By Chet Yarbrough
By William Faulkner
Narrated by Grover Gardner
Truth is fungible and ephemeral. It rests in the minds of the beholder and disappears in the light of history.
So many interpretations; so little time; “Absalom, Absalom!” is a masterpiece of literature for its phrasing, for its human exploration, and for its maddening reinvention of itself. If one of the criteria of literary success is a book’s nagging temptation to be re-read, “Absalom, Absalom!” deserves a Nobel Prize for literature (which Faulkner wins in 1949).
In the beginning, a reader is cast into confusion by a woman’s rant about Thomas Sutpen, a man she cohabitates with, nearly marries, and despises. Faulkner’s prose is all that keeps one trudging through this diatribe of discontent. Confusion reigns for several pages until a dim light of understanding reveals Thomas Sutpen as a driven, ill-educated, and poor Virginian that migrates to Mississippi with a plan, i.e. a plan to become wealthy, respected, and immortal; like a King of Jerusalem.
Slowly, a picture of Thomas Sutpen develops with the introduction of new characters that explain their versions of how Thomas Sutpen became the patriarch of a hundred square miles of Mississippi territory.
Sutpen is the American Dream. He rises from poverty to become rich. He owns land. He lives in a mansion. He is a brave soldier. He is the father of sons that could carry his legend into the future. He seems like George Washington but with sons. In truth, Sutpen is more of a hedonistic patriarch like Fyodor Pavolovich, the father murdered in Dostoyevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov”. Sutpen has no moral conviction. He batters men and women to gain wealth and progeny without love or remorse because he is an amoral man with a plan.
Sutpen fights for the love of fighting. He is brave beyond fear because he sees fear in others and understands how that fear makes him invincible. But, Sutpen’s blindness to morality sows seeds for his defeat. Becoming a part of society, before the civil war, Sutpen marries his way into wealth in the West Indies but finds, after marriage, that his wife is part black. His meager education tells him that a drop of black blood will get in the way of his future. He abandons his Haitian’ family, after his wife bares a son, Charles Bon.
Sutpen leaves Haiti, with slaves from the family he married into, and settles in Mississippi. With no money but with the labor of his stolen slaves, an inferred theft of 100 acres of Indian land, and a deal he makes with a merchant family in Jefferson County, Mississippi, Sutpen builds a mansion. The deal with the merchant family’s patriarch leads to a second marriage to the merchant’s daughter; resulting in births of a son, and later, a daughter. The son’s name is Henry Sutpen. All of these actions in Thomas Sutpen’s life are to accomplish his end–the creation of wealth, respect, and progeny for the continuation of a budding dynasty.
The civil war changes Sutpen’s destiny. He joins the confederacy, becomes a decorated colonel, but returns to the Sutpen 100 (the descriptive name of his property) to reap spoiled fruits of human’ immorality and history’s circumstance. Southern reconstruction is a death knell for southern plantations. Henry Sutpen murders Charles Bon, his half-brother whom he had met in college, when Thomas Sutton explains that Bon is his son and part black.
These are only a few details of a complicated story that is interpreted through the eyes of Faulkner’s characters; each character has their own myopic view of the truth. What compels one to read and re-read “Absalom, Absalom!” is a reader’s role in the story. Truth is a fungible reality, particularly in history and fiction, because it evolves in the minds of critical listeners and readers.
This is no easy read but it consumes one’s attention and helps one understand amoral behavior, slavery, discrimination and how they lead to inhumanity and destruction.