen “never acknowledged [his son]” (Faulkner, 279). Even when doing so would prevent the forthcoming incest between Bon and his half-sister Judith, Sutpen refused, telling Henry their kinship with Bon and later of Bon’s ethnic makeup. Sutpen would not recognize his non-white son, just as antebellum society mistreated non-whites.
While Sutpen resided on top of the racial class system, he experienced his early life with no standing in the wealth system. As a child, Sutpen learned “there was a difference between white men and white men” based on wealth (Faulkner, 183). As mentioned previously, Sutpen’s father worked on a plantation, a time that opened his eyes to the planters’ dominance over poor whites. During his time on the estate, the young Sutpen was denied entry through the manor’s front door by a slave because of his poor white status. This event illustrates the true nature of the plantation system, with everyone subservient to the planters. The racial implications provide an additional layer to the slight because of Sutpen’s established superior rank to African Americans; being given an order by a group he has been raised to view as inferior was critical to exposing him to the economic hierarchy.
Absalom, Absalom! has become highly esteemed for its use of metaphor to examine the South. The character Thomas Sutpen and his estate Sutpen’s Hundred represent the rise and fall of the old South and show the legacy of inequality cultivated and left by the plantation system. In typical Modernist form, the novel removes the noble and dignified aura constructed around the old South, revealing it to be an unfair and cruel culture.
Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! New York: Vintage International, 1936. Print.
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. The Civil War Era and Reconstruction: An Encyclopedia of Social, Political, Cultural, and Economic History. New York: Routlege, 2011. Web.
Sullivan, John Jeremiah. “How William Faulkner Tackled Race- and Freed the South from Itself.” The New York Times Magazine. The New York Times Company, 2015. Web. 16 September, 2015.