Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!: An Innovative Narrative Technique
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
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"
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
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).
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
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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