Character Analysis Thomas Sutpen


The motivating force in Sutpen's life is the design which he conceived to placate the insult to him at age fourteen. A central paradox to his character is that his own design collapsed because of Sutpen's constant insults to others and his own disregard for all ethical values. His devotion to his design borders on a monomania which determines and controls his every action. The great paradox in the conception of the design and in Sutpen's character is that the design was conceived when the young Sutpen was insulted as the result of a strict caste system; yet the design itself is constructed so as to embrace that very caste system which caused Sutpen's rejection.

Sutpen's presentation is by circumlocution. We seldom see inside his mind; thus, we must draw conclusions about him partly from how others view him. Basically, to bring the design to fruition required a man of colossal strength. Therefore, Sutpen is viewed by all the characters in the novel as being a person of strong determination, ruthless energy, and as a man who towers over his contemporaries and holds most men in contempt. He is worshipped by people like Wash Jones and his granddaughter, he is feared by people like Goodhue Coldfield and the townspeople, and he is hated by Miss Rosa. But he is admired by his soldiers under his command. Later, to Mr. Compson and to Quentin, Sutpen represents the epitome of those qualities needed to succeed against overwhelming odds. For Mr. Compson, he stood as proof that man, however strong, could not control his own destiny. But for Quentin, he represented both the virtues and defects of the entire Southern culture.

Since Sutpen possessed all the strength and determination to complete his design, we must ask how it failed. What was his "tragic flaw" which brought about the collapse of the design and his own downfall? The failure was the result of Sutpen's innocence; that is, Sutpen's view of life was not complex, and both the success and failure of his design may be partially accounted for by his naive or innocent disregard of ethical modes of behavior; however, other factors also contributed to the collapse of the design.

Part of the collapse must also be attributed to Sutpen's failure to recognize that there are some things that cannot be accomplished by sheer force of will. Likewise, the collapse results from Sutpen's perverted sense of justice, which was not tempered by a moral sense. His obsession with the completion of his design blinds him to ethical or humanitarian behavior. As his design became a mechanical force which replaced all humanistic values, Sutpen became its victim rather than its master. Sutpen felt that in order to be true to himself, he must be true to his design and bring about its completion at all cost. Thus, he perverts the original intent of his design until it becomes an overpowering obsession which causes him to recognize no deviations from his course and forces him to disregard the demands of humanity.

But Sutpen's major crime is that of refusing to recognize his son, Charles Bon. It is somewhat ironical that the completion of the design had become such an obsession to Sutpen that the original purpose of the design was either obscured or completely obliterated. In rejecting his son, Sutpen seems to have forgotten his original anguish when he was rejected. Faulkner, therefore, represents Sutpen's failure by centering the story on the father's relation to (or rejection of) his son; Sutpen's rejection as a boy brought about the design itself, and Sutpen's rejecting his son Charles causes the failure of the design.