Published in 1936, Absalom, Absalom! is considered by many to be William Faulkner’s masterpiece. Although the novel’s complex and fragmented structure poses considerable difficulty to readers, the book’s literary merits place it squarely in the ranks of America’s finest novels. The story concerns Thomas Sutpen, a poor man who finds wealth and then marries into a respectable family. His ambition and extreme need for control bring about his ruin and the ruin of his family. Sutpen’s story is told by several narrators, allowing the reader to observe variations in the saga as it is recounted by different speakers. This unusual technique spotlights one of the novel’s central questions: To what extent can people know the truth about the past?
Review by Michael Connery
William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! is a pivotal tome in classic American literature. The rich, complex narrative appears inaccessible to many modern readers, but the stream of consciousness style was the haute couture of the modernist era. Faulkner once again transports the reader to his famed—and fictional—Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, though unlike in his other works, he includes a map and a chronology of the events.
Absalom, Absalom! is a difficult novel to unpack, but the themes of the tale have a timeless resonance. In what is likely his most famous and best remembered work, Faulkner explores the idea of home, of wanting to belong and have a place, and how that desire oft times is misconstrued with a physical structure. Sutpen’s “design” and blind ambition leads him further and further into moral degradation and ruin, and each character’s own hopes and dreams are influenced by Sutpen’s actions. The ripple effect of misguided ambition is felt through multiple generations.
Faulkner tells the same narrative from multiple perspectives. There is no linear sense of plot arc, but rather an accordion folding of time, creating a sense of fluidity and unreliability. The narrators carefully unwind the threads of memory only to have them unravel and snarl once more, for each character’s memory is laden with the complications of fallacies and inaccuracies. Those familiar with Faulkner’s work will know that he features particular characters throughout the course of his oeuvre, and the most poignant figure in this tale may be that of Quentin Compson, a young man who is haunted by the mysterious tragedies of the past and tormented in the present, and whose tale is told further in The Sound and the Fury. In this story, he is a boy on the cusp of adulthood, about to leave his Mississippi home for a Harvard education, and increasingly obsessed with the past.
As in all of Faulkner’s tales, the South is as much a character as it is a setting, rich in heritage, distinct and regional, steeped in history, and—much like Faulkner’s stories—grounded in tragedy and family. Issues of race and social structures permeate the tale, but at its heart, Absalom, Absalom! is a story about the tangled web that is family. Dysfunction, incest, betrayal, and murder drive the family tragedies at the center of the story.
Faulkner’s work is a stellar example of the modernist era of the early twentieth century. Filled with prose that is in turns dense and poetic, Absalom, Absalom! is a classic ode to the American South, to the complexities and heartbreak of family, to the nostalgic influence of home and memory, and to the deadly whirlpool of ambition.
Highly recommended for fans of classic American literature, particularly literature set in the south and written in the modernist style