WILLIAM FAULKNER’S ABSALOM, ABSALOM!: QUENTIN! LISTEN!
Ernest Hemingway once declared that “All modern American literature comes from Huckleberry Finn,” and there is some truth in that pompous pronouncement. 1
Risking pomposity, I wish to make not one but several declarations: that all Southern literature comes out of the Civil War and Reconstruction, that all Southern novels are about the Civil War and Reconstruction, that Absalom, Absalom! is the best example of that phenomenon, not only in the Faulkner canon, but in all Southern literature, that Absalom, Absalom! is my choice as the greatest Civil War novel, that Colonel Thomas Sutpen, man of action in the Antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction Eras, is not, as he is often held up to be, the protagonist of Absalom, Absalom!, that Quentin Compson, the most passive of Sutpen’s vicarious witnesses, is the protagonist, that the most pertinent way to show that Quentin is the protagonist is to examine the techniques of the art of fiction that Faulkner employs in this novel, that Quentin Compson’s consciousness is the most trenchant expression of the legacy of the Civil War at the deepest existential level.
How is it that all Southern literature comes out of the Civil War and Reconstruction, and that all Southern novels are about the Civil War and Reconstruction? The effect of the war and Reconstruction has so permeated Southern history and consciousness that anything a Southerner writes derives from that prolonged effect process, and that process itself is delineated in Absalom, Absalom! more deliberately and clearly than in any other Southern novel. By contrast, there is no such thing as a Northern novel, nor a true Civil War novel by a Northerner—The Red Badge of Courage, for instance, is about war per se–because there is no such thing as a Northerner, except in the minds of Southerners, who are, however, both very real and very surreal to Northerners.
A catalytic experience for civilizations throughout history, war, especially the Civil War, is a catalyst for Faulkner personally and for his characters, especially Quentin Compson, whose consciousness is at the center of Faulkner’s creative consciousness. Every force seeks a form. I use “Civil War” as an all-embracive term for Antebellum, Civil War, Reconstruction force and legacy eras because the Civil War is a catalyst for all lines of trajectory. The lines of trajectory of Antebellum forces converge and explode in the Civil War, the lines of trajectory in the Civil War are tangled, the lines of trajectory in Reconstruction spread out and hang like a web until Quentin’s last year, 1910, four years before the start of World War I; the web was reshaped by Jim Crow, World War I, the Depression, and the Civil Rights Movement, and it hangs still over us all. Obsessive talk of the myriad trajectories of those external forces ignites forces of emotion, imagination, and intellect in Quentin’s consciousness and unconsciousness.
Absalom, Absalom! is my choice as the greatest Civil War novel, not even though it does not directly depict war, but because of the ways in which the war is more alluded to and its effects implied than dramatized. Faulkner implies ways in which life in the South led up to the war, was profoundly traumatized by it, and, more emphatically, by Reconstruction; and we may infer that it permeated, in myriad ways, Faulkner’s own life. In not dealing directly with battles, Faulkner evokes, in his pervasive use of the technique of context and implication, what is more important–the war’s effect on Americans, especially Southerners, right on up to you and me today.
In the works in which he figures, Quentin so seldom acts upon or interacts with other characters that readers are enabled to respond only to his consciousness as he passively reacts to and reluctantly but in anguish meditates upon the actions of others. Quentin is Faulkner’s expressionistic embodiment of the process that makes all Southern literature about the Civil War. There is no character quite like Quentin in Southern fiction, not in Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, all of whose four major characters are locked in the isolation of their own psyches, but do, at least, tell their personal stories, even if only to a mute, who is himself somewhat like Quentin; not in William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness, although that novel resembles The Sound and the Fury; not in Thomas Wolfe’s four epic novels, even though they feature the same hero; not in any Civil War novels by Southerners, although the hero of The History of Rome Hanks and Kindred Matters, by Northerner Joseph Pennell, faintly resembles Quentin-as-listener. Having found nothing in all fiction as fascinatingly complex as Quentin’s shifting role in the works of Faulkner, I would claim for Quentin a significant uniqueness in all world literature, while lamenting that he is one of its most neglected characters, even though several critics, especially John Irwin in Doubling and Incest, Repetition and Revenge (1975), Estella Schoenberg in Old Tales and Talking (1977), and Noel Polk in Children of the Dark House (1996), have made us more aware of him.
That, compared with his other characters, Quentin was always a vital, sharply focused presence in Faulkner’s consciousness is demonstrated by the fact that when he discussed his characters in public he referred to the males as “the boy” and often had lapses of memory about them, but he almost always called Quentin by name, and about him, his memory was always clear. Several major and numerous minor characters reappear in Faulkner’s work but Quentin has the distinction of being a major character in two of Faulkner’s major works and in four short stories, “That Evening Sun,” “A Justice,” “A Bear Hunt,” and “Lion.” That Horace Benbow resembles Quentin, especially in the early versions of Sartoris and Sanctuary, that Faulkner “rehearsed” Quentin and Sutpen in the short story “Evangeline,” and that one might imagine Quentin as the anonymous “we” narrator of “A Rose for Emily,” adds emphasis to Quentin’s centrality in the Faulkner canon.
The other three narrators of The Sound and the Fury, Benjy, Jason, and Faulkner himself, seldom refer to Quentin. Benjy’s stream of consciousness expresses pure being in timelessness. Had Faulkner allowed Caddy (his “heart’s darling”), to whom all the narrators relentlessly refer, to speak, would she have spoken of Quentin? I think not. Caddy’s naming her daughter Quentin seems an ironic dismissal of Quentin and his incestuous longing for her. 2 Quentin’s obsession with Caddy is so strong that his confession is that of a man whose life flashes before him as he drowns. Jason’s tough guy narration is realistic self-justification. But to whom do these brothers speak? Isolated within their very different egos, none of the three brothers have listeners. Faulkner presents their narrations as pure literary artifice. But Faulkner narrates the fourth section of The Sound and the Fury in full awareness that he has what his characters, especially Quentin, his alter-ego, lack, but do not crave: a community of readers, of listeners.
I am now proposing to publishers that the two novels and four short stories in which Quentin is either the protagonist or a major character be brought together in a single volume of about 600 pages. Faulkner thought of something like that himself. 3 My study of those works and their effect on me personally and as a fiction writer has led me to the conviction that if they are gathered into a single volume, with an introduction explaining why, the average Faulkner reader may grasp the essence of this elusive character.
Colonel Thomas Sutpen, man of action in the Antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction Eras, is not the protagonist of Absalom, Absalom! 4 I am convinced that the repeated focus on Sutpen by many readers and critics distorts the novel, and turns Quentin into a mere narrative device at best and makes him gratuitous at worst. 5
On the surface, Absalom, Abaslom! is a dramatic rendering of the ways in which Thomas Sutpen the legend becomes the creation of the Southern oral storytelling tradition, a tradition nurtured in Antebellum wilderness, magnified in Civil War defeat, and transmuted in humiliation, resentment, and self-loathing through Reconstruction on into 1910, Quentin’s twentieth year.
As a little boy, Sutpen, who sprang from poor white trash, was commanded by a black servant to enter a mansion by the back door. This wound to Thomas Sutpen’s very identity inspired his dream of becoming the owner of a mansion and slaves. He obsessively and savagely pursued a grand design to force that dream into reality, a dream that became a nightmare for everyone around him, especially his wives, white and black, and his sons and daughters, white and black, his sister-in-law, Miss Rosa, the children of his black son, the poor white trash man who worshipfully served him, and that man’s granddaughter and great granddaughter. Sutpen himself was satisfied only with the image of himself that the design was created to produce, the image of a man above all other men, who were to be merely witnesses to his rise and to the perpetuation of his blood, while he seemed to take little pleasure in the land, the mansion, the women, the children, or in the many other men and women who figured in his operatic design.
From the moment the townspeople set eyes upon the wild stranger who would become known as Thomas Sutpen, the demon, the ogre, leading his gang of wild slaves through the town, the exaggerated and conflicting stories began, stories that told how he bought a hundred acres of wilderness, tamed the wilderness, built a mansion, amassed a fortune, married the daughter of a prominent citizen, on whom he begat a son and daughter, Henry and Judith, how he went off to war to protect those products of that design, how during Reconstruction, his fortunes so declined that he became the keeper of a store and how Wash Jones, his poor white trash Sancho Panza in this Quixotic epic slew Sutpen with the scythe he had borrowed from Sutpen.
That is far more than enough for storytellers–that is, everybody–in any impoverished Deep South small town to thrive on. Faulkner thrived on such stories until he could become a writer and re-imagine and expand upon them, until he could imagine what is missing, the answers to the many mysteries and secrets that always germinate behind the façade of such legends. So Faulkner creates the keepers of the secret answers to the mysteries that seem to constitute the very identifies of the later storytellers and their children. They are motivated, in that later era, a time of no grand actions such as the Civil War, in that long, trancelike era of “old tales and talking,” (243) to bring the dark mysteries out into the daylight. They discover finally: that Charles Bon, Henry Sutpen’s roommate, at the University of Mississippi, who followed a design of his own, schemed to go with Henry to Sutpen’s Hundred to confront Supten for abandoning his mother and to reveal that he is Sutpen’s son, but that he meets Judith, who falls in love with him; that the confrontation with Sutpen was delayed by the war; that when his father revealed to him that Bon was his half-brother and part Negro, Henry shot Bon to defend his sister’s honor, then fled; that when Sutpen’s wife Ellen died, he proposed that her sister, Rosa, become a mere body out of which he could produce a male heir, and that he was refused; that the Negro house servant Clytie was also Sutpen’s daughter, and that Sutpen had not only begotten children of his slaves but had turned at last to a poor white trash girl and begot a child by her, all three of whom the grandfather, Wash Jones, slaughtered; that Charles Bon’s child, too, came to Sutpen’s mansion and was taken in by Judith and Clytie; and finally that Henry returned from exile almost forty years later and hid in the now-derelict “dark house,” until discovered by his Aunt Rosa and Quentin, and that it was Clytie the slave daughter who applied a scorched earth climax to the Sutpen epic by setting the mansion on fire that very day of discovery, perishing with her white brother Henry.
Although the long post-war era of the Lost Cause produced few men of action like Colonel Sutpen, it produced a legion of storytellers and multitudes of listeners, and this backward marching, backward looking parade of storytellers and listeners comes finally to a dead end in Quentin Compson.
Given the obvious fact that lives like Colonel Thomas Sutpen’s have been the stuff of fiction, both very good and very bad, from Homer and Sophocles to the present, why do I feel compelled, almost messianically, to urge, along with several scholars, that greater attention must be paid to Quentin, whose affinities are all with the palest of post-modern anti-heroes?
Sutpen’s story expresses the desire of Southerners to be both civilized, as in Jefferson, and wild, as in the Civil War. Quentin can be neither nor does he even aspire to be either. Both the South and Quentin are transfixed between the nightmare of the past and its legacy in the present. Jason gives his son the same name Sir Walter Scott gave his man of action Quentin Durward, the young Scot who fought for a foreign king in 1468, an ironic contrast to Quentin Compson. Quentin’s grandfather’s storytelling does not inspire Quentin’s father, Jason, to a life of action, and Jason’s storytelling fails to inspire Quentin to a life of action; Jason’s only act is to pass on the story, imbued with his own character and personality. Quentin’s only acts are the passive ones of reluctant listening, anguished retelling, of going along with his father to the Sutpen cemetery and going along with Miss Rosa into Sutpen’s house, of staring at his father’s letter in his room at Harvard.
Unlike his father, Jason, Quentin does not want to know, understand, become involved in the story of Sutpen and others, and tell it to future kin, to a community of listeners. Part of Quentin’s problem is that he knows that, like people, like Sutpen himself, civilizations, such as Greece and Rome, come and go, so why not the South and its Sutpens? Quentin knows that he cannot forge an identity out of a heroic past as precarious as common everyday life, even if he could or desired to do it.
Quentin’s negativity, both stated and implied, pervades the novel. In early chapters, Quentin responds to questions with a “yes” that conceals a diffident “no” and later with a “no” that conceals a panicked “yes.” “Better that he were dead,” Grandfather said of Charles Bon’s son, “better that he had never lived.” 6 Quentin, Faulkner implies, would apply that comment to himself, the Quentin who says of himself, “I am older than many people who have died” (301). Miss Rosa will not “reconcile herself to letting him [Sutpen’s son] lie dead in peace” (289), Shreve says to Quentin, who, the reader may infer, has already “become” Henry, wanting to lie dead in peace himself. “So now I shall have to go in” (294), thinks Quentin, invading Henry Sutpen’s hiding place to satisfy Miss Rosa’s craving for an answer to the mystery of “a ghost” in the old mansion, Miss Rosa who has refused to remain a ghost herself, and so Quentin moves out of storytelling into reality, to witness the suicide by fire of Clytie and Henry (and to commit his own suicide by water in The Sound and the Fury). The reader might wonder whether Charles Bon, recently revealed to be Thomas Sutpen’s mixed blood son, forced Henry to kill him to avoid marrying their sister and fathering another mixed breed child, but the context of Quentin’s listening might well imply that Quentin would conclude that he did, because, unable to respond to any positives intended by the storytellers, Quentin is deeply affected by all the suicides and suicidal behavior in the novel.
Faulkner implies that as each storyteller tells a story, earlier storytellers are remembered, so that Quentin’s Grandfather is a dominant figure hovering over Jason’s telling about how his father helped Judith, and the reader feels his presence also, and so does Quentin, even more intensely. The reader must imagine, then, that as he listens specifically to Rosa, then to his father, then to Shreve, Quentin feels the urgent speaking presence of many other storytellers. Quentin is never of one mind. As early as the first few pages, Faulkner tells the reader that there are “two separate Quentins now talking to one another in the long silence of notpeople in notlanguage” (4-5), and that a third Quentin is listening to those two voices. “The eagerness of the listener,” says Jane Eyre, in Bronte’s novel, “quickens the tongue of a narrator,” but unlike his father and Shreve, Quentin is not an eager listener, so the storytellers strive harder to capture and keep his attention and stimulate his interest, with the effect that he is all the more tormented, giving rise to the relentlessly implied questions, “Why me? What do you want me to do?” Early in the novel and then again halfway through, Quentin thinks, “Yes, I have had to listen too long” (102, 157). To what? To the implied pleas that he forge his identity out of these stories, but even more to the implications of the stories as they apply to who he really is, a potential suicide. Near the end, when Shreve’s telling the story back to Quentin reaches a high pitch of intensity, Quentin yells, “Wait!” thinks, “I am going to have to hear it all over again…I shall have to never listen to anything else but this again forever…” (222). Influenced by the vigor and pace of Shreve’s own enthralled retelling, Quentin takes up parts of the tale yet again, compulsive, obsessed, manic (225).
Sutpen’s saga is unimaginative, in itself uninteresting; it is simple, operatic melodrama (not tragedy, as some have argued, not even near-tragedy), and, as such, it is one major expression of the South’s and the world’s conception of life in the South before, during, and after the Civil War. Sutpen’s motive for telling his story to Grandfather Compson is self-justification and self-aggrandizement, a simple continuation of all his other actions. The men, women, and children, white and slave, who, caught in his web, witness Sutpen’s life, create his legend by telling his story in fragments that promote mystery and suspense, fragments embellished by imagination and repeated from generation to generation until they torment Quentin’s ears. Exhorted to listen, Quentin is the principal listener in the novel. As Nick Carroway, not Gatsby is the protagonist of The Great Gatsby, as Jack Burden, not Willie Stark is the protagonist of All the King’s Men, as the narrator, not Roderick Usher, is the protagonist of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” an even more apt example—because the true protagonist of all first person narratives is the narrator—so Quentin, not Sutpen is the protagonist of Absalom. The major difference is that Quentin the listener is not the sole storyteller in the novel. That some critics mistakenly identify Quentin as the sole narrator (as opposed to story-teller) testifies to the strength of the impression one gets of the pervasiveness of his consciousness, an effect toward which all Faulkner’s techniques are deliberately working. 7
Had he intended Sutpen to be the protagonist, Faulkner was in command of an array of techniques that he could have adroitly employed to tell Sutpen’s simple, melodramatic story, to delineate its complex implications about the South, much more effectively. For instance, he could have used the omniscient point of view, getting into the perspectives of all the major characters; or he could have used third person, central intelligence point of view technique from Judith’s or Henry’s perspective; or he could have imagined a first person narration, with Judith or Henry as narrator, with one of Bon’s descendants as listener.
Who does tell the story and to whom? Faulkner uses the omniscient point of view, from which he tells the reader that Miss Rosa and Quentin’s father told Sutpen’s story to Quentin, who tells it to Shreve, who tells it back to Quentin. Why does Faulkner create Rosa and Quentin’s father as storytellers, since neither knows enough to tell the whole story? And why is Quentin necessary as a listener-storyteller since he knows only what they tell him and especially since his verbal responses seldom exceed “yes” and “no” and his mental responses do not directly express the effects of their storytelling upon his consciousness? The blunt question Faulkner deliberately poses for readers is this: What is Quentin doing in this novel?
We know that Faulkner had already told Sutpen’s story with two narrators like Quentin and Shreve in the short story “Evangeline,” written five years before Absalom. Both the basic “I” narrator and his friend who tells him parts of the story are keenly interested listeners who are motivated to seek answers to mysteries. By contrast, in the novel very little narrative evidence but all of the fiction techniques point to Quentin as Faulkner’s primary interest. There are two Faulkners in this novel, one the artist at work, the other Faulkner’s alter ego, given the name “Quentin.”
Faulkner implies that before chapter two begins, Quentin has told his father the story Miss Rosa told him, and he implies that before chapter six, Quentin has told Shreve the story of Miss Rosa. Faulkner renders Quentin’s telling a story only once, when he and Shreve are retelling Sutpen’s story together. The effect of this use of context and implication is only to suggest that Quentin is ostensibly the major storyteller, while providing the reader’s basic experience with Quentin as the Quentin who listens to stories.
The most pertinent way to show not only that Quentin is the protagonist but how he is the protagonist is to examine the techniques of the art of fiction that Faulkner employs in this novel and their effect on the reader. The techniques fiction writers use are in themselves expressions of meaning and conveyors to the reader of experience; that is true especially of innovative writers, and truest of Faulkner the innovator in this novel. One may see in Faulkner’s careful and full revisions the stress he placed on the use of innovative techniques that in themselves would express the emotional, imaginative, and intellectual meaning of the novel. 8 This novel is a veritable encyclopedia of innovative techniques and innovative use of conventional techniques. Gathering all the Quentin fiction around Absalom, Absalom will enable readers not only to understand Quentin and the works in which he figures, but to understand Faulkner’s innovative techniques as well, and that understanding would most probably make all his works far more accessible.
Faulkner’s overall technique is to combine innovative literary techniques with the dynamics of oral storytelling techniques to achieve the overall effect of a complex meditation, which the reader responding to implication must attribute to Quentin. The unique passiveness in Quentin’s character enables, perhaps forces Faulkner to achieve technical effects not otherwise possible, effects that constitute much of his greatness as an innovative literary artist.
The ideal reader for this novel will examine Faulkner’s use of the techniques of fiction to express his intentions. Just as readers may be aware of Faulkner’s literary techniques, even Quentin and the storytellers themselves are conscious of the techniques of storytelling that they use to affect their listeners. Quentin tells Shreve, “I reckon Grandfather was saying [to Sutpen] ‘Wait wait for God’s sake wait’ about like you are until he [Sutpen] finally did stop and back up and start over again with at least some regard for cause and effect even if none for logical sequence and continuity…telling it all over and still it was not absolutely clear” (199). By his use of techniques, such as metaphor, Faulkner teaches the reader how to read Absalom. “Maybe nothing ever happens once and is finished,” meditates Quentin. “Maybe happen is never once but like ripples maybe on water after the pebble sinks, the ripples moving on, spreading…” (210). Quentin’s metaphor alerts the reader to expect that the narrative events and other elements in this novel will not happen only once, but will be repeated in other forms, enhanced by Faulkner’s patterned and controlled repetition of motifs, metaphors, and phrases.
Only through an awareness of Faulkner’s artistry can the general reader feel the full impact and respond to the myriad implications of Quentin’s drama of consciousness. Faulkner’s ideal reader for this novel will become aware not just of his narrative strategy but of his use of the technique of point of view, a complicated mixture of omniscient, third person central intelligence, to use Henry James’ term, interior monologue, and four quoted first person narrations, with variations in style; his manipulation of shifting contexts to make simultaneous implications about Sutpen’s story and Quentin’s responses; his use of allusions to enrich the contexts; his use of transitions and lack of transitions in time and space, to disorient and reorient the reader and Quentin; his deliberately ambiguous and tormenting use of pronouns, especially “he,” “they,” and “it;” his use of the devices of incremental repetition, questions, digressions, interruptions, odd punctuation, long, complex parentheticals, long convoluted sentences, paragraphs as long as 8 pages, juxtapositions, expressionistic effects, irony, parallels, symbolism, and startling imagery.
All those techniques achieve a sense of simultaneity and inevitability that result in a unity so complex many readers and some critics do not fully comprehend it, partly because the techniques I have listed cause disorientation and dismay, as his first vital reader, his editor, lamented to Faulkner. 9 While all of his techniques serve the Sutpen story, they simultaneously serve the more important characterization, created mostly by context and implication, of Quentin, whose responses are often similar to the frustrated, irritated, gasping reader’s. Readers have asked, Why does Faulkner use such a vast array of techniques? Faulkner strives to create shifting, complex contexts within which to stimulate the reader’s mind with implications that express what cannot be directly expressed–as he knew from the limited effect of Quentin’s first person testimony in The Sound And The Fury and in “That Evening Sun,” published two years later—and simultaneously to explore, perhaps subconsciously, his own (Faulkner’s) psyche indirectly through Quentin’s implied psyche.
The ostensible Antebellum, Civil War, Reconstruction generic narrative of the stock character Sutpen becomes meaningful as a paradigm of the decline of the South not in itself, but mainly as fragmented and embedded in the neurotic, probably psychotic consciousness of Quentin. Sutpen’s story is an objective correlative of Quentin’s ineffable state of consciousness.
Faulkner’s achievement in this novel, as in all his best work, lies not in his having imagined the story of Thomas Sutpen but in his having imagined the techniques that innovatively render that story and its implications; and a unique achievement of this novel alone is that it is not mainly Faulkner’s character-narrative based imagination but his techniques that create Quentin Compson. The medium is the message.
Faulkner is interested in each of the characters, especially in listeners who become storytellers, but his identification with Quentin was essential to his being. Faulkner is Quentin, but he takes a major step further than focus on Quentin by delineating each of three other character’s immersion in Sutpen’s story, with the effect that the novel is more about each of the characters and about the process of their storytelling than it is about Sutpen himself. 10 But when we compare the centrality of Quentin as listener and storyteller with the other characters, we find that no potential for further development is active at the heart of Rosa’s story, because it is static and always was; Mr. Compson’s narrative is impersonal–he has no motive beyond a pure compulsion to tell stories, except for the weak inference that he aims to affect and teach Quentin; Shreve’s involvement is transitory. Southerners tell stories to teach and to create and sustain identity, especially as a post-war, Lost Cause ritual. Rosa and Quentin’s father say, in effect, “Quentin! Listen! So you can transmit it to our own kind, to your children!” But Quentin will have no children. Staring at his father’s letter about Rosa’s death, as if in a trance, he tells the story to a sardonic, northern foreigner, Shreve, as if to be overheard telling it to himself, a dramatic monologue that is simultaneously a soliloquy. He tells it to take possession of the story, to give himself a sense that he exists, that he is not himself a ghost engendered by the ghosts of the past, but finally, he tells it to rid himself of the burden of Southern history, which as one of the last of the Compson line, he feels, but by mere torpor does not accept. Nor does he accept the implied obligation to pass it on through the representative story of Sutpen. Quentin starts with no ostensible motive to tell, and ends with none, but the reader must infer his existential dilemma from the innovative techniques Faulkner employs.
As omniscient narrator unusual in the infrequency of his speaking, Faulkner meshes his own narration with each of the storytellers, who also have a kind of omniscience through overreaching imaginations, and Faulkner’s complex consciousness finally meshes with Quentin’s. Faulkner, a master of point of view technique, creates his most complex pattern in this novel. There are three elements: Faulkner’s omniscient voice, voices telling “old tales and talking” (243), and Quentin’s meditation voice. Within Faulkner’s omniscient point of view, the various storytellers tell their stories. As Faulkner moves from one to another, sometimes within only a few sentences, the very juxtaposition of one storyteller to another expresses some aspect of Quentin’s consciousness of storytellers and of times and places. Near the end of Chapter 8, for instance, three storytellers intersect and interact on a single page: Clytie, like a messenger in a Greek tragedy, describing Wash Jones’ slaughter of his granddaughter and his great granddaughter, and Sutpen, as retold by Quentin’s father, who imagines the missing parts, retold again by Quentin to Shreve, who interrupts, as told by Faulkner (233-34). Faulkner’s own infrequent narration almost always relates to Quentin, with the effect that the reader is always aware of the presence of the Faulkner-Quentin consciousness even as Miss Rosa, Jason, or Shreve are telling stories. The precept that the protagonist of every first person narrative is the narrator applies to each storyteller in this novel. Faulkner modifies that aesthetic so that the novel becomes essentially more about Quentin as the major listener than as storyteller.
“So they will have told you doubtless already” (107) is one of the phrases repeated to Quentin often. Subconsciously, Quentin is acutely aware of not just the listener-tellers Faulkner quotes, but of those people who are listeners only and even of tellers and listeners who are only implied in the novel: Charles Bon has told stories to his roommate Henry, Clytie has told Grandfather Compson a story, Grandfather Compson has told his son Jason a story—all those tellings are paraphrased by Miss Rosa and Jason, who tell the stories to Quentin, the all-encompassing listener. The reader must pay attention to Quentin and imagine the conscious and subconscious effects on Quentin of Shreve’s sardonic retelling of the Sutpen story. As these listener-storytellers talk, readers should be ever mindful, as Quentin is, of the always-hovering presence of those characters to whom Faulkner does not give a storytelling voice: Sutpen’s children, Judith and Henry, and those with black blood, Clytie and Bon, and that ever-present representative of the poor white trash from which Sutpen also sprang—Wash Jones. Faulkner does not directly give them storytelling voices because the technique of context and implication enables him to evoke their voices without quoting them.
Faulkner stresses the fact that each of the tellers of the Sutpen tale dwells upon fragments that reflect needs in their own lives: Rosa’s love for Sutpen, Quentin’s grandfather’s friendship with Sutpen, Sutpen’s own ego-centric story of himself as told to Grandfather Compson, Jason Compson’s desire to exhibit to his son Quentin his intellectual analysis of the Sutpen-Rosa story, and even the wise-cracking Northerner Shreve’s escalating exhilaration in retelling to Quentin the saga Quentin has just told him. The narrative logic of the Sutpen story as told by Rosa and Quentin’s father calls for a listener who can and does respond fully, interactively, and meaningfully as the telling progresses. But Quentin is as far from being that kind of listener as any Southern twenty year old could be. Through Quentin’s responses, and lack of responses, to the telling and the tale, Faulkner suggests to the reader the negative nature of the values of the world Sutpen and his witnesses represent. At no time does Quentin even hint that he derives any value on an exemplary level from what is being transmitted to him; he responds on a personal, subjective level to the stories he is told, affected most by parallels in his own life, mainly the relationship between himself and his sister Caddy, as seen in the brother-sister relationship of Henry Sutpen and Judith Sutpen, and, far less important, by parallels between the friendship of Henry and Charles Bon and the roommate relationship of Quentin and Shreve. Faulkner was once asked, “….how much can a reader feel that this is the Quentin, the same Quentin, who appeared in The Sound and the Fury—that is, a man thinking about his own Compson family, his own sister?” Faulkner replied, “To me he’s consistent. That he approached the Sutpen family with the same ophthalmia that he appreciated his own troubles….” 11
The legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction in the South today is expressed in the varied responses of individuals. Quentin Compson, the most passive of Sutpen’s vicarious witnesses, is the protagonist. The vigor of the transmission of the values of the Southern way of life, symbolized in Faulkner by high potency sexuality, mostly perverse in various ways, from generation to generation ends in Quentin’s implied impotence, which is not only sexual but intellectual. Faulkner dramatizes the fact that while the conventional Southern values, which coalesced in the issues and the warrior mentality of the Civil War, fail to produce creative acts in the lives of individual descendants, the legends do stimulate each individual listener’s imaginative participation, a value that transcends the ritual teaching function of the South’s past. For them the un-vicarious life is not worth living; at least they have that much of a life.
Storytelling inflames the imagination of the listener. Jason demonstrates that effect, saying often, “I imagine” (82, 85-87). But Quentin goes further and imaginatively becomes one of the characters with whom he most unconsciously identifies: Henry Sutpen. The image of Henry and Charles Bon “facing one another at the gate” triggers Quentin’s own vicarious response: “It seemed to Quentin that he could actually see them…” (105). A paradox in the power of the imagination is suggested when Faulkner as author says that Quentin “could see it; he might even have been there,” as Henry kissed his sister Judith before returning to war, but Quentin contradicts his creator, thinking, “No. If I had been there I could not have seen it this plain” (155). Even though he knows he has listened too long and too much, until he is not listening anymore, and has no desire to be a storyteller (280). Quentin responds to his Canadian roommate, Shreve, when he exhorts him to “tell about the South” (142). Quentin infects Shreve with “the virus of suggestion” (Henry James’ phrase). Shreve’s imagination is so activated that he re-imagines the story of Henry and Charles Bon, exploring possibilities, rendering the story even more ironic, that, for instance, Charles Bon saves the life of his brother Henry who later kills Charles Bon because he is his brother and Judith’s (237-38, 254, 275). Quentin tells the story to Shreve only to get rid of it by telling it as an act of betrayal to a cynical listener, who tells it back to him, ironically, in an empathy that is finally so profound, Quentin and Shreve together not only retell it in two voices as one voice, but imagine their counterparts, Henry Sutpen and Charles Bon so vividly that Quentin and Shreve feel they have become one, then they become Henry and Bon, “in the cold room …there was now not two of them but four,” so that Quentin and Shreve and Henry and his roommate Bon are “riding the two horses through the iron darkness” (236-37).
The inflamed imagination leaps into vicarious experience. Sutpen, Bon, and Henry enact a story—and Wash Jones violently ends it. Rosa, Jason, Quentin, Shreve, and Faulkner do not act—they listen to the story and retell it. Faulkner sustains vicarious experience as a major motif. All the storytellers to whom he listens are people whose lives are intensely vicarious, so that Quentin the listener is a captive of the vicariousness of others. The South that Quentin knows through storytellers has, ever since defeat in the Civil War, been living vicariously at a level that threatens sanity, and Quentin symbolizes the product of that quality in the south—the inflamed imagination in an action vacuum. “But you were not listening,” Quentin tells himself, in one of his meditation passages, “because you knew it all already, had…absorbed it already without the medium of speech somehow from having been born and living beside it, with it…” (172). But in the telling, the lives of others seem, compared with his own, very compelling: the lives of Henry and Judith, especially, but even Miss Rosa’s and his father’s. Jason tells Quentin that Judith and Henry were a “single personality with two bodies both of which had been seduced almost simultaneously by a man [Charles Bon] whom at the time Judith had never even seen” (73), knew only through her brother’s stories. Judith communes with her dead lover Bon through his son by another woman, taking care of him, and when Judith dies Clytie lives vicariously through the same boy, raising him. From the same class as Sutpen, Wash Jones vicariously lives the dream of wealth through Sutpen. After the war, Wash meets the returning hero at the gate, “Well, Kernel, they kilt us but they aint whupped us yit, air they?” (150). Unlike Quentin and the others, Wash Jones, who has lived vicariously through his hero Sutpen, finally commits a real act, but out of the kind of past he has vicariously lived, he can act only in violence.
Every non-reality quality in the other non-active characters is paralleled in Quentin, usually to a greater degree: meditation, imagination, passivity, accede (torpor, inaction). As he listens to stories about Sutpen and other men of action all his life told by numerous people, Quentin becomes aware that he has no life of action. Unlike Jack Burden in All the King’s Men, he does not touch the web in such a way as to cause others to touch it. The kind of storytelling and listening process Faulkner presents is a form of meditation, but the only literal mediation to which he gives the reader access is Quentin’s. 12 Faulkner is interested less in the drama of action than in the drama of human consciousness. By the end, Quentin has turned even more inward (and will finally turn against himself). Even his imagination and his meditations are limited, narrow in scope, and fail to result in a compulsion to tell stories as a means of perpetuating the past and maintaining a sense of community.
Myriad voices speak obsessively to Quentin about his legacy, the epic story of the settling of his home region, and the lingering effects of the war fought to preserve that way of life. But Quentin brings to his reluctant listening to those voices his own private sexual feelings about Caddy, delineated in The Sound and The Fury and, as a submerged psychological process, in “That Evening Sun,” in which again Quentin, not Nancy, is the protagonist. Joseph Blotner quotes Faulkner as saying that Quentin in Absalom, Absalom! listens to the story of the brother and sister, Henry and Judith Sutpen, as a bitter parallel to his own incestuous longings for his sister Caddy and his own bitter failure to protect his sister’s honor. 13 Similarly, in “That Evening Sun,” Quentin, who does not act, who only listens, is listening most attentively to Caddy’s questions that relate to sex. The effect of Faulkner’s technique of implication from shifting contexts in the various works featuring Quentin may culminate in the general implication that Quentin kills himself in The Sound and The Fury not so much out of guilt for merely desiring his own sister as out of a profound apprehending of the fact that he exists intensely only when he responds in amazement and bewilderment to the tales people tell him about people who are, compared with himself, very much alive. His is a purely existential dilemma, as posed by Kierkegaard in The Sickness Unto Death, Martin Heidegger in Existence and Being, Rollo May in The Meaning of Anxiety, Jean-Paul Sartre in Being and Nothingness and in Nausea, Albert Camus The Stranger, and Katherine Ann Porter in “Flowering Judas.” Quentin is far less active, less questing than even the narrators in the Sartre and Camus novels and his accede, a mortal sin in the Catholic Church, is more severe than Laura’s in Katherine Anne Porter’s “Flowering Judas.”
We know that the storyteller’s need to identify a personal parallel among the characters in the stories is most acute in Quentin (who “becomes” Henry) because Faulkner implies the need, rather than letting Quentin directly state it, but his need is so great that the active vicarious imagination can not save him. Quentin’s need is the basic need to be, and his basic dilemma the anxiety that emanates from the inability to be. If existence precedes essence, Quentin’s sense of his own existence is such that essence can hardly flow from it. Existential psychologist Rollo May defines anxiety as “the experience of the threat of imminent non-being. Anxiety is the subjective state of the individual’s becoming aware that his existence can become destroyed, that he can lose himself and his world, that he can become ‘nothing’…. anxiety overwhelms the person’s awareness of existence, blots out the sense of time, dulls the memory of the past, and erases the future…it attacks the center of one’s being…. Anxiety is ontological, fear is not. Anxiety always involves inner conflict…. Ontological guilt ‘arises’ from forfeiting one’s own potentialities.” 14 Miss Rosa, his father, and others fervently tell Quentin stories about people who have lived fervently on a level of action; Quentin, even considering that he is young, has no life of action himself about which anybody could fervently tell a story. Even fervently telling a story is an action, but Quentin himself tells the Rosa-Sutpen story to Shreve in a kind of bewildered, impotent, static voice that Faulkner gives us in a controlled series of fragments. Far from motivating him to live a life of action that might embody the values of the Old South, both the tellers and the tales only make Quentin aware of how empty his own life and consciousness are. Quentin is passionate only in the last line, as Meursault is passionate, yelling at the priest, only at the end of The Stranger. When Shreve asks Quentin, “Why do you hate the South?” Quentin’s hysterically anguished denial, “ I dont hate it!” is true. His existential dilemma is that, having a self so famished, he doesn’t even hate himself.
In Absalom, his father, Miss Rosa, and others offer family and public history for their own varied reasons, but they provide a way for Quentin to transcend his subjective sexual impotence and his emotional, imaginative, and intellectual paralysis. Given Quentin’s inability to respond as an active receiver of the legacy, Faulkner implies that Quentin’s dilemma is deeper than incestuous longing, that it is the existential dilemma of being and nothingness. Quentin is now and always has been a shadow verging on nothingness, amazed and anguished at the spectacle of richer lives of action or of active preservers of the lives of more active people of the historical past. Quentin, who ends in suicide, helps us see why Faulkner himself, who in life merely posed as a warrior and man of action, who may have considered suicide, turned to creative re-creation, with war and its aftermath as the human action with the greatest range of possibilities in life and in literature. Meditating on Quentin, my student Melissa Wilkinson, in a moment of intellectual ecstasy, exclaimed, “It’s wonderful that Faulkner could make so much out of nothing.”
Many critics see Quentin as Faulkner’s alter ego, his most autobiographical character. 15 Quentin was one of his favorite characters. He might have said, “Quentin c’est moi!” If a writer’s life is most truly expressed in the subjective act of creation, rather than in a recital of external events, Absalom, Absalom! is Faulkner’s autobiography as a person via Quentin and as an artist at work creating Quentin. Paradoxically, Quentin’s narrow, single-minded consciousness is at the center of Faulkner’s myriad-minded consciousness.
Quentin is listening, subconsciously, on the deepest level, deeper than the Henry-Judith incest implication, listening to the basic meaning of Sutpen’s design, which is a calculated effort by the boy Sutpen to exist by having the mansion and all that went with a plantation way of life, because turned away from the front door of the mansion, the boy had an intuition of existential anxiety, the fear of nonbeing. Sutpen’s design ends in catastrophe, maybe a suicidal overreaching. As both reader and Quentin listen to the Sutpen stories, Faulkner enables us to imagine Quentin’s thoughts and emotions.
Faulkner, I imagine, and Sutpen felt the same anxiety but Sutpen distracted himself by building an empire, which failed him and his community; Faulkner distracted himself from anxiety by creating his Yoknapawtapha saga which, as a work of art that triumphs like Keats’s urn, did not fail him and will not fail his readers, if they work with him as his collaborators by responding not only to the surface complications but to the implications that the shifting contexts generate. Faulkner’s ideal reader will then feel unbearable pathos for Quentin in ways no other novel can stimulate.
Poem X in Faulkner’s A Green Bough has been referred to as “Twilight,” an apt title for Faulkner’s meditation on the Quentin beneath the line by line surface of the novel:
A terrific figure on an urn—
…caught between his two horizons,
Forgetting that he cant return. 16
This an allusion to the town emptied of its folk in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
And Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “From Childhood’s Hour” evokes a sense of Quentin’s life:
From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were:
I have not seen as others saw:
I could not bring
My passion from a common spring…
And all I loved, I loved alone.
Then—in my childhood…was drawn
The mystery which binds me still…
From the cloud that took the form
Of a demon in my view. 17
For Quentin, the demon is not Sutpen, whom others called demon, but the spot of grease on the road where Quentin merely wished he could have more fully existed.
1. Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1935), 22.
2. Faulkner in the University, ed. Frederick L. Gwynn and Joseph L. Blotner (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1959), 6, 263. Faulkner describes Caddy and her relationship with Quentin.
3. [I CANNOT FIND THE CITATION. PERHAPS IT IS NOT NECESSARY. PERHAPS CUT THE LINE.]
4. Faulkner disagrees, while stressing Quentin’s importance. The argument may proceed not only from the author’s intent in the novel but from its effect. Faulkner in the University, 71, 274-75.
5. One of the most recent examples is Dirk Kuyk, Jr., Sutpen’s Design: Interpreting Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1990). Cleanth Brooks is an earlier, salient example, even though he understood, as a New Critic, how point of view expresses essence in a work of fiction: William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1963 ), 295-324. See also his “Appendix B: Notes to Absalom, Absalom!” in Twentieth Century Interpretations of Absalom, Absalom!, ed. Arnold Goldman (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971), 107-113. In most of the essays in that collection, the emphasis is upon the importance of the Sutpen story, with no stress on its effect upon Quentin.
6. William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (New York: Vintage International-Vintage Books, 1936), corrected text, 1986, ed. Noel Polk, 166.
7. Cleanth Brooks is again a major example: “All the information the reader has comes through Quentin directly or through Quentin’s conversations.” Brooks fails to call attention to the omniscient narrator of the entire novel, Faulkner himself. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Absalom, Absalom!, 107. In the same volume, Thomas E. Connolly instructs us that “Quentin” is “the principal narrator.” Also in that volume, Richard Poirier says much the same thing (12-13). This misunderstanding is frequently repeated elsewhere. Ambiguity may be the culprit. To distinguish between Faulkner as authorial narrator and the characters he quotes telling old tales and talking, one should use the term “storyteller” for Quentin and others.
8. Gerald Langford, Absalom, Absalom! (Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1971). See his introduction.
9. Joseph Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography, 1 vol. (New York: Random House, 1984), 348.
10. Langford, 3.
11. Faulkner in the University, 274.
12. Absalom, Absalom! A good example begins on 148.
13. Blotner, 348-9.
14. Existence: A New Dimension in Psychiatry and Psychology (New York: Basic Books, 1958), eds. Rollo May, Ernest Angel and Henri F. Ellenberger, 50-54.
15. Among those critics who deal extensively with this question are John T. Irwin, Doubling and Incest: Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975); Estella Schoenberg, Old Tales and Talking: Quentin Compson in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and Related Works (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1977); Michael Grimwood, Heart in Conflict: Faulkner’s Struggles with Vocation (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1987). In Critical Essays on William Faulkner: The Compson Family (Boston: G. K. Hall and Company, 1982), edited by Arthur F. Kinney, several of the contributors take up the question. An interesting revelation of Faulkner’s identification with Quentin is the fact that “he told Joan [Williams] to send her letters to Quentin Compson, General Delivery, in Oxford….” Blotner, 520.
16. The Marble Faun and A Green Bough (New York: Random House, nd.) facsimile reprint, 30.
17. The Portable Poe (New York: The Viking Press, 1945), 637-8.