Absalom, Absalom! / William Faulkner

When it comes to writers who mastered the art of Southern Gothic literature, William Faulkner is often the first name that comes to mind. In Absalom, Absalom!, a novel first published in1936, he is clearly at the top of his game. The plot could easily be explained in a paragraph or two. But thanks to Faulkner’s teasing out the history of the Sutpen family in bits and pieces and allowing different narrators to provide their take on the story, the puzzle he presents is slow to fit together on the page. Like peeling away an onion, the core of the story is revealed only in the final chapter.

Set in Jefferson, Mississippi in the decades surrounding the Civil War, the novel details the rise and fall of Thomas Sutpen, a proud white man born into abject poverty in western Virginia. Escaping to the French West Indies as a teenager, he has only one aim in life, to seek his fortune no matter what the means. Once there, he becomes an overseer on a plantation and later takes part in subduing a slave uprising. Afterwards, thanks to his heroics, he is allowed to marry the plantation owner’s daughter and she bears him a son. But he has the marriage declared void when he learns his wife is of mixed race.

He then travels to Jefferson, intent on building an opulent mansion which becomes know as “Sutpen’s Hundred.” To do so, he brings in slaves and a French architect whom he has somehow coerced into spending years building it from the ground up. Sutpen is driven not only to live as the wealthy do, he intends to become the head of a family dynasty. That means finding a suitable wife; love does not enter into the equation at all. And he succeeds, marrying Ellen Coldfield, the daughter of a local merchant. Over the years, she fulfills his dream by giving birth to two children, a son and a daughter.

Since the delight of this novel comes from the careful unraveling of the Sutpen family’s histories, I will not give away too much here. Suffice it to say, Sutpen’s first marriage comes back to haunt his second. Faulkner’s intent is to use this family as a means of recreating the zeitgeist of the South during this period. The themes of incest and miscegenation play a big role in the tangled web that the author cleverly unravels.

What makes this book so special, though, is not simply the story that Faulkner shares with the reader. From the very first page, one becomes aware this is no ordinary novel. Faulkner is a writer’s writer. His prose is rich and complex, and reading a handful of pages is like consuming a full course meal. It is not a book one can hurry through; it requires the reader’s entire concentration. As a youth, I found his use of language too big a challenge to work my way through. But as an adult, I was able to comprehend and savor the richness of his prose. With its biblical Old Testament feel, reading Absalom, Absalom! introduced me to a true classic that has stood the test of time.

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