Absalom, Absalom! by Faulkner: Summary & Characters

Instructor: Francesca Marinaro

Francesca M. Marinaro has a PhD in English from the University of Florida and has been teaching English composition and Literature since 2007.

Along with 'The Sound and the Fury', 'Absalom! Absalom' is one of William Faulkner's most famous novels and helped to win him the Nobel Prize in Literature. This lesson will introduce a summary and characters, briefly discuss the major themes, and finish with a quiz to test your knowledge.

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

Have you ever found yourself wondering about your family's past? Maybe you've looked through old photos and letters or asked your grandparents to share their stories. Storytelling is a way to both preserve and pass on our history, and one of the most famous examples of the legacy of storytelling in American Literature is William Faulkner's 1936 novel Absalom, Absalom!.

Absalom, Absalom! is one of Faulkner's best-known works. A classic of the Southern Gothic genre, which sets the mystery, mayhem, and family curses of Gothic Literature in America's Deep South, Absalom, Absalom! is a novel that looks at the relationship between past and present and, in particular, what responsibility we bear for the actions of our ancestors.

William Faulkner, pictured in 1954
William Faulkner, Author of Absalom! Absalom, pictured in 1954

Plot Summary

Like many of Faulkner's novels and short stories, Absalom, Absalom! takes place in the fictional county of Yoknapatawpha, which Faulkner locates in Mississippi.The novel is framed as a story about the South, told by Quentin Compson to his Harvard roommate Shreve when Shreve asks what the South is like.

The story spans several generations, beginning with the arrival in town of the mysterious Thomas Sutpen (a self-made man from West Virginia). He shows up in 1833 with a French architect and a band of slaves. He reveals little about himself or why he's chosen to settle in the town, but when his plantation is completed two years later, he becomes more friendly, inviting the townsmen to visit and hunt on his land. All anyone knows is that Sutpen supposedly stole the land for his plantation from a Native American.

Sutpen eventually marries Ellen Coldfield, a girl from a family who is respectable but has little money. After his marriage, Sutpen stops trying to win the community's approval. He never attends church and regularly wrestles with his plantation slaves for sport, often bringing his son Henry to watch. When Henry grows up and attends law school, he befriends a fellow student named Charles Bon. Henry brings Charles home to visit, and Charles falls in love with the Sutpens' daughter Judith. The couple plan to marry despite Thomas Sutpen's objections, but before they can make plans, Thomas, Henry, and Charles go off to serve in the Civil War.

While fighting together, Henry and Charles discover they are half-brothers. Before coming to Mississippi, Thomas Sutpen had spent time in Haiti, where he had married and had a son. When he found out that his wife had Negro ancestry, he disowned her. Realizing the relationship between them, Henry also realizes that this would make it impossible for Charles to marry Judith because they are half-brother and sister, but Charles refuses to reveal what he plans to do about the engagement.

After the war, Henry and Charles return to Sutpen's plantation, where Henry insists that Charles can't marry his sister. When Charles refuses to break off the engagement, Henry kills him and flees. By now Ellen Coldfield (Mrs Sutpen) has died, the slaves have been freed, and the plantation is in ruins. Thomas Sutpen wants to marry Ellen's younger sister Rosa, but Rosa refuses to bear him a son. He then seduces a teenage girl named Milly, the granddaughter of a poor neighbor named Wash Jones, and when Milly becomes pregnant and has a girl, Thomas mistreats her. Angry at Sutpen's treatment of his granddaughter, Jones kills Sutpen.

Years later, Henry returns and lives on the abandoned estate with his sister and Clytie, the illegitimate daughter of Thomas and a slave on his plantation. When Clytie suspects the law is going to discover that Henry murdered Charles, she burns down the house, killing Henry and herself.

That Quentin's tale to Shreve is full of blood, betrayal, and secrets reveals the complicated history of the American South and the legacy of guilt it leaves behind. Though Faulkner had southern roots, he was outspoken in his novels about his disapproval of slavery and racial discrimination, and Quentin's desire to understand and pass along the Sutpen story suggests a desire to reconcile and right the wrongs of the past.

Absalom! Absalom, 1936, by William Faulkner
Absalom! Absalom, 1936, by William Faulkner

Major Characters

Quentin Compson is one of the story's major narrators. He relates the tale of the Sutpens to his Harvard roommate, Shreve, a story that has been told to him in several versions by his father, his grandfather, and Miss Rosa Coldfield, the younger sister of Sutpen's wife. Though Quentin is unrelated to the Sutpens or the Coldfields, their story is such a part of the history of his town that he feels it's a sort of inheritance, and he uses the story to seek answers about the history of the South as well as deeper answers about life and truth.

Thomas Sutpen and his family are the major players in the story that Quentin relates. Thomas is a southern patriarch who represents the rise and fall of the South. Born into a poor family, he goes to Haiti as a young man and makes his fortune on the plantations there. His preoccupation with his power and with producing sons eventually leads to his downfall; one of his sons dies at the hand of another, and his anger over not being able to produce another son leads to his own death when Wash Jones, the grandfather of the girl he seduces, kills Sutpen for mistreating her when she bears a daughter instead.

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