Absalom, Absalom! By William Faulkner Critical Essays Structure and Meaning through Narration

Introduction

Perhaps the chief problem in reading this novel is the complexity of the narration. It is not immediately apparent that Faulkner is using at least three narrators besides that of his own voice.

The three main narrators are 1) Miss Rosa Coldfield, 2) Mr. Compson (Quentin's father), and 3) Quentin Compson. There are other helpers. For example, in Quentin's section, his roommate is always projecting himself into the story and offering his views. Thus, we can add another narrator in the person of Shreve, Quentin's roommate, and yet another narrator in that each individual reader becomes one of the narrators as Faulkner forces us to add our own interpretation to the events. And of course, throughout all the narrations, there is the voice of the author, William Faulkner. Let us now examine the three principal narrators (or narrations).

Miss Rosa's Narration

The first and most fundamental narration is Miss Rosa's. Unlike the Compsons, she is an active participant in the events narrated; therefore her approach, being the earliest and the closest to the actual story, is more distorted than the other narrations because she is unable to view the story with objectivity.

Consequently, in order to eliminate the distortions from the truth in Miss Rosa's narration, it is necessary to ask when she started viewing Sutpen as a demon. Her narration must be viewed with the realization that the forty-three years of her life since that outrageous request were years during which she brooded upon the events and shaped them in her mind so as to place the burden of guilt upon Sutpen. She can find no other answer for the collapse of the entire Coldfield family other than to blame the demon and some hostile destiny. Consequently, she is constantly viewing with astonishment not just her acceptance but even the circumstances which led her to consider the possibility of marriage with Sutpen.

What Miss Rosa failed to understand when attributing the Coldfield downfall to Sutpen was her complete and irrational romanticism. In fact, the entire Coldfield family must be viewed as romantics. Miss Rosa, therefore, inherited a romantic nature which was heightened by the strictness of her early life, the guilt which she felt for causing her mother's death, and the hatred she felt for her father.

Miss Rosa's extreme romanticism is also seen in her reaction to the engagement of Charles and Judith. She alleviated her romantic frustrations by projecting her romantic dreams into the Judith-Charles Bon marriage and she became "all polymath love's androgynous advocate." For Miss Rosa, Sutpen and Bon held one quality in common. Both were figures with whom she had had very little or no contact and who lived in a distant and strange world. Bon was the epitome of the romantic and dashing hero; consequently, Miss Rosa put all her dreams into this union. As the complete romanticist, Miss Rosa viewed the boredom and tedium of her life and projected her vicarious dreams into the wedding. But then the marriage was destroyed, and once more Miss Rosa's dreams were shattered.

Miss Rosa had only one more chance to live in her romantic world. Sutpen's proposal was her last chance to bring the "living fairy tale" not into "frustration's vicarious recompense" but into a living reality. But then Sutpen makes his outrageous request that they try to beget a male child before marriage. Since Miss Rosa was the romanticist rather than the moralist, it was her romantic nature, not her moral sense, that was outraged by Sutpen's request because now all her romantic dreams were destroyed by the practical proposal. Therefore, even though her ascription of evil to Sutpen is essentially correct in the total view of the novel, her reasons for ascribing this evil to Sutpen are the effect of her personal disillusionment and are not the basic reasons for his defects. To Miss Rosa, Sutpen's evil derives basically from his failure to become the romantic chevalier for the entire Coldfield family. Consequently, she views the myth as it directly affects the downfall of the Coldfield family and looks at the story in search of a reason for the family's destruction.

Miss Rosa's main distortion or divergence from reality is her belief that Sutpen's refusal to allow the Judith-Bon marriage was "without rhyme or reason." In later life, she looks back on Sutpen as possessing some superhuman and demonic quality which predetermined the fates of everyone with whom he came into contact. An air of determinism (if not fatalism) pervades Miss Rosa's story, and she is never able to give a logical explanation of how the entire family was destroyed. Therefore, the myth, the past, or history has only one meaning to Miss Rosa: it is proof that man has no control over his destiny and that man is the victim of the hostile and irrational forces of the universe.

Since Miss Rosa's connections with the Sutpen myth are the earliest chronologically, her narration is covered essentially in the earliest sections of the novel. By the end of the fifth chapter, she fades from the action except as a point of reference. Likewise, it is not until the sixth chapter that Quentin, the most recently affected of the narrators, begins to emerge as the prominent and most capable interpreter. But before Quentin assumes his full role, we have Mr. Compson's narration.

Mr. Compson's Narration

Mr. Compson serves as the generation once removed from the myth. Unlike Miss Rosa, he is not close enough to it to be directly affected by it; and unlike Quentin, he is not far enough away from it to view it seriously as an integral part of his past and heritage. Whereas Miss Rosa's interpretation must be sifted through extreme romanticism on the one hand and extreme fatalism on the other hand, Mr. Compson's narration, in addition to giving more factual information, objectifies much of Miss Rosa's distorted information. He finds the myth insignificant except as an ironic commentary on the foibles of human nature and views the whole myth with a certain ironic detachment and sardonic cynicism. Unlike Quentin, he refuses to view the story as important or as possessing any direct bearing upon the present world. His narration, however, is connected with Miss Rosa's in that both view man as being subjected to some preordained and capricious fate.

To Mr. Compson, the worth of the story lies in Sutpen's futile attempt to create and to bring to fruition a personal design which does not involve or invoke any outside help — a design which if successful would indicate that man can control his destiny. That Sutpen's design failed in spite of Sutpen's great determination was proof to Mr. Compson of the weakness of the human race — of man's inability to determine his fate. Therefore, for Mr. Compson, the Sutpen myth emphasized how little control man has over his destiny and provides him with a humorous and incongruous anecdote on human fallibility.

Quentin's Narration

Quentin's narration brings the story into full perspective and provides the additional facts which were missing from the other interpretations — some of the facts coming from the grandfather who had not revealed them to Mr. Compson, some from Quentin's own investigations, and some from his talk with Henry Sutpen. But Quentin is more than just another narrator; he, in some ways, is as directly involved as was Miss Rosa Coldfield. Unlike Mr. Compson, Quentin realizes that his is the same land, the same atmosphere, the same world in which Sutpen lived; that this story and its implications are part of his heritage which cannot be ignored. The Sutpen story had been made a more integral part of his heritage through his grandfather's direct involvement with Sutpen. Quentin had received his basic impressions of the myth through his father's and grandfather's recounting of the Sutpen story so that he has finally become so involved in the story that he has developed resistance to listening to it again.

When asked to tell about the South, Quentin chose this story not only because of his involvement in it but also because it illustrated certain facets of man's relationship to the past. The fact that Quentin chose this particular story to illustrate what the "South is like" is a strong indication that he views this story as 1) having a direct bearing upon the present (both in a personal manner and in a general sociological manner) and 2) as having a direct correlation with the history and downfall of the entire South.

Quentin also chose the Sutpen story because he hopes that he will be able, with the help of Shreve, to objectify the story and discover what meaning the myth has for him. This task is made easier for him since he has removed himself from the immediate environment of the story. Quentin realizes that the present evils of the modern world are inherited because those who preceded him failed to distinguish between good and evil. Even though he feels a certain responsibility and personal involvement in the myth, he is still unable to objectify and determine accurately the reasons for the failure of Sutpen's design. Therefore, by examining the life and career of Sutpen, his rise and the causes of his defeat, Quentin hopes to discover some answer to the present. And in examining Sutpen's career, Quentin also examines the history and morals of the South.

Both Quentin and Mr. Compson viewed the old South as more heroic and containing people of mammoth import but who were also victims of the southern system. Faulkner implies that modern man has lost a certain amount of the old heroic qualities connected with the past. However, the man of the past was also a victim of circumstances. And because of Quentin's desire to analyze these heroic qualities and to discover how the man of the present has lost these qualities, he also investigates the amount of responsibility a man of the present should feel for the sins and evils of his ancestors.

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