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Structure and Storytelling in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom

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Structure and Storytelling in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom
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   Nathan Johnson 1 Structure and Storyt elling in Faulkner’s  Absalom, Absalom! In many respects, William Faulkner’s  Absalom, Absalom!  may be one of the most  puzzling and challenging novels ever written. Instead of relying on an omniscient narrator and a linear structure, Faulkner tells the story of the rise and fall of the house of Thomas Sutpen  primarily through the scattered and contradictory memories, stories, and speculations of over half a dozen characters. From Miss Rosa’s biased and    bitter testimony, to Quentin’s account of stories told to him by his father which were in turn told to his father by his grandfather or simply reconstructed from Mr. Compson’s own speculation, to Shreve’s imaginative (albeit plausible) speculations concerning things no one can ever know, the novel presents itself as a challenging tapestry of interwoven stories more in the realm of oral history and symbolic legend than strict factual history. And in so doing, Faulkner not only relates a fascinating and engaging story, but also explores the nature of story and history itself, pushing the reader to ask some of the most  penetrating and fundamental questions about how we know and how stories are essential to coming to grips not only with the past, but also with who we are at our very core. Through this, Faulkner challenges every reader to ask “why does he choose to structure his story the way he does?” and “how does it serve the reader far more th an a linear, objective narrative ?” The story begins with a potentially omniscient and objective narrative voice, which mostly functions throughout the novel as a framework through which the reader can observe the story being told through the characters. The narrator gives the reader a scene: Quentin and Miss Rosa in conversation about the Old South and Rosa’s memories of Thomas Sutpen. But even on the first page, the narrator seems to be uninterested in giving the reader even an objective  perspective of the scene itself, resorting by the end of the first sentence to a description of Quentin’s thoughts about the old dried paint  (3). The narrator describes Rosa as wearing a black   Nathan Johnson 2 dress for forty-three years, but explains that no one knew for whom she wore it (3). By the second paragraph the narrative seems to enter Rosa’s im agination, describing the memories, the “ghost,” of Sutpen as seen through Rosa’s mind’s eye and even Quentin’s imaginative reconstruction in his own head of Rosa’s stories: as the narrator states , “Quentin seemed to watch them overrun suddenly the hundred square miles of tranquil and astonished earth and drag house and formal gardens violently out of the soundless Nothing” (4). Even the objective narrator seems more interested in giving the reader limited perspectives on most details essential to the story, even though the narrator could presumably tell the reader “the truth.” By beginning the novel in such a way, the reader must remain content to discover the truth slowly, forced to piece it together from the stories of those the narrator allows us to listen to and observe. Adding to the complexity, the narrator hints that much of the novel may actually be a dialogue Quentin is having with himself based on the stories he’s heard and the conversations he’s had about the South and about Thomas Sutpen specifically. As Quentin sits and listens to Rosa, the narrator says, “Then hearing would reconcile and he would seem to listen to two separate Quentins now  —  the Quentin Compson preparing for Harvard in the South, the deep South dead since 1865 and peopled with garrulous outraged baffled ghosts, listening, having to listen to one of the ghosts which had refused to lie still even longer than most had, telling him about old ghost-times; and the Quentin Compson who was still too young to deserve yet to be a ghost but nevertheless having to be one for all that, since he was born and bread in the deep South the same as she was  —  the two separate Quentins now talking to one another in the long silence of notpeople in notlanguage…” (4 -5)   Nathan Johnson 3 This passage may be one of the most significant single passages in the novel to help orient the reader to what Faulkner is attempting in  Absalom, Absalom! . On one level Faulkner introduces the novel as a series of stories that is absorbed (and  perhaps told) by two types of people, represented by the two Quentins. The first Quentin seems to be a removed listener, the Southerner going off to Harvard and interested in hear  ing the “ghost stories” of the S outh, perhaps so he can tell his college friends these stories late at night, removed from the stories because the stories are not strictly about him or even his family. The second Quentin seems to be a part of the story itself, a ghost just like the characters of the story, a participant in the story because he has grown up in the “haunted South” the same as Rosa and Sutpen and the others. As the story unfolds, Quentin becomes less and less the first Quentin, removed and observant, and more and more the second Quentin, to the point that eventually he in some way becomes Henry and Charles (236; 280). These two types are not limited to the listeners of the story, however; they also apply to the tellers. As the narrative progresses and becomes increasingly complex as more and more characters recount or recreate the story of the Sutpen family, it becomes clear that every storyteller is a removed third party and also a participant of the story, inserting biases, fabrications, assumptions, and their own values and worldview into their speculations. While Rosa, the three generations of Compsons, and Shreve are not central participants in the history of the Sutpen family (although Rosa and General Compson do feature in significant ways), each storyteller in some fashion puts themselves into the story, whether by their framing of the story, their justifications and vilifications of the characters, or their conjectures about reasons and motives and thoughts and actions. Even Shreve, who is the only non-Southerner and non-American storyteller in the novel, inserts his own assumptions according to the way he sees the   Nathan Johnson 4 world: he contradicts Mr. Compson’s assertion that Charles was wounded, he invents a lawyer, he insists that Charles loved Judith, and he even finds himself identifying with Charles and Henry just as Quentin does. In this way, Faulkner forces the reader to consider several things simultaneously: the details of the stories relayed by each character, the ways these details cohere or contradict each other, which character relays which detail and where that character received the information, whether many of the details are a product of speculation or imagination, why each character is telling the story the way he is, and how the story as relayed by each storyteller informs us about the storytellers themselves. To further add to this complexity, the reader is forced to choose which details of the story he will believe more or which he chooses to be more speculative of. Once the reader makes a choice, he must now ask himself why he has chosen to believe some details rather than others. Furthermore, in making this choice, the reader must come to grips with the reality that he, too, is like Quentin, a removed and passive observer on the one hand, and an interested, involved participant on the other. For every story about deeply human things is a story about us, and thus the reader finds himself within the story, choosing and recreating details to suit his own narrative and perspective. By presenting such a complex narrative and forcing the reader to consider so many things, Faulkner seems not only interested in telling the story itself, but in forcing the reader to consider the implications of each choice he makes in his telling. And this leads the reader to consider the even broader question of what is the primary purpose or purposes of Faulkner telling this story at all. The answer to this question seems to rely partly on the reasons the characters themselves are telling the story as well as the ways in which the story is told. The   Nathan Johnson 5 opening scene between Quentin and Rosa seems to indicate that, at least in some ways, this story is a means of understanding the South, both its history and the stories it tells about itself. Faulkner seems to frame the South as a land haunted with memories of the past, a land “ dead since 1865 and peopled with garrulous outraged baffl ed ghosts” (4). Even Rosa, who is still alive, is unde rstood to be a ghost, “telling about old ghost times” (4), stuck and “backlooking,” trying to understand why it lost the Civil War and how the Civil War and the memories of those who lived through it recasts the story of the Antebellum South in a different light (4-5). And Quentin himself seems to be representative of that next generation of Southerners who never lived through the war but who nonetheless try to understand what the South was and is. And in the midst of seeking understanding  —  listening to Rosa and Mr. Compson relate memories and fables and perhaps even fabrications  —  Quentin also becomes a storyteller, recounting to Shreve the stories he’s heard, telling the stories about the land he doesn’t even understand to people further removed than he, to p eople who ask questions such as “ tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all  ” (142). And he doesn’t merely tell the stories he’s heard, but he and Shreve try to fill in the gaps, piecing together portions of the story of Thomas Sutpen from disparate and sometimes contradictory fragments told by others. In this way, the story of Thomas Sutpen and his family seems to function as representative of the South in several ways: the Sutpen fami ly’s history seems to embody the South in its antebellum and postbellum form  —  or at least part of it (the “noman” coming from nowhere, stealing land, subduing slaves, building a plantation, and by shear power of will trying to create his own nobility and family heritage, eventually falling by his own hand like a twisted tragic hero  beset by the curse for the “disease” of slavery and racism that has fallen on the South
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