Absalom, Absalom

Absalom, Absalom Themes


This comes to be the central theme of the "house" of Sutpen and the "house" of the South. According to the final and most complete Sutpen legend, Henry Sutpen killed Charles Bon and brought down his father's dynasty to prevent him from marrying Judith--not because Charles was their half-brother, but because Charles had a bit of black blood. This revelation makes it clear how the values of the South have affected not only Henry Sutpen, but also the narrator of the story, Quentin Compson. Faulkner leaves room for some ambiguity as to whether or not Charles Bon actually had black blood, thereby making it clear that the even the suggestion of black blood is enough to put someone in the South beyond the pale in a horribly destructive way. Race is a central theme in many Faulkner works, including his famed A Light in August. Faulkner recognizes that race is the central problem for the South in the post-Civil War period, and that without a healthy discussion of this topic, the South will never move forward.


This theme is weaved into the very structure of the book. Each character tells the Sutpen legend from his or her own memory; each character exercises selective memory. Both Miss Rosa and Mr. Compson omit important details from their stories and the implication is that Quentin does as well. Memory plays an important role in the plotline of the book as well: Thomas Sutpen's memories of Charles Bon stir him to follow the young man back to New Orleans and make crucial discoveries, Miss Rosa has lived her whole life obsessed by memories, and Quentin is attempting to escape his own memories by fleeing to the North, and Harvard.


The history of the South, and especially of the Civil War, forms a compelling backdrop to the book. It is intriguing, however, that Faulkner does not make a huge effort to ground the novel in the hard-and-fast dates, locations, and events that many great historical novels do. Instead, Faulkner's goal is to present an emotional history of the South that matches the strength and power of the factual history.

"The South"

Quentin is asked, over and over again by Northerners at Harvard, about the South. "What's it like there." When his roommate Shreve asks him to talk about the South, Quentin responds by telling him the story of the Sutpen legend as he knows it. And in telling this story, Quentin exhibits all the ambivalence, love, and hatred towards the region that most Southerners have. It is also important that Quentin tells the story of Sutpen, unknowingly, as a metaphor for the South and its post-Civil War history and memory.


The structure of this book is a series of different, intertwining narratives. Each narrator brings his or her own set of preoccupations, misinformed knowledge, and interests to the narrative. As a result, there are three different stories to piece together. Crucial to this theme is the role of the reader him or herself--Faulkner expects you to participate in restructuring the Sutpen legend and, through this action, understand how biased each narrative, each memory, each history, is to each individual.


Sutpen's "design" rules his life and causes his downfall. The futility of directing one's life towards an idea or a "design" without emotional concern for other human beings is well-illustrated through the figure of Sutpen, who is unable to engage the people that surround him as people, rather than as objects. Sutpen's failure to achieve his design strictly based on his will is proof that the only designs that succeed in life are those that account for people as humans rather than as objects.

Haunted House

The original title for this book was Dark House, symbolizing both the work's Gothic roots and its depiction of the "dark house" of the South. Sutpen's haunted house on Sutpen's Hundred is a metaphor for the South and all of the sins that it is responsible for, including slavery and the repudiation of the black "sons" of the South. Just as Sutpen's haunted house fell because it failed to reconcile the black sons with the white, the South, too, fell for the same reason.