The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of three of William Faulkner’s greatest novels: The Sound and the Fury
, As I Lay Dying
, and Absalom, Absalom!
We hope that they will provide you with new ways of thinking and talking about three works that stand as major landmarks in the history of modern American literature, works that exemplify Faulkner’s bold stylistic and formal innovations, his creation of unforgettably powerful voices and characters, and his brilliant insight into the psychological, economic, and social realities of life in the South in the transition from the Civil War to the modern era. In their intellectual and aesthetic richness, these novels raise nearly endless possibilities for discussion. The questions below will necessarily be limited and are meant to open several, but certainly not all, areas of inquiry for your reading group.
When he completed Absalom, Absalom!
in May 1936, Faulkner said, “I think it’s the best novel yet written by an American.” He described it as “the story of a man who wanted a son through pride, and got too many of them and they destroyed him.” It is the epic tale of Thomas Sutpen, who grows up as a dirt-poor boy in backwoods Appalachia and has his first glimpse of social hierarchy when his family moves to a plantation in Tidewater Virginia. One day he goes to the mansion’s front door, carrying a message, and is told by a slave wearing the master’s livery that he must go around to the back door. This experience has a searing effect on the boy’s consciousness. From that moment forward, he sets in motion his grand design: to become, at any cost, a man of wealth and power. He goes to colonial Haiti and marries the daughter of a plantation owner he has saved from death during the slave revolt there, but he abandons his wife and newborn son, Charles Bon, when he learns that his wife has a strain of Negro blood. In 1833 he arrives in Mississippi with a gang of Haitian slaves, cheats a Chickasaw Indian out of a hundred square miles of land, and begins with a ruthless and fanatical determination to build a mansion in the wilderness, to carve out a plantation, to gather wealth, to acquire a second wife and forge a dynasty that will carry on his name. But the son he left behind returns to haunt him. At the university Charles Bon becomes the best friend of Henry, the son of Sutpen’s second marriage, and eventually Henry kills Charles in order to prevent him from marrying their sister Judith. Henry repudiates his father and flees; ultimately Sutpen, with his plantation in ruins after the Civil War, is reduced to selling trinkets in a backwoods general store. After his plan to breed yet a third family with the sister of his dead wife fails, Sutpen impregnates the teenage daughter of a poor white man, who kills him with a scythe when he insults the girl because she has given birth to a daughter. In an ironic coda to Sutpen’s dream of dynastic grandeur, the only descendant who survives to carry on the Sutpen blood is the grandson of Charles Bon, another of Faulkner’s “idiots.”
While it is the most challenging of Faulkner’s works, Absalom, Absalom!
also contains the most mature and profound examination of his greatest themes: the South’s mixture of horror and pride in its own history, the interrelationship of incest and miscegenation, the tragic legacy of slavery, and, as always at the heart of it all, the family drama.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Any reader bewildered by the opening pages of Absalom, Absalom! will realize immediately that its greatest challenge lies in its complex narrative structure, and as with The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, you must learn how to read it as you go. How many narrators are there, and what is their relationship to one another? What are the sources of their authority as tellers of the Sutpen story? What, so far as you can make out, “happened,” as opposed to what is conjectured by the various narrators? Why might Faulkner have chosen such a challenging narrative form, despite the difficulties it presents for his readers?
2. At the center of the novel is the gigantic figure of Sutpen–a man who drives himself to extraordinary lengths in the pursuit of his “design.” Sutpen means different things to different people: to Rosa, he is a monster, but one she would have married, whereas to Colonel Compson, he is a human being with sympathetic characteristics. How does your view of Sutpen change as the web of his story emerges? How do you come away from the novel feeling about him? Is he evil? innocent? superhuman? mad? heroic? Does Sutpen’s history, which he has told to Colonel Compson, justify his behavior?
3. Why do the various tellers of the story interpret and embroider the tale so differently? What is Faulkner telling us about the human need to order and interpret the past? How does each teller affect your response? Whose version of events do you find most attractive, most compelling? Whose version makes most sense to you? Is “truth” largely irrelevant?
4. Faulkner’s original title for the novel was “Dark House,” and as in much of his work, we see in Absalom, Absalom! strong elements of the gothic literary convention: a ruined and possibly haunted house, a demonic hero, family secrets, hints of incest, a melodramatic plot, an overwhelming mood of decadence and decay. Yet in its depth and intensity, the novel clearly transcends the often trivial melodrama of much gothic fiction. How does Faulkner’s use of gothic elements contribute to the novel’s dramatic effect?
5. Consider Faulkner’s brilliant development of the character of Charles Bon, the son that Sutpen has cast off. In both Quentin and Shreve’s retelling and in Miss Rosa’s, he is a figure of romance, while in Mr. Compson’s version he is an opportunist, using both Judith and Henry to revenge himself upon his father. Which of these perspectives is more satisfying to you, and why? Why is the element of doubt about Bon’s motivation–even about the extent of his knowledge about his origin–so crucial to Faulkner’s plan?
6. The book’s title is taken from the biblical story of Absalom, son of King David, told in the second book of Samuel–a dynastic tale of incest, rebellion, revenge, and violent death. How is your perspective on the novel enlarged after reading the Absalom story? How does the biblical tale inflect the novel’s themes of incest, dynastic hopes and failures, rivalry between father and son? How does David’s grief at the death of Absalom (2 Samuel 18:33) compare with Thomas Sutpen’s seeming lack of feeling for his sons–or for anyone else?
7. Charles Bon is at heart of the incest plot, and it is the dual threat of incest and miscegenation that ruins Sutpen’s great design. How do incest and miscegenation mirror each other? What is it that makes these two forms of mixing blood–endogamy and exogamy–so taboo? Do you agree that it is the thought of miscegenation, rather than incest, that Henry can’t endure? Why do rage, self-loathing, and masochism play such a large role in the stories of Charles Bon’s two direct descendants, Charles Etienne St. Valery Bon and Jim Bond?
8. What do you think of Mr. Compson’s theory of the incestuous triad formed by Henry, Bon, and Judith, described as follows: “The brother…taking that virginity in the person of the brother-in-law, the man whom he would be if he could become, metamorphose into, the lover, the husband; by whom he would be despoiled, choose for despoiler, if he could become, metamorphose into the sister, the mistress, the bride” [p. 77]? Does Faulkner assume that a strong incestuous component is part of the psychology of every family? Or only of extremely unusual families like the Sutpens?
9. The concept of racial hierarchy is at odds with the domestic intimacy in which blacks and whites lived together in the South. During the Civil War, Judith, Clytie, and Rosa live together as sisters, eating the same food, working side by side. But when Rosa returns to the house in 1909, she warns Clytie not to touch her: “Let flesh touch with flesh, and watch the fall of all the eggshell shibboleth of caste and color too” [p. 112]. How does the novel expose the mental convolutions by which people tried to maintain the notion of an essential difference–a species difference–between black skin and white, even among members of the same family? What, in these circumstances, do you think of Clytie’s loyalty and her efforts to protect Henry?
10. To what degree do you see the self-destructiveness displayed by just about all of the figures in this novel as Faulkner’s deliberate allegory of the South?
11. Many critics have commented that Faulkner takes his stylistic eccentricity to its most involuted and exaggerated extremes in Absalom, Absalom!, making inordinate demands upon the reader’s attention and patience. An anonymous reviewer for Time called this book “the strangest, least readable, most infuriating and yet in some respects the most impressive novel that William Faulkner has written.” What use does Faulkner make of repetition, circularity, accumulation, and confusion? Are there aesthetic and intellectual reasons he takes his rhetoric and syntax to such exhaustive lengths, or do you feel that his style is too self-indulgent?
12. Absalom, Absalom! is a novel about the meaning of history, and about the extreme pressure of the past, particularly in the South, upon the inhabitants of the present. More importantly, it is about the doubtful process of coming to know, reconstruct, and come to grips with history. Mr. Compson says to Quentin, “We have a few old mouth-to-mouth tales…we see dimly people, the people in whose living blood and seed we ourselves lay dormant and waiting…performing their acts of simple passion and violence, impervious to time and inexplicable” [p. 80]. Why does Quentin, who is unrelated to Sutpen, seem to understand the tale as bearing directly upon his own identity and fate? If history is “a dead time” [p. 71], as Mr. Compson calls it, why does it command so much mesmerized attention in this novel?
13. Absalom, Absalom! shares certain characteristics with classical tragedy, and Faulkner uses Mr. Compson to make the connection clear. He alludes to Aeschylus’s great play Agamemnon with his discussion on pages 48-49 of the name of Sutpen’s daughter by a slave, suggesting that Sutpen might have meant to call her Cassandra rather than Clytemnestra. Elsewhere, Mr. Compson sees the story as a dramatic tableau, with “fate, destiny, retribution, irony–the stage manager” [p. 57]. Aristotle noted that a certain blindness, a character flaw he called hamartia, was common to tragic heroes. Whatare the flaws in Sutpen that contribute to his tragedy? If Sutpen is a character who stands for pure, unswerving will, what role does fate play in the story?
14. Why does Faulkner have Quentin tell his story to Shreve McCannon, a Canadian, in a room at Harvard in January, 1910? Why does this reconstruction of a uniquely Southern tale take place on Yankee soil? What is the meaning of the relationship between story and setting, as contained in the following phrase: “that fragile pandora’s box of scrawled paper which had filled with violent and unratiocinative djinns and demons this snug monastic coign, this dreamy and heatless alcove of what we call the best of thought” [p. 208]? What do you make of the book’s final line, in which Quentin hysterically insists that he doesn’t hate the South?
15. In the last few pages of the novel we learn at last, as in a mystery, what Quentin’s role in the story has been. He has entered into the final chapter of the nightmare of the Sutpen family with his own eyes, accompanying Miss Rosa to Sutpen’s Hundred, where he sees the dying Henry. He seems unable to emerge from this experience into ordinary life. Why does the past have such hallucinatory power for Quentin? What does his meeting with Henry mean to him? Do you see Clytie’s burning of the house, with herself and Henry in it, as a final purgation of the family curse? Why then does this history seem to be a nightmare from which Quentin is unable to awaken?
Comparing THE SOUND AND THE FURY, AS I LAY DYING, and ABSALOM, ABSALOM!
1. In all three of these novels the family is central to structure, plot, and meaning. It is the source of grief and identity as well as the locus of all individual psychic struggles. Do you see all of Faulkner’s characters eternally trapped within their familial roles? How do the families differ in each of these novels, and how are they similar? How do the particularly important symbolic roles of the mother and the father differ from book to book?
2. Faulkner tries to make himself disappear in these works. Instead of using the traditional third-person narrator that most readers associate with the author, he directs a chorus of voices that intertwine, complement, and contradict one another. As readers, we must rely on what we learn from the characters themselves as to time, place, plot, and matters of cause and effect. Why do you think Faulkner prefers to make his characters speak “directly” to his readers? How does this technique affect your ability to believe in the worlds that exist in these novels? How would more direct intervention by an authorial voice change your experience?
3. In which of these works do you think Faulkner’s style, his use of language, and his formal innovations are most finely tuned, most powerfully worked out? In which do you feel that his stylistic quirks are most annoying, most distracting?
4. All of these novels question our assumptions about time as regular, linear, sequential, predictable. What are some of the ways in which time is disrupted in these works?
5. The Compson family of The Sound and the Fury (1929) plays a central role in Absalom, Absalom! (1936) as well. Does Faulkner want readers of Absalom, Absalom! to assume that Quentin’s involvement in the Sutpen story is one of the reasons for his suicide, which takes place three months later in The Sound and the Fury? Do you see a seamless characterization of Quentin and Mr. Compson in the two books?
6. Faulkner is interested in the causes and effects of extreme psychological pressures, as we see in Quentin and Benjy Compson, Henry and Thomas Sutpen, Rosa Coldfield, Vardaman and Darl Bundren, and many other characters in these novels. What are some of the forms that psychopathology takes in Faulkner’s world?
7. Faulkner has often been accused of an extremely misogynistic representation of women. Consider Caddy Compson, Dilsey, Dewey Dell and Addie Bundren, Judith Sutpen, Rosa Coldfield, the wife of Charles St. Valery Bon, and other female characters in these three novels. How would you describe Faulkner’s notion of the feminine, as compared with the masculine? Do you agree with the critic Irving Howe that “Faulkner’s inability to achieve moral depth in his portraiture of young women clearly indicates a major failing as a novelist”?
8. Is the work of Faulkner necessarily different in its impact depending upon whether one is from the North or the South, whether one is black or white?
About this Author
William Cuthbert Faulkner was born in 1897 in New Albany, Mississippi, the first of four sons of Murry and Maud Butler Falkner (he later added the “u” to the family name himself). In 1904 the family moved to the university town of Oxford, Mississippi, where Faulkner was to spend most of his life. He was named for his great-grandfather “The Old Colonel,” the family patriarch who fought in the Civil War, built a railroad, wrote a best-selling romantic novel called The White Rose of Memphis
, and was eventually killed in a duel with a disgruntled business partner. Faulkner identified with this robust and energetic ancestor and often said that he inherited the “ink stain” from him.
Never a brilliant student, Faulkner left high school after the tenth grade. He tried to enlist in the U.S. Air Corps in 1918 but was rejected because of his small height and weight. He went to Canada, where he pretended to be an Englishman and joined the Canadian RAF training program, which he did not complete until after the Armistice. He returned to his hometown in uniform, however, boasting of war wounds, and briefly attended the University of Mississippi, where he began to publish his poetry. Faulkner spent brief periods of time in the literary capitals of the 1920s, Paris and New York; in New Orleans in 1925 he met Sherwood Anderson, who encouraged him to try writing fiction. His first novel, Soldiers’ Pay
, was published in 1926; it was followed by Mosquitoes
. His first undisputed masterpiece, The Sound and the Fury
, came out in 1929 and was followed by another masterpiece, As I Lay Dying
, in 1930.
In 1929 Faulkner married his childhood sweetheart, Estelle Oldham, after she was divorced from her first husband. They had a premature daughter, Alabama, who died ten days after birth in 1931; a second daughter, Jill, was born in 1933. With the publication of his most violent and sensational novel, Sanctuary
(1931), Faulkner was invited to write scripts for MGM and Warner Brothers, which he continued to do for twenty years. Much of the dialogue in the film versions of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not
and Chandler’s The Big Sleep
was written by Faulkner. Light in August
(1932) was his first attempt to engage the rending racial issues of the South, an effort continued most successfully in Absalom, Absalom!
(1936), and Go Down, Moses
(1942). Until the appearance of Malcolm Cowley’s The Portable Faulkner
in 1946, Faulkner had been seen as a regional writer; afterward critical assessments began to register the major stature of his work.
In addition to several collections of short fiction, his other novels include Pylon
(1935), The Unvanquished
(1938), The Wild Palms
(1939), The Hamlet
(1940), Intruder in the Dust
(1948), A Fable
(1954), The Town
(1957), The Mansion
(1959), and The Reivers
(1962). Faulkner won the Nobel Prize in 1950 and was awarded France’s Legion of Honor in 1951. In the 1950s he became a spokesman for the growing movement against racism in the South. He died of a heart attack on July 6, 1962, while hospitalized for a horseback-riding accident.