Absalom, Absalom!: Story-telling as a mode of transcendence

Citation metadata

Author: Richard Forrer
Date: Fall 1976
From: The Southern Literary Journal(Vol. 9, Issue 1)
Publisher: University of North Carolina Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 8,093 words

Main content

Article Preview :

"The past is never dead. It's not even past," says Gavin Stevens in Requiem for a Nun, and therewith summarizes the basic dilemma that confronts many of William Faulkner's characters, especially those in Absalom, Absalom! In this novel, the Southern narrators--Mr. Compson, his son Quentin, and Rosa Coldfield--relive a past which they believe has irreparably ruined their lives. This belief shapes their imaginative re-creations of the Sutpen saga. As a consequence these accounts of the past o[ten resemble chanted lamentations for a hopeless future. The reality of the past in Absalom, Absalom? is determined no less by the narrators' state of consciousness than by the known "facts" about the past. Herein lies one of the novel's major problems as well as one of its principal themes: the relationship between the present and past. Are there such things as pure "facts" unconditioned by imaginative interpretation--which "speak for themselves" to thereby disclose the reality of the past, or is the reality of the past ultimately the imaginative creation of our present concerns?

Faulkner's treatment of this problem in Absalom, Absalom! is ambiguous. (1) On the one hand, the people in the novel seem able to gain access to the reality of the past only through the imaginative re-creation of events. On the other hand, there are several "facts" about the Sutpens which the narrators use to guide their reconstructions of the past. These facts include Sutpen's scheme to rise above his impoverished circumstances, Wash Jones's murder of Sutpen, Etienne Bon's public fights with whites and blacks, Henry's murder of Charles Bon, and a letter that has neither salutation nor signature. (2) However, like the letter, none of these facts speaks for itself. Each retains an aura of mystery that invites--even necessitates--imaginative conjecture for understanding it. These ambiguities in Faulkner's treatment of the relationship between the present and past in Absalom, Absalom! are clearly demonstrated in Quentin's unexpected encounter with Henry Sutpen at the Sutpen mansion.

This episode is given to us only in part. Quentin enters a tomb-like room and sees Henry on his deathbed, "the wasted yellow face with closed, almost transparent eyelids on the pillow, the wasted hands crossed on the breast as if he were already a corpse" (p. 373). (3) It is as though Quentin were seeing in Henry the condensed residue of the past offering itself for Quentin's careful inspection, but finally stunning Quentin with its utter incomprehensibility.

And you are--?

Henry Sutpen.

And you have been here--?

Four years.

And you came home--?

To die. Yes.

To die?

Yes. To die.

And you have been here--?

Four years.

And you are--?

Henry Sutpen. (373)

In this brief scene, "fact" and "reality," "past" and "present" are incarnated in the person of Henry Sutpen. Faulkner clearly presents Henry's emaciation as a living image of the gradual and inexorable wastage of life that is perhaps, for Faulkner, the ultimately discoverable "fact" of Southern history. Certainly this fact finally leads Quentin to join others in their efforts to imaginatively re-create...

Source Citation

Source Citation
Forrer, Richard. "Absalom, Absalom!: Story-telling as a mode of transcendence." The Southern Literary Journal, vol. 9, no. 1, fall 1976, pp. 22+. Accessed 29 Nov. 2022.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A131897798