Absalom, Absalom

Absalom, Absalom Summary and Analysis of Chapter 7

It is a cold night in Cambridge, and typically Shreve opens the window in cold temperatures to do deep breathing exercises, but not tonight. He is enthralled by the Sutpen story and the South. "Jesus, the South is fine, isn't it. It's better than the theatre, isn't it," he says. Quentin responds by telling him about when Sutpen was building his house in the swamp and the French architect ran away. Sutpen went to track him through the swamp with dogs and his black slaves, and General Compson went with him. During the hunt, Sutpen told General Compson about his early life. The story was passed on to Mr. Compson and then to Quentin, who tells it to Shreve along with the new knowledge he had gained from Miss Rosa.

According to Thomas Sutpen, his only "trouble was innocence." He was born in 1808 in the territory that became West Virginia. He was raised in the mountains, in the hillbilly culture of poor whites--and his family was poor, with an lazy, alcoholic father to boot. It was an impoverished, provincial place, "where the only colored people were Indians...[and] where he lived the land belonged to anybody and everybody." When the soil eroded and it became impossible to eke out a living, Sutpen's father moved the family down into southern Virginia to work on a plantation. It was then that Sutpen--somewhere between the age of ten and twelve, he had lost track of his own age--learned that there were black people, and that there were irrevocable differences between blacks and whites, and rich whites and poor whites. He did not realize at the time that rich whites thought themselves superior to poor whites. He did not envy the rich white man who owned the plantation his father worked on at first, because he did not understand entitlement yet.

He came to understand it one day when his father sent him to the plantation with a message for the rich white owner. When he approached the door, a black servant intercepted him and instructed him to knock at the back door. This shocked the young Sutpen--he was then between twelve and fourteen years old--and caused him to completely re-evaluate the world and his place in it. It was in response to this incident that he conceived his "design" to "combat them" and to found a dynasty that would carry on. In order to do combat, the young Sutpen realized, "You got to have land and niggers and a fine house to combat them with." He promptly ran away and went to the West Indies. He had learned in school that in the West Indies, a man could make his fortune if he "was clever and courageous."

By the age of twenty he had distinguished himself in the West Indies. He was working on a plantation and had learned French and patois to communicate with the slaves, when a terrifying slave revolt broke out. Sutpen was barricaded in the house with the French plantation owner's family, but then he decided that he would stop the revolt. He walked out and stopped it single-handedly. In reward, the plantation owner gave Sutpen the privilege of marrying his daughter. Sutpen did marry the daughter, and they had a son. But then, Sutpen said, he discovered that "they deliberately withheld from me the one fact which I have reason to know they were aware would have caused me to decline the entire matter, otherwise they would not have withheld it from me--a fact which I did not learn until after my son was born...this new fact rendered it impossible that this woman and child be incorporated in my design." He abandoned his wife and son, leaving them with enough money to be properly cared for. That son, Quentin learned on the night he went to Sutpen's Hundred with Miss Rosa, was Charles Bon.

Therefore, when Charles Bon showed up for a Christmas visit with Henry in 1859, Sutpen "saw the face he believed he had paid off and discharged twenty-eight years ago." Sutpen, Mr. Compson said, probably named Bon himself. Sutpen did nothing at first when Bon appeared, trying to figure out what he should do. The night he and Henry had their break, Quentin explained, it was not because of Bon's mistress--it was because Sutpen told Henry that Bon was his half-brother. Henry refused to believe him, although he knew that Sutpen was telling the truth. For four years, while the country was at war, Henry was at war with himself over whether or not he should allow Bon to marry Judith. Henry "wrestled with his conscience" and maybe even hoped that the war would kill both of them off, but when Bon was wounded, it was Henry to carry him to the rear of the guard, so perhaps Henry was not as fatalistic as anyone thought.

Sutpen, certain by now that Henry was finding some way of justifying incest to himself, went to visit General Compson during one of his few days off. They had another conversation wherein Sutpen revealed that he either "destroy my design with my own hand" or do nothing and let the design stand as a "mockery and a betrayal of that little boy...for whose vindication the whole plan was conceived." In the end, he decided to destroy his own design by playing the final trump card about Charles Bon. In short, he expected his home to look the way it did when he returned from the Civil War: both sons vanished and a spinster daughter.

As Quentin explains, Sutpen "was not for one moment concerned about his ability to start the third time" towards his design. Unfortunately, once again, the design did not go as planned. Recognizing that he was past sixty years old and could probably father only one more son, he "suggested what he suggested to her [Miss Rosa]"--a plan that made a great deal of logic to him but was an insult to her. (That they have a child and, if the child was a boy, they could get married.) When he lost his chance to marry Rosa and proved unable to salvage the plantation, he slid further and further downhill. When he started sleeping with Milly, Wash Jones' young granddaughter, everyone knew about it--including Judith, who made clothes for the girl. Jones had idolized Sutpen for fourteen years, as long as he had lived on Sutpen's property. Therefore he was unwilling and unable to stop Sutpen. Even after Milly became pregnant Jones did not protest, merely saying that he believed Sutpen was brave and would "make hit right."

But on the day Milly's baby was born, things turned out differently. One of Sutpen's mares had foaled the same day, and he went out to look at the colt, which he pronounced "fine." Then he went to see Milly in Wash Jones' camp, and saw the girl on a pallet with the child. He looked at the child without love and then remarked that it was too bad Milly was not a mare, because then he could give her a decent stall in the stable. Then he walked out. Wash Jones, who heard the insult, accosted Sutpen-- "I'm going to tech you, Kernel." Sutpen lashed Jones twice with his riding whip, and then Jones took up the scythe and cut Sutpen down. In a daze, Jones watched the road for the rest of the day and waited for the inevitable search party. Sure enough, the search party, composed of men from the town (probably called by Judith) found Sutpen's body and rode to arrest Jones. Jones greeted the large group and then asked them to wait for a moment. The men claimed later that they remembered, after it was too late, that Jones kept a sharpened butcher knife in his camp. He used this knife to slice the necks of both Milly and her child, then rushed out into the light with the scythe, trying to cut as many of the riders down as he could before they killed him.

As Quentin finishes the story, Shreve is appalled. He asks Quentin why, if Sutpen merely wanted a son, would he insult the son's mother and walk away, bringing down the rightful fury of Wash Jones and provoking Jones into killing both Sutpen and the son, ending any possibility for a Sutpen dynasty? Quentin replies that Milly's child was a girl. Shreve replies, "Oh" and suggests that they go to bed.


Chapter Seven and Chapter Eight are the most important chapters of this book. In these two chapters, we get as close as we will ever get to Sutpen and Charles Bon. It is important that even though we get "close" to both of these legendary figures in these two chapters--understanding their motivations and troubles better than ever before--we remain extremely detached from him. Sutpen's words are related over the course of many years and three Compson generations, plus the revelations that Quentin had when he rode out to Sutpen's Hundred with Miss Rosa. Because the channels of Sutpen's words are so long and so scattered, there is great room for distortion and misunderstanding. And in the next chapter, when Quentin and Shreve go into Charles Bon's head, they are fabricating absolutely everything. They are logical and the words coming "from" Charles Bon make a great deal of sense--but Charles Bon is never given the opportunity to speak in his own voice.

Still, we get as close as we ever will to these characters in these two chapters--and although their voices are more diluted than ever, Faulkner's point is that this is as close as anyone got to these two mysterious men. Even though Henry and Judith lived with Sutpen, it is doubtful that they knew him any better than Quentin--and the reader--know him. In fact, they probably knew him even less. Such are the circumstances, Faulkner says, of legends.

But Sutpen comes alive in this chapter, more alive than he ever has before. We finally understand how he came to arrive at the "design" that ruined so many lives and consumed so many resources. The starting point for that design, as Sutpen explains it, was "innocence." This is a strange attitude for a man whose actions suggest absolute scrupulousness, but if Sutpen was anything the way he claimed to be as a child: wholly ignorant of racial and class boundaries, unwilling to accept that men were superior to other men based on something arbitrary like birth position or money, then he was possessed of a special type of innocence. A meritocratic innocence--a democratic, and therefore wholly American, innocence. What is interesting is how Sutpen's fall from innocence reflects his fall from wealth and power. Sutpen questions the idea that wealth makes one man better than another--and so he sets out to obtain wealth and he is successful. What he does not question is the idea that race makes one man better than another--and it is his failure to challenge this idea that winds up destroying his dynasty, as we will see in Chapter Eight.

Although Sutpen questions the idea that wealth makes one man better than another, he fails to live up to a meritocratic ideal in his own life. His treatment of Wash and Milly Jones show that he remains callous towards people of a different class--even though he, too, has lived as a squatter on another man's plantation. Although Sutpen makes a great effort to justify his own actions and moral choices to himself, the hard facts of his life show that he is morally corrupt, even if he was innocent at one time. At the same time, Faulkner's portrait of the violent, dissolute Jones smacks of elitism--Faulkner was an unabashed elitist, coming from an old Southern family that lost its money and therefore its class status after the Civil War. The fact that Wash Jones is the one who kills the "Kernel" suggests that, for all of his money, experience, courage, and will, Sutpen is doomed to die by the same type of man he grew up around, in the same type of environment that he was born in. Sutpen may claim to believe in a democratic ethos, but Faulkner suggests that there is something inborn and impossible to change about the class of poor Southern whites.

Note that in this chapter Sutpen does not say what his final "trump card" is regarding Charles Bon. This is a very important detail for Chapter Eight.