Absalom, Absalom! by Faulkner: Themes & Analysis

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby

Kaitlin has a BA in political science and experience teaching.

Explore the themes identified in William Faulkner's novel, Absalom, Absalom!, and the plot points therein. After completing the lesson, take a short quiz to test your knowledge.

Not Just Another Family Reality Show

On television, trashy reality shows run rampant, where people throw punches, and there is almost always a case of questionable paternity to be dealt with. In William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!,the story rivals any modern small screen drama. One of Falkner's most celebrated works; it begins with Quentin Compson, a young man from a prominent family, who is preparing to leave his hometown of Jefferson, Mississippi to go to college at Harvard. Before he leaves, he is summoned by Rosa Coldfield, an eccentric spinster who wants to tell him the tragic and twisted story of her family, in hopes that he will one day write and publish it.

This is the first edition cover of Absalom, Absalom!

Thomas Sutpen, You Are the Father!

The story revolves around Thomas Sutpen, a man that shows up in Jefferson with a group of slaves and an architect. Together, they clear the land, and build an imposing plantation, known as Sutpen's Hundred. Sutpen further cements his place in the town by marrying a local girl, Ellen, and having two children. He is concerned primarily with building up his status in the world, and rules by his own iron will.

His son, Henry, goes to college at the University of Mississippi, and meets a man named Charles Bon, whom he immediately becomes friends with. Henry brings Charles home, and Charles and Judith, Henry's sister, become close and decide to marry. Thomas pulls Henry aside, and insists that the wedding not happen because Charles is Thomas's son from a previous marriage, and therefore, Henry and Judith's half-brother.

The plot thickens when Henry refuses to listen to his father, and runs away to New Orleans with Charles. At this point, the Civil War has broken out, and Thomas leaves Sutpen's Hundred to serve as an officer. Charles and Henry also serve in the war. While they are gone, Ellen passes away.

On the plantation, Rosa, sister to Ellen, is helping Judith sew her wedding dress, as she is still preparing to be married to Charles. Clytie, Thomas's daughter by a slave, is also on the plantation, helping take care of the house and family. At the end of the war, Thomas finds Henry before he returns home, and tells him that not only is Charles his half-brother, he is also half-black, which is why Thomas left him and his mother in the first place.

This infuriates Henry, and he kills Charles at the gates of Sutpen's Hundred, as Charles is preparing to go inside and marry Judith. Henry then runs away, and Thomas comes home to a situation that he can no longer control. Thomas offers to marry Rosa, but he offends her and she leaves Sutpen's Hundred. Afterwards, Thomas reverts to drinking with Wash Jones, a squatter on the property, and sleeping with Wash's granddaughter, Milly. Milly becomes pregnant, and gives birth to a daughter. Thomas dismisses her and the baby because the baby is a girl, and Wash becomes angry, and kills Thomas, Milly and the baby before being killed himself.

The novel concludes with Quentin telling the whole story to his roommate at Harvard, and telling the story of going out to Sutpen's Hundred with Rosa, who finds that Clytie is living there with Charles Bon's mixed race grandson, Jim Bond, and Henry Sutpen, who has come home to die. When Rosa goes back out to the plantation to help Henry, Clytie burns the home to the ground, killing everyone except for Jim.

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