Absalom, Absalom

Friday, August 12, 2011

Absalom, Absalom!
by William Faulkner

My only experience with Faulkner to date was The Sound and the Fury. While I found it a fascinating read, you can’t deny that it’s incredibly muddled. There are multiple points of view, one of which is a mentally handicapped person, which makes for a confusing flow to say the least. So I’ve been a bit hesitant to try anything else from the famous southern author.

This book tells the tragic story of Thomas Sutpen, a proud man determined to create an epic legacy. He builds a huge plantation, Sutpen’s Hundred, convinced that its success, along with having male children, will ensure his goal of becoming a “great” man. To reach this end he becomes blinded to the needs of those around him, blatantly disregarding the fate of others in his obsessive quest (I give a more detailed summary in the spoiler section). The book’s name comes from the Biblical tale of King David’s son Absalom, who tried to destroy his father’s empire. Like the old testament story, Faulkner’s book focuses on a patriarch’s sins which eventually bring pain and suffering to his children.


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Thomas Sutpen marries a woman, Eulalia, in Haiti. He later finds out she’s part Negro and so he divorces her; leaving both his wife and their son, Charles Bon. He then travels to Mississippi where buys 100 acres of land and marries a woman named Ellen. He has two children, Judith and Henry, with her and believes he has the perfect male heir to continue his line.

Years later, Henry goes to the University of Mississippi where he befriends, Charles Bon, without knowing that he is his half-brother. Henry takes Charles home to meet his family and Judith falls in love with him. Henry encourages the romance because he is a bit infatuated with both Charles and Judith and their union would allow him to live out his feelings vicariously. Charles realizes that Thomas is his father and thinks that Thomas will announce himself to Charles and welcome him into his home. This never happens and Charles decides to move forward with his plans to marry Judith.

Henry finds out, much to his horror, that Charles is his and Judith’s half-brother and begs Charles to leave her alone. When he refuses, Henry kills Charles to stop the marriage and then he runs away from home. Thomas’ empire is destroyed by the tragedy and he turns to the only women left around him in a desperate attempt to have another son. He fails and his callous disregard for those women leads to his murder.


Faulkner really makes you work for it. The narrative is hard to follow because the story is told by multiple characters, all of whom are relating the story to other people. The timeline bounces around because there are flashbacks and contradicting details and different points of view. It meanders about while trying to find its footing, but the rambling is very intentional. You’re supposed to get a bit lost as you get sucked into the story. Part of the reason it’s interesting is that you don’t know exactly what’s true. A large portion of the story is told by Quentin Compson (a character from The Sound and the Fury) to his Harvard roommate Shreve, decades after the events have taken place. Another part is told by Rosa, Thomas’ sister-in-law who has her own agenda and reasons for hating Sutpen.

Absalom, Absalom is a bit like watching a train wreck. You know it’s all going to end badly, but you can’t look away. Faulkner’s writing is beautiful, but again, it’s not a clear narrative because you’re never sure whether what you’re hearing is fact or someone’s opinion or just rumors. The scope of the story is epic. It touches on a dozen complex topics, including slavery, southern prejudice, devotion to land, incest, the downfall of the South, material wealth vs. familial love, etc. all the while mapping out a complicated tragedy of Greek proportions.

So far I haven’t loved reading Faulkner. I’ve been captivated by his work and it makes me feel like I’m wandering through decrepit old southern mansion as I read it, but I don’t feel passionate about it. This book kind of defies my rating system, because I didn’t love reading it, but it really challenged me and I thought about it long after I finished it. I like it when books do that to me.

I’d like to try another one of his next year and see how that goes. I’m thinking maybe As I Lay Dying of Light in August. Do you guys have any strong feelings about which Faulkner books I should try? The next one might decide whether I pursue him further or not.

"Jesus, the South is fine, isn't it. It's better than the theatre, isn't it. It's better than Ben Hur, isn't it"


Teacher/Learner said...

I admire your tenacity in reading Faulkner :) I haven't attempted his work yet, though I hear As I Lay Dying is more accessible than The Sound & the Fury.

*ೃ༄ Jillian said...

I've heard the same about As I Lay Dying. I really liked The Sound and the Fury (though I didn't understand much of it!) I think with Faulkner, it's important to read the impression of the book -- what you FEEL as you're reading. (I think) this is more important, in the case of Faulkner, than "getting it" on a first pass. If you haven't, you should read his short story "A Rose for Emily." :-)

B said...

I haven't read any Faulkner (tsk tsk, bad reader) but I've heard As I Lay Dying is one of the saddest books ever published.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Teacher/Learner - It sounds like As I Lay Dying should be next, but not when I'm feeling particularly down.

Jillian - I haven't read that short story yet, but I'll have to check it out!

Brenna - There are still quite a few classic authors I've yet to try. Emile Zola is high on my list.

Allie said...

I actually have this one on my nightstand and I was thinking of getting to it in the next week or so. I'll have to read your spoiler section then. :)

Faulkner is tough, but I've found that the more time I spend reading his work, the more I love him. As I Lay Dying is one of my FAVORITE books of all time (I read it shortly before my grandfather died, and for some reason, I read it again and it comforted me. NO idea why). It is a little easier than some of his other work. It does switch viewpoints, but each character is clearly defined. I think you might fair a little better with that one!

Jeanne said...

This one is my favorite by Faulkner--I find lots of opportunities to think "I don't hate the South! I don't hate it!

You might find some of the short stories more accessible. They are how I grew to love his writing.

Jessica said...

That sumed up more or les my feelings on a novel I read of his earlier. I have As I lay Dying on my shelf and that was going to be my next one.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Allie - I'll try that one next. Isn't it amazing how some books just come into our lives at the perfect time. I love it.

Jeanne - His short stories, that's a great idea! Maybe trying him in smaller doses will help me adjust to his style.

Jessica - I think that'll be my next one too.

Joseph said...

And the shame about this one...I think this could have been a very captivating story told in third person narrative. In stream of consciousness, it was just another Faulkner I had to struggle through.
My review: http://100greatestnovelsofalltimequest.blogspot.com/2015/01/absalom-absalom-by-william-faulkner-39.html

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Joseph - I struggled with the stream of consciousness style. I feel that way about all his books.