[Photo by Ralph Thompson of Faulkner taking to students at the University of Virginia ca. 1957. The school admitted its first black student in 1950 by court order, and it went coed in 1970. Faulkner split his residence between Oxford, Mississippi and U. Va. from 1957 until his death in 1962.]
My freshman year in college, I became friends with an engineering student from the South who lived near me in the dorm (yes, co-ed! 1970!) and was dating a close friend of mine. Like Quentin, he had a southern name previously unknown to me, and he had grown up in a totally different society of teas, lawn parties, cotillions and clear gender roles for both young men and women. He had had a sweetheart with another unfamiliar name - Marleve - and told me how she and all her friends used to get up an hour early to do their hair and put on their makeup before class. Meanwhile, we were burning our bras...if we wore them at all. He liked the university and did well, but he only lasted through his sophomore year, when he went home to be with his girlfriend, shaking his head when he said goodbye to me and saying, "I just could never quite get you Northern girls."
So what about Faulkner's women? If Thomas Sutpen is an archetype of a patriarch, desiring to create a dynasty through his male lineage (but definitely not chivalrous), what about the women around him?
We learn little about his first wife in the West Indies, the unknown octaroon who gave birth to his first son, Charles, repudiated because of his negro blood. His second wife, Ellen, perhaps comes closest to the idea of a "southern belle" - she's lovely, but fragile, and is part of a "deal" made between Sutpen and her father. Unhappy and unable to assert herself, but dutiful, she bears two children - Henry and Judith - before taking to her bed and dying after a slow, shadowy decline.
Then there's Rosa, the elderly woman whose long rambling narration, delivered to Quentin as a kind of verbal legacy, forms the "core" of the narrative. She's Ellen's cousin but much younger, who comes to live at Sutpen's Hundred with Judith and the negro servant, Clytie, after Ellen's death, and after Henry kills Charles and flees. Rosa, then in her early 20s, becomes engaged to Thomas after he returns from the Civil War (a shell of his former self), but breaks the engagement in outrage after he poses the condition that she bear him a son before the marriage to prove that she can; she goes back to town where she lives in miserable poverty, spinsterhood, and hatred for the next fifty years.
And perhaps the most enigmatic woman of all is the daughter, Judith, who resembles none of these women as much as her father. Peter, one of the most vivid scenes in the book for me is when we discover Thomas wrestling at night in the barn with his slaves, a sort of cockfight scene lit by lamps illuminating the faces of the men of the town, watching the spectacle and drinking whiskey. Henry, the son, can't bear it, but up in the hayloft we see Judith - a little girl then - looking down on the sweat and blood and violence with her implacable, unreadable face. Later, she becomes not a spinster but an archetypal widow, even though her marriage to her half-brother Charles is prevented, and later dies of smallpox. The only emotion we ever witness from her is a sudden gush of tears, almost instantly dried, when her father comes home and she tells him what has happened to his sons.
What do you think Faulkner is trying to tell us through the characters of these women? Are they stereotypes or true to the society he's portraying?
The Absalom, Absalom! women seem locked into something tougher to break out of than the clear gender roles your disoriented Southern friend found missing at college. To me, the Absalom women are closer to the earth – to something essential – than the men are, and they are more inclined to feel and to act not in furtherance of a design, as is always the case with Sutpen, but out of instinct (usually love) and emotion (usually hate) alone.
To put it more negatively, the Absalom women seem subhuman. But it’s a "subhuman" woman, Sutpen’s octoroon first wife, who follows her instinct (and a smart lawyer’s vague advice) to bring Sutpen down.
But the octoroon survives to enable her feebleminded grandson, Jim Bond, in turn, to survive the Sutpen family doom. In contrast, none of Sutpen's white lineage survives.
This sort of wretched and triumphant primitivism shared by the novel’s blacks and women – is Faulkner describing a problem or contributing to it? I’m never sure with Faulkner. This account of a talk Faulkner gave while a writer in residence at the University of Virginia reminds me of the endless debate over whether he was a racist or was someone who supported blacks’ equal rights:
He was not afraid to challenge his UVA audience, as became clear when he decided to commence his second Spring semester in “Residence” by delivering “A Word to Virginians,” a nine-minute speech urging them to help solve rather than exacerbate the growing crisis over court-ordered integration in the Jim Crow South. To 21st century listeners, his exhortations may sound more like temporizings, but at the time they were controversial, and to some in his immediate audience, as you can hear for yourself, unacceptable. (Faulkner at Virginia: An Introduction)
It’s the same with Faulkner and women. I can’t tell what he really thinks about them. But sometimes I believe I want to know what an author “really thinks” only because I find the topic’s richer treatment in his chosen genre to be so unsettling.
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The last question I’d like to raise about Absalom is the question of innocence. Sutpen comes off as a monster – “the demon,” as Shreve is fond of calling him – yet Grandfather believes he is the victim of his own innocence. Which is it?