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Absalom, Absalom! Narrator:
Who is the narrator, can she or he read minds, and, more importantly, can we trust her or him?
Multiple (and boy do we mean multiple) Narrators
Figuring out the narrative in this novel is no easy feat. There are four main narrators – Rosa, Mr. Compson, Quentin, and Shreve – plus lots of flashbacks, personal opinions, and guesswork. There are even embedded narrators: for example, interspersed within the four main narrators' accounts are stories told by Sutpen, but through the voice of the Compsons. Oh, and there's also a bit of third-person omniscient narration thrown in from time to time. In fact, the novel is a big mishmash of first-, second-, and third-person narrative. So yeah, this isn't a walk in the park, that's for sure.
Unreliable Doesn't Even Begin to Describe It
Faulkner definitely doesn't hide the fact that his narrative is tricky. For example, the omniscient narrator actually tells us that Quentin and Shreve are "creating between them, out of the rag-tag and bob-ends of old tales and talking, people who perhaps never existed at all anywhere" (8.5).
The book is basically a collection of highly subjective first-person narratives about other people. These narratives are far from reliable. Much of what we hear is colored by the narrators' feelings about the story they're telling. In fact, a good amount of what they say is total conjecture: it's completely imagined, based on what they think happened or even what they want to have happened. Sounds fun, but it's pretty difficult to piece together.
As you read, remember this: trust no one. Okay, maybe that's a little paranoid, but it's good advice: there is no clear narrative authority, so we never know who to believe. You just have to live with the ambiguity. And we say, go ahead and embrace it.
Up Close and Personal
You'd think the closer the narrators are to Sutpen's story, the more biased they'd be – right? Well actually, it seems like all of the narrators in Absalom, Absalom! are equally as subjective. Miss Rosa – who was actually shunned by Sutpen himself – is biased by her personal interactions and involvement in what went down. Shreve, on the other hand, is the most detached from the events being recounted: he'd never even heard of these people until his college roommate started telling the stories. But because of this distance, his version of events might be the furthest from the truth: he's never even been to the South and everything he knows is based on stereotypes.
All of this subjectivity is actually a disadvantage for the reader because each character narrates through the lens of his or her own biases. The story we read is made up of first-hand experiences, witness testimony, common knowledge, rumor, and guesswork. Interesting? Yes. Frustrating? Absolutely.
The Race Card
All our narrators do seem to have one thing in common: they all use black characters to fill in the blanks where things don't add up. For example, Mr. Compson is obsessed with the mulatto in New Orleans and Quentin and Shreve are trying to figure out how much Charles Bon knew about his own racial background. This fascination with black characters points to one other very important fact about our narrators: they're all white. How does this change things? What would be different if we heard from a black character?
Understanding, in fact, is a central concept of this book. Although almost everything in the novel's central tale is presented in the first two chapters of the book, readers new to Faulkner may be frustrated and confused with the circular and often convuluted style of the narrative. The narrative switches in form, style and point of view quickly and often. Narrators change and the sentences are long and fractured. In fact, one of Faulkner's purposes with this style is to disorient and confuse the reader. Faulkner's point is that memory, and specifically the ways in which people remember and reinterpret events, can be as malleable, shape-shifting, and convuluted as is the style of this book. Just as characters can reinterpret and reorder events, the prose of the story can be reinterpreted and reordered. The theme of memory is played out in all sorts of ways throughout the book, and Faulkner makes the revolutionary and fascinating decision to force the reader to participate in remembering the central story of the book through his own narrative techniques.
Since Sutpen's story is not the actual point of the book--remembering Sutpen's story is--Faulkner takes the unusual step of spelling out almost all of the plot in the first two chapters. The purpose of this is to allow the story to take shape through its reinterpretation by various characters--not just Miss Rosa, but also Mr. Compson, Quentin, and Quentin's roommate at Harvard, Shreve. And since, as Quentin explains, he is already familiar with the legend, it is also presented to us as if we know all the characters already. Although this makes reading the book frustrating during the first few chapters, the purpose of it is to allow for constant revisions of events and characters' personalities as the story is told over and over again in different ways.