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Faulkners absalom absalom an innovative narrative

Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!: An Innovative Narrative Technique

Shawn Montano

Guilt should be viewed through the eyes of more than one person,

southern or otherwise. William Faulkner filters the story, Absalom, Absalom!,

through several minds providing the reader with a dilution of its representation.

Miss Rosa, frustrated, lonely, mad, is unable to answer her own questions

concerning Sutpen's motivation. Mr. Compson sees much of the evil and the

illusion of romanticism of the evil that turned Southern ladies into ghosts.

Charles Bon and Henry Sutpen are evaluated for their motives through Quentin

Compson and Shreve McCannon. Quentin attempt to evade his awareness, Shreve the

outsider (with Quentin's help) reconstructs the story and understands the

meaning of Thomas Sutpen's life. In the novel Absalom, Absalom!, a multiple

consciousness technique is used to reassess the process of historical

reconstruction by the narrators.

Chapter one is the scene in which Miss Rosa tells Quentin about the

early days in Sutpen's life. It's here that Rosa explains to Quentin why she

wanted to visit old mansion on this day. She is the one narrator that is unable

to view Sutpen objectively. The first chapter serves as merely an introduction

to the history of Sutpen based on what Miss Rosa heard as a child and her brief

personal experiences.

The narration of Absalom, Absalom!, can be considered a coded activity.

Faulkner creates the complex narration beginning at chapter 2. It ironic that

one of Faulkner's greatest novels is one in which the author only appears as the

teller of the story in one brief section; The details of the hero's arrival,

Thomas Sutpen, into Jefferson in chapter 2. Although Faulkner sets the scene up

in each section (The omniscient narrator), most of the novel is delivered

through a continual flow of talk via the narrators.

Quentin appears to think the material for the first half of the chapter

2. The narrator, throughout the novel, works as a historian. The narrators

seem to act like a model for readers. The narrator actually teaches the reader

how to participate in the historical recollection of Absalom Absalom! The

narrator also introduces the reader to things to come. The complexity of the

novel involves more than just reading the novel. The reader must become an

objective learner as to the history of Mr. Sutpen.

Mr. Compson's section of chapter two (43-58) contains words like "

perhaps" and "doubtless." For example: Compson speculates that Mr. Coldfield's

motivation for a small wedding was "perhaps" parsimony or "perhaps" due to the

community's attitude toward his prospective son-in-law (50). The aunt's "

doubtless": did not forgive Sutpen for not having a past and looked at the

public wedding "probably" as a way of securing her niece's future as a wife (52).

Faulkner uses these qualifiers to heighten the speculative nature of the

narrative, so that Compson's engagement in the metahistorical process, rather

that Sutpen's history, becomes the primary focus (Connelly 3).

As Mr. Compson continues his presentation of the Sutpen history, Compson

begins to explain Sutpen on two very different planes of significance. Sutpen,

through the narration of Mr. Compson, becomes the tragic hero and a pragmatist

(Duncan 96). After this, Compson switches his approach to one of more personal

involvement. The beginning of chapter 4, Faulkner displays this with the use

of phrases like "I believe" or "I imagine" Mr. Compson begins to use a more

humane approach to the telling of the story. Mr. Compson demands Henry "must

have know what his father said was true and could not deny it" (91). Compson

make assumptions based on his own conclusions at this time. The words "believe"

and "imagine" again reveal for the reader that he/she must make some of their

own speculations in order to ascertain some of Sutpen's historical facts.

Mr. Compson is creating his own reconstruction of Sutpen's history.

Again, Faulkner uses words like "believes" and "doubtless" to make us understand

Compson's explanation of the past. The reader is now compelled to believe the

narrator. Compson insists at the end of this passage that "Henry must have been

the one who seduced Judith" (99). It appears that this passage is extremely

important to Compson's account. Rather than just collecting the facts and then

recording them, the reader now begins to realize the all history is subject to


With the reader beginning to question the historical reconstruction of

Sutpen's life, Miss Rosa take over the narration in chapter 5. It's important

to know that her narrative is in italics. The italics signal a break from

normally motivated narrative. "when the narrators shift to italics, they show

almost a quantum leap to the perception of new relationships, giving new facts"

(Serole 2). There is now a desire for the reader and the narrator to unravel

the truth. Miss Rosa's section seems to be a dream. The dreamlike qualities in

her recollection of the stories may not be true. By the end of Miss Rosa's

narrative section we are probing and yearning to reveal the character's motives

and history. Through Miss Rosa, Faulkner presses the reader to believe that

such a dreamlike quality contains truths. "The reader just as often finds

himself witness to a proairetic sequence that appears perfectly logical but

lacks the coherence of meaning, as if he had not been given the hermeneutic

clues requisite to grasping the intention of event and motive of its narration"

(Bloom 108).

Chapter 6 marks the start of Quentin taking over the narration of the

novel, with Shreve supplying information that eventually considers him a

narrator. The chapter deals with Shreve asking Quentin to tell him about the

south. As Quentin delivers the narration, Shreve occasionally interrupts and

summarizes information for the reader. Faulkner now makes us believe Quentin's

accounts of the past. Quentin's interpretation of the past is now the focus of

the reader.

As chapter 7 begins, Quentin turns to Sutpen's biography, which is

actually Sutpen's account of his own youth. The only firsthand telling is

mediated by three generations of speakers and listeners. The authoritative

presentation is again undermined. A strange lack of involvement, contrasting

the foreground biases and distortions of Rosa's and Compson's earlier versions,

characterizes this section. The creation by the generations of mediation and

Sutpens's detachment from his own experience, which is described as "not telling

about himself, He was telling a story" (Matthews 157).

In Sutpen's own biography, he is obsessed with the telling of the "grand

design." The wealth, land, and family and which would avenge his reputation.

The linking of the Sutpen's grand design, his dynasty, and his quest for a

historical presence can be found throughout his narration. "Sutpen's

compensatory plot, what he repeatedly calls his 'design' will be conceived to

assure his place on the proper side of the bar of difference" (Bloom 117).

Thomas Sutpen was convinced that the self-justifications he offers for his

actions do explain, and General Compson tries to elaborate on Sutpen's bare

story, adding his analysis of Sutpen's flaw, his innocence (240,252).

The next pertinent section of the book begins when Shreve get his chance

to narrate. Shreve makes presumptions about Bon's innocence. It is here that

Shreve reveals to the reader that Bon was an instrument of revenge for his

mother. The lawyer is a character solely of Shreve's invention, which allows him

to explain the "maybe's" surrounding Bon's discovery of his parentage: "maybe"

he wrote the letters that were the catalyst for the event to follow (Krause 156).

Quentin and Shreve both begin to think as one at this point. The compelling

nature in part to the attention to details, such as the lawyer's ledger in which

the value of Sutpen's children is computed.

Shreve sorts through all kinds of assumptions. His exploration of the

history of Thomas Sutpen leads the reader to believe his conjectures. Shreve

discards details that do not explain and keep what seems most capable of

illuminating the destruction of Sutpen's dynasty. Shreve's tenacity is what

generates an undeniably compelling story (Conelly 9). Shreve contends: "maybe

she didn't because the demon would believe she had," Shreve also states: "maybe

she just never thought there could be anyone as close to her as that lone child."

It is here that Faulkner begins to have Shreve be a detective of sorts. If

consistency is achieved, then the conclusions are valid because they follow

logic (Leroy 28).

Shreve's explanation is significant, but is not the final step toward

explaining Bon's motives for murder. Shreve and Quentin's collection of data

and cumulative response was probably true enough for them. What Bon thought and

knew and did during his alleged courtship of Judith and his attempt to gain his

father's acknowledgment acquire a new insistence when Shreve momentarily ceases

speaking (333). The narrator slips Shreve and Quentin into the roles of Henry

and Charles. Shreve and Quentin believe that they have constructed and are

experience Bon and his father.

Henry had just taken in stride because he did not yet

believe it even though he knew that it was true...knew but

still did not believe, who was going deliberately to look

upon and prove to himself that which, so Shreve and Quentin

believed, would be like death for him to learn. (334-335)

Shreve and Quentin virtually live in Charles and Henry's shoes. This is

when Quentin say that he and Shreve are both Mr. Compson, or on the other hand

that Mr. Compson and he may both be Shreve and that indeed it may have been

Thomas Sutpen who brought them all into existence. "Even what we normally call ‘

reported speech'-direct quotation- is the product of an act of ventriloquism, in

a duet of four voices in which Quentin and Shreve become compounded with Henry

and Bon" (Bloom 119).

Shreve ceased again. It was just as well, since he had no

listener. Perhaps he was aware of it. Then suddenly he

had no talker either, though possibly he was not aware of

this. Because now neither of them were there. they were

both in Carolina and the time was forty-six years ago, and

it was not even four now but compounded still further, since

now both of them were Henry Sutpen and both of them were

Bon compound each of both yet either, smelling the very

smoke which had blown and faded away forty-six years ago for

the bivouac fires burning in a pine grove, the gaunt and

ragged men sitting or lying about them talking. (351)

Faulkner has carried most of the novel thus far with sensations such as

sight and sound. Faulkner introduces and even more powerful sensory trigger,

smell. When the reader goes through Miss Rosa's section of the novel, the

reader is conditioned to see psychological truth; these unqualified experiences

are the culmination of that search. "The experience offered here does not

supplant and invalidate the earlier narratives; rather, through the new

rhetorical mode of presentation in which ‘was' has become ‘is', Faulkner

achieves a sense of closure. The quest for explanations is complete" (Conelly

11). It now seems that the past in now being reenacted by Quentin and Shreve.

The voices are Bon, Henry, and Sutpen are evident. We here these voices and

experience these actions as taking place in the present and the real and

imaginary collide (Rollyson 361). The passage now seem to be the truth of

history rather than just an interpretation.

The traditional narration is dropped from existence. The fact,

interpretations, speculations and conjectures are now woven together. It

appears that Faulkner's question of historical recollection is not what we right

down. It is instead a collection of human situation, complex personal

relationships, analytical skills used to reconstruct the facts and a creative

look into the past. The reader doesn't merely look at the past, the reader has

to reassess the past. The reader is compelled to believe when the senses are

all used to construct and imagine the true history, and evaluate it enough to

consider it valid. In Absalom, Absalom! the reader is compelled to believe the

story that unravels before their very own eyes. The story is played out in

front of us, and the reader is drawn in slowly to the process of understanding

the history of Thomas Sutpen. Absalom Absalom! is not history, but a novel.

about the quest for historical knowledge (Connelly 12).

Works Cited

Aswell, Duncan. "The Puzzling Design of Absalom, Absalom!" Muhlenfeld 93-108

Bloom, Harold, ed. Absalom, Absalom! Modern Critical Interpretations. New

York: Chelsea. 1987.

Connelly, Don. "The History and Truth in Absalom, Absalom!" Northwestern

University, 1991.

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! New York: Vintage, 1972

Levins, Lynn. "The Four Narrative Perspectives in Absalom, Absalom!" Austin: U

of Texas, 1971.

Muhlenfeld, Elizabeth, ed. William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!: A Critical

Casebook. New York: Garland, 1984.

Rollyson, Carl. "The Re-creation of the Past in Absalom, Absalom!" Mississippi

Quarterly 29 (1976): 361-74

Searle Leroy. "Opening the Door: Truth in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!"

Unpublished essay. N.d.

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