Absalom, Absalom! is the story of a legend and the people who tell it over and over again. In September 1909, 20-year-old Quentin Compson goes to visit Rosa Coldfield, an older woman in his hometown of Jefferson, Mississippi. Miss Rosa has summoned him to listen to her version of the legend of Thomas Sutpen. That same night, Quentin goes over the story again with his father, Mr. Compson, who tells the story from a different perspective. Five months later, when he goes to Harvard, he reinvents the story with his roommate, Shreve.
In 1833, Thomas Sutpen came to Jefferson and built, without any help but his own wild, superhuman will, an enormous mansion on 100 acres that he swindled from an Indian tribe. With a band of foreign slaves and a French architect, he raises the house and cultivates a plantation. Within a few years he is one of the richest single planters in the county, and he marries the daughter of a local merchant (Rosa's older sister) and has a son and daughter, Henry and Judith. The two children grow up with privilege yet the knowledge that the town resents and despises their father. Henry goes to the University of Mississippi in 1859, and becomes friends with a worldly older student named Charles Bon. He brings Bon home for Christmas and holidays, and soon it is assumed that Bon will marry Judith. But Sutpen recognizes Bon as his own son--the son he abandoned when he discovered that his first wife had black blood. He follows Bon to New Orleans to be sure of this fact, then tells Henry that they cannot be married because Bon is actually Judith's half-brother. Henry refuses to believe his father and will not abandon his friend. They quarrel; Henry repudiates his birthright and leaves. For four years, while the Civil War rages, Henry tries to convince himself that Charles Bon and Judith can be married even if it means incest. He has almost justified it to himself when Sutpen (a colonel for the Confederate Army) calls his son to his tent and tells him that Charles Bon must not marry Judith. Not only is he Judith and Henry's half-brother, but Charles Bon also has black blood.
This information repulses Henry in a way that even incest does not. When Charles Bon insists on marrying Judith anyway, goading Henry to do something about it, Henry shoots Charles Bon as they walk up to the gates of Sutpen's Hundred. Then he disappears. Sutpen returns home after the war to a ruined dynasty and a devastated plantation. Determined to start over again, he first tries to marry Rosa Coldfield, then takes up with Milly, the 15-year-old granddaughter of a poor white squatter on his property. Increasingly impoverished and alcoholic, Sutpen insults Milly after she bears his child. Furious, her grandfather kills Sutpen that very day in 1869.
After she tells Quentin her version of the story, Rosa asks him to accompany her to Sutpen's Hundred, where Clytie (Sutpen's daughter with a slave woman; she is now in her late 60s) still lives. Clytie has been hiding Henry Sutpen there for four years while he waits to die. Quentin and Rosa discover this when they go to the estate after midnight. Rosa returns to the house three months later with an ambulance for Henry, and Clytie sets fire to the house, killing herself and Henry. No one remains of Sutpen's dynasty but Jim Bond, a mentally-impaired man of mixed blood.