Narrative Structure On Absalom, Absalom Essay, Research Paper
YARN OF ABSALOM, ABSALOM!
There are many unanswered questions concerning the novel Absalom, Absalom!, what exactly its author intended to get across through it or what he actually did with it. Many critics believe he just never reached a single and final intention, so he just left the final authorities in question, and he may have liked it that way (Parker 16). While others believe he was just careless and forgetful, leaving dangling ends with the elements of earlier designs that obtrude themselves on what appears as a finished fabric (Brooks 302). They also believe that he wrote contradictory passages that disturbed the consistency and coherency of the novel, and still others believe it to be his greatest work (Parker cover). Even so, William Faulkner’s narration, whether internal or external, in the novel Absalom, Absalom! has caused much controversy and has mystified some of the best critics, as well as many readers.
To truly begin to understand Faulkner’s narrative in Absalom, Absalom!, one must first understand the history behind it. This novel, begun in Oxford, Mississippi around 1933 or 1934, was written in a bombastic and learned language with a passionate immersion in the past. It was set from the 1820s until around 1910 at Harvard, Yale, and Oxford in Mississippi, New Orleans, Virginia, and Haiti. This novel is also the sixth of Faulkner’s novels set in the imaginary Yoknapatawpha County, and is considered by many to partly be a sequel to The Sound and the Fury. Although these two novels may be related, they do not rely on each other. However, some concerns that appear in The Sound and the Fury are echoed in Absalom, Absalom!
An important part of the novel’s history involves the economy and local Indians in Mississippi. Faulkner’s land, in north Mississippi, had been home to the Chickasaw Indians in the early 19th century, and they appear frequently throughout much of his fiction and even turn up briefly in Absalom, Absalom!. The Chickasaw’s only roles in this novel, however, are to surrender their land and silently disappear. It was because of the federal and state governments that Mississippi experienced a boom’ in its economy. The governments pressured the Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians into leaving, thus opening up the fertile Indian hill country for the settlement of poor, southern white folk. The economy in the early 1830s was independent from slaves and was actually little more committed to slavery than the north. In the 1940s, however, this changed when the plantation system, slavery, cotton industry, and population all grew tremendously. The population in Mississippi grew until most were black slaves, 52 percent actually.
Another major occurrence in the novel’s history is war. When the Civil War broke out most of the white settlers only owned and worked small farms. And what few plantations there were, had not been there more than a generation. This is why many whites opposed the secession and the war. They understood the North’s overwhelming economic and numeric superiority, and some even held investments in the North. So, war was the last thing they wanted. And, contrary to myth, the reconstruction process was ably administered by honest and well-educated politicians, both black and white. Racism didn’t occur until the mid-1870s, when flagrantly racist whites won back control through violence and intimidation. Because racism overshadowed reforms and displaced economic politics, the already post-war suffering state was driven deeper into poverty while the rest of the country grew wealthier, more urban and industrial.
A third essential part of the novel is the style Faulkner wrote it in. Because of the imposing danger of the Civil War in the novel and the imposing danger of World War II in Faulkner’s life, the novel seems to be written in a frenzied style with a sense of a looming apocalypse or a sense of a contemporary world careening toward an apocalypse. Adding to this is a sense of a world about to explode, a world where progress could no longer be taken for granted. Another aspect of style is the growing anguish over race relations in American culture in the 1930s to 1940s, causing many of the writers, including Faulkner, to include in their novels the topic of mixed racial ancestry.
Secondly, for the narrative to be more than just characters conversing, one must know the importance of the parts of the novel. As the storytelling begins, it depends more upon the character’s actually telling the story to each other, which suggests a commentary on the art of storytelling itself. This is called metafiction, or fiction about fiction. Absalom, Absalom! is considered the greatest work of America’s greatest novelist, one of that handful of American writers who challenged readers the most pleasurably and provocatively (Parker 11). Its capacity to challenge does not lie literally between the covers of the book, but rather in the exchange of language and thought between the words on the page. Such as, the later characters’ speculative uncertainty setting the earlier characters in a like position as the reader’s. As one reads and speculates about both sets of characters, it provokes an awareness of how one’s shifting judgements and knowledge about the story itself becomes a story as much as the actions and judgements of the characters. This effectively exposes the way any story is an act of mind. Absalom, Absalom! is mainly remembered for its lavish experiments with language and form, its anguish over personal, regional, national, and social fears. And its celebration of storytelling. Not to mention the way it layers story on top of story until it is as much about storytelling as any individual stories. Plus, the action of the novel is seemingly always in motion, moving forward and backward in time and constantly adding meanings. It is similar to a vortex, the characters and events in motion with understanding coming in a later chapter.
Even though Absalom, Absalom! is a pivotal story in the Yoknapatawpha stories and is mainly about Thomas Sutpen’s life, it consists of several journeys or travels by different characters. There are Thomas Sutpen’s travels from the mountains to Tidewater and then to Haiti and Mississippi, along with his psychological quests of his attempt to escape the threatening past and create a design’ of safety and security. These are followed by Charles Bon’s migration from Haiti to New Orleans and Oxford, then on to Sutpen’s Hundred, including his search for a father. Henry Sutpen’s travels take him from Oxford to New Orleans, to Loor, to Texas, then back to Mississippi. He is searching for his personal and cultural identity. And Quentin Compson takes a trip to Harvard, hoping desperately to understand himself and the South. Plus, other various characters’ travels back and forth in between Sutpen’s Hundred and Jefferson.
Probably the most well-known and important feature of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! is his Yoknapatawpha Map that is located at the very end of the novel. This map consists of several ironies, metaphors… Some examples of the irony that occur in this map are that most of the personal quests throughout the novel end in failure or futility. Such as Thomas Sutpen dies frustrated with the design, Bon dies unacknowledged by a father, Henry dies a condemned outcast, and Quentin is about to die still troubled and confused about the meaning of existence. The map underscores the plot, shows history of the town and human condition, charts failed ambitions, and points the way to death. More than a graphic representation of an actual place or a guide for travelers, the map is a metaphor that remains a distortion of the actual, a substitution of the real, an evocation of an order, or a harmony that exists and exists only in the mapmaker’s imagination (Hamblin 3).
The famous Yoknapatawpha Map also holds and shows many symbols. Such as the tiny, finite circle of Sutpen’s Hundred that ends where it began, meaning that it survives and endures. The map itself is a lasting symbol of the redeeming power of art, like the novel which is such an integral part. It complements the title, which is interpreted as an ironic commentary on the Sutpen Family history. This is because the narrative parallels the biblical story of David and Absalom, with the emphasis on “revolt, incest, and fratricide” (Hagopian, Hamblin 1). The novel differs from the biblical story in that Faulkner’s David is unable to feel love and compassion for his rebellious son, and Hagopian views this key difference as “the main point of the Sutpen story” (Hamblin 1). Functioning the same way as the title, the map extends the province of the novel beyond regional to universal, converting the facts’ of history into the truths’ of myths. They both show Faulkner’s faith in triumph of art over the inevitable, downward spiral of history.
The narrative structure throughout each chapter jumps back and forth between internal and external, back and forth between different characters’ thoughts. Such as, in Chapter One the narration starts out external through Rosa, while in Chapter Two it goes from an external narrator, to a satirical voice of legend, followed by Mr. Compson. In Chapter Three the narrative continues with Mr. Compson with several interjections from an external narrator, and in Chapter Four the external narrator is focused through Quentin, changes to Mr. Compson, with the external narrator returning briefly. Chapter Five begins with Rosa, changes to the external narrator present in Quentin’s thoughts, and then changes to dialogue between Quentin and Rosa. In Chapter Six the narrative remains with Quentin, changing from external, to conversation, to thoughts sporadically, while Chapter Seven mainly stays external narrative through Quentin and the telling and retelling of a story or incident. However, in Chapter Eight it changes from a satirical external narrator to Shreve and/or Quentin, and in Chapter Nine the narrative remains external through Quentin’s thoughts and memories. With the amount of changes in the narrative, it is no surprise Faulkner is known as the most inventive experimenter in the American modernist prose, and that later American novelists look back fearfully at his shadow (Parker cover). Throughout each of these chapters Faulkner has presented the story in non-sequential bits and pieces, with many flashbacks into the past through the minds of several different people. Each mind consisting of its own prejudices, blind sides, and mental sets. He withholds elements of the story, until he is ready to divulge them, whetting the reader’s appetite and completely involving them in what is perhaps his supreme story of the human heart in conflict with itself (Brooks 328).
The critical reception of Faulkner and his novel Absalom, Absalom! has always been and remains very controversial. During the late 1930s through the mid 1940s, books by Faulkner were banned by the Nazis in occupied France, making them a sign of resistance. During this time, Faulkner’s books went out of print in America, but after the war American interest in Faulkner grew as literary criticism in America became a professional industry, providing a means of distribution for his novels. The focus of many critics became interpreting Absalom, Absalom!’s text, using it to represent the work of its individual author. Robert Penn Warren once said, “William Faulkner has written nineteen books which for range of effect, philosophical weight, originality of style, variety of characterization, humor, and tragic intensity, are without equal in our time and country (O’Connor 124).” At the time of its appearance, Absalom, Absalom! left many mystified by its intensity of emotion and style, and was recognized as more ambitious than Faulkner’s previous work. However, many thought his ambition had led him astray, that it was a wild experiment gone awry’ and offered no code ready to be cracked’ (Parker 13).
In Absalom, Absalom!, there are four main areas of controversy. The first area is about whether the novel centers on the Compsons or the Sutpens. Parker feels that the novel is about both the Compsons and the Sutpens, and that it serves as no useful purpose to try and keep score or rank one family over the other (14). The second area of controversy is whether the novel should be considered all by itself or in combination with The Sound and the Fury. Critics insisting that the novel centers on the Compsons usually insist that it must be read with The Sound and the Fury because the Compsons appear in both novels, while the Sutpens do not. But to insist on one side or the other, is to construct a false dichotomy, as if the two novels must be merged or isolated (Parker 14). The third area of controversy, whether Sutpen represents the old plantation South or only wishes he could, depends on how much the critic likes or dislikes Sutpen and/or the old South. Faulkner seems to have encompassed a full range of allegiances without retreating from the contradictions produced, leaving both sides with plenty of material to offer as evidence. Finally, the fourth area is over whether or not things get explained at the end of the novel and, if so, how. Some critics believe Faulkner reveled in deliberate mystification, that the problems of the novel are insoluble because he meant for them to be. As Mr. Compson states:
It’s just incredible. It just does not explain or perhaps that’s it:
they don’t explain and we are not supposed to know…. -Yes,
Judith, Bon, Henry, Sutpen: all of them. They are here, yet
something is missing; they are like a chemical formula
exhumed…. almost indecipherable, yet meaningful, familiar
in shape and sense, the name and presence of volatile and
sentient forces; you bring them together in the proportions
called for, but nothing happens; you re-read, tedious and
intent, poring, making sure that you have forgotten nothing,
made no miscalculations: you bring them together again
and again nothing happens; just the words, the symbols,
the shapes themselves, shadowy inscrutable and serene,
against that turgid background of a horrible and bloody mis-
chancing of human affairs (Bloom 250).
William Faulkner’s type narrative has had a major influence, not only in America, but all over the world. As a metafiction writer, his influence actually shows more outside of the United States, especially in Latin America and France where his unclassifiable “either neither” writing has flowered the most lavishly (Parker 11). Faulkner’s influence is so strong that Absalom, Absalom! is the peak of one movement in art and literature, and it predicts and prepares for another. It makes such a memorable example of such movements partly because Faulkner never confines himself to represent the winds of any passing trend.
In conclusion, Faulkner’s use of narrative in Absalom, Absalom! may be controversial and mystifying, but it has influenced cultures and movements just as much as it has confused readers and critics alike. No matter the reader’s or critic’s view on the novel, whether it contradicts itself or not, whether it explains itself or not, or whether it is the greatest work or not, does not change the fact that Absalom, Absalom! contains the most original use of narrative in American literature and no other author, trying to imitate Faulkner or not, has come close to what he achieved with this novel. However, all critics agree that each individual reader must use their imagination, make their own interpretations, and that Faulkner never indulged in cheap mystery-mongering (Brooke 302).