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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

Shawn Montano

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

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 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!?

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 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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