William Faulkners Absalom, Absalom! Analysis
Out of quiet thunderclap he would abrupt (man-horse-demon) upon a scene peaceful and decorous as a schoolprize water color, faint sulphur-reek still in hair clothes and beard, with grouped behind him his band of wild niggers like beasts half tamed to walk upright like men, in attitudes wild and reposed, and manacled among them the French architect with his air grim, haggard, and tatter-ran. Immobile, bearded, and hand palm-uplifted the horseman sat; behind him the wild blacks and the captive architect huddled quietly, carrying in bloodless paradox the shovels and picks and axes of peaceful conquest. Then in the long unamaze Quentin seemed to watch them overrun suddenly the hundred square miles of tranquil and astonished earth and drag house and formal gardens violently out of the soundless Nothing and clap them down like cards upon a table beneath the up-palm immobile and pontific, creating Sutpen's Hundred, the Be Sutpen's Hundred like the oldentime Be Light. (p. 4)
At first glance Absalom, Absalom! does not seem like the typical gothic novel, nor is it the typical historic novel. It is Faulkners ability to blend genres that provides the story with a unique plot and structure. However, there are some elements of the story that are characteristic of gothic novels. The tone of the novel is predominantly dismal and gloomy. Faulkner exposes the ugly truths of racism and how ironic fate can be when it determines peoples fate. His stream of consciousness method helps the reader really understand the psyche of his characters and gives a better explanation of their sometimes outrageous actions. Faulkner makes great use of interior monologue here and often the monologues between characters without the reader noticing at first. This creates chain of episodic events that are strung together by the narrators remembering their pasts. Each character enables the reader to see his or her own assessments and speculation of the situation, enabling the reader to gain various outlooks on one event. Doing this does make the text harder to read, but does make the story more effective and powerful.
It oddly also helps Faulkners general writing style seem more cohesive. Faulkner's sentences are usually run on, for example, the above quote is only two sentences. Some sentences can even be an entire page long. Most are read in a continuous motion and are pieced together by parenthesis and dashes. Despite the pauses it causes the reader to make, it does help the story create an emotional mood or vividly bring forth a sensual image. His unique sentence structure makes his story almost fluid in motion, always moving back and forth through time, with meaning being constantly added and changed.
In the above excerpt, Quentin Compson is recalling the legend of Thomas Sutpen's arrival in Yoknapatawpha County. This passage is a perfect example of the style and mood that Faulkner captures throughout the novel. While this passage is divided into multiple sentences, there is still a noticeable stream of consciousness in the way Quentin is remembering the story. It is interesting that Quentin remembered this event in this manner. He was told of Thomas Sutpens arrival by stories from his father and grandfather. Quintens last name is Compson, which is close to the word comparison. Most of Faulkners characters have odd names that reflect their personalities, for example Pettibone (petty bone) was stingy and turned Sutpen away, and while Compson and comparison may not be as transparent as others it is something to take notice of. The entire excerpt is a comparison of Sutpen and Yoknapatawpha County. Even at first glance it is obvious to see that the paragraph sets the feeling of stark contrast between Sutpen, the area he has just moved to and the people who reside there. Faulkners choice of words and sentence structure show how Quentin, a symbol of southern pride, and other Mississippi natives view Sutpen and his wild blacks. However, this is classic Quinten; throughout the novel he is tormented by his constant questions about justice, honor, love and his sisters sexual exploration.
Quentin is one of the best characters that Faulkner could have used in order to have the reader gain a better perspective because he is quite fascinated by the saga of the Sutpen family which gives it an almost mystical aura. Despite the source of his information about the family, he is one of the few characters that remains somewhat objective and is able to rely on mostly fact instead of hearsay; nonetheless, this does not mean that he leaves any wonderment or imagination out of his second-hand account of the tale. His choice of words and, again - use of comparison - creates a dreamlike, and even nightmarish, feel to the story, such as in the description of Sutpens black workers like beasts half tamed to walk upright like men.
The excerpt immediately starts with a comparison that sets the tone for the rest of the tale. Faulkner appeals to the startling sense of the harshness and dark, ominous sensation of a thunderclap to reflect the presence of Thomas Sutpen. Usually thunder is unexpected when it sounds and can startle; it is quite obvious that from this imagery the attitude and presence of Sutpen came as a surprise to the residents of the small Mississippi town. Faulkner, through Quentin, then offsets this frightful reflection with a scene peaceful and decorous as a schoolprize water color. The word decorous means to conduct oneself properly and with dignity. This clearly reflects the appreciation and love Quentin feels for his heritage and how he views Southern culture. Also, the picture of a watercolor reinforces the peaceful scene and brings light, happy colors to the readers mind. This is total contrast to the mysterious and almost threatening thunderclap that is Sutpen.
Quinten also uses a unique set of words to describe Sutpen when he first appears, man-horse-demon. This wording helps Quinten to describe not only how Sutpen looks but the aura he carries with him when entering the county. The word order and the hyphens Faulkner uses to connect the words are also important. He starts with the word man which shows Sutpens mortality and his commonness, like Quinten himself. The description then flows to horse which seems a bit odd at first, however, the horse is often used to symbolize strength, power and wisdom. This gives Sutpen the illusion of being superior, in Quintens mind, to the other residents of the town. Finally, the demon word solidifies the immortality of Sutpens legend that begins that day. This word also reflects how the residents see Sutpens attitude towards them, his family and his workers, which is confirmed later in the passage above. The hyphens physically connect the images and the words together to symbolize a movement or transition that occurs in Quinten when he sees Sutpen as he was described originally by previous generations.
The reference to Sutpens smell is fascinating as well. Quentin calls it faint but also uses the word reek to describe the smell of sulfur coming from Sutpens clothes, hair and beard. These two words seem to be in contrast of each other but are important when connecting the past to the present. Sutpen came to Mississippi after planting sugar cane in Haiti, where the volcanoes emit sulfur, which has a very distinct scent. The choice to put faint first reminds the reader that Sutpen wants that section of his life behind him and he hope to leave it in Haiti, to make it a faint memory of sorts. The word reek is almost a way Faulkner foreshadows Sutpens fate; his past will plague the future of his life and his childrens.
Quentin then mentions the entourage that Sutpen has brought with him to start his new life in Yoknapatawpha County. He refers to them as a band of wild niggersand the captive architect. The terminology clearly reflects the disposition of Southerners of the time, but Quentin also refers to group as acting wild and reposed, which are contradictory terms. This reflects his love-hate relationship with a culture that he is from but that he sees as immoral, a connection he also feels with the entire Sutpen family. It is also fascinating how the architect, French nonetheless, is shackled (or manacled) to the slaves and is grouped in with the peaceful conquest that Sutpen has seemed to manage over his new property, both land and people. That term is also contradictory, conquest gives the perception of a fight that was won and hard earned, and yet leaves no room for peace.
There are also several religious images that Quentin works into his description of the event. When he talks of Sutpen entering on his horse his hands are described as palm-uplifted. This term brings to mind religious, specifically Christian, services where people raise their hands palm side up to signify a spiritual connection that has been made. While this event is not necessarily spiritual, Quentin seems to view Sutpen in a way that true believers view hypocrites that use this jester in ceremony. He again references this posture as Sutpen exemplifies the clich of being on a high horse when he uses the word pontific, which refers to being from a sermon-type manual that Catholic bishops use. The hypocritical religious comparison enhances his view of Sutpen being immoral, which is brought up throughout the novel.
Towards the end of the passage Quentin goes back to his original comparison of a harsh Sutpen and an almost innocent land. He uses aggressive language to describe Sutpen and his hordes action as they create the estate, and drag house and formal gardens violently out of the soundless Nothing. The word overrun perfectly illuminates the towns original feelings towards Sutpen. It gives the feeling of being unwanted and hard to get rid of, like a weed. The final clap of the estate alludes back to that harsh startling feeling of the original thunderclap that was felt at Sutpens first appearance. The dramatic sensation of building his empire is parallel to the creation of the earth in Genesis. This is solidified by the comparison of Be Sutpens Hundred, the name given to the one hundred acres of land the estate sat on, to Be light, a command God gave during the Creation. It is also reflected again later in the novel when the Sutpen house begins to crumble after his death and murder of Charles Bon, like the crumbling of Gods relationship with his creation after the fall of Adam and Eve due to sin and the murder of Able by his brother Cain.
This passage in a sense represents the workings of the overall text, Faulkners style and his characters. The combination of categories it can be classified as makes it so much more intriguing. His tactic of writing in a stream of consciousness and run on sentences enables the reader to immerse themselves in the story and become lost in the plot. While Faulkners personality and style is bursting through each character in Absalom, Absalom!, each still is able to retain his or her own personality and style of speech and thought. Quentin perception of the Sutpen story is probably the best balance of being the most accurate without lacking any emotional connection. It is evident that Faulkner was excessively aware of his prose, from sentences to individual words. The passage, while not necessarily the most important section of the novel, is a prime example of how he develops a character that is complex and contingent.