The Role of a Heterogeneous Narrative Perspective in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!
William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! is a novel written in 1936, to very little acclaim. Faulkner, the winner of two pulitzer’s and a Nobel Peace prize for his many literary masterpieces, has created for this work a depiction of life in the American South that is complex and difficult. While critics agree that this is Faulkner’s most difficult writing, they also revere for its intellectually enriching metaphors and its spiraling of events through narration. As a modern novelist, Faulkner masterfully incorporates the themes of miscegenation, progeny, race, class, and misogyny in to a novel this that capsulate his beliefs about the Confederate South. Through his use of a heterogeneous narrative perspective, in Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner creates a complex and multifaceted view of protagonist, Thomas Sutpen, in order to draw parallels between this character and the American South. This gesture results in a novel that becomes a well-rounded case study of the Confederate South and its inevitable destruction.
A heterogeneous narrative perspective, by definition, is one that incorporates multiple narrators and/or more than one narrating voice. In Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner creates four distinct characters through which to tell the story of Thomas Sutpen, the voiceless protagonist who seeks fortune and glory in a region characterized by hypocrisies and the legacy of slavery, and the voiced characters through whom we get to know him: Rosa Coldfield, his jilted fiance and late wife’s sister; Mr. Compson, Quentin’s father, who tells Sutpen’s story from an historically-removed perspective, one he heard from his father with whom he fought in the Civil War; Shreve, Compson’s Canadian friend who experiences the American South from an outsider’s perspective and Quentin Compson, the omniscient narrator whose voice the reader experiences throughout the novel. Each narrator is attempting to reconstruct the story of Sutpen through the lens of their own individual experience. Each vision of Sutpen then folds in a cascade of voices to provide a single recognizable text, or series of narrative pictures, that collide to offer a full view of Thomas Sutpen, his motivated actions, and their consequences.
The novel begins with Rosa Coldfield, who has spent forty three years hating Thomas Sutpen, depicting him as both a villain and a demon. Rosa’s justifies her perspective of Sutpen as warranted due to the role he has played in destroying her family and herself. This then makes “Rosa… both unable and unwilling to acknowledge the object of her vengeance as being a mortal man, motivated by the same hopes and fears common to humanity. She endows his actions with larger than life proportions, interpreting each as being affected with Sutpen’s strange supernatural powers” (Levins 37). Rosa’s interpretation of events has been argued as one that assumes the genre of a literary gothic as argued by Lynn Gartrell Levins, who describes Rosa’s interpretation as one that provides a dreamlike aesthetic, resurrecting the memory of a demon rather than a man. Citing Faulkner’s use of suspense as a literary technique, Levins, argues that Faulkner intends to elicit an effective response to terror. This is a fitting emotion for Rosa, who has suffered great traumas in life and unfairly blames them all on Thomas Sutpen.
Mr. Compson’s interpretation of Thomas Sutpen shares the same events, but perceives the motivations of the man differently than does Rosa. Whereas Rosa’s narrative voice demonizes Sutpen, Mr. Compson’s voice reveals a man desperate to achieve the American dream. As a child, Mr.Compson learned of Sutpen’s life and experiences from his father, General Compson (and Sutpen’s only friend). Thus, Mr. Compson romanticizes Thomas Sutpen, creating a hero-like figure though the use of dramatic language and highlighting Sutpen’s determined and unbridled ambition. In Mr. Compson’s retelling of events, Sutpen fails not because he is a demon–as Rosa suggests–but due to an error of judgment. For Compson, Sutpen is the tragic hero who suffers from the fallibility of man.
Conversely, Shreve’s narrative perspective offers a composite version of events using a lighthearted, amused voice.. Shreve, who has listened to Quentin’s telling of events, is most removed from the story because he was reared in Canada. This physical distance allows him to hear and interpret events without rose-colored idealism, or Southern gothicism, thus relieving readers from some of the novel’s intensity. Shreve thus offers yet another perspective from which to view the chaos that is the character Sutpen’s life. Shreve’s skeptical northern musings poke fun at the memory of Thomas Sutpen; he is no longer larger than life, as depicted by Rosa and Mr. Compson. In Shreve’s voice, Sutpen is reduced to a comical figure of folklore.
Quentin’s omniscient narrative, the most complicated, achieves the real work of the novel. His consciousness channels the other characters’ voices for the reader; he becomes a medium of sorts. Quentin establishes trust because he is a relatable narrator already known to Faulkner’s readers (The Sound and the Fury, 1929). His is a trusted voice also because it is impartial and intelligent; his character never meets Sutpen, and he is academically qualified to tell Sutpen’s story. Rosa suggests this when she says she chose Quentin to hear her story “..because you are going away to attend college at Harvard…maybe someday you will remember this and write about it” (Faulkner 11).
According to literary critic Arthur Scott, Quentin gathers the fragmented memories of Sutpen’s life, deconstructs them (in the Derridian sense), and focuses on the relationships among signs in the various tellings, rather than on the objective representations of reality or truth in each narrative voice, to make meaning; this yields what Scott calls “the 4th vision,” or the “completed complexity” of Sutpen’s life story (Scott 214). Consequently, through Faulkner’s use of multiple narrative perspectives, the “central paradox of fiction” is achieved: “Contrived and unreal features” coalesce to yield “a range of human capabilities and records permanently their impermanence in endless repetitions of moral sin and retribution of human action and consequence.” (Rio-Jelliffe 82).
Separately, no one narrator’s recollected memory presents a complete account of who Thomas Sutpen was; in each character’s narration, one sees only part of his character, whatever quality or aspect that narrator finds salient. Thus, each character creates a one-dimensional image of Sutpen. It is only when they are viewed heterogeneously that the perspectives illuminate the many tenants of Sutpen’s character; their combined, myriad perspectives are necessary for the reader to understand the full complexity of the tragic, chaotic life of Thomas Sutpen.
Along with employing heterogeneous narration in the novel, Faulkner also uses temporal distortion and shifting perspectives to complicate the reader’s experience of Absalom, Absalom! They are significant because they deepen the novel’s complexity and gives the already-multifaceted elements in the story a prism-like brilliance. Faulkner uses these to maintain an atmosphere of chaos for the reader, introducing the modernist tenant of temporal distortion, unfolding meaning through and within temporal succession. This complicates the reading and the perception of Thomas Sutpen’s character further, for once the reader has established what she believes to be the essence of Sutpen’s character, a new element emerges, causing the reader to reevaluate assumptions and perceived meanings. Critic Arthur Scott observes that Faulkner uses “the existential concept of allowing physical time of mediate experience and the subjective psychological aspect of time of mediate conception to become coextensive, [permitting] Faulkner to develop several planes of action simultaneously” (213). This element of temporal distortion allows the characters themselves to travel between time and space as needed when interpreting the events of Sutpen’s life subjecting readers to “the coiling of narrators, within narrators creating refractions within refractions in almost undecipherable melding and raising questions regarding the reliability.” (Scott 218)
In addition to its dizzying narrative perspectives, the novel’s presentation of voices shift in unpredictable ways that confound a reader’s immediate understanding of who is presenting the story and at what time. This choice not to identify the narrator is for aesthetic intent “in order to keep the reader in suspense, [Faulkner] refines it by reversing the depiction of cause and effect” (Scott 219). This choice also suggests that the novel’s focus is less on who is talking and more on what the characters are expressing. The fact that narrators are not identified seems to imply that the events of what happened and the feelings attached to them are to be accepted without skepticism.
It has been argued that Faulkner intended for the reader to view Sutpen’s story as true events, but because it is being told by people there is a “possibility of unreliable knowledge on the part of the various narrators – inferred from their non-participation in the events they narrate, their reliance on their sources often removed from the experience narrated and the failure of memory of the only source directly involved in the event; this creates a problem regarding the status of narration as a representation or reconstruction of reality” (Rimon-Kenan 198). In other words, by creating a dynamic where the reader must question all that is said, conflicting views arise regarding the relation between narration, representation, and subjectivity. The reader is left not knowing who to trust, or how to differentiate what is fact and what is fiction.
Fortunately for readers, the character Quentin is available to sort through the narratives and sift through the images and ideas in order to reconstruct a near-real image of Thomas Sutpen as an embodiment of the American South in the 1800’s. Faulkner turns Sutpen and his home called Hundred, the plantation he built and the 100 slaves he purchased, into metaphors reflecting the ideology of the Confederate South. He does so using Sutpen’s origins, shortcomings, downfall, and embodiment of the South’s flawed social ideologies.
The reader is privileged to few details regarding Sutpen’s origins, other than some abstract ideas that lead the reader to believe Sutpen’s earliest relatives arrived by prisoner-transport, and that Sutpen may have spent some spent time in Haiti; Faulkner does provide the reader with an event that took place during Sutpen’s childhood that is thought to lend insight as to what motivated Sutpen’s unbridled ambition. Accordingly, Sutpens’s early life is depicted as being shaped by the plantation system. As a young boy in West Virginia, Sutpen was raised to view Blacks as inferior to Whites. Sutpen is then insulted when he realizes that though his father is a paid overseer to these individuals, Southern Gentlemen viewed both Sutpen and his family as the equivalent in class as the inferior Blacks. As evidenced, when Sutpen is sent on an errand by his father to convey a message to the plantation owner. Naively, Sutpen approaches the manor’s front door and is told by “the monkey nigger” opening the door “to go around to the back before he could even state the business” (Faulkner 189). This event leads Sutpen to obsession; he is now compelled to become one of the Southern elite regardless of the cost. Sutpen is driven to transform the impression of himself among the agrarian class. This is evidenced when he says, “To combat them, you have got to have what they have that made them do what he did. You got to have land and niggers and a fine house to combat them with” (192).
Sutpen then appears in Jefferson, Mississippi in 1833, with a number of slaves “from a much older country than Virginia or Carolina” (Faulkner 11). Faulkner writes, “Inside of two years he had dragged house and gardens out of virgin swamp, and plowed and planted his land with seed cotton” (30). Forming Sutpen’s hundred and then taking a respectable wife i.e. Ellen Coldfield and bearing both Judith and Henry, his only accepted progeny out of the five children he fathers. Critic John Jeremiah Sullivan expresses it as follows:
These details point back to the earliest South: The English coastal colonies, as an extension of the West Indian world (many of the first Virginians and Carolinians were born not in the Old World but on the islands). Sutpen arrives with a band of “wild” African slaves, most of whom are unfamiliar with any European tongue: they speak in an island Creole. In buying his land, which he calls “Sutpen’s Hundred” — the name itself a straining toward colonial affectation. (Sullivan, NYT website)
Sutpen is the planter he has always wanted to be, he has become a great success creating wealth and status at the hands of slave labor. Historically, it is understood that, like Sutpen, the Southern plantation economy relied on the use of unethical slave labor to achieve and maintain the wealth and prestige it had been achieved. “The “wild” nature of the slaves used in the construction of Sutpen’s Hundred further reinforces the parallel, as they could represent the original, African-born slaves first brought to the South that laid the plantation system’s bedrock.” (Marx, Inscriptions website).
The parallels between Thomas Sutpen and the Confederate South are strengthened when Sutpen returns from the war and finds that all he has worked for in life has been destroyed. The slaves have fled to the north for freedom, his wife has died from disease, his son Henry, has renounced his inheritance, and his daughter, Judith, is destined to a life as a spinster. Sutpen is destroyed but is unwilling to accept defeat, and like his Confederate counterparts resists efforts to reconstruct, “he would not even pause for breath before undertaking to restore his house and plantation as near as possible to what it had been” (Faulkner 129). According to Marx, “Sutpen’s determination to salvage his dynasty from its deathbed resulted in his death because it encouraged him to adopt increasingly desperate methods, such as sleeping with Jones’s granddaughter. Sutpen’s motives and methods bear similarity to the antebellum South’s actions up to and during the Civil War; Southern culture grew more and more hostile and defiant toward any perceived threat to their way of life, which included slavery.” (Inscriptions website).
Historically, Faulkner could be referencing the South’s inability to accept a new way of life which is evident in bleeding Kansas, the South’s choice to succeed from the country, and the propaganda created in order to justify slavery and oppose abolition efforts. Yet, Thomas does not only mirror the South in actions; he mirrors beliefs motivated by notions of racial superiority. Sutpen is desperate for the American dream, so much so that he abandons his first wife and child, Charles Bon, after learning his wife came from African ancestry. Back then, genteel Southern society demanded “purity,” any person with a drop of black blood was deemed unacceptable and inferior. Whites were expected to marry other whites, and only their white progeny could be accepted as legitimate progeny. According to Marx, “Sutpen’s leaving represents the Southern need for blood purity; if he wanted a lasting dynasty, he would need recognized heirs and society’s respect, unattainable without a white wife. Sutpen’s adherence to social norms thus prevented him from accepting his son.” (Inscriptions website). Even after Henry befriends Bon and woos Bon’s sister Judith, a wealthy white woman, he is still unable to obtain Sutpen’s recognition, as Sutpen “never acknowledged [his son]” (Faulkner, 279).
The parallels drawn between Sutpen and the confederate South works as a metaphor representing the socially unacceptable nature of the South while also providing an explanation as to why the South lost the war: Shrewd men like Sutpen, who embodied the ideals and principles of a racist, classist, and socially-unjust system, had to be exterminated in order to buildt a new nation based on the equality of all men. In order to do this Faulkner first had to create an atmosphere of chaos, which he establishes by employing four distinct narratives to work as sourced evidence in order to shape the character of Thomas Sutpen. Faulkner then has to further round the character but continue his theme of anarchy by having the narration shift both from narrator to narrator and from eras in time.
Faulkner can now use Sutpen to illuminate the atrocities that were ingrained in the culture of the American Antebellum South. Through his use of complex and myriad narrative perspectives, Faulkner constructs a novel that projects the tragi-comic, unsustainable, and terrifying nature of the American South’s goals for itself. Ultimately, he effectively argues that ideals that create or seek to maintain cultural ideology based on notions of white supremacy, male domination, and the exploitation of human beings cannot form the basis of an equitable and free nation.
Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! New York: Vintage International, 1936. Print.
Levins, Lynn Gartrell. “The Four Narrative Perspectives in “Absalom, Absalom!”” Publication of
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Marx, Tyler. “The House That Sutpen Built.” Inscriptions Journal, 2012. Web.
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Sullivan, John Jeremiah. “How William Faulkner Tackled Race–and Freed the South from
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