Just before noon on a hot September day in 1909, Quentin Compson receives a note from Miss Rosa Coldfield in Yoknapatawpha County, just outside of Jefferson, Mississippi. In old-fashioned prose Miss Rosa asks Quentin to call on her that afternoon. He goes to her house around two o'clock. They sit in the "office," "a dim hot airless room" with the blinds closed so that only slivers of light shine through, and for three hours Miss Rosa tells Quentin the story of her youth and of the ruination of her family and her history. Quentin, who is twenty years old and comes from a prominent family (his grandfather was a general in the Civil War), is confused about why she would want to tell him this story, which has become a popular local legend. When he returns home after his talk with Miss Rosa, around five p.m., he asks his father about it. Mr. Compson explains that Quentin's grandfather had been part of the story, as he had made friends with Thomas Sutpen, the man at the center of Miss Rosa's tale. By telling Quentin, Mr. Compson explains, "in a sense, the affair, no matter what happens out there tonight, will still be in the family."
But Miss Rosa's excuse to Quentin is different. She tells him that she hears he will be attending Harvard and guesses that he may have literary aspirations. If he does, she says, perhaps this story will be of use to him one day when he is looking for material. Quentin guesses that she wants the story told, "so that people...will read it and know at last why God let us lose the War." This reason is because the South was in the hands of men like Thomas Sutpen. But Quentin already knows that, having grown up in the South. The real reason for her summons is not to be revealed for several hours.
Most of the chapter is narrated by Miss Rosa. She recounts the events that have shaped and stilted her life for the past forty years. In 1833, Thomas Sutpen rode into Jefferson with "no discernible past and acquired his land no one knew how." Through sheer force of will Sutpen built an enormous house on his estate, which he called "Sutpen's Hundred." Then he married Ellen Coldfield, Miss Rosa's older sister. From then on began the terror that filled first Ellen, and then Rosa's life.
Sutpen, as Miss Rosa explains, "wasn't a gentleman." With only his violent will and his savage tendencies--he invited the men of the town out to Sutpen's Hundred so that they could "drink and gamble with him and watch him fight those wild negroes"--to recommend him, he was on a hunt for respectability. He got that by marrying Ellen Coldfield, Rosa's older sister. Ellen, the daughter of a Methodist merchant, was twenty-two years older than Rosa. Rosa was not yet born when the marriage took place in 1838. They had two children: Henry, born in 1839 (six years older than Rosa) and Judith, born in 1841 (four years older than Rosa). The marriage did not stop him from engaging in his past behavior, Rosa explains. He continued to race horses and engage in violence. Not only did he "fight" his black slaves in the stables at Sutpen's Hundred--ordering them to beat each other for the entertainment of a white crowd--but he participated in the fighting. One night Ellen discovered her husband participating in a fight with a black slave, with the children watching. Henry, who had been held up front close to the action, vomited and cried, but Judith, whom Sutpen had not brought to watch, impassively studied the fight from a nearby window with a "negro girl." We learn that Judith possessed her father's temperament: she also cried when he was forced to stop his horse races in front of the church.
In addition to these hard facts, we learn the wisps of stories that are developed fully later on. Miss Rosa, for example, admits that even though Sutpen was a "demon," she too married him. She also mentions that Thomas Sutpen and his son Henry both fought in the War, and she repeats over and over again Ellen's deathbed wish: that Rosa, then a young girl, would "protect" Judith, who was four years older than Rosa. Rosa is still upset at this request and told Ellen that the only thing Ellen's children needed protection from was themselves. She also mentions, briefly, the second storyline that will become central to this novel: the assassination of Judith's fiance on the day of their wedding, by Henry, in front of Sutpen's Hundred.
Before entering into an analysis of the first chapter of this book, it is helpful to begin with the title. "Absalom, Absalom!" is the lamenting cry of King David in the second book of Samuel (18:33), upon hearing of the assassination of his beloved son. It is useful to read the story of Absalom in the second book of Samuel--a dramatic story of dynasties, rebellion, incest, and death--as it is a direct influence on Faulkner's own tale, contains many of the same events, and is, on a first reading, infinitely easier to understand!
Understanding, in fact, is a central concept of this book. Although almost everything in the novel's central tale is presented in the first two chapters of the book, readers new to Faulkner may be frustrated and confused with the circular and often convuluted style of the narrative. The narrative switches in form, style and point of view quickly and often. Narrators change and the sentences are long and fractured. In fact, one of Faulkner's purposes with this style is to disorient and confuse the reader. Faulkner's point is that memory, and specifically the ways in which people remember and reinterpret events, can be as malleable, shape-shifting, and convuluted as is the style of this book. Just as characters can reinterpret and reorder events, the prose of the story can be reinterpreted and reordered. The theme of memory is played out in all sorts of ways throughout the book, and Faulkner makes the revolutionary and fascinating decision to force the reader to participate in remembering the central story of the book through his own narrative techniques.
Since Sutpen's story is not the actual point of the book--remembering Sutpen's story is--Faulkner takes the unusual step of spelling out almost all of the plot in the first two chapters. The purpose of this is to allow the story to take shape through its reinterpretation by various characters--not just Miss Rosa, but also Mr. Compson, Quentin, and Quentin's roommate at Harvard, Shreve. And since, as Quentin explains, he is already familiar with the legend, it is also presented to us as if we know all the characters already. Although this makes reading the book frustrating during the first few chapters, the purpose of it is to allow for constant revisions of events and characters' personalities as the story is told over and over again in different ways.
The theme of memory is linked to the biggest theme of all, the theme that pervades all of Faulkner's work--the question of the South, its tragic past, and what its role in the future will be. Memory is so important to a place like the South, where people live in the past, that the act of remembering the Sutpen story has deep resonances for Faulkner's overall project of how to remember the South itself. Note that Quentin links the Sutpen story to a greater overall theme: "why God let us lose the War." And when Quentin's roommate at Harvard, Shreve, asks him to talk about the South, Quentin responds by relating and reinterpreting the Sutpen story. Their collaborative act of reordering the story speaks to a sophisticated notion of memory: to use old tragedies to form a new relief of modern concerns and contemporary historical events.