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Absalom, Absalom!

The Sound and the Fury, Chance

sutpen novel faulkner story

a novel by William Faulkner, published in 1936. The story, which centres on the rise and fall of Thomas Sutpen, begins in 1833 when Sutpen arrives in Jefferson, Mississippi, having left his home state of West Virginia and settled in Haiti where he married a planter's daughter, Eulalia Bon. By Eulalia he had a son, Charles Bon, but on his discovering Eulalia's black ancestry both she and the son were abandoned. Sutpen begins to establish himself in Jefferson, acquires an estate, builds a mansion (designed by a French architect), marries the daughter of a respectable Southern family, by whom he has two children, Judith and Henry, and is made a Colonel in Jefferson's regiment during the Civil War. He returns from the war to find his plantation in ruins and to discover that Charles Bon has been murdered by his half-brother, Henry, who has sought to prevent the miscegenation that would ensue were Charles to marry Judith, as had been his intention. Henry disappears and Sutpen, who still seeks an heir, seduces Milly Jones, the granddaughter of Wash Jones, a squatter on his land. Milly bears him a daughter, but not a son, and when Sutpen disowns both Milly and his illegitimate daughter Wash Jones murders him. Sutpen's estate is left to Clytie (Clytemnestra), his daughter by a mulatto slave, and it is she who, at the end of the novel, sets fire to Sutpen's house, killing both herself and Sutpen's son Henry and thus bringing the tragedy to its end; all that remains of the Sutpen dynasty is Jim Bond, an idiot, Sutpen's only living descendant, howling in the ashes of the burned house.

The story is possibly the most melodramatic in all of Faulkner's fiction but the interest of the novel lies very much in the intricate manner in which it is told. It is constructed through the accounts of three narrators: Miss Rosa Coldfield, Sutpen's sister-in-law, tells the story to Quentin Compson, a character from an earlier Faulkner novel, The Sound and the Fury (1929), before his departure for Harvard University; Rosa's story is supplemented by information provided by Quentin's father, Jason Compson III; and Quentin, in turn, tells the story to Shrevelin McCannon, his Canadian room-mate at Harvard. There is no reliable narrator and the reader has to piece the narrative together from incomplete and subjective accounts of Sutpen's rise and fall. The novel has been considered the most ‘Conradian’ of Faulkner's major works, the resemblances in fictional technique to Conrad's novel Chance (1914) being particularly striking. See Faulkner's ‘Absalom, Absalom!’: A Critical Casebook (1984), edited by Elizabeth Muhlenfeld.

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