Absalom, Absalom

Absalom, Absalom Summary and Analysis of Chapter 5

The narrative resumes with Miss Rosa and Quentin driving in the carriage out to Sutpen's Hundred. Miss Rosa is explaining the story of how she came to be engaged to Thomas Sutpen. The chapter opens with Wash Jones galloping up to Rosa's door with the announcement that Henry Sutpen has killed Charles Bon. Rosa responds by "packing" her belongings-- "I would have had no need for either trunk or bag"--and leaving with Wash Jones for Sutpen's Hundred. They approach Sutpen's crumbling estate and Rosa runs inside, where she confronts "[the] sphinx face" of Clytie. She calls out for Judith and receives no answer. "[P]ossibly even then I did not expect Judith to answer," Rosa says, but she tries to run up the stairs to find Judith anyway, and is stopped by Clytie. Clytie calls her "Rosa," rather than "Miss Rosa," as black people are expected to, and this slight infuriates her. As Rosa explains, it is not merely that Clytie calls her "Rosa," but that "it was as though it had not been she [Clytie] who spoke but the house itself that said the words." She envisions Clytie as possessed by the spirit of Sutpen's house and will, placed there to stop her. This vision gets stronger when Clytie touches her as a restraining measure. Rosa remarks on Clytie's presence in the Sutpen home and her own estrangement from the children she is trying to save. Then, somehow, Clytie's hand is gone and Rosa runs up the stairs.

Upstairs, she meets Judith in front of a closed door. Judith greets her with a calm, "Yes, Rosa?" and Rosa notes that she is holding a photograph. "That's what I found," says Rosa wryly, and launches into a long meditation on "the miscast summer of my barren youth," the period which followed this exchange. She also hints about her "love" for Charles Bon, "[b]ut not as women love," whom she never saw in person. This love, she implies, is more a love for what could have been her youth than for the man himself.

Judith tells Clytie that Rosa will be staying for dinner and instructs her to get out more meal. Calmly, she walks down the stairs. While they eat dinner, Wash Jones builds a coffin at Judith's instruction. The coffin building, corpse-carrying, and burial service all take place with the greatest practicality, Judith's face is "calm cold and tranquil" throughout. Back in the house, Rosa marvels that " ŒShe did not even weep,'" and notes that "For all I was allowed to know, we had no corpse; we even had no murderer."

Rosa claims that she stayed not for food or companionship or shelter or any practical reason, but to wait for Thomas Sutpen to come home. Both Judith and Clytie did too, since "he was all we had, all that gave us any reason to exist." The three women struggled to eke out an existence from the land and keep the house from falling apart. All hierarchical measures of age, class and race are eliminated while the three women drift through the necessary tasks of survival together. "We were three strangers," Rosa explains, three strangers who worked, ate, and slept together in the same room for safety. As stragglers from the Civil War drift back into Mississippi, they also worried about their safety together.

And then, suddenly, one day, Sutpen appears on a thin horse, in a "threadbare" coat. He walks up to Judith and addresses her solemnly, in four sentences they recapitulate everything that has happened between Henry and Bon. As Judith says, " ŒYes. Henry killed him.'" she bursts into brief, sudden tears. Sutpen greets Clytie and Rosa and then goes into the house. As Rosa says, "[t]he shell of him was there." Some part of Sutpen is missing. Sutpen instantaneously goes about repairing his lands and his home with a fury and a focus that is impressive even to Rosa. He does this in the face of Reconstruction and the resulting white Southern backlash--refusing to spend his time engaged in vigilante revenge with other white men of his town, he once again makes himself an outcast.

Three months after Sutpen's arrival, Rosa looks up from her weeding patch in the garden and sees Sutpen looking at her--not simply taking note of her presence, but looking at her with "a sudden over-burst of light." That night at supper, Sutpen walks in and, in front of Judith and Clytie, offers Rosa a tepid marriage proposal which Rosa accepts. For her acceptance, Rosa claims that "I hold no brief, ask no pity," even though at the time Sutpen seemed, to her, insane. But then, one day, after he had spent weeks paying little attention to his fiancee, Sutpen walked into the house and called Rosa downstairs. She came, and he insulted her by implying that they should have a child first, and then if it was a boy, they could get married. Rosa, infuriated, left the house and never returned. She did this out of injured pride, even though the neighbors would talk about how she was unable to keep a man, and even though she had little means for subsistence elsewhere. Nonetheless, Rosa claims that she has forgiven him. "I had nothing to forgive...he was not articulated in this world."

As Rosa rambles on about Sutpen's inhuman qualities, Quentin drifts off into an imagined version of Judith and Henry's conversation just after Henry shot Charles Bon. He is brought into focus by a sentence from Rosa. She says that Clytie has been keeping "something living in" Sutpen's house for the past four years.


Overall, Rosa's second chapter is a fascinating example of one of the storytelling techniques that Faulkner develops the book around: how stories are understood not by what is said, but by what is left unsaid. She spends a great deal of time negating possible motivations for the decisions she made after Charles Bon's death, but she spends very little time explaining the motivation that she actually had. The reader is left to infer from the bits of psychological information she unknowingly reveals. For example, the love for Charles Bon that she hints at shows that despite how she feels about Judith, "I did not understand [her] and, if what my observation warranted me to believe was true, I did not wish to understand [her]," Rosa is jealous of the fact that Judith had at least the opportunity to fall in love with a dashing, mysterious man. Indeed, much of the bitterness Rosa feels towards everyone in this chapter--especially Sutpen--is due to a fact that none of them can control: the fact that because of class, birth order, and historical situation, Rosa would not have the opportunity to marry and to enjoy her youth.

The startling revelation at the end of the chapter-- "something" has been living in the Sutpen house for four years--is a great "goosebumps" moment. Faulkner works within the Gothic tradition of haunted houses to keep the story going. Now, we see, this novel is not just about a story in the past--but there's an equally compelling story in the present. It is worth noting that Faulkner doesn't pull out this trump card until the middle of the book. At the beginning of the book, this revelation would not have the rich connection to Sutpen's life, legend, and character--it would merely seem hokey.

This chapter is also important because it shows the beginning of the end for Sutpen. Against a beautifully drawn picture of the Reconstruction South, Faulkner shows his hero as fallible for the first time. There is something "missing" from him--although the iron will remains, and Sutpen begins rebuilding the moment he returns from the war, some crucial element of his character is gone.

Rosa's rendition of her confrontation on the stairs with Clytie has received a lot of critical attention. In these pages, Faulkner begins to develop the theme that will come to dominate this book: race and racism in America. Faulkner himself has received a great deal of criticism for his own racism, which, although it pervades his texts, is mostly unintended. But even Faulkner's own racism serves to enlighten readers about the types of racism and the Southern peculiarities about race that he wrestles with in his texts.

For example, during their confrontation on the stairs, Rosa describes Clytie as "not owner: instrument; I still say that" of Sutpen, his house, and his legacy. This description, and the descriptions that follow it, betrays ignorance because it dehumanizes Clytie, it robs her of her right to speak as an independent human being--but it is telling about the ways in which race is circumscribed in this novel. Clytie will be presented throughout as a keeper of Sutpen, Sutpen's home and Sutpen's legacy, none of which have offered her any real reward or even gratitude. She is never given the right to tell her own version of the Sutpen legend, although she would no doubt have a fascinating and perhaps one of the most accurate versions of all the characters in the book. Unfortunately, very few of Faulkner's black characters in any of his books are given the chance to speak with their own voices, and the specific plight of Clytie is shared by other black characters in Faulkner's work. As Pamela Knights says, "Dilsey [from The Sound and the Fury] and Clytie, indeed, guard the houses of the Fathers, which hold the secrets of the white families. As Arthur Kinney says, this is a "profoundly subtle and profoundly deep" form of racism (266), and even if "wholly unintended" these tragic revisions perpetuate the hierarchies and the exclusions [of racism]."