Absalom, Absalom

Absalom, Absalom Summary and Analysis of Chapter 3

Why, asks Quentin, if Thomas Sutpen "threw her off," would Miss Rosa want to tell Quentin about their engagement? It is the early evening and Quentin is still waiting for Miss Rosa, on the same day of their conversation. He sits with his father on their porch. Mr. Compson answers this question by telling Quentin the story of Miss Rosa's early life.

Miss Rosa's mother died giving birth to Rosa. Consequently, for the first sixteen years of her life, Rosa lived with her father-- "whom she hated without knowing it"--and her spinster aunt, a woman who shared Rosa's skill of retaining grudges and bitterness against Sutpen. Ellen had been married for seven years when Rosa was born, and Henry and Judith were both born before Rosa was. Mr. Compson suggests that, after her father died, Rosa saw herself as the only woman who had the ability to handle Sutpen, through marriage. When Sutpen returned from the Civil War, he found Miss Rosa, then twenty years old, living at Sutpen's Hundred (her father was dead by then) with Judith and Clytie, Sutpen's half-black daughter from one of his slaves. (The "negro girl" who stood with Judith in Chapter One.) At that point "[Miss Rosa] had not seen him a hundred times in her whole life," because she grew up visiting the Sutpens infrequently. Those visits, Mr. Compson explains, were "guarded and lugubrious" and, on the whole, probably rather wretched for Miss Rosa, who was forced to play with her several-years-older niece and nephew. Although Ellen came to visit with her children several times a year, Sutpen himself, out of arrogance or "delicacy" or disinterest, never accompanied them.

After her aunt ran off with a man, abandoning the household, Mr. Coldfield insisted on the annual visits to Sutpen's Hundred. But soon it became apparent that Ellen was disengaged from her father and her sister, opting instead to focus on the wealth and privilege that Sutpen's plantation had brought her. She took Judith to town often, shopped for all sorts of baubles, made social calls, and in general played the part of the privileged lady. Mr. Coldfield stopped going to the plantation, and Rosa went for many years without seeing Sutpen at all.

"Now the period began which ended in the catastrophe which caused a reversal so complete in Miss Rosa as to permit her to agree to marry the man whom she had grown to look upon as an ogre"--says Mr. Compson--that is, the summer after Henry's first year at the University of Mississippi. (The catastrophe which ends this period, adds Mr. Compson, is Henry's murder of Charles Bon on the day of his wedding to Judith, after the Civil War and the death of Mr. Coldfield.) It was some time after Bon's murder that Rosa decided to move out to Sutpen's Hundred. Up until that time she had been secretly feeding her father, who was hiding himself in the attic, writing heroic poetry about the Confederate soldiers who, if they had caught him, would have hung her father for avoiding military service, and attempting to keep her father's home in order. During that summer after Henry's first year at the University of Mississippi, she saw Ellen and Judith two or three times a week in town. Ellen began to speak of Judith's engagement to Charles Bon, a wealthy and mysterious older college friend whom Henry brought home for the holidays. After visiting the Sutpens, Bon returned to his home--New Orleans--on a steamboat. After Bon left, Sutpen also left, supposedly on business. No one but perhaps General Compson and Clytie knew that Sutpen had followed Bon to New Orleans.

Mr. Compson goes on to describe the Sutpen environment. By this time, Sutpen was the wealthiest independent planter in the county. Great balls and parties were held at Sutpen's Hundred during Charles Bon's holiday visits. Although Sutpen was not liked, he was too rich to be rejected or ignored. People feared him, "which seemed to amuse, if not actually please, him." Then Rosa stopped seeing Ellen. The whole Sutpen family, in fact, disappeared behind a wall of stony silence.

At first there were conjectures for why--it was 1860 and everyone could admit that war was inevitable--but then, slowly, word leaked out from the slaves on Sutpen's plantation that Henry had had a dispute with his father, renounced his birthright, and fled Sutpen's Hundred with Charles Bon. Rosa, busy making a trousseau for Judith's wedding with cloth stolen from her father, sews throughout Mississippi's secession, the formation of the Confederate states, and Sutpen's departure for the front. She continues to sew while her father, Mr. Coldfield, climbs into the attic and nails the door shut. She hauls food up to him once a day and keeps the house as best she can while wartime hardship sets in. Mr. Coldfield has also locked the store, which is eventually looted by passing soldiers. Then Mr. Coldfield himself dies, apparently starving himself to death.

After his death, Miss Rosa, "both pauper and orphan," does not go out to Sutpen's Hundred right away. Her sister, Ellen, died a couple of years before Mr. Coldfield, but Judith and Clytie live on at the mansion. Although the slaves have run away and the field lies fallow, it would make more social and economic sense for Rosa to move out to the plantation where there is a better chance of getting food and having company. She didn't, and Mr. Compson speculates that it was because she felt Judith did not need her protection yet (the protection she promised to give Judith at Ellen's dying request), because Judith was still subsisting on her love for Charles Bon. Rosa had no idea whether Bon was dead or alive until Wash Jones, a squatter on Sutpen's property, rode up to her house on an unsaddled mule and called her name.


This is one of the most difficult chapters of the book--Faulkner jumps around in time and space, casually brings characters into the action to whom we have not been introduced, and describes the strange actions of characters without describing their motivations. All of these information gaps will be filled at length at later stages of the book. One of the reasons why this chapter may seem so disorienting is because Chapter Two is, in comparison, relatively straightforward and linear. Throughout his body of work (he also does this in The Sound and the Fury and A Light in August) Faulkner purposely sets chapters that are relatively clear next to chapters that seem muddled and frustrating. Not only does this juxtaposition heighten the tension of the plot and continue to give the reader an intellectual workout (it is akin, in some ways, to giving the reader a crossword puzzle with both easy and difficult clues), but it allows Faulkner to comment on the circular nature of storytelling. As with all storytellers, Mr. Compson is attempting to create not a truth, but a version of the truth, and there is no proof that he knows everything in the story he tells Quentin. With this strange, fractured and jumpy chapter, Faulkner is asking the reader to critique the veracity of Mr. Compson's narrative. Faulkner's question is, how many of these gaps in the story are gaps because Mr. Compson assumes that Quentin already knows the story, and how many of these gaps are gaps because Mr. Compson is inferring (or even inventing) information?

But Faulkner doesn't make it easy for you. Note that, unlike Miss Rosa's version of the events, Mr. Compson's narrative is told without quotation marks. The lack of quotation marks makes Mr. Compson's narrative seem more credible than Miss Rosa's, just as the detatched authority of Mr. Compson's narrative (unlike Miss Rosa, he does not tell his narrative with any "I" at all) comes to embody the voice of a history textbook. And the truth is that Mr. Compson is a more reliable narrator than Miss Rosa, perhaps the most reliable narrator of this book. But by scrambling this chapter, Faulkner is asking the reader to remember that no one's word can be taken for granted regarding this story.

Still, through Mr. Compson's narrative, we begin to get a fuller picture of the Sutpens and the community they inhabited. Mr. Coldfield, mysterious even to his daughters, is a decent, ineffectual man without the mental strength or emotional resources to confront the harsh realities of the world. Faulkner hints that he hides himself in the attic not only because he does not want to go to war but also out of guilt at a criminal venture he almost undertook with Sutpen. His action, though cowardly, is also morally courageous in its own way: in a world where everything is crazy, the line between the crazy and the sane is not so clear anymore.

It is interesting that Faulkner spends very little time discussing the peak of Sutpen's dream--the beginning of the catatrosphic period before the war, when Sutpen is the richest single planter in the county and his household is the picture of wealth, privilege and excitement. Compared to his description of Sutpen holding seedy all-male parties and digging his empire out of the mud, the text on Sutpen's height--the closest he comes to achieving his "design"--is slight indeed. Some critics have speculated that this has to do with Faulkner's class bias, his notorious disdain for uncultured whites like Sutpen. Whatever the reason, it is clear that Faulkner intends to dwell not on Sutpen's achievements but his fall--and the rest of the book is spent unraveling how everything fell apart.