Absalom, Absalom (1936) is one of the greatest masterpieces of William Faulkner (1897-1962), one of the Nobel-Laureate (1949) novelists in the history of American fiction. A few of his great novels are The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930) and Light in August (1932). It is generally accepted that William Faulkner dealt with the historical tragedy of the South, the fall of the South. Absalom, Absalom, a novel in the same vein, is a tragic tale of the central protagonist Thomas Sutpen, who rose up to higher position of success from zero but met his catastrophic doom that he failed to stop or resist despite his indomitable courage, hardihood and stamina. Hence the curious search as to who or what was responsible for Thomas Sutpen's doom.
In the plot of the novel we see Thomas Sutpen emerged out of unknown origin though it was heard like a legend that he came to Jefferson (the locale of the novel) from West Virginia and occupied a huge plot of land of one hundred acres and erected his castle "the Sutpen Hundred". He went to (Haiti) West Indies and worked at plantations, got married to a Negro slave (Eulalia Bon) and got a son (Charles Bon). But later he left the wife and the son for whom he handed over all his money there. Now in Jefferson, Mississippi Sutpen forcefully married Ellen Coldfield as she was the daughter of a respectable (but poor) family by virtue of which he could build up and retain his social respect. The only mission Sutpen had was money and men (sons) so that he could ascertain his position in the society. They got their eldest son Henry Sutpen and the daughter Judith. But Judith and Charles Bon fell in love while Bon came to visit The Hundred on Henry's invitation on a Christmas vacation from University of Mississippi where they studied together.
The crisis in The Sutpen Hundred boomed when Charles Bon proposed for marriage with Judith. Thomas Sutpen vehemently protested the proposal since Charles Bon was half-brother to both Henry and Judith. In addition, it would be a case of blatant incest. So, Henry Sutpen was convinced by Thomas Sutpen and he brutally killed Charles Bon who - it was argued that he carried one-eighth portion of Negro blood in his vein - could not marry Judith.
In the last event The Hundred was set on fire and demolished to the ground by Clyte (Clytemnestra) a Negro daughter by Sutpen died. We know that Clyte was another of Sutpen's daughter child by a Negro slave in West Indies, who was being raised in the Hundred but not given the due recognition and status: she was kept as a subservient to Henry and Judith. Thus the summation of the tale is that Sutpen failed to reach his dream of success with money and social eminence. His physical stamina and muscle-power could not win him his dream because his efforts lacked the divine essence of honest dedication; instead he applied his savage strength in brutal fashion all through.
Thomas Sutpen was suffering from both racism and libido. And both these focres brought about his tragic end. Racism was greatly responsible for Thomas Sutpen's catastrophe because racial hatred was the first element that poisoned his essential character; he took the risky and adventurous career in Haiti, West Indies only to establish for himself and display for his fellow Americans that he could achieve the high status. He abandoned Eulalia Bon and Charles Bon outrageously only because Eulalia Bon was an octoroon.
Not only that, gradually he became stubbornly revengeful in nature. The poison of racialism caused Thomas Sutpen's character more atrocious, cynical and tyrannical. Out of such ingrained brutality and hatred he abandoned Charles Bon and his Negro mother. Sutpen's racial pride and racial hatred operated in his soul all through his life. His ignored his son Charles Bon, the title character Absalom. (We know that Absalom was the illegitimate son of King David as recorded in the Bible, whom the father did not award recognition, rather got him killed by his men). In this context we may guess that the novelist brought the character Clytemnestra (Clyte) because Clytemnestra is a legendary character in Homer's epic Iliad where she killed her husband Agamemnon for bringing Cassandra from Troy after the fall of Troy; Clytemnestra was a legendary avenger, a total destroyer).
We also notice that Henry Sutpen was a racist: he did not accept his half-brother Charles Bon; rather out of vehement hatred killed him. Here in the novel the racial problem in the South was one of the major social issues that the novelist dealt with in his novels.
Thomas Sutpen's strong opposition to Judith's marriage with Charles Bon stood on the ground of misogyny too. The conflict between the Black and the White, which was a concrete social reality, has been demonstrated through Thomas Sutpen's blatant repudiation of his West Indian Negro wife and her son Charles Bon. There was another glaring instance of Surpen's racialism: it was the enormous and deliberate neglect done of Clyte. The blatant repudiation of Clyte by the entire Sutpen clan displays their stark racialist character. The only exception was Rosa Coldfield who tacitly recognized Clyte (though, of course, she Thomas Sutpen's was all a sick family; there was incest between Henry and Judith too; and that is why Henry strongly supported Judith's marriage with Bon. He cared a little for the stigma of misogyny as he justified that during the war (the Civil War) such a matter was simply trifle. In addition, there was incest between Rosa Coldfield and Thomas Sutpen that inspired and motivated Sutpen to advance with a marriage proposal to Rosa. It was that Rosa Coldfield who was driven out of the Hundred and she been waiting for the moment for a due revenge against Sutpen. It was Rosa Coldfield who initiated Compson to tell the story about Sutpen and reached at the Hundred at the last moment when the castle was set on fire. Rosa was simply happy to find Sutpen's Hundred burnt and demolished after Sutpen was killed by Wash Jones. Absalom, Absalom is a tale of revenge: Thomas Sutpen's destruction therefore can be attributed to the action of revenge. There were three avengers: Rosa Coldfield, Wash Jones and Clytemnestra. It can be said that the seeds of destruction were sown by Sutpen himself.
It was a long-burnt spirit of revenge that was spurning in Rosa Coldfield; she could never forget the brutal treatment her sister Ellen Coldfield was paid; nor could she accommodate the pains she was given by Sutpen who drove her out of the Hundred for no known cause. So she was counting her days for revenge, Wash Jones' complaint was the murder of Millie, his beloved innocent grand-daughter who was murdered by Sutpen. Clyte had been burning with the fire of neglect added to her sincere claim for recognition as Charles Bon had been. In all these three cases it was solely Sutpen's responsibility to rectify, compromise and conciliate with the grievances of the parties. But he was just callous and apathetic that eventuated into his doom. He failed to modify himself by crushing his ego-centric impulses.
It appears that the greatest foe was his ingrained libido: excess of lustfulness. His first marriage with Eulolia Bon testifies his carnal thirst that was satisfied by producing Charles Bon But his brutality is exposed when he left the wife and the son without caring of their future. His second marriage with Ellen Coldfield was an act done by coercion in which Ellen had no consent. Later she was tormented in the Hundred and finally driven out. His third marriage with Rosa Coldfield was another outrageous act that ended in the same atrocious fashion as was done for Ellen Coldfield. Finally his forceful and exploitative marriage with Millie was the climax of his atrocities that he concluded after killing her along with the girl-child.
His excessive lustfulness, racial hatred and rude lawlessness are some blatant causes. Anarchic and morally despotic Sutpen took it for granted that he could do anything and everything by money; he brought the French architect and forced him to build the Hundred though the architect tried to run away from his clutch. He had no Christian cult in him: he attended the church only three times in his life. But he intruded into the Coldfield family like a wild storm and ruffled down the whole set up. Critics commented that the destruction of the Coldfiend family was indicative of the defeat of the south.
Sutpen was a degraded rough-neck, a boorish character whose savagery knew no bounds. He occupied the vast track of one hundred acres of land nobody knew how. The townsfolk learnt at surprise that Sutpen was the master of the territory: everybody saw that he appeared there only on a horse-back with a pistol in hand, with no civil get up. Rosa Coldfiled once said that Sutpen was a "devil djin". So his catastrophic end was a poetic justice, a foregone conclusion. We see that Thomas Sutpen was a Faustian soul who aimed to capture the whole world and bring under his boots only by muscular force without any moral adjudication.
Many critics (like Donald Pfizer) remarked that the immorality of the south (indicated by figures like Thomas Sutpen) was the basic reason of the historical fall of the South. In support of this view we may argue that William Faulkner delivered the saga of the South in reply to Shreive McCannon, a Canadian who asked Compson: "What is the South like? What do people do there? Why do people live there at all?" The saga of Thomas Sutpen is virtually the tragic depiction of the reply that embodied the combination of fact and fiction to end up in superb aesthetic height.
The writer is Professor, Department of English, Daffodil International University, Dhaka