Absalom, Absalom

Absalom, Absalom Summary and Analysis of Chapter 4

Since it is still not dark enough for Quentin to leave, he sits on the front porch and pictures Miss Rosa "waiting in one of the dark airless rooms in the little grim house's impregnable solitude," with her black dress, bonnet, and umbrella. Mr. Compson comes from the house carrying an old letter--the only letter that Judith kept from Charles Bon many years ago. Judith gave it to Quentin's grandmother. Mr. Compson sits down and picks up the story with Henry and Charles Bon. As he describes it, "Henry loved Bon," so much so that Henry would repudiate his own birthright, and Mr. Compson attempts to explain that fact by telling Quentin about the relationship between the two men.

Bon "is the curious one to me," says Mr. Compson, explaining that Bon, wealthy, worldy, and many years older than Henry, came to the provincial University of Mississippi and the "isolated puritan country household" of the Sutpens and, without even trying, "seduced the country brother and sister." Henry met Bon at school and, along with the rest of the student body, completely idolized him. Henry imitated Bon's dress and manner. When he brought him home for Christmas, both Ellen and Judith were entranced. Strangely, though, Bon, owner of a "fatalistic and impenetrable impertubability," did not do the entrancing. As Mr. Compson explains it, it was Henry.

"It must have been Henry who seduced Judith," Mr. Compson explains--Henry who seduced Judith into falling in love with an image of Bon, the image that Henry himself would have liked to be.

But then the mysterious explosion between Henry and Sutpen breaks out, and Henry repudiates his birthright and leaves behind everything he knows to leave with Bon for New Orleans. Mr. Compson says the fight between Henry and Sutpen had to do with Bon's mistress, whom Sutpen had discovered in New Orleans--an "octoroon" (a woman who is 1/8 or less black) who has had a son by Bon. Mr. Compson imagines the confrontation between Henry and Sutpen in the library at Sutpen's Hundred, the confrontation wherein Mr. Sutpen tells Henry he must stop Bon from marrying Judith, because Bon has a black wife and a black baby in New Orleans. Henry sides with Bon, leaves Sutpen's Hundred, and travels to New Orleans with Bon, to meet Bon's other woman. Mr. Compson vividly recreates the scene of their departure, boat ride to New Orleans, and Henry's induction into the voluptuous world of French New Orleans.

In Mr. Compson's rendering, Bon introduces Henry to his black wife--not black at all but "with a face like a tragic magnolia"--and his son, "sleeping in silk and lace." It turns out that the mistress is not a mistress at all but a special kind of helpmate, one whom has been trained and prepared all her life to be the property and pleasure of a white man. She represents part of the world of New Orleans that Henry has never heard of--a world wherein particular women of mixed-blood can gain ease and comfort through a lifetime relationship with a rich white man, to be cemented by a ceremony that Sutpen calls marriage but Bon calls "a shibboleth meaningless as a child's game." But Henry remains conflicted and confused, pulled apart by his loyalty to his values and to his friend. For four years, Mr. Compson explains, Henry waited for Bon to renounce the woman.

That four years covered the Civil War. In the spring Henry and Bon enlisted in the company organizing at the University and rode off to battle. Bon was almost immediately promoted to be a lieutenant, probably against his wishes--"orphaned once more by the very situation to which and by which he was doomed." While the war was fought Henry refused to let Bon write to Judith; for four years Judith received no word about Bon save that he was alive. Meanwhile, the South is in ruins, and Judith, Clytie and Ellen (until she dies in 1863) are scrambling (along with the rest of the town and the rest of the South) to eat. Judith and Clytie have a little garden that feeds them. They also get occasional sustenance from Wash Jones, a squatter who lives on Sutpen's land along with his daughter and granddaughter.

After four years of fighting, Bon finally writes Judith a letter--the very letter that Mr. Compson gives to Quentin. Quentin reads the letter, a strange testament to the hardships of physical privation and mental strain that ends, surprisingly, with Bon's proclamation of his intention to marry Judith. "We have waited long enough," he says, though he cannot tell her when he will arrive to marry her. His intention is enough for Judith, who, along with Clytie, begins sewing a wedding dress out of scraps. Quentin gets a brief flash of the scene before Sutpen's Hundred, the scene that ends with Henry shooting Bon, and then Mr. Compson's voice flashes forward to Wash Jones at Rosa's gate, telling Rosa that Henry has just killed Bon.


With the end of this chapter, we complete the first and most objective vision of the legend of Thomas Sutpen, narrated by Mr. Coldfield. This is a misleading chapter--purposely misleading--because Mr. Compson's neat closure leads the reader to believe that the circumstances and motivations he spells out for the characters in this saga--all of them perfectly logical--are the truth. In fact, the search for the truth is only beginning. In order to get to the truth, the reader will have to wade through not only Mr. Coldfield's and Miss Rosa's version, but also Quentin's version and then his or her own version of the events and motivations of this saga.

This is not the truth of what happened between Henry and Bon at the gates of Sutpen's Hundred. Mr. Compson does not have all the information, and although he tries valiently to fill in the gaps with inference, his own psychologizing, and his own knowledge of the times and characters involved, his version falls short. Even if Sutpen's revelation to Henry had been that Bon had a black mistress (which it was not, as we will see later on in the book), it is highly doubtful that Henry would have taken issue with the woman. As Mr. Coldfield explains in the book, it was perfectly acceptable for white men of that era to sleep with, even rape, black women. There were absolutely no social consequences for such behavior. Henry himself grew up with a black half-sister, Clytie, and would have no trouble accepting the fact of Bon's bastard son. Bon himself would understand the barriers between black and white women and behave accordingly. In real life, there would be no problem with Bon marrying a white woman.

Historical realities aside, Mr. Coldfield as much as admits that he does not have the full picture. Almost halfway through this chapter, he utters the most famous line of the book: "They are there, yet something is missing; they are like a chemical formula exhumed along with the letters from that forgotten chest, carefully...you bring them together in the proportions called for, but nothing happens, you re-read, tedious and intent, poring, making sure that you have forgotten nothing, made no miscalculation; you bring them together again and again nothing happens: just the words, the symbols, the shapes themselves, shadowy inscrutable and serene, against the turgid background of a horrible and bloody mischancing of human affairs."

While many readers have grumbled that this description could describe all of Faulkner's complicated works (!) it is an apt metaphor for this novel in particular. With each chapter, the characters, sketchy and silent at first, seem to come more and more alive with each story, each shading and each piece of information. Later on in the book, Quentin will add his own shades to complete the story, and yet he will still find that the full picture of the characters continues to escape him. That is partially because of Quentin's Southern inheritance of slavery and the Civil War: "the turgid background of a horrible and bloody mischancing of human affairs." But it is also because Quentin, like his father in this chapter, is unable or unwilling to add to the legend through active participation of his own. They are unable to critically evaluate the entire bloody past of Southern history, including its bloody racial history. Mr. Compson, for example, shrugs off the moral of the Sutpen story to fate (he refers to both Bon and Henry as "doomed" to perform the actions they perform).

Another fascinating theme that emerges in this chapter is the intimacy between Henry and Bon. Mr. Compson hints at the homoerotic attraction between the two men multiple times throughout the chapter, even suggesting that Bon was set on marrying Judith because he could not marry Henry. This homoerotic tension has gotten a great deal of critical attention. John Duvall, for instance, argues that Faulkner "refigure[s] masculinity" in his works and that his texts contain the space for gay criticism and interpretation.