Absalom, Absalom

Absalom, Absalom Summary and Analysis of Chapter 9

Quentin and Shreve turn out the lights and go to bed, although it seems even colder there than it did when they were in the sitting room. They continue talking, mostly clarifying pieces of the story and speculating on the culture of the South. Quentin thinks back to the September night five months ago that he escorted Miss Rosa to Sutpen's Hundred. On their journey there Quentin wished to turn back, especially when Miss Rosa began to whimper, but when they approach within half a mile of the house and Miss Rosa stops the buggy and hands Quentin a hatchet, he realizes that whatever they are going to meet is not a game. They walk up to the rotting house and Miss Rosa, whom Quentin realizes is "not afraid at all. It's something. But she's not afraid," urges Quentin to break down the door. Instead he slips in through a window and fumbles at the door to let Miss Rosa in. As he is doing this, a match lights up behind him and Clytie appears. She opens the door for Miss Rosa, "as if she had known all the time that this hour must come," and asks Quentin to stop Miss Rosa from going upstairs.

Quentin refuses, and Miss Rosa heads for the stairs. Clytie tries to stop her, and Rosa pushes her away. Clytie tries again, and Miss Rosa hits Clytie with a closed fist, knocking her to the floor, and goes upstairs. As Quentin is helping Clytie to her feet, the "scion, the heir"--the hulking, slack-mouthed Jim Bond appears. Rosa comes back downstairs--her eyes are "wide and useeing like a sleepwalker's"--and Jim Bond escorts her back to the carriage. Quentin makes as if to follow, then decides that he, too, must see whatever is upstairs, even if "I shall be sorry tomorrow." He goes upstairs and finds, in a "bare stale room," the wasted form of Henry Sutpen. Quentin asked his name and why he had returned home, to which Henry calmly replied, "To die." He goes back downstairs, helps Miss Rosa back down the path to the carriage (Jim Bond is an inept escort) and then spurs the buggy all the way back to town. After he drops Miss Rosa off at her house, he hurries home, runs indoors, strips off his clothes and, feeling a need to bathe, scrubs himself desperately with his shirt while the scene with Henry plays over in his mind.

Three months later, Rosa returned to Sutpen's Hundred with an ambulance for Henry. Shreve asks why it took her so long to return, but then answers his own question by imagining that hatred, like drugs or alcohol, is difficult to let go of after one has depended on them so long. But she did at last return to try and save Henry, and as the ambulance was making its way up the muddy and difficult road to the house, Clytie caught sight of it. She thought that they were coming to arrest Henry for the murder of Charles Bon, and so she did what she had been prepared to do for many years: she struck a match to the closet that she had stuffed with rags and doused with kerosene. The dry, rotting house burned before the ambulance could get all the way up the driveway. Rosa tried to run into the house and had to be restrained; Jim Bond began to howl uncontrollably and would not be consoled. Clytie and Henry both died in the fire. Jim Bond remained, but disappeared--the only way people knew that he existed was from the occasional sound of his unearthly howl.

Shreve does some calculations ("It took Charles Bon and his mother to get rid of old Tom...") and is annoyed because the still-living Jim Bond spoils a perfectly clean slate. He claims that it takes two black Sutpens to "get rid" of one white Sutpen, and prophesizes that the "Jim Bonds" of the world will conquer the Western Hemisphere. He imagines a day where they will overrun everyone, and everyone will have black blood in them. Then, settling down for bed, Shreve asks Quentin one last question: "Why do you hate the South?" Quentin replies, with a fervor that surprises him, that he does not hate the South. He continues thinking this to himself feverishly in "the New England dark": "I don't! I don't hate it! I don't hate it!"


The final framework of the novel comes together in the last chapter. Quentin, it turns out, has his own Sutpen story to round out the legend of many decades ago, and his story is just as grand and bizarrely tragic as the whole Sutpen legend itself. It is also in this chapter where the reader gains a full understanding of Quentin's character, too--and how Quentin's ghostly obsessions and self-hatred (reflected in his disgust for the South, for the South made him) have, finally, shaped the story we have learned and our vision of the novel.

What is that vision? First, it is the haunted vision of the Sutpen "house" and all it represents. Pamela Knights writes that: "For Faulkner, as many critics have remarked, the "Dark House" was the working title for both Light in August and Absalom, Absalom!, and in his texts, the plantation house with its shadows and ghosts, holds deep internal contractions that the narratives can never either resolve or contain: the topic of the blocked threshold and the sudden destruction of the house in flames repeatedly frustrate the reader from seeing into its depths and produce the endless retellings, which can never arrive at single meanings." Sutpen's house, "haunted" with the sins of the South (slavery, the repudiation of the "sons" who are not white), comes to represent the tragic downfall of the entire region. It is no accident that Sutpen's home is eventually destroyed by a black person who has been systematically denied agency throughout this novel.

If the vision and the themes of the novel can be encapsulated into Sutpen's house, then the emotional center of this novel is Quentin Compson. Quentin has been a fairly colorless character until this point, existing mostly to serve as a listener, but in the last chapter he comes into his own as a character who has thoroughly influenced our knowledge of the Sutpen legend. The true heir of the Sutpen legacy is not Jim Bond but Quentin Compson, who has to live with the sins of the South whether he likes it or not. Michael Millgate has described Quentin in this book as a "fatally divided and ghost-dominated personality" unable to reinvent the Sutpen legend for modern times. Locked into the values of the South, Quentin is finally as unable to understand the Sutpen legend objectively as Miss Rosa was. That task falls to Shreve, the Canadian neophyte. Aware that he is trapped within the corridors of his own value system, flawed though it may be, and unwilling or unable to either reject or accept the history that he has grown up with, Quentin is literally struck immobile--left, at the close of the novel, trembling in his bed and attempting desperately to convince himself of something that he is not.

The vision that Shreve leaves us with, however, is strange and disturbing. His idea that black people will take over the world, mixing with others until everyone is black, smacks of the perverted paranoid thinking that abounded among members of the Ku Klux Klan around the same time period. Shreve's strange conclusion can be interpreted in a number of different ways: to Shreve's own latent racism (Faulkner perhaps insisting that Northerners have racial sins to tackle just as their Southern brothers do) or to the idea that everyone must acknowledge the fact of their own mixed blood or that tragedy will befall us all.