How To Make A Myth — A Review of Absalom, Absalom
Absalom, Absalom, William Faulkner’s 1936 masterpiece, has an accessibility issue: to make it accessible he must make it inaccessible. Meaning, the novel’s mythic quality makes it a transcendent, timeless classic, but in order to achieve that mythic quality, Faulkner must obfuscate his story. To make his story into a myth, which hasn’t been told, Faulkner employs several devices. First, he starts his myth by layering his story, telling it several times over, from different perspectives, leaving out facts, including misperceptions, but adding a little more insight each time.
Faulkner is a poet, this is his epic and he gives his basic story in the first paragraph, Quentin, the main narrator, summarizes the whole tale:
“It seems that this demon — his name was Sutpen — (Colonel Sutpen) — Colonel Sutpen. Who came out nowhere and without warning upon the land with a band of strange n — — s and built a plantation — (Tore violently a plantation, Miss Rosa Coldfield says) — tore violently. And married her sister Ellen and begot a son and a daughter which — (Without gentleness begot, Miss Rosa Coldfield says) — without gentleness. Which should have been the jewels of his pride and the shield and comfort of his old age, only — (Only they destroyed him or something or he destroyed them or something. And died) — and died. Without regret, Miss Rosa Coldfield says — (Save by her) Yes, save by her (And by Quentin Compson) Yes. And By Quentin Compson.”
As the parentheticals indicate, two Quentins exist: one the adolescent, preparing to study at Harvard in 1909, and the other, a ghost of sorts, who belongs to the collective consciousness, who knows no time.
Faulkner forges his myth through several narrators and forms. Typically the narration comes from one character talking to another — Rosa to Quentin, Mr Compson to Quentin, Quentin to Shreve and Shreve back to Quentin. Rosa Coldfield begins the story, for two chapters, on a hot late summer afternoon. She wants Quentin to take her out to Sutpen’s old plantation house that September evening. Although she hasn’t been there in forty-three years, she is adamant that someone is in that house. For most of the next two chapters, Quentin’s father, Mr. Coldfield, adds some detail to the story when Quentin comes home, before he goes back out to pickup Rosa and take her to the old house. Mr. Coldfield is a generation removed from Rosa and the events in the story, at first he seems more objective, but he gets some facts wrong in the end. He’s detached and sardonic. On one hand he views the men of the Civil War generation as bigger and greater then his own and, on the other hand, he views Sutpen’s story as lesson in fatalistic determinism. In chapter five, Rosa comes back to narrate, not later that evening, but in a letter Quentin receives months later while at Harvard. Quentin doesn’t begin fully narrating until chapter six, which also starts with a letter, this one from his father, catching him up to speed about what’s happened between September and December, but Quentin doesn’t finish his father’s letter until the end of the novel. In the meantime, between him finishing the letter and the reader finding out what happens that September night, Quentin re-tells the Sutpen story to Shreve, who also takes a hand at narration and adding detail. For final three chapters, Quentin grapples with what he witnessed in the old house and they both struggle with the myth of Sutpen.
Shreve’s role, is another device Faulkner uses to make a myth out of his story. Shreve, Quentin’s roommate, comes into the story in the sixth chapter with the simple request that Quentin tell him about the South. Quentin chooses this story to tell about the South, linking it, in allegorical terms, to the whole rise and fall of the South. Quentin doesn’t tell the tale straight nor is this first time Shreve has heard a version of it from Quentin. To make sense of it, Shreve finds details left out that he, the listener, must provide. Shreve’s drawn in. Faulkner engages not by disclosing the full details of the events in question, but by bringing the reader into the rooms, woods, and roads of these characters. He does this by returning to the same scene over and over, which leads to familiarity. Overcoming his initial cynicism, Shreve takes the first jump in placing himself in the story, soon the reader does too. This style makes for an enthralling read. By design, the reader becomes part of the story, figuring out and filling in the details, grappling with why did it happen that way.
This novel requires time and attention, it’s not something to read in two minute intervals, it’s not for scanning or skimming, its paragraphs go for pages; its longest sentence is 1292 words. Faulkner’s flowing style, long sentences, stream of consciousness writing conveys all the perceptions, thoughts, and feelings of a single moment. It enables Faulkner to throw everything he has into each page, put his heart in every paragraph, and make each sentence piece of his soul.
Taking the uninterrupted time to place yourself in the novel, in the myth, will take you to places you’ve never been: like a confederate officer’s tent on a Carolina bivouac in the hard early spring of 1865 having walked backwards for a year, a thousand miles from Oxford, Mississippi; or into the grand library room of Supten’s mansion all decked out with holly and mistletoe for Christmas eve in 1860 — the last time there may have been joy in that house or the whole South; or the grand funeral pyre lit as the ambulance charges up the driveway; or in a posse surrounding the squatter’s cabin searching for the old rusty scythe of the grim reaper; and you’ll never forget taking out on a joyless Christmas day in 1860 in the iron cold through the rutted, frozen, empty North Mississippi woods in-route to the River, and all while sitting in the cold Harvard dorm room where the two boys, fifty years later, Quentin and Shreve, bring the missing scenes to life.
Power of Myth
The power of myth taps into our collective consciousness, and allows us to see ourselves in the story. Like the best parables, myths welcome us to put ourselves in the roles of several characters because the characters are archetypes and reflect our collective consciousness. Myths contain just enough facts to pique our interest, but not every detail is given — so we have to provide them. Providing them further personalizes the myth, it draws us in. The myth interpretation is twofold we are not just interpreting the myth, but we are interpreting ourselves. Since the myth lies in the collective consciousness, it’s our myth too.
This is the power of the novel. Like Shreve and Quentin, you put yourself in the story; there are not two people riding out on Christmas day 1860 or four, but five. This is the genius of Faulkner that he’s able to create a new myth — and a true myth that looks both ways.
Getting The Right Title
The title Absalom, Absalom may present another accessibility issue, while it raises the work to biblical and mythical levels, it also misleads a hurried, less Bibically versed, reader. The original title Faulkner had was The Dark House. If the concern of a title is a summary of all the events in the novel, then this is a fitting title. The Dark House refers to Sutpen’s grand plantation house, around which the action begins and ends. The novel begins in another dark house with Rosa Coldfield and her old fashioned thoughts about how to stay cool in the Mississippi summer, so there is a cute play there.
Without impacting the story, changing the title to Absalom, Absalom gives the novel the mythic quality Faulkner wants. The Bible’s Absalom saga, retold in 2 Samuel Chapters 13–18, has several elements that may resonate in the novel, but the novel is not a reworked version of the saga. For example, a possible relation to the novel comes in 2 Samuel 13: Absalom’s older half-brother, Amnon, rapes his sister, Tamar. Absalom waits two years and then has his men murder Amnon in revenge. That’s not a fact pattern in the novel, there is no rape, no revenge, and no reconciliation with the father in the novel like there is 2 Samuel 15. Further, in 2 Samuel, the rape and revenge murder occurs in chapter 13, but the title comes from the father’s, King David, cry in 2 Samuel 18, which is like nothing in the novel. Almost three thousand years later, Absalom’s myth continues to resonate with our consciousness.
True to its own mythic character, it’s not clear who Absalom could be: Henry, Charles, Thomas, or Quentin — they are all lost sons. In fact the strongest association to Absalom is the South. Here’s the connection with the novel: Absalom reconciles with David for Ammon’s murder, but Absalom continues his insolence, like a petulant, spoiled child he lays the seeds for rebellion against his loving and forgiving father, the greatest king in the Old Testament. David here symbolizes both God the father and that paternal quality of country, a quality of our country symbolized best by the Washington monument.
Far from renouncing his birthright, Absalom attempts to take his father’s throne by force and deception.
“And it was so, that when any man came nigh to him [Absalom] to do him obeisance, he put forth his hand, and took him, and kissed him. And on this manner did Absalom to all Israel that came to the king for judgment: so Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel.” -2 Sam 15:3 KJV
With the hearts of Israel on his side, Absalom violently rebels against his father. His father is almost defeated, but eventually the tide turns. Badly routed in the Ephraim woods and retreating, Absalom gets stuck in an oak tree, hanging by his hair after his mule runs out from under him — a compromising position. Despite David telling his generals to deal kindly with Absalom, they murder Absalom, then bury him in a pit, heaping stones upon his grave. Upon hearing the news, David issues one most anguished cries in all of the Bible:
“And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept: and as he went, thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” — 2 Sam 18:33 KJV
The novel’s title is taken from this verse — it’s a visceral lament by a father for his deceased son.
The South parallels Absalom, the South took up arms in rebellion against the United States. Many of our most prominent founding fathers hailed from Virginia, the South. At the Civil War’s outset, the Union, which they — Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe — fathered, was on the ropes, but the tide turned. The South, retreating and forced into a compromising position was leveled by the Northern generals and buried by the carpetbaggers, like how Joab’s men piled rocks on Absalom’s grave — a sign of deep bitterness.
Through the power of the myth, generations reverse and Faulkner cries for the land and a people like a father cries after his son’s tragic death.
Make no mistake, Absalom got what he deserved. So did David, who like all men sinned grievously, Tamar’s rape and Amnon’s murder was just a part of David’s punishment for murdering his paramour’s husband, Uriah. Absalom’s rebellion and death was punishment for David’s withheld, then reluctant and conditional forgiveness of Absalom. Faulkner applies the same stern, Old Testament God treatment to Sutpen and the South and gives warning to the North which did not bury the hatchet at Appomattox.
The Modernist South
Absalom, Absalom was published in the same year as Gone with the Wind. Rather than romanticize the old South, like Mitchell, Faulkner illustrates its depravity. Sutpen, the personification of plantation life, is shown with all his evils - from cheating the Indian chief out of his land; to hunting down his French architect like a runaway slave; to, despite being in his sixties, refusing to provide for his illegitimate daughter and her fifteen year-old mother. His moral depravity extends to his son, Henry, who can accept bigamy and incest, but violently rebukes the threat of miscegenation.
However, Sutpen is far from a one dimensional demon of a romantic tale. After all, Sutpen came from nothing to be one of the richest men in cotton rich Mississippi. Though he started off second in command, he was voted to colonel by his regiment to lead. Even without a proper familial linage, he gains the respect of his society. Again and again, Sutpen overcomes obstacles, a man of strength and success.
In fact, he’s shown as a god in the eyes of some like Wash Jones: “He is bigger than all them Yankees that killed us and ourn…bigger than this whole country that he fit for and in payment for which has brung him to keeping a little country store for his bread and meat; bigger than the scorn and denial which hit held to his lips like the bitter cup in the Book. And how could I have lived nigh to him for twenty years without being touch and changed by him?”
Yet, like the demagogue killed by his most loyal follower, when the image of his grandeur disappears and the demon in all of its monstrosity surfaces, the grim reaper’s scythe strikes.
The Historian’s Answer
War and myth are interrelated, often building on each other. In his myth Faulkner answers the question that many have pondered since 1865 — why did the South lose?
Because as Rosa Coldfield says in the first chapter it was made up of men like Sutpen:
“men with valor and strength, but without pity or honor”
At first this seems like a paradox from a romantic old spinster, but what it means that men of the south were men of great chivalry, but that chivalry masked an evil institution, which was slavery. Sutpen’s two time rejection of his first born demonstrates that slavery just wasn’t a division of labor, it was rooted in or developed into a deep hate. Sutpen’s grand design is foiled because he won’t recognize someone that could be an eighth or sixteenth black. Sutpen simply needed to give his first son a sign of acknowledgement and he’d have left the design intact.
To hold that wars are won and lost based on moral righteousness is an Old Testament concept. Faulkner through Quentin adds more concrete details as to why the South lost:
“and battles lost not alone because of superior numbers and failing ammunition and stores, but because of generals who should not have been generals, who were generals not through training in contemporary methods or aptitude for learning them, but by the divine right to say ‘Go there’ conferred upon them by an absolute caste system; or because generals of it never lived long enough to learn how to fight massed cautious accretionary battles”
The leaders were men:
“who one night and with and handful men would gallantly set fire to and destroy a million dollar garrison of enemy supplies and on the next night be discovered by a neighbor in bed with his wife and be shot to death”
Faulkner here is referencing the real life case of General Van Dorn who was in fact killed by his paramour’s husband between fighting in Tennessee. The husband, a doctor, was never charged and moved to Arkansas with his cheating wife to live happily in the ever after; another example of the South’s moral decay.
Faulkner makes a strong point about the South’s caste system resulting in poor leadership. Contrary to high school teaching, the South didn’t have the better generals. They had a very good general in Lee and Jackson wasn’t bad, but they were completely lacking in generals in the western theater of the war. Jefferson Davis didn’t just fall short of Lincoln, but he was really a bad president. The Confederate States of America were exactly that — a confederacy of states. There was not a strong central government and to wage a protracted war, a strong central government is a must, something antithetical to the Brahmin planters.
Slavery, its accompanying racism, moral filth, class system, sense of entitlement, and its aristocracy over meritocracy doom the South from the beginning. In fact the South had the wrong strategy in fighting a defensive war with those small cautious accretionary battles. Instead it needed a quick strike, preferably on Washington — a city below the Mason & Dixon, with low natural barriers, and a sympathetic populous. The southern man’s strength and valor enabled him to hold out for so long for his lost cause, but his honor without pity doomed him from the start, a lost cause indeed.
A Myth With A Thousand Faces
Faulkner’s myth encompasses the South and Civil War and goes further, with elements like: the tragic hero destroyed by his weakness, the rejected son, the lost son, the anguished father, the bride left at the altar, and grotesque manifestations of repressed homoerotism and the shadow. The power of the myth elevates the novel to something greater than a story. Reading the novel leads to a higher level of self introspection and knowledge. These reasons help make Absalom, Absalom the best American novel ever written. So, it’s critical that this novel be read and that the reader take the necessary time and patience with Faulkner, consult secondary sources sparingly, wait until the end to go back and try figure it out — like history, the novel is clearer in hindsight, but never crystal clear. It is not a text to be mastered, but a myth to be shared.