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"I Am Telling": Narrative And Identity In Absalom, Absalom

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Who says what - and how and when - may be the most compelling way William Faulkner constructs his characters in Absalom, Absalom! Storytelling is not just an act in which the saga of the Sutpens is recounted, revised, and even recreated; it is a gesture of self-disclosure. Each revelation about the past provides a glimpse into the present state of the narrating character's mind. The rhetoric, the digressions, the strange (and often obsessive) fixations of each character's account are the products of a range of personalities and view points, unable to agree on a definitive version of the story.

There are, to be sure, overlaps; these are the events in the stories that transcend the proclivities of each narrator and are probably, though not certainly, the basic facts of what happened. We know there was a man named Thomas Sutpen; who came to Jefferson, Missippi; who married Ellen Coldfield; who had two children with his wife; whose son befriended and later killed a man named Bon; whose daughter was Bon's betrothed; who fought in the Civil War; and who longed for a male heir to carry on the Sutpen legacy. The passion of the storytellers makes us forget that these are the only uniformly corroborated elements of the story. Neither Bond's identity nor Sutpen's mysterious past, though they seem so essential to our understanding of the novel, are indisputable. It is not impossible, indeed, that they are inventions of the narrators, perhaps unconscious embellishments of the story in order to do away with all its troublesome lacunae. Like the reader, the characters have had to infer and imagine a great deal to arrive at a plausible rendering of how things really happened.

These discrepancies, as bewildering as they often are, do not exist to indict the narrators for taking creative liberties with history. Faulkner does not see them as liars or manipulators and we should not either. Indeed, there is no "authentic" version of the Sutpen story, and so, within the bounds of the basic facts we have established, there can be no wrong version. This is not objective reporting; what we have instead are personal interpretations. What we also have are expressions of personality. The story Quentin tells says as much about Quentin Compson as it does about the Sutpens and their travails. He brings his own experiences and opinions to the story, which the reader may discover embedded in the narrative he recounts. The same, of course, is true of Miss Rosa, Mr. Compson, Shreve, and all the others. At any point in the multiple narratives in Absalom, Absalom!, it is essential to keep in mind that there are two stories being told: one, the tragic history of the Sutpens, the other, the unwitting autobiography of the raconteur.This essay attempts to examine the different narratives in the novel in order to identify and analyze the traits of each of the narrators. By doing this, I also hope to clear up some of the ambiguities of the narration in the novel. The question in Absalom, Absalom! is often "Who is speaking?" rather than "How does this character speak?" Shifts in font, the passing on of stories ("I heard it from A who heard it from B...", etc.), and the long sentences and paragraphs obfuscate which character is telling the story. With a better understanding of the "voice" of each of the characters, much of the confusion surrounding these parts of the narrative should clear up a bit.

Miss Rosa is the first of the characters to tell the Sutpen saga. She is also a participant in the story and her version is perhaps the most impassioned and aggressive. Her relationship with Sutpen (first as sister-in-law, then as bride-to-be) has left her angry and bitter. Indeed, even after the passing of several decades, she still recalls the man through "outraged recapitulation." A completely ruthless and nefarious Colonel Thomas Sutpen serves as the central figure of her story.Before Rosa tells her story, though, she chooses a listener: Quentin Compson. Quentin is confused by her selection. She sarcastically claims that she is telling him the story because he may one day "enter the literary profession" and if his wife should ever want a new gown, he could "write this and submit it to the magazines" for money. He knows that "she dont mean that" but he struggles to discover the real reason she has beckoned him into her dark, wisteria scented room. His next hypothesis approaches the truth but fails to account for some of the specifics: "it's because she wants it that people...will read it and know at last why God let us lose the War: that only through the blood of our men and the tears of our women could He stay this demon and efface his name and lineage from the earth."

This is part of Miss Rosa's motivation, but it still does not answer the question "Why Quentin?" Couldn't anyone pass on the story? Mr. Compson offers a very simple, practical explanation which proves to be true later in the novel. "It's because," he tells Quentin, "she will need someone to go with her [to Sutpen's Hundred] - a man, gentleman, yet one young enough to do what she wants, do it the way she wants it done." He then adds: "And she chose you because your grandfather was the nearest thing to a friend which Sutpen ever had in this country."Although Quentin later - and somewhat comically - disappoints Rosa by failing to bring an ax on their excursion to Sutpen's Hundred, as a listener he serves two purposes for Rosa. First, he can help her bring her story to its close by confronting the last physical and human remnants of the Sutpen legacy. And second, he can be receptive to the story in a way only an "insider" could be; there was a connection between the Sutpens and Compsons two generations ago and it exists still "through heredity." Because Rosa needs Quentin much more than Quentin needs her, she knows she must shape her story in such a way that it presents a persuasive case for going to Sutpen's Hundred.

It's not surprising, then, that she waits to reveal her real reason for wanting to visit Sutpen's Hundred until after the most exciting events of the story (along with her most melodramatic rhetoric) have been divulged. Her timing is impeccable. At the beginning of chapter five, she commences her account of the showdown between Henry and Bon, Sutpen's return from the Civil War and the dilapidated state of the property and family. As usual, though, Miss Rosa's main focus is the character of Sutpen and in this chapter she gives some of the most stirring images of him in the book. Before she even begins her account of what happened, she describes him as"the brute instrument of that justice which presides



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