Absalom, Absalom

Absalom, Absalom Summary and Analysis of Chapter 2

In this chapter, Mr. Compson narrates a linear chronology of Sutpen's early years in Jefferson, supplemented with information from Miss Rosa. Mr. Compson speaks as he sits on the porch with Quentin in the early evening, waiting for Quentin to depart with Miss Rosa.

On a Sunday morning in June 1833, the 25-year-old Sutpen rode into Jefferson on a strong roan horse. He looked as though he had been ill--not ill with a peaceful sickness, but a violent, feverish illness. At that time he had nothing but the horse, two smooth pistols, the clothes on his back and a bit of spare linen. He took a room at the boarding house in town and kept to himself--he did not drink with the other men (as Quentin's grandfather learned later it was because he had no money for drinks) and did not socialize with them. But he was obviously driven by some urgent need, for he left every morning at sunup and did not return until night. He bought one hundred miles of the best virgin land in the county by duping a Chickasaw Indian agent, and paid in Spanish coin--his last money. Then he disappeared for two months, and made a dramatic return with a French architect dandy and a wagonful of mud-covered slaves.

The mud-covered slaves became the center of the town's gossip--they were "wild men" who communicated with Sutpen in a French dialect and drove the swamp "like a pack of hounds." It was their labor that Sutpen used to erect his massive house over the next two years. They worked from sunup to sundown every day, under Sutpen's wordless direction and the grim amazement of the embattled French architect. Sometimes Sutpen worked alongside them--naked so as to save his clothes for his first "assault" on respectability after he had moved into the house. Finally the house was finished, except for windows, paint, ironware and furnishings. For the next three years, Sutpen lived in the unfinished house and seemed to slip--at least in the eyes of the town--into a strange state of quiet and stasis. He prepared the land for planting and used the seed cotton loaned to him by General Compson, Quentin's grandfather. But other than that he seemed to do nothing. He invited the other men of the town to hunt and gamble and drink and watch the slaves fight, which they did with aplomb, but spoke his motives to no one.

The women of the town divined his purpose sooner than the men did. They suspected that Sutpen wanted a wife. Sure enough, one Sunday morning three years after his house was erected, he put on the clothes in which he had arrived in Jefferson and went to the Methodist church. To everyone's surprise, he set his sights on Ellen Coldfield, the daughter of a respected but modest merchant. People had no idea what in the world Mr. Coldfield could offer Sutpen--"who obviously could do nothing under the sun for him save give him credit at a little cross-roads store." The hunting and drinking parties ceased immediately, and he spent all his time with Mr. Coldfield, Ellen's father.

Then one day Sutpen disappeared again. He returned "in a sense a public enemy," as Mr. Compson explains to Quentin. He returned laden with wagons full of mahogany and crystal and furnishings, and no explanation as to where he had received the money to buy such things. The people of the town suspected that he had acquired the goods through criminal activity and they were disturbed that they were being drawn into his misdeeds. While the slaves equipped the house, talk fermented in town. Finally, a party of men led by the sheriff rode out to confront Sutpen. He met them halfway and did not acknowledge the threat of their presence. They followed him all the way into town, where he took a room at Holston House. More and more people gathered until about fifty men were waiting for Sutpen to emerge. He did emerge, and looked at the crowd without speaking. Then, dressed in a new hat and tailcoat, and carrying a bundle of flowers, he walked across the square to Mr. Coldfield's house and walked out engaged. The mob arrested him. He was arraigned, but General Compson and Mr. Coldfield arrived and arranged for his release on bond. In June 1838, two months after his arrest, he married Ellen Coldfield.

Mrs. Coldfield talked Mr. Coldfield into letting Ellen wear powder--necessary since she wept before, during, and after the ceremony. She wept, in fact, throughout the whole carriage ride back to Sutpen's Hundred. Her tears were motivated in part because of her humiliation--Sutpen had insisted on a large wedding, and sent out one hundred invitations. But on the day of the wedding the church was empty. A large crowd assembled outside of the church, and let Ellen pass by them unharmed as she left. Then they pelted Sutpen with dirt and garbage as he emerged. The ugliness of the wedding, "blew away, though not out of memory."


Mr. Compson's narration will continue over the next two chapters of the book. After the fierce, circumlocutious passion of Miss Rosa's narrative, Mr. Compson's calm, measured voice will be a relief. For one thing, he tells the story of Sutpen in linear order, which makes it much easier for the reader to understand. He also pares down the emotionality of Miss Rosa's narrative with his own distance from the story's events. Even the words of his narrative are quieter and more direct.

Simply because Mr. Compson's narrative is less confusing and passionate than Miss Rosa's, however, does not mean that it is less subjective or less telling. One of the purposes of having Mr. Compson tell part of this story is to poke holes in the idea of an "objective" narrator--someone who can stand back far enough from a story to tell it truthfully and without any bias. Although Mr. Compson is probably the most objective narrator we will receive in this story, his voice is far from the truth, whatever that may be.

Instead, Faulkner uses Mr. Compson's voice to develop the theme of memory, and to show how even an "objective" narrator brings reinterpretations to legend that are significant to our understandings of history. Mr. Compson uses some of Miss Rosa's crucial information to form his own picture of the legend: a kinder and gentler one. The critic Olga Vickery compares the narratives of Miss Rosa and Mr. Compson, who are of two different generations, this way: "[they are representative of the way] in which society creates its myths, legends and histories...with successive generations the diverse versions coalesce, the inconsistencies are ironed out, and the legend assumes an independent existence."

Note, for example, the differences in Sutpen's character based on these two narratives. In Rosa's story, he is a demoniacal monster set on destroying people, especially her family. In Mr. Compson's story, he is a man of sheer will and tremendous focus--morally neutral, perhaps leaning towards bad rather than good, but a man with distinctively human attributes. His quest for respectability is sympathetic and his courage is admirable. Note, as well, that the two narrators have different concerns. Miss Rosa focuses on her family, specifically her sister, and tries to divine Ellen's motivations and troubles. These topics receive almost no treatment in Mr. Compson's version of the story, perhaps because they would shed a harsh light on Sutpen. It is Faulkner's purpose to show how a story can change, depending not just on what people say, but on what they do not say. Thus, memory changes over years and over narrators.