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SHORT PLOT / CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)
Absalom, Absalom! is a brilliantly crafted, complex detective novel. Employing a multiple narrator technique, it uses the varying voices and points of view of a number of characters to examine the life and character of Thomas Sutpen, a tragic figure who tries and fails to build a family dynasty in Yoknapatawpha County.
The novel shuttles back and forth in time between past and present. It opens in September, 1909, the present, with Quentin Compson talking to Rosa Coldfield about Thomas Sutpen. The main story pieced together from the various narratives is interesting. Thomas Sutpen, a poor farmer from West Virginia, comes to Jefferson in 1833, buys a hundred square miles of land from the Indians with Spanish gold, and builds a plantation, Sutpen's Hundred.
Five years later, having furnished the mansion, he marries Ellen Coldfield, the daughter of Goodhue Coldfield, a respectable storekeeper. He has two children by Ellen, Judith and Henry, and an illegitimate daughter, Clytie, by a Negro slave. In 1845, Rosa is born to the Coldfields. She is twenty-seven years younger than her older sister, Ellen, and younger by several years than Judith and Henry, her niece and nephew.
When Henry goes to the University of Mississippi, he meets Charles Bon, whom he invites home for Christmas. He has no idea that Bon is his father's son, a product of his first marriage to Eulalia Bon, a Haitian woman with Negro blood. When Sutpen learns about her background, he disowns Eulalia and her young son Charles, sending them to New Orleans. Ironically, as a young adult, Bon falls in love with Judith, his half- sister and proposes to her. Sutpen forbids the match, for their marriage would be incestuous. Angered at his father's refusal to accept Bon, Henry disowns himself from the family and leaves with Bon, who he does not know is his half-brother.
Thomas Sutpen fights in the Civil War and returns in 1865 as a Colonel. While he was away, Ellen and her father have died, and Henry, having learned from his father that Bon has Negro blood, has killed Bon at the gates of the mansion and fled the law. Rosa Coldfield comes to live with Judith and Clytie at the Hundred. Thomas Sutpen becomes engaged to Rosa, the younger sister of his deceased wife Ellen, in 1866, but says he will wed her only if she first bears him an heir. Rosa bitterly rejects this proposal and returns to her father's house in Jefferson to brood for the next forty-three years. Sutpen, now sixty, seduces Milly Jones, the fifteen-year-old daughter of his partner, Wash Jones. When she bears him a girl, he rejects them both, angering Wash Jones, who kills Sutpen, Milly, and the baby, before being killed by the sheriff, Major de Spain.
In 1870, Charles Etienne, the son of Charles Bon and his Octoroon mistress, comes to the Hundred and is adopted by Judith and Clytie. On growing up, he leaves the plantation and returns with a Negro wife. They have a mentally retarded son, Jim Bond. Before he is two, yellow fever claims Bon and Judith, and the plantation falls into the hands of Clytie, who desperately tries to protect the place from intruders.
In the present, Rosa and Quentin visit the Sutpen estate. There they find the seventy-year-old Henry Sutpen in hiding from the law. As Rosa plans to bring the ill Henry to town, Clytie sets fire to the mansion, killing both Jim Bond's mother and herself. Soon after, Rosa dies, and the wild ruins of the Hundred lie barren, except for the wailing idiot, Jim.
These events of the novel are retold and reviewed by many narrators. In the first chapter, Rosa Coldfield speaks to Quentin about the Sutpen saga. In the second through fourth chapters, Mr. Compson speaks and also quotes his father, General Compson, on Sutpen. In the fifth chapter, Rosa narrates, through Quentin's recollection. The sixth chapter is set in Harvard, where Shrevlin McCannon, the Canadian friend of Quentin, discusses the saga with him. The seventh through ninth chapters examine the lives of Sutpen and his family, as analyzed by Quentin and Shreve. Because of its multiple narrative techniques, the book is complex and difficult to read.