Absalom, Absalom

Absalom, Absalom Summary and Analysis of Chapter 6

The action jumps forward several months. Shreve, Quentin's roommate at Harvard, comes into their room from the snow outdoors and hands Quentin a letter from his father. The letter explains that, after lingering in a coma for two weeks, Miss Rosa has died. Shreve, a Canadian, expresses surprise that Quentin should care about the death of someone he was not related to. Then Shreve asks the question that everyone at Harvard has been asking--Tell us about the South. Quentin begins to tell him the story of Miss Rosa, Thomas Sutpen, and the Sutpen family. Shreve recounts Quentin's tale, as if to get it straight, and Quentin thinks to himself that Shreve sounds just like his father, Mr. Compson would if Mr. Compson had known everything Quentin learned the night he rode out to Sutpen's Hundred with Miss Rosa.

Shreve asks--in the form of a long narrative--about Thomas Sutpen early life and later years, the years of Sutpen's decline. We learn two important things in Shreve's questions: the content of Sutpen's insult to Miss Rosa, and the fact that after the war, Sutpen realized the plantation was ruined and he was forced to open a small general store selling "calico and kerosene and cheap beads and ribbons" to freed slaves and poor whites. Then we enter Quentin's thoughts and learn more information about these later years. Sutpen, "the ancient varicose and despairing Faustus" ran the general store and was hounded by creditors. He went into social and economic partnership with Wash Jones, the poor white squatter who had lived on his land for fourteen years, and began drinking heavily. He also took up with Jones' granddaughter, fifteen-year-old Milly, and got her pregnant. In 1869, Milly gave birth to Sutpen's child. Sutpen insulted Milly terribly, and Jones confronted Sutpen and killed him with a rusty scythe in front of the shack where Milly had given birth to the child. Judith, now thirty years old, borrowed two mules to drive her father's corpse to the Methodist church where he had met her mother. The mules bolt and Sutpen's corpse falls out, but Judith pushes the body back in and drives on to the cedar grove, where she reads the burial service herself.

Shreve asks Quentin to remind him what the Sutpen graves looked like--a story that Quentin has presumably already told him. Quentin and his father saw the graves when they were out hunting quail. Quentin remembers seeing the family plot--Sutpen and Ellen both had marble tombstones, bought at great cost and even greater inconvenience by Sutpen during the Civil War. Charles Bon was buried there as well, and Judith had bought his tombstone when she sold Sutpen's general store. There is also a tombstone for Charles Etienne de St. Valery Bon, Charles Bon's son with his octoroon mistress, that Judith and Clytie scraped together enough money to pay for partially. General Compson paid the rest on this tombstone. Mr. Compson, standing with Quentin at the plots, tells the story of Charles Etienne de St. Valery Bon's first visit to Sutpen's Hundred--Charles Bon's mistress brought her eleven-year-old son to Sutpen's Hundred to mourn at his father's grave. The mistress and her son spent a week with Judith and Clytie at Sutpen's Hundred, where Clytie was fiercely protective of the boy. Then, a year later, Clytie traveled to New Orleans and returned with the boy, who was at that time an orphan, to be raised at Sutpen's Hundred.

The boy grew up in the strange cocoon of Judith and Clytie, and at some point--General Compson "did not know either just which of them it was who told him that he was, must be, a negro"--learned that he was part black. This knowledge ruined his life, making him into a desperate and destructive man. He looked white but was tortured by the knowledge that he was part black. He drank, gambled, and behaved recklessly until he was finally arrested for starting a brawl in a black gambling house. During the trial, the question of his race came up in a disturbing way. General Compson was able to soothe people's fears, get Charles Etienne de St. Valery Bon out of prison and send him away, but he returned with "a coal black and ape-like" wife, who was pregnant. For a year he continued his path of dissolution while his wife raised their son, Jim Bond, and hauled him out of jails, bars, and dilapidated rented rooms. Although many tried to save him, including Judith, he "had not resented his black blood so much as he had denied the white" and continued to be tormented until, two years after his return, both he and Judith died of yellow fever. Clytie remained to scrape together enough money for the final gravestone (Charles Etienne de St. Valery Bon's) and raise Jim Bond in the ruined house on Sutpen's Hundred. After reading the grim, apocalyptic message on Judith's headstone, Quentin inferred that Miss Rosa had ordered it, had demanded of the executor of her father's estate that the headstone be purchased.

We jump back to Shreve's questions-as-summary. Shreve, in disbelief, recounts the story of how Jim Bond has lived with Clytie for twenty-six years, farming the land, and how Quentin went to Sutpen's Hundred with Miss Rosa that night, where they found Clytie and Jim Bond and--something else.


This chapter forms the crucial separation between the first and the second parts of the novel. It is the first time we have narration from Quentin--although, importantly, most of the information is actually narrated by Shreve. In the second part of the book, the present--1909 in the North, at Harvard--takes over, and begins to reinterpret the past. It is during the second part of the book that the reader begins to understand not only the importance of how stories are told, but also how the ways in which stories are told can affect those who have grown up with them--in this case, Quentin--and those who hear them from the outside. It is no accident that our introduction to the crucial information in this chapter comes through Shreve, and is then fleshed out by Quentin. Shreve, too, is coming to be affected by how this story is told. His original passive, even condescending attitude about the South will be transformed by the end of the novel. Shreve comes to understand not just the South, but America.

For the first time in a long time (perhaps longer than the reader may notice), this chapter presents new developments, new twists, and new characters to the storyline. The haunting story of Charles Etienne de St Valery Bon further develops the theme of race and racism in America and is a precursor to A Light in August, Faulkner's classic about a mixed-race man unable to find a place in the segregated South. It also creates the crucial context for understanding Charles Etienne de St. Valery Bon's father, Charles Bon. The self-destructive tendencies of the father echo in the son, and over the same issue: the inability of America in general and the South in particular to appropriately atone for the debasement and dehumanization of an entire race. The story of Charles Etienne de St. Valery Bon foreshadows the downfall of Charles Bon, to be explored at length later in the novel, although the circumstances surrounding Charles Bon are infinitely more complex.

The story of Thomas Sutpen continues as Shreve touches on the events of Sutpen's later years. It is difficult not to wince at how far Sutpen has fallen. Until Sutpen went away for war, Wash Jones had to come in at the back door and was not even allowed to enter the house. By the late 1860s, Wash Jones had become Sutpen's closest companion. Sutpen's plantation lay in such ruins that he was forced to open a small general store. Such a reversal of fortune would have been humiliating for the man who once owned one hundred acres and was one of the richest men in the county. His insulting of Milly, then, may also be viewed as a self-destructive tendency, as it was surely intended to provoke Wash Jones.