William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! is genuinely one of the most challenging books I have ever read. My character map quickly became my best friend as I struggled to piece together what happens to the Sutpen family over several decades of scandal, marriage, and death. This book has been on my TBR list for years, though I’ve always been intimidated by how difficult everyone says it is to understand. Fortunately, its presence on my Oxford reading list finally pushed me to set aside my concerns and dive right in!
For me, the most challenging aspect of this novel was deciphering exactly what happened in the Sutpen family. Who married who? Who killed who? Who had children and who didn’t? Who is still alive? In what order did this all take place? These questions and many others remained at the forefront of my mind the entire time I was reading. There are so many characters, voices, and events– not to mention the fact that it’s not told in chronological order. It was fascinating and exciting to constantly learn new information; however, it also makes it much more confusing to read. I think this is a novel that would absolutely benefit from being reread in the future now that I have the basic plot in my mind.
I was thrilled when I realized this novel focuses mainly on Quentin and Shreve. Reading The Sound and the Fury only a few weeks before tackling this bookish obstacle gave me a greater appreciation for Quentin given his unpleasant family situation. The inclusion of these two characters also demonstrates one of my favorite things about Faulkner’s works: the countless connections that link them all together. I felt as though Quentin could have been fleshed out more as a character in The Sound and the Fury, so I was glad to hear more from him in Absalom, Absalom!.
Shreve often tells the story back to Quentin even though he clearly already knows it, which I think is an interesting narrative choice on Faulkner’s part. Shreve sort of takes on the position of the reader as he attempts to understand and wrap his head around what happened. His interpretation of past events is much more emotional than Quentin’s; for instance, he consistently refers to Thomas Sutpen as the “demon.” As readers we are able to have this guttural reaction to the Sutpen saga, but Quentin seems more reserved because it is his own family.
“Quentin did not answer, staring at the window; then he could not tell if it was the actual window or the window’s pale rectangle upon his eyelids, though after a moment it began to emerge. It began to take shape in its same curious, light, gravity-defying attitude–the once-folded sheet out of the wistaria Mississippi summer, the cigar smell, the random blowing of the fireflies. “The South,” Shreve said. “The South. Jesus. No wonder you folks all outlive yourselves by years and years and years.” It was becoming quite distinct. He would be able to decipher the words soon, in a moment; even almost now, now, now.
“I am older at twenty than a lot of people who have died,” Quentin said.”
There’s a point in the narrative when Quentin and Shreve seem to become the past, as though the present is nothing more than a blurry continuation of those convoluted events. Retelling the past from different perspectives is a common theme in Faulkner’s texts, which may explain his frequent use of multiple narrators in a single work. It brings up a lot of interesting questions pertaining to how we think about and interpret the past. Whose account of it is the most accurate: Rosa’s, Quentin’s, or Shreve’s? How do you judge the accuracy of someone talking about the past, especially when they haven’t lived through it? So many unanswered questions!
There is so much more I could say about Absalom, Absalom! but I’ll stop for now lest this review become a novel in itself. Overall, I was fascinated and captivated by this novel even though it was difficult to wade through. I wouldn’t recommend this as the first Faulkner text someone should read, but it’s certainly on the list!
What are your thoughts on Absalom, Absalom! ? What’s your favorite Faulkner novel? Have any recommendations? How do you deal with challenging narratives? Let me know in the comments section below!