Absalom, Absalom! By William Faulkner Summary and Analysis Chapter 4

This chapter continues with Mr. Compson as the narrator. We should remember that Mr. Compson represents a person who, unlike Miss Rosa, did not participate in the actual events and is therefore far enough removed to comment objectively. Yet he is not as far removed as is his son Quentin, who views the story as established history. In other words, Mr. Compson stands as a moderating voice between Quentin and Miss Rosa.

Whereas previously Mr. Compson's narration served to complete or fill in certain aspects of the Sutpen myth, this chapter heads in another direction. We later find out that most of the opinions expressed in this chapter, or most of the things reported, are later proved to be either false or subject to different interpretation. The question then arises as to the function of Mr. Compson's narration. First, the total narration functions to provide more background information. Second, the more Mr. Compson narrates, the more we find out about him as an individual. Third, even though he, as a person, is not important, his views of life are essential to understanding Quentin and Quentin's concern with the Sutpen story. That is, Quentin received from his father many of the ideas and opinions that later molded his personality and prompted him to become almost obsessed with the Sutpen story. Fourth, Mr. Compson's narration helps to establish the Sutpen story as a myth in that, as will be indicated, there is still room for various interpretations of the actions and motives of Thomas Sutpen.

Ultimately, in order to understand Quentin's obsession with the Sutpen story, we must examine some of the views held by Mr. Compson and see if Quentin is directly affected by his father's philosophy. Mr. Compson sees the past generations as being composed of men of larger and more heroic dimensions who had a gift for living life to the fullest instead of living in an ambivalent and disorganized life. Later we will see that Quentin does accept his father's view that the older generations are more noble than the present generation, and in accepting this view, Quentin's problem is to discover what has happened in the intervening generations.

Quentin is also influenced to a certain degree by his father's philosophy of determinism, fatalism, or cynicism. To fully understand this view, we have to return to earlier matters. We have previously said that the three narrations of the Sutpen story differed mostly in the reasons assigned to Sutpen's refusal to allow Judith and Bon to marry. In this chapter, we have Mr. Compson's speculations on the refusal. But he realizes that none of these speculations can explain all the later violence. It is not sensible that, in 1860, Henry, a white man, would be concerned over any kind of ceremony entered into with a black person. Thus Mr. Compson can only conclude that the entire episode is simply incredible and that no explanation can possibly explain the horror of the subsequent actions.

Thus, for Mr. Compson, the world is a place of determinism — a place where man is incapable of controlling his own destiny and where the strongest of men is ultimately defeated along with the weakest. Mr. Compson apparently likes the story because it proves to him that man, even one as strong and determined as Sutpen, is incapable of determining his own fate. In other words, to Mr. Compson, man is only a victim of circumstances, subjected to the whims of an arbitrary God who likes to play games. This pessimistic view of man, this fatalism which Mr. Compson proposed as a solution to the Sutpen story, causes Quentin to choose this story to see if he can discover the causes which led to the downfall of the South. That is, was the South itself governed by fatalism and determinism as Miss Rosa and Mr. Compson have both suggested, or was the South destroyed by other forces?

In his fumbling attempts to find out the cause of Sutpen's rejection, and how the wedding came to be the cause of the break-up of the family, Mr. Compson hits accidentally upon some important observations. He first notices that Henry feels very strongly toward his sister and later forms a very strong attraction for Bon. Therefore in wishing that Charles and Judith would get married, Henry seems to be fulfilling two desires in his own nature. First, there is a tinge of incestual desire (or at least a desire that goes beyond brother and sister loyalty) for his own sister, and second, he feels somewhat drawn toward Bon in an attraction with mildly suggested homosexual overtones. Mr. Compson suggests that, by having Bon marry Judith, Henry would be fulfilling vicariously two desires that he would never be able to consummate in reality.

This suggested motivation is not embraced by the other characters in the novel and is not firmly supported by evidence in the rest of the novel. We must keep in mind that Mr. Compson, who is most responsible for these suggestions, has often been wrong in his interpretation of other facts. However, his theory about the relationships between Judith, Henry, and Bon can easily be supported by inferences from several parts of the novel and from a close study of the characters.

In terms of Faulkner's narrative technique, the reader will have to solve the riddle of why Faulkner uses a narrator such as Mr. Compson who gives false information. Mr. Compson's view of the two half brothers fighting in the American Civil War while fighting within themselves carries some misconceptions. He does not understand that Henry is struggling with the problem of incest, not with Bon's morganatic marriage. Likewise, he is incorrect as to which brother was wounded. In both cases, the correct view is a matter for later interpretation.

The letter which Bon writes is about the closest direct view we are to get of Charles Bon. The letter shows Bon to be someone who appreciates the ironies of life as he steals stationery and writes with stove polish captured from the Yankees. And behind Bon's appreciation of this irony is the colossal irony of the situation in which Bon himself is placed. Ultimately Bon is to be killed by his own brother because Bon has one-sixteenth black blood in him, and the irony lies in the fact that the "Negro" is an officer in the Confederate Army fighting in support of slavery and for a system which will cause his death. And a further irony is that the black officer will be killed by his brother who is only a private in the same army.

By the end of this chapter, the reader should now be aware that Faulkner is telling only a few of the facts of the story, and furthermore, he is demanding that the reader participate more and more in reconstructing the story. By now, with all we know (and ultimately, we will know much more than does Mr. Compson) can we imaginatively reconstruct what happened between Henry and his father in the library? One should try to create in his own mind something which would force Henry to denounce his birthright and go off with his friend, remembering that it is not until the end of the war, four years later, that Henry discovers that Charles has black blood — a fact that probably would have altered his original decision to leave Sutpen's Hundred. Why should Henry deny his own birthright when his father told him that Charles was his half brother? This could have been a cause for rejoicing. In other words, the reader himself should reconstruct the exact scene — this is part of Faulkner's technique.

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