Places: Absalom, Absalom!

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1936

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: 1807-1910

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedYoknapatawpha County

Yoknapatawpha Absalom, Absalom!County (YOK-nuh-puh-TAW-fuh). Fictional county in northwestern Mississippi that Faulkner called his “little postage stamp of native soil.” By the time Faulkner wrote Absalom, Absalom! he had used this setting in five novels. For this novel, however, he drew a map of the county on which he identified places used in both this and the earlier novels. Faulkner gave the county an area of 2,400 square miles and a population of 6,298 white residents and 9,313 black residents. With the Tallahatchie River serving as the northern boundary, the Yoknapatawpha River–an old name for the actual Yocona River–as the southern boundary, Yoknapatawpha bears a remarkable resemblance to, but is not identical with, Mississippi’s real Lafayette County.

Jefferson

Jefferson Yoknapatawpha’s fictional county seat, is likewise patterned after Oxford; however, Faulkner also includes a town called “Oxford” in the novel. A rural, agricultural county with a large number of plantations, including Sutpen’s Hundred, Yoknapatawpha is a miniature of the South during the nineteenth century. Amid a society permeated with racial prejudice and class consciousness, the character Thomas Sutpen is both spurred toward his goal and denied the opportunity for success. Despite his efforts to achieve respectability, most members of Jefferson’s aristocracy regard him as an outsider and fail to recognize that he mirrors the flaws of their society.

Sutpen’s Hundred

Sutpen’s Hundred (SUHT-penz). Plantation built by Thomas Sutpen on a “hundred square miles of some of the best virgin bottom land in the country.” Having failed in an earlier attempt in the West Indies to achieve his “design,” Sutpen purchases land from a local Chickasaw chief. With the help of a French architect and slave labor, he ruthlessly sets out to establish a dynasty in Yoknapatawpha County. He spends two years building his mansion, leaves it unfinished and unfurnished for three years, and finally completes it in time for his marriage to Ellen Coldfield. It serves as the setting for the major actions of the story. Although the house is unquestionably grand in its early days, the various narrators of the novel focus on its later rotting, decaying, desolate stage with “its sagging portico and scaling walls, its sagging blinds and blank-shuttered windows.” The house clearly symbolizes Sutpen’s failed dream and the fallen South. When it finally goes up in flames, years after Sutpen’s death, Sutpen’s only living descendant, the idiot Jim Bond, “howls” about the place.

*West Virginia

*West Virginia. Originally part of Virginia, West Virginia became a state in 1863. Sutpen is born in a primitive farm society of the region’s mountains in 1807. During his first ten years he lives there with no real awareness of racial prejudice and class distinctions. His earliest years contrast sharply with his later experiences.

*Virginia

*Virginia. When Sutpen’s family moves from the mountains into Virginia’s tidewater region, the ten-year-old Sutpen encounters the aristocratic southern social code in a humiliating experience that changes his life. Sent as a messenger to the home of a wealthy plantation owner, he is told by the black servant to go around to the back of the house. From his experience in this society, Sutpen formulates his “design”–his plan to gain, through whatever means necessary, the possessions and position in society to prevent ever being similarly humiliated again.

*Harvard University

*Harvard University. Prestigious institution of higher learning in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Although Mississippi is the setting for most of Sutpen’s story, the last half of the novel is narrated by Jefferson native Quentin Compson and Shreve McCannon, his Canadian roommate at Harvard. In a cold dormitory room far from his Jefferson home, Quentin tries to come to terms with his feelings about the South as he and Shreve piece together Sutpen’s story. His confusion and intense feelings about his place of birth are reflected in his response to Shreve’s asking him why he hates the South. He quickly responds that he does not hate it; however, his subsequent reiterated thoughts clearly reflect his anguished ambivalence: “I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!”

*Haiti

*Haiti. West Indian island nation ruled by descendants of African slaves and the site of Sutpen’s first failure to achieve his design. As a young man Sutpen emigrates to Haiti. Amid a slave insurrection, he heroically helps a landowner save his plantation and subsequently wins the hand of the man’s daughter, who then bears him a son. Soon thereafter Sutpen discovers that his wife has African blood and renounces her and all the possessions he has gained through his marriage. The romanticized land of promise has left him bereft, and his only hope is to start anew elsewhere.

*Oxford

*Oxford. Site of the University of Mississippi, where Sutpen’s two sons, Henry Sutpen and Charles Bon, meet. The university atmosphere enables them to become close friends despite Charles’s being ten years older.

Suggested ReadingsBackman, Melvin. Faulkner, the Major Years: A Critical Study. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966.Blotner, Joseph. Faulkner: A Biography. 2 vols. New York: Random House, 1974. A lengthy biography of William Faulkner’s life and work. Shows how Absalom, Absalom! evolved to become what Blotner considers Faulkner’s most important and ambitious contribution to American literature.Brooks, Cleanth. “History and the Sense of the Tragic.” In William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963.Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1978. The appendices are an especially valuable aid. One essay discusses Brooks’s answer to the question of how typical Thomas Sutpen is of the “Southern planter.” Another focuses on the narrative structure of the novel.Ladd, Barbara. “The Direction of the Howling’: Nationalism and the Color Line in Absalom, Absalom!American Literature 66, no. 3 (September, 1994): 525-551.Leary, Lewis. William Faulkner of Yoknapatawpha County. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1973. Chapter 5 describes Absalom, Absalom! as disclosing the way history is made and legends develop. Cites examples of how Thomas Sutpen’s story emerges as a jigsaw puzzle, as various narrators’ contributions finally fit together to disclose a design.Minter, David. William Faulkner: His Life and Work. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980. Provides a context for the writing of Absalom, Absalom! Identifies the force of the novel as emerging from entangled relationships among generations of “doomed” families, races, and sexes. Discusses relationships between the narrators’ stories and their lives.Poirier, Richard. “Strange Gods’ in Jefferson, Mississippi: Analysis of Absalom, Absalom!” In Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Absalom, Absalom!”: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Arnold Goldman. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971.Volpe, Edmond L. A Reader’s Guide to William Faulkner. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1964. An earlier treatment of Faulkner’s novels, this volume remains valuable. Sections on narrative structure and technique as well as on key characters. Contains a genealogy and a helpful chronology of events.
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