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PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS
Absalom, Absalom! does not have a traditional plot, in which events happen in sequence. Rather, most of the important events in the novel have occurred in the past, and what there is of a "plot" lies in the attempt of the characters in the present to make sense of these past events, which emerge slowly and imperfectly through a variety of narrators. The time within the story shuttles back and forth from the past to the present.
Chapter one opens in 1909 with Rosa Coldfield's flashback; she is talking to Quentin Compson about Thomas Sutpen's career. Rosa has called Quentin because she believes someone or something is hiding at the ruined estate and she wishes him to accompany her there. Before they depart, she shares the Sutpen saga, going back to 1833, when Sutpen first comes to Jefferson and buys a hundred acres of land with his Spanish gold. He marries Rosa's elder sister, Ellen Coldfield, in 1838, and has two children, Henry and Judith. Rosa portrays Sutpen as a demon, who is cruel and powerful and who has an indomitable will that gets him what he wants. He wants to found a dynasty, but he does not father an acceptable son.
Chapter two is a series of flashbacks; voices of the town interweave with the narration of Mr. Compson, whose interpretation of the Sutpen saga is highly speculative, sensual, and sensational. As Quentin's father, he speaks to his son about the townspeople's past mistrust of Sutpen. He explains that the locals wondered why he was building a mansion in the wilderness, questioned how he has gotten his wealth, gossiped about his exploits, disapproved of his trying to marry Ellen, and boycotted his wedding to her. Undaunted by the pettiness of the townsfolk, Sutpen married Ellen, for she was the kind of wife he had envisioned in his mater plan; after the wedding, Sutpen arrogantly takes up residence in his newly built and furnished mansion.
Mr. Compson's flashbacks continue through chapters three and four. He tells about Henry going to the University of Mississippi in Oxford, where he meets Charles Bon, befriends him, and brings him home to the Hundred. Bon, who longs for some sign of affection from his father, pursues his daughter Judith instead and soon proposes to her. Sutpen, seeing the cruel hand of destiny at work in Bon's proposal, forbids the marriage. Henry, not knowing the whole story, judges his father to be cruel and inhuman, quarrels with him, and permanently leaves the Hundred with Bon. Thomas Sutpen meets Henry during the Civil War and tells him that Bon has Negro blood. Righteous Henry, who did not mind incest, cannot stand miscegenation and shoots Charles on their return to the Hundred in 1865 .
In chapter five, Rosa talks to Quentin about the tragic death of the mad Ellen, the decay of the Hundred, and Sutpen's return after the murder of Charles. He proposes to her, but she turns him down for his outrageous demand that she prove her worth by giving him a male heir before they marry. Sutpen, still searching for a male heir, seduces fifteen-year-old Milly Jones, granddaughter of Wash Jones, a poor white squatter. When she bears him a daughter, he rejects her and the child, causing Wash Jones to kill him with a scythe.
Chapters six through nine shift to the present, where William Faulkner introduces an outsider, Shreve, the Canadian roommate of Quentin at Harvard. The two young men sift fact from fiction in their examination of the lives and motives the characters in the Sutpen saga. In chapter six, both Quentin and Shreve take turns telling and examining the story. In chapter seven, Quentin recalls what he has learned of the story from General Compson, with an emphasis on Sutpen's younger days. His narration serves to make Sutpen appear somewhat more sympathetic, though terribly flawed. In chapter eight, Quentin and Shreve examine Judith, Henry, and Bon; in trying to get into their characters minds and motives, the two roommates begin to identify with them and the past. In chapter nine, Quentin recollects vividly the trip that he and Rosa take to Hundred. There they find, Henry, who has returned secretly to die at home. Rosa and Quentin are shaken and depart. Three months later, Rosa sends an ambulance to fetch the dying Henry. In an effort to protect him, Clytie torches the mansion, killing Henry, herself, and Jim's mother in the inferno.
Through the memories, nightmares, speculations, and narrations of his characters, William Faulkner tells and retells the story of Thomas Sutpen and his family. The author unfolds the story of the Sutpen saga layer by layer, like the peeling of an onion. Although never chronological, each stage reveals a bit more of the basic truth, drawing the reader into the Sutpen tragedy that is the core of Absalom, Absalom!.