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Free Study Guide-Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner-Free Book Notes
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Set in the Yoknapatawpha County town of Jefferson, Mississippi, the novel opens in 1909. Rosa Coldfield, who is now sixty-five, is talking to Quentin Compson on a summer afternoon. She narrates the early part of Thomas Sutpen's life, starting with his arrival in Jefferson in 1833, twelve years before Rosa's own birth. Sutpen does not introduce himself to the local folks, but buys a hundred square miles of land from the Indians with Spanish gold. He builds a mansion and plantation with his French-speaking slaves and a French architect, whom he keeps captive on the plantation while he works. After the house is complete, Sutpen disappears for five years, returning at last with a house full of furniture. Soon after his return, he approaches Mr. Goodhue Coldfield, the local storekeeper, for the hand of his daughter, Ellen. Sutpen and Ellen soon marry and subsequently have two children, Henry and Judith. In 1845, Rosa is born to the Coldfields, four years after the birth of Judith and twenty-seven years after the birth of her sister, Ellen.

Rosa recollects seeing Ellen, Sutpen, and their children at church. Because of their great difference in age, however, she and her sister Ellen are virtual strangers to each other. When Ellen comes to visit the Coldfields, Rosa remembers playing with her children. Rosa next remembers her visit to Sutpen's Hundred to see Judith, who was ill. Rosa then reflects on an evening on the plantation when Ellen hears a commotion and finds her bloodied husband standing over a Negro after a fight. The young Henry is sickened by the violent sight, and Ellen wonders in agony if Judith and Clytie, Sutpen's illegitimate daughter from a slave, have also been watching the bloody duel.

Rosa's wild, melodramatic account makes it clear that she hates Sutpen, looking upon him as a monster or demon who destroyed the innocent and the wicked. She blames him for the downfall of both the Sutpen and Coldfield families. Even though she is now an elderly woman, her childhood memories of Sutpen are still vivid and painful. In fact, she has spent forty-three years of her life in obsessive brooding over the events of the past.

Rosa has summoned Quentin, for she plans for the two of them to travel to the family estate, known as Sutpen's Hundred, where Rosa thinks someone is hiding. After Rosa speaks to Quentin, Mr. Compson (Quentin's father) and General Compson (Quentin's grandfather who was a personal friend of Sutpen) also share their recollections with Quentin.


The novel opens on a summer afternoon with Rosa Coldfield, who is Thomas Sutpen's sister-in-law, as the narrator. It is obvious that this sixty-five year old woman is bitter and frustrated. As a result, she cannot be really trusted as a narrator, for what she tells in her story is obviously colored by her emotions. In fact, she uses colorful, romantic, imaginative language to convey her intense negative feelings about Thomas Sutpen and the past. In spite of her bitterness, Sutpen emerges as a legendary hero, who seems arrogant, powerful, ambitious, prejudiced, bloodthirsty, determined, and aloof. Faulkner uses biblical rhetoric to convey the grandeur of his character. Although Quentin feels Rosa is being melodramatic in her descriptions and wonders why she hates Sutpen so much, he is also a bit scared by her anger. He tries to guess what her motive was in calling for him. The scene then shifts to evening, and Mr. Compson, Quentin's father, tries to explain to his son why Rosa has sent for him.

Through Rosa's dramatic descriptions, Quentin can picture Sutpen as a fanatical planter with his French-speaking slaves whom he abuses and his captive architect who is responsible for transforming a wilderness into a plantation - Sutpen's Hundred. Quentin also notices Sutpen's prejudicial treatment of the blacks in Rosa's description. It is significant that Sutpen thinks nothing of beating his slaves until they are bloodied; it is also important to notice that Sutpen's young son, Henry, is horrified at the cruelty.

It is also important and ironic to note that Rosa calls her sister Ellen a blind, romantic fool, for Rosa is just like her. In fact, all of the Coldfields suffer from romanticism that colors their way of seeing things. In contrast, Thomas Sutpen is aloof, cold, and calculating. Ironically, his son Henry, in whom he placed so much hope, is more like his mother and a Coldfield by nature; he is horrified at his father's treatment of the slaves, is attracted to Bon, and renounces his father's heritage. Henry's sister, Judith, is much more a Sutpen by nature and shares many of her father's traits. There are many things to notice in this opening chapter of Faulkner's difficult novel. The author reveals, through Rosa's narration, the most important events of the entire story about Sutpen. During the rest of the novel, the same story will be retold in more detail and from different points of view. By the end of the novel, the reader knows Sutpen's story almost as well as the narrators who are telling his story. The author also uses lots of repetition in this first chapter and throughout the rest of the novel. In these opening pages alone, Sutpen's arrival in Jefferson, Mississippi is told and retold several times. It will be mentioned many more times in the remaining chapters. The constant repetition of details intentionally gives the tale a mythic quality.

Many of the novel's Themes are brought out in this opening chapter. Man's relationship to the past is clearly emphasized here. Rosa, who is now sixty-five, has vivid memories of her past, all the way back to her childhood. She has summoned the young Quentin to go with her to Sutpen's Hundred, for she wants him to have a relationship to his past and assumes that he does. By contrast, little is ever known about Sutpen's past. He appears out of nowhere in Jefferson, Mississippi, and begins to build a mansion in the middle of nowhere. The fact that the people of Jefferson know nothing about his past is why they have trouble accepting Sutpen.

The theme of racial prejudice is also clearly delineated in this first chapter. Sutpen builds his mansion by driving his slaves. When they do not follow his orders, he has no qualms about beating them. In fact, one of Rosa's strongest memories of the man is seeing him bloodied after fighting with a slave. He also must feel free to use his slaves as he sees fit, for the reader learns that he has fathered an illegitimate child, Clytie, through one of his female servants.

It is also important to note the way that language is used in the chapter, for it is a pattern that will be repeated throughout the novel. Faulkner is often intentionally vague and confusing, especially when he is describing a character. A person may be discussed long before the reader knows who the character is, and details about what is happening may be given when the reader has no idea how they fit into the story. In the end, the reader realizes that much of Sutpen's story is really left untold and the reader is called upon to imaginatively fill in the gaps to complete the tale.

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