Absalom, Absalom

Absalom, Absalom Summary and Analysis of Chapter 8

Shreve and Quentin are completely wrapped up in the Sutpen legend now. Although Shreve has just suggested bedtime, he puts on a robe and a coat to ward off the chill and sits back down to finish the story. Shreve picks up the narration of the story with Charles Bon's childhood. Although Shreve is talking the story runs through both of them-- "the two who breathed not individuals now yet something both more andless than twins"--and they seem to embody the people they are describing. Almost everything in this chapter is speculation, since no one could have known about Bon's childhood or his perspective on the events.

They imagine Bon's mother to have been a woman consumed by rage, determined to mold Bon to be the unknowing instrument of Sutpen's undoing. They believe that she would either not tell Bon about what happened at all, or that she would seize Bon during his playtime as a child to remind him about her suffering. Either way, she would have molded Bon to use him as a weapon against Sutpen. They invent another character to assist her: a lawyer responsible for handing out Sutpen's money to her and Bon. This lawyer would have carefully parcelled out money to Bon as the young man became increasingly indolent and dependent on the voluptuous pleasures of New Orleans; all the while he would be negotiating the whereabouts and actions of Thomas Sutpen in Mississippi. He would report these actions to Bon's mother when she asked for them, sometimes twice a year and sometimes five times in two days, and in general try to smooth relations between the passionate mother and son. This lawyer is a slightly unscrupulous character; there are hints of him wishing to take their money and "light out for Texas." Only the fact that Bon has already spent a great deal of the money restrains him.

They envision tension between Bon and his mother, on her part because Bon spends lots of money and she worries that he might not have the necessary fire to avenge her, and on his part because he realizes that what she feels for him is not the type of love a mother should feel for a child. So he decides--not by himself, but thanks to a suggestion planted by either his mother or the lawyer--to go to school, at the age of twenty-eight years old. The lawyer, who has been keeping careful track of Sutpen, knows that Henry Sutpen will be attending the University of Mississippi at Oxford the same year that Bon is to go away to school. It is the lawyer who directs Bon towards the University of Mississippi and makes all the arrangements. Bon, on the boat to Mississppi from New Orleans, ponders why the lawyer would insist on the University of Mississippi and contemplates the way he is being manipulated yet again. And he is being manipulated again, for in Henry and Shreve's version, the lawyer writes Thomas Sutpen a letter warning him that Charles Bon will be at the University of Mississippi.

They envision's Bon's impressions of Henry--a "young clodhopper bastard" who apes his every move, sometimes to his amusement, sometimes to his annoyance, but always with a degree of strange, loving detachment. Bon knows that Henry is his brother and is confused about how he feels about the young man and his invitation to go to Sutpen's Hundred, but he agrees in the hope that he will see Thomas Sutpen's "instant of indisputable recognition" when he appears. Even if Sutpen never acknowledges him as his son, Bon thinks, that will be enough. But that acknowledgement never happens. He deals with Judith--who as a country girl without much worldly experience could not have challenged or interested him for a moment--wth the same strange, loving detachment he must have felt for Henry. But he loved Judith, Shreve and Quentin affirm, the same way he loved Henry--so much that "he never actually proposed to her and gave her a ring for Mrs. Sutpen to show around." All while he would be admitting these incestuous feelings to himself, he would be agonizing over Sutpen's refusal to acknowledge him in even the smallest way.

And then after Henry's break with Sutpen, they go to New Orleans--Henry's first experience with a cosmopolitan city. Shreve and Quentin imagine that the young man was overwhelmed, though not nearly as puritan about the octoroon mistress as Mr. Compson thought he would be. Bon goes to see his lawyer, who suggests blackmailing Sutpen. Bon, in a rage, strikes the attorney and challenges him to a duel, which the lawyer declines. Henry and Bon discuss the matter of incest incessantly, and Henry claims that he needs time to "get used to it." Both men believe that Judith will marry Bon without any compunction, "because they both knew that women will show pride and honor about almost anything except love." Henry tries to justify it to himself with all sorts of examples--famous kings, dukes, popes, etc.--while the war begins and they march off to battle.

The story gets away from them now, taking on a life of its own. They imagine Bon saving Henry from wounds in battle, even though General Compson says that it was Bon who received a wound in battle. In Shreve and Quentin's version, Bon saves Henry and Henry begs Bon to let him die. All the while Bon keeps hoping that Sutpen will give him some type of acknowledgement. But instead of speaking to Bon, Sutpen calls for Henry on the battlefield and plays his final trump card--that Bon's mother was part black. Henry confronts Bon, now certain that Bon cannot marry Judith, and Bon remarks, "So it's the miscegenation, not the incest, which you cant bear." Bon agonizes that Sutpen has still not sent him any word at all and dares Henry to stop him from marrying Judith. When Henry stands up to him, Bon hands Henry his pistol and tells him to kill him, then and there. But Henry does not, and Bon tells him coldly that Henry will have to stop him from marrying Judith.

Shreve and Quentin then relive the scene of Henry and Bon riding up to the gate of Sutpen's Hundred. They think about the picture Bon left in a metal case in his pocket when he died, for Judith's eyes only: a picture of the octoroon mistress and the child, Charles Etienne de St. Valery Bon. The picture was in a metal case that Judith had given him with her own picture in it. They wonder why Bon would have left this picture for Judith and conclude that Bon knew Henry was going to kill him, and that he put the picture of the octoroon mistress in his pocket for her to find to let her know that he did not deserve her grief. Satisfied with this explanation, Shreve suggests that they go to bed.


Chapter Eight is based almost solely on imagination. Granted, it is two very bright and psychologically sophisticated young men who are doing the imagining--Shreve and Quentin's version of Charles Bon's inner life is extremely persuasive--but it is imagination nonetheless. They could not know what Charles Bon really felt or thought; no one knew that. They create the figure of Charles Bon to fit the story, imagining what type of circumstances and feelings would lead a worldly young man like Bon to seemingly self-destruct. And since the story they know is already colored and shaded by so many different tellers and so many different perspectives, their invention of Charles Bon in reaction to the story necessarily incorporates all of these voices and perspectives. The result is a rich tapestry of reinventions and reinterpretations that say more about the people who have told the story of Sutpen and Charles Bon--Miss Rosa, Mr. Compson, General Compson, Quentin, and Shreve--than about Sutpen or Charles Bon themselves. Bon, for example, remains a mystery even after the enlightenments of this chapter. In fact, he is even more mysterious at the end of this chapter than he was at the beginning.

Consider, for example, the incredible ironies that this chapter reveals: Bon, with his mixed-race background, is a colonel in the Confederate army, fighting for a system that wishes to continue slavery and make it impossible for people of mixed-race background to find a place in society. Then there is the role of Charles Bon's mother, who willfully destroys her son, who indeed raises her son for the sole purpose of inflicting revenge on the man who scorned and abandoned her. Finally, there is Sutpen himself, who might have avoided the destruction of his "design" by simply acknowledging Charles Bon as his son and asking him to leave for good. Bon indicated that he would have been perfectly willing to leave the Sutpens alone and not pursue marriage to Judith if Sutpen had simply given him recognition of some kind--any kind.

Despite the frustrations of trying to understand a character with a very limited voice, Shreve and Quentin create a compelling portrait of Charles Bon. Their rendition of the bond between Henry and Bon is particularly good and fleshes out an important part of the story that had not, until now, been fully described. It is interesting to note the similarities between the Henry/Bon relationship and the Quentin/Shreve relationship. Both relationships are predicated on the fascination of a provincial young man with an older, exotic creature (Quentin is a few months older than Shreve and the South is, to Shreve and to many other students at Harvard, nothing if not exotic). In both relationships, tacit understandings are vital to the cooperation of the two men. And finally, as critics have noted, there are glimmers of homoeroticism in the descriptions of both relationships. In The Sound and the Fury, Quentin wrestles with the same feelings of incest that Henry does--what might have happened if Shreve had tried to marry Caddy, Quentin's sister?

In this chapter, though, there is no theme more important and more recepient of critical attention than race. With Sutpen's "trump card," it becomes clear that race, not incest or mistresses, is the central hinge of the Sutpen story and the central theme of the book. As Arthur Kinney says, "But what for Faulkner is most haunting is...the agonizing recognition of the exacting expenses of racism, for him the most difficult and most grievous awareness of all. Racism spreads contagiously through his works, unavoidably. Its force is often debilitating; its consequences often beyond reckoning openly. The plain recognition of racism is hardest to bear and yet most necessary to confront." The "trump card" opens up an entire new story. With Charles Bon's statement about how Henry can overcome incest but not miscegenation, Faulkner implies that there exists, in America, a taboo even greater than the genetically programmed, physiological taboo of incest. This is a serious implication and a serious commentary on the way in which racism has worked its way into the American--especially the South, but do not forget that this story is being related in the North--cultural fabric.

What makes this implication all the more intriguing is that some critics are not altogether convinced that the problem with Bon's mother was mixed blood. Cleanth Brooks, for example, has pointed out that Charles Bon's negro blood is not proven in the story, but is mere supposition. And Noel Polk argues that "the reason Thomas Sutpen puts away his Haitian family has nothing to do with Negro blood, but with his belated discovery, after the birth of the baby, of his wife's previous marriage and/or sexual experience." Remember that the only evidence we have that Bon's mother was of mixed blood comes from Sutpen via Shreve and Quentin's imagined story. Earlier on, when Sutpen was relating his own story, he did not specify what his first wife's defect was. This further implicates everyone--including the reader, who will have naturally gone along with Sutpen's "trump card"--in the problem of racism.