Stories, legends, mythologies; retellings of tales or recountings of actual events; historical fiction, fantasy, literary fiction, sci-fi… all have their origins in an original and real moment in time. It could be as far back as Biblical history or Gilgamesh, where an actual flood was likely recounted from generation to generation until it appeared as a story about God’s wrath. It could be as recent as a film like Parasite where the characters are based on citizens facing similar societal issues, or of another film like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood… where the plot is an altered version of historical events. In William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, we see how these stories are told through generations, how opinions, fabrications, and hypotheses can change the story or reveal new facets, can entertain or incite fear, can lead to lessons or to obsession and madness.
It opens like Greek myth, but not like the highly detailed as in Homer or Herodotus. It’s more akin to Hesiod’s Theogeny, where events are told from start to finish as if the audience already knows the specific mythos and only an outline is needed. We hear of a brother murdering a brother but don’t know why or barely even who these brothers are; we hear about a monstrous man named Thomas Sutpen and hate him, yet the reasons we hate him are not entirely clear. And then each subsequent chapter comes on, dialing into one of the specific outlined moments that was touched on in chapter one like Aeschylus diving deeper into the characters of The Orestia.
Then come the storytellers themselves. We have a scene of Sutpen himself telling Quentin’s grandfather his own story which mimics a first-hand account of a real historical event. There is Mrs. Rosa telling Quentin, but while she was there to experience some of it, much gets clouded by her intense and possibly biased hatred towards Sutpen. we have Quentin’s father telling Quentin what the grandfather told him, a purely second-hand account – the first true passing down of the story that we see. And then finally we have Quentin telling Shreve, which not only serves as the passing of the story into permanent myth, but as fiction as well, where they seek to imagine some of the moments of the story that no one but the now-deceased characters within the story would have known.
Faulkner himself is also a storyteller and uses the story not just to tell a tale like the characters in his novel did, but to teach us how stories are formed, how to be critical of the information we hear from biased accounts – to also revel in those fictional accounts, to learn why stories, whether true or false, are so important to the human experience. He shows how our understanding of history is more fictional than we believed. History is written by those who survive it and, Sutpen’s story ending as a tragedy, it is passed down by those who only saw bits and pieces. Just like that, so many historical events that we view as fact may only be snippets of the truth. And just like that, our opinions on a person may only be so because of the person who originally passed it down.
Faulkner, as he does in every novel, seeks answers about The South. He wants to understand where the bigotry (his own bigotry included) comes from. Where does the hatred originate? Why is the inequality between man and woman present? Does the white man’s hatred towards the black man lead to self-hatred in one or both parties? When does this end? At 1/8th blood? 1/16th? Or is it perpetual for as long as we know about it?
Sutpen himself was born into a poor family in a very rural area of the South with only white Southerners present. As his family moves further towards the cities for work, he sees the first black man he has laid eyes on – a slave, but dressed in finer clothes than he or his family has ever owned let alone seen. He knows the man is worse off than him as a slave, but also lives in a grander home and has far better clothes, food, and quarters. The man is even able to send Sutpen away, shamefully, from the front door. Does Supten thus view these black men as equal to him, or maybe just not as horrible as others view them? When we first see him, he does own slaves but doesn’t abuse them as other slaveowners do, and even works alongside them. He hosts fights for them and himself joins in as if he is filled with a form of shame. What it seems is that Sutpen does not see himself as above the black man, yet is still willing to utilize their place in society for his own purpose – the idea which kept slavery alive for so long.
There is also the self-hatred we see Charles Bon and his lineage exhibit. Bon feels rejected as a black man. He learns his father developed his life plan around a son, yet due to the fact that he is just a fraction black, he was rejected outright. Bon’s son, Charles Etienne de Saint-Valery Bon, sees what society has set out for him from the get-go. He rejects himself from the moment he realizes he is black, and despite his hatred towards the black race, he marries a black woman as, the way he sees it, a self-inflicted punishment. Finally, out of this lineage comes Jim Bond who, according to Shreve, will one day be the ancestor to those who rule the world. He is a mentally deficient black man who is the only surviving heir of the Sutpen bloodline. Despite Sutpen’s apparent ambivalence towards racial superiority, it has still led to this hopeless character – beaten down and screaming as he watches his world burn.
And the South? How can it survive like this? What is Sutpen’s estate if not a representation of the South, and his master plan if not that of white man’s ideals? He has built this world for himself using the marginalized parts of society to do the dirty work. No, he did not find himself superior to them as we understand it, yet it doesn’t change the fact that as a white man he had the ability and privilege to create a kingdom from the suffering of others. In the end, that estate will always burn. It is an impossibly cruel world with no chance at survival. And in the world we readers live in, where we are told glorifying stories about our country or tradition or leaders, Faulkner is telling us to be skeptical of who is telling the story and to think about what the foundation was built on.
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