The Plot and that Title
Peter, it's hard to know where to begin with this book, isn't it? We could talk about it as one of America's first modern novels, and analyze its structure. We could talk about Christianity, Calvinism, and slavery, and the concept of the elect and the damned, and how that's still playing out in our culture. Or, as Lorianne mentions in her comment to the first post, about how it addresses southern notions of "ideal" womanhood, and the patriarchy that supposedly protects it. I hope we'll get to all of that eventually. Maybe what I'll do first, though, is spring off your wonderful, Faulkner-esque glimpse at the characters to talk a little more about the plot, and explain the title, so people who haven't read the book won't go nuts or give up on us all together!
Basically, Absalom, Absalom! is the story of Thomas Sutpen, a man born into poverty who gets money, goods, and slaves -- we don't know exactly how -- and comes into a small Mississippi town full of whispering, speculating inhabitants, acquires one hundred acres, and starts to build a plantation and mansion. His goal, beyond building this empire (on the backs of the slaves he's brought from the West Indies) is to establish a family dynasty, so he needs sons.Faulkner himself said that slavery was the curse under which the South labors, and that Thomas Sutpen's major flaw was his belief that he was too strong to need to be part of the human family; those two curses and how they play out are the subject of the book. I'd argue that it goes even deeper, that what Faulkner explores here is racism itself, in the character of a person who believes himself to be elect while others -- even his own flesh-and-blood -- are cast aside because a tiny percentage of negro blood flows in their veins.
So - the title. In the Bible, Absalom is one of the sons of King David, but he rebels and fights against his father. His death occurs during a battle when his hair catches in the branches of an oak tree, unseating him and rendering him helpless (a clear parallel, I think, to the image of a lynched black man hanging from a tree.) Joab, the enemy, is told and comes back with a posse of soldiers and kills him. But when Absalom's death is reported to his father, David is inconsolable.
In many ways Thomas Sutpen is this kind of Old Testament patriarch; he has many human weaknesses and cruelties but he's also fascinating and exerts a powerful, some say demonic, force on everyone around him. Like the OT kings, he looms much larger than most of the other people on the stage, and affects them all, but he also causes his own ruin. Faulkner makes his story into an allegory not just about one family, but about the South and its downfall, just as the Books of Kings contain cautionary tales about rulers and justice, and what happens when they allow their human weaknesses to dominate their character and actions.
Faulkner may have doubled the name to "Absalom, Absalom!" because there are two sons in his story: Henry Sutpen, his legitimate and pure white son, and Charles Bon, whose mother was an octaroon (1/8 black) whom Sutphen married in the West Indies but repudiated and abandoned after he found out about her (and their son's) negro blood. Henry and Charles, unknown to each other as brothers, meet at university, and their paths toward self-discovery are an essential part of the book's plot.
Beth, that's a great summary. I'd just add the incest angle. The Bible's story of Absalom's rebellion against his father David starts when Absalom's half-brother, Amnon, rapes Absalom's full sister, Tamar. The narrator's not wild about the rape, but the incest is the big sin. Absalom plots his revenge for two years, has Amnon killed, and flees when David finds out. In this respect, Henry Sutpen resembles Absalom: Henry kills his half-brother Charles to keep him from an incestuous relationship with Henry's full sister Judith, and then he flees.
But Charles resembles not only the incestuous Amnon but Absalom, also. The Bible infers that Absalom seduces Israel because David doesn't lift a finger to see him over the two years following Amnon's murder. Similarly, Charles is frosted that his father Sutpen never comes to him, never speaks to him, even after Charles knows Sutpen knows Charles has designs on Judith – a match Sutpen tries to get Henry to stop. So Charles seduces Henry and Judith because his father slights him, just as Absalom seduces Israel because his father slights him.
So I could see how Henry and Charles are both Absalom, which might help explain the title. The title may also be shorthand for David's repetitious lament after Absalom's death: “O my son Absalom! O Absalom, my son, my son!”
We're free to draw our own conclusions, I guess: there's no reference to Absalom or David in the novel even though Faulkner alludes to some classical and other biblical texts in it.
image sources (click for larger versions): top, "The murder of Absalom," Morgan Picture Bible. Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum. bottom, Brettman/Corbis archive, life.com