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Free Study Guide-Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner-Free Book Notes
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Shreve and Quentin, sitting in their Harvard room, continue to examine the Sutpen saga, with Quentin narrating what he has learned from General Compson, his grandfather. Thomas Sutpen has talked to General Compson while they are tracking down the French architect, who has escaped from the plantation where he has been kept almost as a prisoner. Sutpen describes his early life in crowded log cabins full of crude and uncivilized people. He recollects how his unwed sister had one baby after another. Poor as they were, however, whites thought they were socially superior to the Negroes.

When Sutpen is a young teen, his family moves to the coast of Virginia. There, among the large plantations, Sutpen becomes aware of the sharp social and economic differences that exist in society, even among whites. A significant event happens when he is sent on an errand to the house of Pettibone, a powerful local planter; the young Sutpen is turned away from the front door by the black butler and told to go around to the back. Determined that such an incident never happen to him again - or his children - he begins planning to make his fortune. He boards a ship for the West Indies and obtains a job on a sugar plantation in Haiti. There he works hard and wins the trust of the owner. When Sutpen saves his life during a slave revolt, he is awarded his daughter's hand in marriage. In essence, Sutpen's courage, shrewdness, and ambition win him a rank, a job, and a wife, whose name is Eulalia Bon. For reasons that he does not explain, Sutpen abandons his wife and son and comes to Jefferson in 1833.

At this point, Quentin interjects that Sutpen found out that his first wife was not pure Spanish, but was one-eighth Negro; as a result, he rejected her and their son, Charles. Ironically, Sutpen's forbidding of the marriage of Judith and Bon was more due to racial prejudice than fear of incest.

Quentin continues his chronological narration. When Sutpen arrives in Jefferson, he buys land, builds a mansion, marries a respectable white girl, Ellen Coldfield, and fulfills his dream of having a son when Henry is born. When Henry brings home Charles Bon, Sutpen believes it is destiny that has brought him to the Hundred, just as fate brought him to Pettibone's in the past. Sutpen keeps quiet about Bon's background as he watches the friendship between his two sons grow. He does, however, travel to New Orleans to see Eulalia Bon, even though no one knows what happens during the visit. Sutpen also grows concerned when he sees that Judith and Bon are attracted to each other. When the couple become engaged, Sutpen feels helpless and trapped; he feels he has no choice but to forbid the marriage. It is ironic that Henry, Sutpen's hope for the future, rejects his father because of his refusal to bless the engagement.

When the Civil War breaks out, Jefferson is greatly affected. Sutpen, Compson, Henry, and Bon all join the fight for the South. General Compson is quickly promoted to Colonel; he also gets injured and loses his right arm at Pittsburgh Landing. Sutpen also becomes an officer, but returns home from the war in 1864 unharmed. During his absence, Ellen has died, so he returns from the fighting with two tombstones, one for Ellen and one for himself. When Henry returns from the war with Charles Bon, he kills Bon outside the gates of the Hundred. Henry, in turn, flees from the law.

With Ellen and Bon dead and Henry disappeared, Sutpen takes up his desperate effort to establish a dynasty by proposing to Rosa, Ellen Coldfield's younger sister. When he demands that she bear him a male heir before marriage, she goes home in a fury. Still obsessed with having a son, Sutpen begins a slow seduction of the fifteen year old Milly Jones. At the time, Judith alone knows of her father's pursuit of Milly, for she stitches dresses for her. When her father does not come in for dinner one day in 1869, she sends a boy out to look for him. He finds Sutpen's body along with a bloody scythe lying in the weeds.

Shreve is puzzled as to why Sutpen is murdered, so Quentin then explains the reason why he is killed. On the morning of his death, Sutpen's mare, Penelope, foals a fine colt. Sutpen goes to inspect it and then goes to the cabin of Wash Jones, where he discovers that Milly has delivered a daughter. He mocks her by saying, "Well, Milly; too bad, you're not a mare so that I could give you a decent stall in the stable." Milly's father, Wash Jones, overhears Sutpen's comments. When Sutpen leaves, Wash follows and confronts him. He then kills Sutpen with a scythe. The next day, Major de Spain comes to arrest Jones, who, rather than surrender, uses his knife to kill Milly and the child, before being killed himself by the major.


This long, winding chapter traces the early history of the protagonist, Thomas Sutpen. The Sutpen saga grows more complicated as more facts are added, motives revealed, and behavior analyzed.

Each character sees Sutpen differently. General Compson is his friend. He sympathizes with him in his youthful aspirations and feels he is an innocent in a hostile, evil world, where the odds are against him. Rosa views him as a demon. Quentin finds him a heroic figure who is successful through his own determination; he also sees him battling to maintain a crumbling culture. Sutpen, in his greed, ambition, and aspirations, is a symbol of the South, and his failure is the failure of the South.

Shreve's objective, humorous comments and dry wit are revealing. At first, the introduction of an outsider into the novel would seem to offer the opportunity for an impersonal judgment of events and characters. Instead, Shreve gets deeply involved in the story and gives a colorful touch to all that transpires.

The events in Sutpen's life gain a dramatic immediacy as he sits down on a log under the cedars, drinking with his friend, General Compson; he is waiting as his slaves hunt for the escaped architect. His memory takes him to West Virginia and the teaming families living in crowded log cabins. His family's move towards the coast in Virginia is figured as a biblical pilgrimage, in keeping with the biblical title Absalom, Absalom! Young Sutpen's desire for wealth, status, and grandeur is fired by his being driven off by a Negro butler of the rich planter, Pettibone. He vows to gain rank and status, and his plantation, with its grand house and rich, ornate, carved furniture, is the dream-fulfillment of an ambitious man of heroic will.

Sutpen emerges in this chapter as a complex, conflicted character. He starts out with a legitimate hurt and a clear notion of justice. He can be heroic at times, as when he saves the life of his employer and carves his estate out of the wilderness. He succeeds in his seemingly impossible dream of obtaining wealth. And he has a conscience. When Henry brings home Charles Bon, Sutpen feels guilty and thinks he has failed Bon as a father. The reader is left to wonder if Bon knows that Sutpen is his father and why the young man has really come to the Hundred.

Unfortunately, Sutpen is warped by his obsession for a heir. When marriage between Judith and Bon seems imminent, he cold- bloodedly plays his "last trump card" to prevent it, visiting Henry's regiment during the Civil War to warn him of the element of Negro blood in Bon. When he returns to the news of Bon's murder by Henry, he is not upset, but plans afresh to start a family and makes his audacious proposal to Rosa Coldfield. When she rejects him, he begins planning the seduction of Milly Jones. Sutpen's obsession is at the heart of his character and behavior. It is his tragic flaw and the very cause of his suffering, failure, and death.

Sutpen has other moral failings. He is heartless, inhuman, and inconsiderate towards the people around him. He treats his slaves poorly. He keeps his French architect captive on the plantation and then has his slaves hunt him down like a rabbit. His lack of consideration for women is apparent in his cruel disregard of Judith's feelings, his casting off of Eulalia Bon, his vulgar proposal to Rosa, and his seduction of the fifteen-year-old Milly Jones, who is as tender and innocent as he is lecherous and conniving. His final act of depravity is his rejection of her when she bears him a girl.

Despite his failings, there is an innocence to Sutpen. He thinks that money is a substitute for fulfilling moral and social obligations. He thinks it was proper to desert his first wife since he gave her all his money. He also thinks it is fine to hold the architect captive, because he is paying him well for his work. He does not totally hate Negroes, but he thinks that their purpose is to serve him. He certainly cannot fulfill his dynasty as he imagines it with a Negro son. He honestly does not seem to realize the pain he causes others, and his blind dedication to his plan does prevent him from seeing the moral implications of its pursuit.

Sutpen believes in destiny, so it is fitting that fate seems to operate against him. He rejects his first son, Bon, as he himself was rejected as a youth, causing Henry, the son upon which he has pinned his hopes, to reject him in return. He rises from poverty with the goal of revenging himself on the plantation society which rejected him and ends up dying as a rich plantation owner at the hands of a poor white squatter, whose granddaughter he has rejected. He does everything in his power to prevent the imagined taint of Negro blood in his family, only to have his estate inherited by Jim Bond, who is partially Negro. His life and plans emerge as a terrible, ironic joke of fate.

At the end of the chapter, Shreve asks why Sutpen would reject Milly if she bore him a son, and Quentin finally gives the full details. By delaying the revelation that it was a girl that Milly gave birth to and not a boy, Faulkner places the reader in the same position as Shreve, who, while playing a part in the story that he both hears and partially narrates, does not have full knowledge yet of all the events that have occurred.

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