The Ripples of History

It has been said that our past is an indicator of the present, that its imprints are embedded on us. Our histories influence how we are perceived by the public. We would like to think that our history, that whatever happened in the past remains in the past. Unfortunately, that is rarely ever the case. We constantly hear our past reverberating all over us. Our past is, inevitably, equated to who we are in the contemporary. But whilst most see our past as a gauge of our character, it is not by all means a moral compass upon which we must measure ourselves against. After all, we have the choice to be better than what was.

In Absalom, Absalom!, Nobel Laureate in Literature William Faulkner explores this theme through the story of Thomas Sutpen. Born in poverty in West Virginia in 1807, Thomas Sutpen ran away from home when he was just fourteen years-old. In 1833, he moved to Mississippi in search of greener pastures. Arriving in Jefferson, Mississippi with a crew of slaves, he purchased a vast tract of land from Old Chickasaw Chief Ikkemotubbe, a member of the local Native American tribe. With the help of a French architect, Sutpen began the construction of a large plantation he named Sutpen’s Hundred, a brazen reference to the hundred square miles of land he just bought.

In moving to Mississippi, Sutpen was also hoping to rise above the quagmires of poverty by becoming an influential patriarch. The first step to accomplishing this was befriending a local merchant. After managing to ingratiate himself with the merchant, he managed to earn his daughter’s, Ellen Coldfield, hand in marriage. Ellen bore Sutpen a son, Henry, and a daughter, Judith. By virtue of having a son, Sutpen fulfilled the second step to his masterplan. However, things do not always go the way we wanted it to. The moment we feel sure that our future has been carefully laid out and secure, the consequences of our past actions come back to haunt us.

“That is the substance of remembering—sense, sight, smell: the muscles with which we see and hear and feel not mind, not thought: there is no such thing as memory: the brain recalls just what the muscles grope for: no more, no less; and its resultant sum is usually incorrect and false and worthy only of the name of dream.”

~ William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

Absalom, Absalom! is widely recognized as one of the backbones of the modern American novel. It also played a seminal role in Faulkner’s selection as the winner of the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature. Set before, during and after the American Civil War, the novel appears to be, on the surface, a mundane and familiar rags-to-riches story, the chronicle of the rise and fall of Thomas Sutpen. However, Absalom, Absalom! is more than just a simple chronicle of a man’s journey from poverty to the zenith of success. Whilst it focuses on the story of Thomas Sutpen, the novel also is the story of three American South families and a story of the American South itself.

And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept: and as he went, thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son! Second Samuel, 18:33, King James Version. The novel’s title is a foreshadowing to the events that transpired in the story. “Dark House” was the original title that Faulkner had for his novel. But as the story begun to take shape, Faulkner deemed the Biblical story of Absalom and David, King of Israel, a fitting mold for his novel. Absalom is the third son of David who rebelled against his father.

Although a son of the south, it is no secret that Faulkner has always been critical of the values of the land that nurtured him. His literary works are abound with his criticism of the American South, its culture, its society and its people. Nowhere in his literary repertoire was his condemnation of Southern culture more vivid than in Absalom, Absalom! The biggest allegory in the narrative is Thomas Sutpen. Sutpen is the product of a man consumed by his ambitions. His commitment to founding his own heritage is a reflection of the story of antebellum south culture. Sutpen is not originally from the South but he becomes influenced by its culture and society.

Through Sutpen’s story, the novel explored a myriad of subjects. Some of the subjects tackled, such as fratricide, and incest, are bleak and heavy. Lust and the evils of ambitions were also depicted in the story. They added to the pall that hovered above the narrative. Faulkner also vividly captured the prevailing attitude towards these subjects; these are jabs on the morals, and ethics of his own southern upbringing. The staples of Southern novel – racism, discrimination, and slavery – were also woven into the complex and rich tapestry of the novel.

“Beautiful lives women live – women do. In very breathing they draw meat and drink from some beautiful attenuation of unreality in which the shades and shapes of facts—of birth and bereavement, of suffering and bewilderment and despair – move with the substanceless decorum of lawn party charades, perfect in gesture and without significance or any ability to hurt.”

~ William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

“What is the South like?” a northerner asks a southerner. To this curious question, an epic unfoded. Thomas Sutpen’s story was narrated, with each layer peeled like an onion by characters who knew his story. Rosa Coldfield, the younger sister of Ellen, initially narrated the story, retelling it to Quentin Compson III, the grandson of one of Sutpen’s friend. There were, however, digressions in Rosa’s version as it was diluted by her own prejudices. Quentin’s father also helped fill in some of the details. Quentin presently narrated Sutpen’s story to his Harvard University roommate, Shreve. As some parts of Sutpen’s story were sketchy, Quentin rebuilt and reinterpreted some details based from what was already related to him, with some outputs and conjectures from Shreve.

The novel’s primary narrative structure underline one of the novel’s main premise, that no one person is truly capable of knowing and capturing the truth. Sutpen’s story was told in a non-chronological order through various narrators. The annals of history are not conclusive for they are an amalgamation of documentation. History gets inevitably altered and influenced by memory and the biases of the people telling it. The truth gets muddled and history becomes a combination of informed guesswork, palpable fact, conspiracies, and conjectures. The past, just like Sutpen’s story, then depends on the narrator’s prejudices and memory. This makes the past open to revisions and exposes it to the incorporation of myth and folklore. The burden to filter the truth is shifted to the reader.

Populating the labyrinthine narrative are well-developed characters. Faulkner carefully fleshed out each character to represent various facets of the south. Each character was also complex and had his or her own motivations. This interesting mix gave the story its own appeal, with Sutpen as its focal point. Whilst Sutpen was mainly seen through the lenses of those who vilified his story, he also represented some of the great qualities of the south.

The novel is Faulkner’s sixth novel set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha county. This fictional county was inspired by Faulkner’s childhood home, Lafayette County, Mississippi. For a better appreciation of the county he often referred to as “apocryphal”, Faulkner attached a hand-drawn map to the novel. The map adds credence to the narrative and greatly compliments Faulkner’s flowing and descriptive narrative. His prose vividly captured the prevailing atmosphere and attitude of the time. His reliance on evocative visual elements to capture the character’s emotions made the narrative flourish.

“I, the dreamer clinging yet to the dream as the patient clings to the last thin unbearable ecstatic instant of agony in order to sharpen the savor of the pain’s surcease, waking into the reality, the more than reality, not to the unchanged and unaltered old time but into a time altered to fit the dream which, conjunctive with the dreamer, becomes immolated and apotheosized”

~ William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

Absalom, Absalom! is a seminal literary work that dwells into the heart of the American south. It explored a score of dark and heavy themes. However, its biggest achievement lies on how it underscored the weight history puts on the shoulders of those living in the present. It posited the various roles that the past plays on our lives; the past still resonates in the present. This leaves us then in a moral crossroad – how should we deal with our past? Should we lock it up in the dungeon whilst hoping it never gets out? Should we live by and in it everyday? Should we view it merely as a commentary of the frailties of the human spirit?

Perhaps the biggest question lies on how should we come into terms with it. Indeed, no one escapes the past unscathed. But, through the examination of the experiences of the characters, Absalom, Absalom! provides various lenses upon which to study our past and its relation to our present. The possibilities are endless but one thing is definite. The choice is up to us.

Rating

78%

Characters (30%) – 24%
Plot (30%) – 23%
Writing (25%) – 20%
Overall Impact (15%) – 11%

It has been over four years since I read my first William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury. The novel was listed as part of many must-read lists, thus, piquing my curiosity. The title also tickled my imagination. However, my first experience with William Faulkner left me, honestly, not wanting more. Not only was The Sound and the Fury a difficult read but its language was inaccessible as well. Despite this unsavory experience, I decided to gave his narrative another chance with Absalom, Absalom! Besides, Absalom, Absalom! has been gathering dust in my bookshelves for years. Absalom, Absalom! gave me more insights and understanding into the Faulkner’s body of art. I liked his descriptive narrative and his compelling voice which was reeling me into the complicated story of Thomas Sutpen.

Book Specs

Author: William Faulkner
Publisher: Vintage Books
Publishing Date: August 1972
Number of Pages: 378
Genre: Southern Gothic

Synopsis

“Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.” —William Faulkner
 
Absalom, Absalom! is Faulkner’s epic tale of Thomas Sutpen, an enigmatic stranger who comes to Jefferson, Mississippi, in the early 1830s to wrest his mansion out of the muddy bottoms of the north Mississippi wilderness. He was a man, Faulkner said, “who wanted sons and the sons destroyed him. (Source: Goodreads)

About the Author

William Cuthbert Faulkner was born on September 25, 1897 in New Albany, Mississippi. Shortly after his first birthday, his family moved to Ripley, Mississippi before finally settling in Oxford, Mississippi four days before Faulkner’s fifth birthday.

From a young age, Faulkner was surrounded by literary references. His mother cultivated his and his brothers’ interest in literature, exposing them to literary classics such as Charles Dickens and Grimms’ Fairy Tales. His nanny, Caroline “Callie” Barr was also influential in the development of his artistic capacity. To pursue his dream of becoming a writer, Faulkner enrolled at the University of Mississippi where he also joined the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. However, he dropped out in 1920, three semesters after joining “Ole Miss”.

Faulkner’s literary endeavors began in his early 20s, sending in poems and shorts stories he wrote to his friend, Phil Stone. Stone, in turn, sent these pieces to publishers who rejected them. In 1925, after moving to New Orleans, Louisiana, he begun writing Soldier’s Play, his first novel which was published in 1926. A year later, he began working on his first novel set in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, titled Flags in the Dust. Perhaps one of his most famous works, The Sound and the Fury was published in 1929. His other prominent works include Absalom, Absalom! (1936), As I Lay Dying (1930), and Light in August (1932). Faulkner won the Pulitzer Prize for two of his works – A Fable (1954) in 1955 and The Reivers (1962) in 1963. Faulkner also published short story and poem collections, and wrote plays and screenplays.

In 1949, Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his “powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel”. Averse to the fame and glory resulting from the recognition, he donated part of his Nobel money “to establish a fund to support and encourage new fiction writers”. This resulted to the founding of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. The French government also made Faulkner a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur in 1951.

Faulkner passed away on July 6, 1962 after suffering a fatal heart attack.