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Free Study Guide-Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner-Free Book Notes
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Quentin Compson

Quentin, the frail, twenty-year-old grandson of General Compson, is a reserved but expressive scholar who attends Harvard. As a central narrator, he is one of the most balanced and objective. Giving his side of the story at the end of the novel, Quentin fills in many of the missing details not supplied by the earlier narrators. Never knowing the protagonist, Quentin has learned about Thomas Sutpen from his own father and grandfather. Since he has spoken directly with Henry and sees the Sutpen saga as part of his Southern heritage, Quentin serves as a link to the past and a voice of the future.

Quentin cares deeply about the saga of the Sutpen family, for he sees their failure as a parallel to the failure of the South; he judges that both the family and the southern states are doomed to defeat because they do not have a strong moral code. Quentin feels it is terribly ironic that the South fought the Civil War to try and save an immoral and unjust system of slavery.

Quentin is particularly sensitive to the tragic fate of Sutpen, who unsuccessfully devotes his life to the establishment of his own dynasty. He is even more sensitive to the tragic situation of Henry's murder of his half-brother, Charles Bon, which is proof of the family's lack of a moral standard. Quentin's interpretations of events are reasonable, based on facts more than speculation. Yet he also has an imaginative, fanciful side, as shown when he revisits the nightmare-like evening when he and Rosa visit the crumbling Sutpen mansion, telling the story as if it were a ghost tale. Through all of his narration, the reader senses that Quentin is filled with passion about his subject matter.

Far removed from the South in his Harvard room, he begins to assess the magnetic power the culture of his home region exercises over his mind and heart. He has a love-hate relationship with the South and its eccentric, irrational characteristics. In his recounting of the Sutpen saga, he hopes to find solutions to the region's ruin, its moral degradation, and its racial prejudice. At the same time, as he tries to shake off the past, he becomes deeply involved in its events and begins to identify with Henry as he tries to uncover his motivations. In fact, Faulkner implies many comparisons between Quentin and Henry. Both had sisters to whom they were very close, and both had domineering fathers. The also both had strong feelings about the Southern way of life.

Shreve (or Shrevlin) McCannon

Shreve is the Canadian roommate of Quentin at Harvard. He is a large young man with a hulking torso, pink gleaming skin, and earnest eyes behind thick glasses. He brings the objective assessment of an outsider to the Sutpen story. In his telling of the parts of the tale which Quentin has told him, he enjoys being dramatic and ironic; he also repeats the facts in a different way, giving Quentin a fresh perspective on the Sutpen saga.

Shreve enters the novel in chapter six, where he and Quentin sift and sort evidence about Sutpen. He takes the seriousness out of the story with his witty observations and mockery, calling Rosa "the old dame" and Sutpen "Faustus" and "Beelzebub." Shreve is aware of the narcotic power of the South. He tells Quentin, "Jesus, the South is fine isn't it. It's better than Ben Hur, isn't it. No wonder you have to come away now and then isn't it." Because of this attitude, Shreve falls under the spell of the Sutpen saga. As Quentin comes to identify with Henry, the unsophisticated, country clown who tries to understand his half-brother and be loyal to him, Shreve comes to identify with Bon, the urbane young man in quest of his true father.

As an outsider, Shreve speculates on Bon's anger against his mother's scheme to get him to the Hundred and his father's cold- blooded rejection of him. Shreve sympathizes with Bon in his determination to marry Judith, while Quentin justifies Henry's murder, trying to understand his motive. Faulkner wants his reader to be like Shreve, who first views the story and its mixed-up facts with curious detachment and slowly is drawn into the vortex of the whirlpool of events.

William Faulkner hints strongly at a homoerotic element in the relationship between Shreve and Quentin. Their intimacy in the study of the South and their discussion of subjects like love, lust, incest, and miscegenation rouse their own acute awareness of each other. At various points Faulkner contrasts the huge, strong Canadian with the frail, wraith-like figure of Quentin.


Thomas Sutpen

Thomas Sutpen is the colorful protagonist of Absalom, Absalom! and the hub around which the plot of the novel revolves. As a boy, Sutpen lives in dire poverty, which he desperately wants to escape. His experience as a youth of being insulted by the well-dressed Negro butler of a wealthy planter, Pettibone, fires his ambition to earn wealth and status in life. He runs away to the West Indies, where he marries the daughter of a wealthy sugar planter, who bears him a son, Charles Bon, in 1829. On learning of her Negro blood, he abandons his wife and son. As a gentleman, however, he makes certain that she has money to provide for herself and Charles.

Sutpen comes to Jefferson, Mississippi, where he buys land with Spanish gold and sets about building a plantation - Sutpen's Hundred. He marries Ellen Coldfield, the daughter of a local merchant, despite the animosity of the townspeople, who are mistrustful of his character and his wealth. He has two children, Henry and Judith, by his wife and a daughter, Clytie, by a slave. He sends Henry to the University of Mississippi in Oxford, where he becomes friends with Charles Bon, whom he brings home to the Hundred. Bon falls in love with Judith and wishes to marry her. Sutpen rejects the proposal and Henry quarrels with his father, renounces his birthright, and leaves the Hundred. Tragic fate and divine retribution follow.

Sutpen's grand design of founding a dynasty is ruined by the reappearance of Charles Bon, his first son. He does not show recognition or affection towards Bon. He later tells Henry of Bon's Negro blood, thus inspiring a fratricide. He proposes to his wife's sister, Rosa, on the death of his own wife, Ellen, but makes the condition that she should first bear him a son. Her shocked refusal causes a deep-rooted hate between them. She views him a demon, an inhuman monster without any feelings. On his next try, at sixty, Sutpen decides to beget an heir by seducing the fifteen-year-old Milly Jones, granddaughter of Wash Jones. When he rejects her after she bears him a daughter, he incurs the wrath of Wash Jones, who kills him brutally with a scythe. This ends the Sutpen saga tragically.

Thomas Sutpen is a man of powerful will and a representative, in both his strengths and weakness, of the South. Like the South, which was blessed by God in its natural resources but seemingly cursed in its inability to address its social inequities, Sutpen is tragically flawed. Despite his ambition, heroism, and ability to persevere under difficult circumstances, he falls prey to his own weakness. Ultimately his racial discrimination wrecks his plan to create a dynasty, and his obsession brings him ruin.

Henry Sutpen

Henry Sutpen is the son of Thomas Sutpen and the murderer of his half-brother, Charles Bon. He is the Absalom of the Old Testament, who slays his half-brother, Amnon, for committing incest with his sister, Tamar, and is in turn killed in battle against his father, King David. Although Henry is not killed in battle against his father, his renouncing of his birthright and his departure cause his father similar grief to that felt by David when Absalom, his heir, was killed.

Henry takes more after his mother, Ellen Coldfield, then his father. He is at once both rigid and reserved yet delicate, sensitive, and romantic. This combination of rigidity and romanticism will be his downfall. He loves Bon and does not seem to mind the notion of incest between him and Judith, but the idea of miscegenation is too much for him, and he murders Bon in cold blood at the gates of the Sutpen estate before fleeing in terror.

Years later, he returns to the estate a fugitive and lives hiding in the crumbling mansion, where he is sheltered by Clytie. Three months after he is discovered, decrepit and dying, by Rosa and Quentin, Rosa sends an ambulance to save him, but Clytie, fearing that it is the sheriff coming to arrest Henry for his crime, burns down the mansion, and Henry perishes in the inferno. In Henry, Faulkner satirizes the racial prejudices of the South that brought about its ruin.

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