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In September 1909, in Yoknapatawpha County, near Jefferson, Mississippi, Quentin Compson is sent a handwritten note from an old woman named Miss Rosa Coldfield, summoning him to meet her that afternoon, so that he can hear the story of her youth and of the destruction of her family. Quentin, a young man from a prominent Jefferson family--his grandfather was a general in the Civil War--is perplexed as to why she would want to talk to him, and asks his father about it. Mr. Compson explains that Quentin's grandfather had been involved in the story, because he was a friend of a man named Thomas Sutpen, whom Rosa Coldfield considers the demon responsible both for her family's ruination and her own.

Quentin goes to see Rosa Coldfield; they sit in the musty room she calls the "office," with the shutters shut so tightly that only thin slits of light shine into the room, and he listens to her story. She explains to him that she has heard he is preparing to attend Harvard--perhaps he will have literary ambitions, and perhaps he would like to write down the story one day. Quentin realizes that she wants the story to be told, so that its hearers will understand how God could have let the South lose the war--because the South was in the hands of men like Thomas Sutpen, who had valor and strength but neither pity nor compassion.

Miss Rosa's narrative is told with an intense, smoldering bitterness: she has spent the last four decades burning up in her obsession with the events she now recounts. In 1833, she says, Thomas Sutpen descended upon Jefferson with nothing more than a horse and two pistols and no known past (with a group of savage slaves and a French architect in tow, Sutpen at their forefront like a demon--this is how Quentin pictures the event). Through violent force of will Sutpen had managed to raise up a house the size of a courthouse on an estate he carved out himself and named Sutpen's Hundred. Sutpen was little better than a savage himself, holding fights between his slaves--fights in which he often participated--and horse races, luring men to his plantation for events undescribable to young girls. Thirsting for respectability, Sutpen married Ellen Coldfield, the older sister of Miss Rosa, who was yet to be born), and the daughter of a local Methodist merchant. Sutpen had two children by Ellen, Henry in 1839 and Judith a year later, but being a father did not temper his wild, violent behavior. One night Ellen discovered her husband participating in a fight with a negro before a bloodthirsty crowd, with the children watching--Henry crying and upset, Judith (who had snuck there to watch with a little negro girl) in rapt attention. Judith seemed to possess her father's temperament: when his reckless carriage races before the church were stopped by the minister's complaints, the six-year-old girl began to cry insensibly.

Later details in the story become somewhat vague in Miss Rosa's narration: Thomas Sutpen and his son Henry each fought in the war, she says, and she describes Ellen on her deathbed. Just before she died, Ellen asked Rosa, then a young girl, to look out for Judith--even though Judith was older than Rosa. Rosa replied that the only thing the children needed protection from was themselves. But other than these glimpses, details are scarce-- except for one central event which Rosa refers to several times: on Judith's wedding day, just before the wedding was to take place, her brother Henry killed her fiance in front of the gates of Sutpen's Hundred.


Absalom, Absalom! is an unusual book in that its first chapter summarizes nearly the plot of the rest of the book. The events Miss Rosa recounts in the life of Thomas Sutpen and his family are the same events that subsequent chapters will examine in depth and from many different perspectives



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