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Free Study Guide-Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner-Free Book Notes
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Quentin and Shreve discuss the lives of Judith, Henry, and Bon. They feel strange trying to understand the emotions and motivations of these three second generation characters. Shreve tries to imagine the childhood of Bon in New Orleans. His mother receives money from a lawyer, who has been instructed by Sutpen to pay her regularly. Eulalia keeps up the appearance that Charles has a good, rich, faraway father. One day Charles discovers his mother's deception. Shreve speculates how low she must have fallen in Bon's estimate. He is angry at her lies and mistrustful of his admission to the University of Mississippi. He also wonders why she writes him a letter of introduction to Henry Sutpen, who is also studying there.

Quentin and Shreve begin piecing together the rest of the story. Once introduced to Sutpen at the Hundred, Bon realizes the truth, but, already a victim of his wily mother's plot, he falls prey to the matchmaking of Ellen, who is ignorant of Sutpen's past. When Sutpen gives no hint of recognition, Bon drifts into an engagement with Judith. On hearing from Sutpen that Henry is his half-brother, Henry supports Bon and quits the Hundred with him. Sutpen is stubborn in not acknowledging his first son. The two brothers go to New Orleans, and Henry discovers that Bon has an octoroon mistress and a son by her. Bon justifies keeping his mistress, but Henry is pained by the discovery.

Henry and Bon go to war, where Henry, a private, is wounded in battle and rescued by Bon, who is an officer. It is interesting to remember that when Compson told of the war injury, he said that it was Bon who was injured and Henry who was the rescuer. He obviously mixed up the events, for he wanted to imbue Henry, not Bon, with a noble action.

Sutpen visits Henry during his recuperation and tells him he must stop Bon's marriage to Judith, for he has Negro blood in him. Henry, the rigidly brought up, aristocratic, Southern heir of a wealthy white planter, is roused to kill Charles Bon; he cannot believe the audacity of his man who knows he is part Negro. Henry, for the time being, suppresses his urge of murder. Bon and Henry ride home to the Hundred together and, at the gates of the Sutpen plantation, Henry shoots Bon. It is a much more appropriate place for Bon's death than the battlefield.

Judith, who is still in love with bon, finds a locket around Bon's neck. Inside there is a picture of Bon's mistress and son. Judith takes the locket. Shreve feels that Bon must have put it around his neck so that Judith would grieve less if he were killed, knowing that he loved another woman.


The power of Sutpen family's hatred, love, betrayals, and acts of revenge has gripped Shreve (the outsider) and Quentin (the insider). In this complex chapter, the two Harvard friends analyze the triangular relationship of Judith, Bon, and Henry. Shreve feels so strongly about the characters and their actions that he becomes a participant, not merely a spectator, in the story. As the two friends reconstruct the relationship between the two brothers, the present (or the outside frame of Quentin and Shreve) and the past (or the inside frame of Henry and Bon) mirror each other and blend together, so that where one pair appears so does the other. Quentin and Shreve appear on the battlefield with Bon and Henry, and the latter appear in the Harvard room with the former. "First, two of them, then four; now two again. The room was indeed tomb like: a quality stale and static and moribund beyond any mere vivid and living cold." By mingling the lives of the dead with that of the living, Faulkner increases the sense of Quentin and Shreve's participation in the events of the past and invites the reader into both the discussion between Quentin and Shreve and the dramatic intensity of the Civil War days that they relive.

In discussing Bon's past, Shreve speaks in inflated tones of the freedom he must have had, indulged by his mother to compensate for the absence of a real father. Shreve projects his own ideas into his account, giving his imagination free play in describing the life of a wealthy mistress and her son. He imagines Bon's mother painting a heroic picture to Bon of his absent father, only to have her lies explode in her face when Bon discovers the truth. Shreve and Quentin consider the letter of introduction to Henry as a calculated move by a shrewd, cunning woman to let her son meet Sutpen's other son on equal terms. They speculate that she wished to take revenge against the man who deserted her by using her son, Bon, as a powerful weapon to undo him.

Some questions, of course, can never be clearly answered. Quentin and Shreve cannot understand why Sutpen refuses to acknowledge his son, and they attribute his behavior to his stubbornness. Bon's motivations are also somewhat murky, and one wonders if he ever truly loved Judith. The reader also wonders if he came to the Hundred with revenge in mind or if he only wished to be acknowledged by his father. When Bon's lawyer tells him he can take revenge against his father for disinheriting him, he attacks the lawyer. But the incident causes him to think about Henry's favored position. Henry respects Bon, his half-brother, and refuses to believe that Bon would knowingly woo Judith to ruin the Sutpens. Shreve feels Bon is a victim of his shrewd mother's plot to foil Sutpen's grand design.

Henry's actions, too, are unclear. He has trusted Bon and feels betrayed by him. Mr. Compson thinks that Henry felt a homoerotic love for Bon, but Quentin and Shreve discount this. Mr. Compson also believes Henry killed Bon because he was shocked that Bon had a wife and child in New Orleans, but Quentin and Shreve disagree. The reader is made to wonder if the motivation was fear of incest or fear of miscegenation. It is also not clear why Henry refuses to shoot Bon on the battlefield when provoked by him, but chooses instead to kill him without compunction at his own gate after they have ridden home together. The possibilities of interpretation are endless. Faulkner, therefore, seems to suggest that because a person can never know the complete story of anyone's life, human motives remain eternal mysteries.

Strangely enough, history repeats itself in the saga of the Sutpens. Sutpen's desire to build a mansion and establish a dynasty stemmed from the event when he called upon a plantation and was rejected and sent to the back door. Ironically, Bon, Sutpen's flesh and blood, calls upon Sutpen's plantation and is similarly rejected - by his own father. Like Sutpen who marries and rejects Eulalia, Bon also becomes involved with an Octoroon woman, has a son by her, and is willing to reject both in order to gain acceptance by the Sutpens. One of the ironies of the novel is that Bon, in his calculating desire, is more like his father than Henry is. An even greater irony is that Sutpen's rejection of his son Bon is what causes the collapse of his dream and the possibility of establishing his dynasty.

The theme of searching for one's past is very much a part of this chapter. Bon goes to the Hundred to be acknowledged by his father. By his own admission, Bon does not expect total acceptance, but he would like to have some small sign or acknowledgement from Sutpen. Unfortunately, Sutpen cannot give it. If he acknowledges Bon as his son, his dynasty cannot work, for Bon, with his Negro blood, will never be fully accepted in the South. Ironically, by refusing to acknowledge Bon, his desire for a dynasty is still defeated, for Henry feels behooved to commit fratricide, to kill half-brother who is part Negro, a murderous act which ensures Henry's total rejection by polite Southern society.

Shreve and Quentin are convinced that Bon becomes engaged to Judith so that Sutpen will be forced to stop the marriage; in a small way, then, Sutpen will be acknowledging who Bon is. What Bon does not realize is that the romantic Henry will feel compelled to kill his half-brother to protect Judith from the shame of Negro blood. It is ironic that Henry can accept Bon as a brother, but he cannot accept him as a brother-in-law; he could accept incest, but he cannot accept the Negro blood. As a result of the murder, Henry is defeated; he runs from the law and lives the rest of his life in hiding. Henry's story clearly becomes a parallel to the South. The Southerners, just like the Sutpens, cannot accept the Negro as "part of the family" and suppress the black man into slavery. In the process, the South is defeated, just like Henry and the Sutpen family are defeated.

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Free Study Guide-Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner-Free Book Notes


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