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In Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner weaves several significant Themes into his novel about the South, so that it becomes a social tragedy as well as a family tragedy. He masterfully shows how suffering, endurance, racial discrimination, decadence, and ruin all play a part in the lives of the Sutpen family.
The theme of moral degradation in Thomas Sutpen is an important one. By placing a greater weight on racial purity than familial ties, Sutpen precipitates a series of tragedies. Because of his great prejudice, Sutpen spurns his first son, Charles Bon, who has Negro blood. His second son, Henry, on whom he has pinned his hopes, rejects his father and his birthright; then poisoned by the same racial prejudice that destroys his father, Henry commits fratricide to prevent the "Negro" Bon from marrying his sister Judith. The guilty Henry must then go into hiding, effectively ending Sutpen's plan. It is Sutpen's moral weakness that has indirectly caused the defeat of his dream of a dynasty.
Sutpen's degradation is a parallel to the larger degradation of the South. His neglected estate, a ruined shell of its former glory, symbolizes the South after the Civil War, with its shattered economy and defeated, demoralized people. Sutpen's strange combination of moral blindness, intolerance, and innocence and Henry's inability to accept the Negro blood of his brother are symbolic of the South's inability to accept its black citizens as brothers and equals. Through the destruction of the Sutpen family, William Faulkner shows how intolerance has destroyed the South.
Another important theme is that of doom. Throughout the novel, characters discuss the role of fate and destiny in people's lives. Sutpen's struggle often seems a struggle against fate, and his inability to achieve his dynasty seems part of a larger destiny. When his estate falls into the hands of a Negro, the idiot Jim Bond, it seems a fitting act of divine retribution.
Meaning of the Title
The biblical theme of the novel stems from the title, which is taken from the Old Testament story of King David and his son Absalom (II Samuel, chapters 13- 18). Absalom kills his half-brother, Amnon, for committing incest with his sister, Tamar, and is himself killed in battle against David's army when he rebels against him. David mourns his death, exclaiming, "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom ! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!" Some of the events of the novel run parallel to this story of Absalom, giving Sutpen's tragic loss of his sons a biblical grandeur.
One minor theme is the difficulty of knowing human motivations as well as the full story of any person's life. The shifting perspectives continually affect the reader's perception of the characters and their lives, and many questions remain unanswered, both for the characters and the reader. Why does Henry feel miscegenation is a crime worth killing for while incest is tolerable? Does Henry perhaps love Judith too much himself? Did he have a homoerotic love for Bon? Did Bon ever love Judith or was he primarily seeking recognition from Sutpen? Why does Sutpen refuse to acknowledge him? In Absalom, Absalom!, the truth is always uncertain; therefore, the theme of appearance vs. reality is clearly brought forth.
The theme of the injustice of the exploitation of women is also developed by Faulkner. Thomas Sutpen uses Eulalia and casts her off. He neglects his illegitimate daughter, Clytie. He prevents Judith from marrying the man of her choice. He shows no consideration towards Rosa in his obscene proposal to bear him a son out of wedlock. He seduces the fifteen-year-old Milly Jones and then rejects her when she bears him a daughter. Women are ill- used in Absalom, Absalom!, and Faulkner shows the cruelty of their mistreatment.
William Faulkner conceived of an imaginary Mississippi county, Yoknapatawpha, and used it as the setting for a number of novels and short stories. He called it his "own little postage stamp of native soil." Absalom, Absalom! is perhaps the most "historical" of the Yoknapatawpha novels, for Faulkner included a chronology of events in it and a map of Yoknapatawpha County, with a notation that he was sole owner of it. In this mythical landscape, peopled both with characters of his own creation and those inspired by the Mississippians he knew, Faulkner explored the history of the South and its people. For writers like Thomas Wolfe, Robert Penn Warren, and William Faulkner, the South contains a violent amalgam of opposites: grace and crudity; hate and love; polished manners and violence. Southerners are a class and caste conscious people, full of cultural paradoxes.
Absalom, Absalom! is set primarily in Mississippi, with some scenes occurring in Virginia, Haiti, and a dorm room at Harvard University. It spans just over a hundred years of events in the Sutpen family, against which is set the backdrop of the ante-bellum South, the Civil War, and the post Civil War South. A mood of doom and gloom prevails throughout the novel, as its characters seem chained to bleak fates, and the degradation and racial discrimination that leads the South into the Civil War continues in the years afterward, poisoning its people.