Absalom, Absalom

Absalom, Absalom Study Guide

Absalom, Absalom! was published in 1936, after Faulkner's three seminal novels The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930) and A Light in August (1932). One of the strange things about this chronology is that two of the narrators of Absalom, Absalom! (Mr. Compson and Quentin Compson) have already met their decline and destruction in an earlier work about the Compson family, The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner, who was not widely read at the time but had a small core audience, could have expected his readers to be familiar with Quentin and Mr. Compson. Although resurrecting Quentin and Mr. Compson for this work has the curious effect of bringing back the dead, it is both appropriate--given the subject of this novel--and unusual. The two novels have a great deal in common thematically, and the presence of Mr. and Quentin Compson allow the reader to see the destruction of two Southern families in the context of the South's destruction.

For the destruction of the South, ultimately, is Faulkner's concern. He was born in 1897, after the Civil War but before the great project of industrialization had tarnished the memories of Southern residents. At that time the South was impoverished and fallow, bitter and obsessed with its history. Faulkner was born, indeed, into a region of the country that was already dead. And he faced this fact with an eye towards fact and observation that far bypassed the skills of most Southern historians. Many critics, in fact, have quipped that Faulkner is a better historian of the post-Civil War South than any "real" Southern historians. And Arthur Kinney has said: "The single most indelible fact about William Faulkner's work is his persistent concentration on observing and recording the culture and country in which he was born; what is most striking now, as we look back on his legacy from our own, is the enormous courage and cost of that task. Faulkner's Lafayette County, in northeastern Mississippi, not far from the battle sites of Brice's Cross Roads, Corinth, and Shiloh, is still marked in its town squares with statues of soldiers of the Confederate Army of the United States, in full battle dress and, more often than not, facing South towards the homeland they mean to protect with their lives."

Faulkner's "courage," in facing the torrid history of his homeland is also what attracted the author Toni Morrison to his work. Although Faulkner has garnered much criticism for his portrayals of black characters, he is also lionized for his willingness to admit the horrors of racism and slavery. It is Toni Morrison, for example, who claimed that Faulkner was one of the first people to help her see the possibility of ""that artistic articulation of [the] past that was not available in history"--and certainly would have not been available in the history books that Faulkner read, as post-Civil War history as written by Southern historians was notoriously biased. Faulkner's project in Absalom, Absalom! is to correct some of these biases by showing, through fictional characters, the destructive power of clinging to a terrible past. With his fascinating project of telling the Sutpen legacy through multiple narrators, Faulkner shows how any history--not just the history of the South--can be radically different depending on who is telling the story.