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Absalom Absalom A Narrative Perscective Essay, Research Paper
Metropolitan State College of Denver
Absalom, Absalom!; An Innovative Narrative Technique
Eng. 413. Major Authors: William Faulkner
Friday, December 06, 1996
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
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
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 interpretation.
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
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!?
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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