The Course and the Assignment
As I was teaching my senior seminar of Faulkner’s fiction last fall, I was following the normal assignments for the course. Each day, students bring to class a 400-500-word analysis of the assigned reading followed by an interpretive question, present the analyses and questions to one another, and then discuss them. After completing each novel, the students write a 1500-2000-word analytic/interpretive essay derived from the daily writing and discussion. After the first three novels, each student chooses one of his/her essays to develop through critical reading, turning it into a 15-20-page scholarly essay.
When the class got to Absalom, Absalom! this year, however, I changed the assignment that follows the completion of each novel. I had made Absalom, Absalom! the fourth novel this time, so the students would not be writing their major paper on it. We were pursuing a deconstructive approach to it in our daily discussions, emphasizing the unreliability of the narrators, their contradictions of themselves and of one another, the relation of each narrative to the desires and ends of the narrators, and the resulting instability of all of the narratives as they purportedly attempt to understand who Thomas Sutpen was and why his son Henry killed Charles Bon upon their return from war.
By midway through the eight days we devoted to the novel, the students were becoming adept at catching the narrators’ various emphases, assumptions, pure inventions, and contradictions and at speculating on the reasons the narrators might have for telling the saga as they do. I wondered if some of the students might understand the metafictional nature of the novel well enough not only to analyze and interpret it in normal analytic essays but also to use it to generate new fictional material. I assumed that the mind first comes to understand new concepts and only then becomes able to use them. I further assumed that only in using new concepts is the mind able to test, further develop, and complete its understanding of them. In short, I assumed that understanding must precede use and that use completes understanding. So I gave my students the following option.
If they wished, I told them, after completing the novel they could write a creative piece rather than an analytic one. They could write a new narrative getting at any of the mysteries of the novel: for example, Sutpen’s nature and motives, his relations with his family, the relation of Judith and Henry to each other, Charles Bon’s identity and/or his relation with Henry and/or Judith and/or Sutpen, and, of course, the reason for Henry’s murder of Bon. They had to follow only a few guidelines:
1) Whether speaking in 1st-person or 3rd-person, the narrator had to be an existing character from the novel.
2) Their narratives had to accord with the “facts” of the Sutpen saga but not with the various narrators’ assumptions and inventions. Thus, for example, they had to accept that Henry met Bon at the university and brought him home three times, that the third visit ended with Henry and Bon riding off together, that they served together in the Confederate army, and that Henry shot Bon upon their return to Sutpen’s Hundred. But they did not have to accept that Bon was Sutpen’s son, that he was of mixed race, or that Sutpen had forbidden the marriage of Bon and Judith on either of those groundsᾰor indeed that he had even forbidden the marriage.
3) Their narratives had to provide new explanations of one or more of the mysteries of the novel.
4) Their chosen narrators had to have reasons for telling the tale as they do, reasons understandable in themselves or in their listeners or in both. But they had to make those reasons implicit rather than explicit. The narrators might not even be aware of reasons for giving the saga the twist they give it or even that they are giving it any particular twist.
My aim was to determine if my students understood how the discursive community works in Absalom, Absalom!, how the Sutpen history related in the novel relies more ontellers and listeners than on recovered historical facts. I assumed that creating their own discursive communities and using the facts to different ends appropriate to the communities they create would be a clear demonstration of their understanding. Below are two of the four narratives I received. Readers will see how fully the writers grasped the metafictional nature of Absalom, Absalom!
Two Student Stories
“And so he jumped off of a bridge and drowned himself?” asked Gabriel.
“Yes,” said Shreve. “He jumped right off of that bridge and straight into that river and drowned himself.” Shreve thought about Quentin for a moment and how he had always baffled him while they roomed together at Harvard. Though Quentin’s suicide was so unexpected and still so fresh in Shreve’s mind, it was Quentin’s story, the story of Thomas Sutpen, and of Henry and Charles Bon, that Shreve could not escape; the story is what baffled Shreve more. He had been home for about a week on summer break, yet that story was so etched in Shreve’s mind that Shreve could have easily believed he had heard the story only yesterday. “Yes Gabe, Quentin was not well, and had been that way for some time.”
Shreve and Gabe were walking around one of the many paths their feet had worn down when they were younger. It was one of those long, summer afternoons that was soon to turn into a pleasant summer evening. It had been Gabe’s idea that he and Shreve go outside to walk.
“Have you seen Father since you’ve been home?” asked Gabe.
“I’ve only seen him twice. Why do you ask?”
“Father hasn’t been feeling too well lately,” said Gabe. He stopped and looked down at the ground, kicking a little at some dirt.
Shreve took a moment, watching his brother demolish the ground with his dusty, worn-out work boots, before answering, “Is that so?”
“Yes,” said Gabe as he and Shreve began to walk again, “When you said your roommate Quentin was unwell for some time, it made me think about Father. Mother didn’t want you to know about him while you were away because she said she didn’t want the news to disrupt your studies. I don’t think Father is that sick, but then again, I don’t know. If you ask meᾰ”
“ᾰCan we talk about something else?” asked Shreve. He stopped for a brief moment to interrupt his brother, and then continued walking.
“I’m sorry, but I was just saying that I don’t think Father is all that sick.”
“It’s fine,” said Shreve, “I just don’t want to hear anymᾰ”
Gabe interjected, “I wonder what Father would do with this place if he did die?”
“Shut up, Gabe!” Shreve stopped suddenly and grabbed Gabe by the arm. “I don’t want to hear you speak another word about this.”
“Okay, okay, Jesus.” Gabe examined his arm. “I just can’t get the thought out of my mind.”
Shreve and Gabe had circled the path they had been walking on when Shreve pointed to the front porch, indicating his desire to return to the indoors. Shreve started that way and Gabe followed. As they were nearing the porch, Shreve said, “I know what can take your mind off of Father.”
“What?” asked Gabe. “What can you do to take my mind off of Father and his health?” Gabe had a ring in his voice that Shreve took as a challenge, like the way a glove strikes the face of a Frenchman seconds before a challenge.
“Do you remember that story I was telling you about? The one about Henry and Charles, and why Henry killed Charles?” asked Shreve with a bit of a smirk.
“Yes. Yes, I remember.” In truth, with all of the thoughts of his father, Gabe had forgotten about the story his brother began telling almost the very minute he walked through the family doors. “What about it? You already told me the story. Are you going to tell it again?”
“The story I told you was Quentin’s version. He made up parts of that story as he lay on the floor in our dorm room telling me about it. He made up the reason why Henry killed Charles Bon right there as I rested in my bed!” Shreve looked at his brother. He knew he had Gabe’s attention. He was going to get Gabe’s mind off of the one thing it seemed obsessed with by telling him the one thing that he (Shreve) was obsessed with, the one thing he himself could not get off of his mind. “Quentin said that Henry killed Charles because Charles had black blood running through his veins, but I believe that was garbage. What does Quentin know about hating race? I never once saw Quentin mistreat anyone who was not of his color. Hell, he talked to ol’ black Deacon down at Harvard almost more than he talked to me, and he was from the South, where race matters!”
Gabe’s eyes telegrammed to Shreve what Shreve already knew; Gabe was now interested in the story. “So what happened then? If what you’re saying is true, that Quentin did make it up, then why did Henry kill Charles? Do you know?”
“I do know why Henry killed Bon, but you’ll have to wait until after dinner.” Shreve smiled as he and Gabe entered the house through the front door.
As Shreve was preparing to go to bed, he heard a knock at his door. “Yes?” Shreve whispered, not wanting to wake his parents two rooms down the hall.
“I wanted to know if you could tell me what really happened between Henry and Bon,” stated Gabe in a timid, yet excited voice.
Shreve wanted to go to bed, but he could not pass up the opportunity to talk about the one thing he dwelt on so much. “Come on in,” said Shreve. “Close the door quietly behind you; I don’t want to wake Mother and Father while I’m telling you this.”
Gabe was very eager. He was so eager, in fact, that as he began to sit down on Shreve’s floor he began retelling what he knew until he came upon the scene in front of Sutpen’s Hundred where Henry shot Bon dead. Shreve stopped Gabe from reciting the whole story, but Gabe did manage to squeak in his big question, “So if it wasn’t race or incest that motivated Henry to kill Bon, then what was the motive?”
“You’ve heard the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, haven’t you?” asked Shreve, pausing.
“Yes,” answered Gabe. “The one about that one brother who killed the other brother because he was jealous? It was the first murder that ever took place on earth.”
“Yes. Yes, that one” responded Shreve. “I suppose I asked you that first because Henry and Charles were brothers, the sons of Thomas Sutpen, the man who created, from dirt and mud, that wonderful, almost magical Eden Quentin called ‘Sutpen’s Hundred,’ and one of those sons, Henry, was jealous of the other one, Charles.”
“What?” Gabe was trying to follow his brother’s rapid ramblings.
“What I’m trying to say to you,” replied Shreve, realizing that he had confused his brother a bit, “is that Henry killed Charles because he was jealous of him.”
“Why was he jealous? Charles had black blood running through his veins, and he also had that mess down in New Orleans with, what was it called? An octoroon? Anyway, so he didn’t have what Henry had, so why was he jealous?”
“You’re looking at it all wrong, Gabe,” said Shreve. “It’s exactly what Charles had that Henry did notᾰa son. What Charles had was a third generation Sutpen, someone who could ensure that Sutpen’s name and legacy would remain. And the part about the black blood, Charles had so little of that blood in him, and the octoroon had so little too that Charles Etienne passed easily as a white man. Sutpen knew that. He’d gone to New Orleans to check things out, to make sure Charles really had a son, to lay eyes on his grandson. Because Charles had a son, Sutpen was going to give Charles, who was older, mind you, Sutpen’s Hundred.”
“So it wasᾰ”
“Let me finish, Gabe. And it was not just the fact that Sutpen saw his future, his dynasty at last in that little boy Charles Etienne; he also saw himself in that boy! Thomas saw that same scenario, the one where he was a boy at that front door where the negro butler turned him away, when he saw Charles Etienne. He could not turn him away the same way that Negro had turned him away. He had to acceptᾰno, not had to, wanted to accept that boy as the future of his dynasty and as the healer of that wounded Thomas Sutpen who stood on that doorstep as a young boy that day he was turned away.”
“So Henry killed Charles because Sutpen was going to give Charles Sutpen’s Hundred? Is that what you think?” asked Gabe.
“That’s what I know,” said Shreve, “because it all makes sense. The reason Henry stormed off that Christmas break, the one where he took Charles with him to Sutpen’s Hundred, was because Sutpen told him there that he was giving Charles the inheritance. Quentin said that Aunt...uh, Miss Rosa or Mr. Compson or somebody told him that Henry repudiated his inheritance and denounced his birthright, but what really happened is that Henry lost those things. He became filled with that same rage that Cain must have felt when he saw how God responded pleasantly to his brother and not so to him. And then, Henry thought he could win back his chance at obtaining Sutpen’s Hundred by enlisting in the War. This, however, did not go as he had planned because his beloved, able brother Charles joined in the fight as well.”
“So wait, wait,” interrupted Gabe. He was on Shreve’s floor with his head propped on his hand and an extra sheet on top of him, listening. “Did Quentin tell you any of this orᾰ”
“ᾰhe didn’t have to. The story he told was full of lies. Nothing made sense. This does. This makes sense.” At this point, Shreve was pacing his room, flailing his arms at times and looking to the wall at times as if he had to preach the sermon of jealousy to a whole congregation. “And so everything that was to take place would parallel with that story about that beautiful garden God placed on this earth that moment he created the heavens and the earth. How did Quentin put it? ‘Be Sutpen’s Hundred like the oldentime Be Light,’ anyway, and the mud-caked Adam/ Sutpen had created that estate that these two brothers were about to fight over, and he’d also created the two sons who were to do the fighting. And these two sons Henry-Cain and Charles-Abel sat their horses there that fateful day in front of Sutpen’s Hundred and Henry killed Charles.”
“Well,” said Gabe as the gears in his mind churned like, “why did Henry kill Bon outside of Sutpen’s Hundred? Why didn’t he kill him in the war and pretend Charles died that way? I mean, he could have gotten the estate then, right?” He was sitting up now, intrigued by his own question.
“I suppose he could have,” said Shreve, “but that was not part of Henry’s plan. Henry knew that Charles knew that Henry knew about the situation. Henry was more mad at Charles not telling him about the situation than he was about losing Sutpen’s Hundred. So Henry wanted Charles to see the estate one last time. He wanted to say to Charles, ‘look upon the garden you can never tend to,’ before killing him. And then, then he did it. He pulled the trigger on that revolver he held in his hand.” Shreve mimicked the motion. On the wall, the shadowy representation of the gun pointed straight at Gabe. Seeing this on the wall, and wanting to make some fun, Gabe quickly lay down as if he had been shot by that shadowy bullet. “The gun blast thundered the same way God’s voice must have thundered that day when He banished Cain into a lifetime of wandering. And then it was finished. Henry got his revenge upon Charles, for not telling him he knew, and upon his father, for overlooking him when it came to passing on Sutpen’s Hundred.”
Gabe sat up for a moment, taking in the story before starting, “I see, butᾰ”
“ᾰI’m really tired now, Gabe. Let’s go to bed.” For once, in a long time, Shreve did not want to re-tell the story. He did not want to even think about the story at that moment. He just wanted to go to bed.
The next morning, after breakfast, Shreve was in the family study reading. Gabe, who hadn’t been able to sleep the night before, walked into the study soon after and sat down on the couch opposite Shreve. The story was contagious. It crept into Gabe’s mind the same way it had crept into Shreve’s mind, and it was on Gabe’s mind now just as much as it had been on Shreve’s mind only the day before. Finally Shreve put down his book and looked at Gabe. Gabe then asked, “Was that it?”
“Was what it?” asked Shreve.
“Was that the whole story as to why Henry killed Charles? Or is there more?” responded Gabe.
“There isn’t any more to tell,” said Shreve as he began to raise the book.
“Well, I was just wonderingᾰyou said that Quentin met Henry andᾰ”
“Hold on,” said Shreve as he placed his book on the table, being careful to mark his place in the book before placing it down. “I did say that Quentin told me he met Henry, but that has nothing to do with why Henry killed Charles.”
Gabe sat there a moment and then said, “Well, I didn’t know if Quentin mentioned to you that Henry said anything to him about Charles, or anything like that.”
“No,” said Shreve. “Quentin didn’t even ask Henry about Charles, or so he says. But it doesn’t matter anyway. Henry was there for one reason, and one reason only, and it wasn’t to die. It was to make sure his plan to ruin Sutpen’s Hundred was completed. See, Henry thought that after killing Charles, he would ruin Sutpen for good. He knew that Sutpen was too old to have another son, and he knew that Sutpen could not adopt Charles Etienne, that his mother wouldn’t give him up with Charles dead, so he assumed that Sutpen’s Hundred would crumble completely. I know that it did to some degree, but Henry literally hoped the walls of that Be Sutpen’s Hundred would crumble and Be No More. And so, when Henry returned to find that the walls had not come down, he saw that Eden turn into a Jericho, and he the new Henry-Cain-Joshua set fire to Sutpen’s Mansion and watched it crash into the dirt from whence it came.”
"Oh,” said Gabe. He sat there looking at his brother with a child-like expression. He couldn’t come up with any other questions. He looked at Shreve who, for a moment, rested his hands upon his knees as if telling the story were now extremely laborious. “So it was jealousy. I can understand that. I won’t justify what Henry did, but I can understand it.”
Gabe rose and left the study while Shreve returned to his seat and picked up his book. He had read only two more pages of his book when his mother walked into the study.
“Shreve, honey,” said his mother as she placed herself in the seat next to his, “is everything okay?”
Shreve had marked his place in the book as he set it down again upon the table, “Yes. Yes everything is fine. Why do you ask?”
“Well, I didn’t know if you were still troubled by your little friend who jumped offᾰ”
“No, Mother,” said Shreve, almost annoyed. “I’m fine, really I am.”
“Well, I don’t have any idea why anybody would do that, butᾰNow Shreve,” Shreve’s mother raised her hand and placed it on Shreve’s knee. “I don’t want to upset you any more, but, well, it’s about Father. He hasn’t been feeling well lately and Iᾰ”
Shreve tuned his mother out, thinking. He did think about Quentin. He did think about his father and what would happen to the house his father had built with his own two hands if his father did die. He thought about how he had tried to clear the mechanism in his mind that held the story of Henry and Charles, but how, in reality, it still lingered there as fresh as it now lingered in Gabe’s mind. He thought until he was interrupted by the kiss his mother placed on his forehead.
“Your father and I are very proud of you and I do hope, though you may not graduate in time to help Father, that you continue with your studies in medicine. You are so smart, Shreve, and I know that you have the ability to help people.” She smiled and turned away, walking towards the kitchen.
Shreve sat it his chair. He did not attempt to pick up his book. He sat there for some time and thought, “Henry, Charles, Quentin, Father, what does this all mean?” The story Quentin told began to overtake Shreve’s thinking, “Do I hate it that Quentin told me this story? Do I hate it?” Just then, Shreve heard Gabe’s voice.
“Hey, Shreve.” It was Gabe. “Edward just got home from college a few hours ago. I was telling him a little about that story you told me. He wants to hear you tell about Henry and Charles because I told him you turned out to be a good story-teller. You should tell him the story. He doesn’t believe you’ve become such a good story-teller.”
Shreve just sat there. Even though his childhood friend whom he hadn’t seen in over a year was home from school, he just sat there, wondering, “Do I hate it?”
It was another time of telling. Quentin and Jason sat, rigid with long-endured cold, in the shifting light of a rekindled fire, neither able to sleep for the cold or worries or embittered thoughts or fear of the dark or maybe shall we say that residual childhood wide-eyed anticipation of Christmas morning. There was nothing else to do. The wind outside bayed, howled, somehow growing exponentially louder during those periods of tired silence, clamoring so it seemed for the story, of which (and of Sutpen) Jason had gathered shreds whenever Mr. Compson had chanced to give an episode to Quentin. So this night Quentin fancied himself a tailor, who would, as it was only right, seam and patch those tatters for his shabbily clad brother.
“So in the fall of 1859,” Quentin continued, “ Henry, Sutpen’s son by Ellen Coldfield, whom he took after, went off to the University at Oxford, a respectable institution, no doubt, and it was there he met Charles Bon. Bon was older and more worldly, seeing as he was from New Orleans (that’s in Louisiana)ᾰ”
“I know whᾰ”
“and his name was “Bon” (that’s French for ‘good’)ᾰ”
“Will you juᾰ”
“All right, all right. And so he was more knowledgeable about clothes and women and high living, and so naturally Henry and not a few others took quickly to him and probably tried to emulate him, with that wonder and admiration that is mostly genuine but also somewhat begrudges the emulated for being worthy of that kind of wonder and admiration. And so Father said it didn’t take long for Sutpen and Ellen and Judith to find out about him, Henry mentioning him early on in his letters and inviting him to stay the two weeks of Christmas vacation at Sutpen’s Hundred (which doubtless disappointed the others who didn’t get to him sooner), and probably he already knew much about Judith from Henry, though what Henry told him may have been subtly (or not so subtly) trenchant or even downright false, and maybe he was already intrigued by what would cause Henry to talk about his sister so intensely and so often. Whatever else led up to his arrival, Charles came to Sutpen’s Hundred that Christmas, Charles who was so soon almost (in the sense of worldly knowledge and experience) the father of Henry, and left, Father said, practically engaged to his sister Judith. Maybe Sutpen watched them those two weeks and did nothing, waited until Bon left and then found out about the octoroon, or one-eighth black”ᾰQuentin noticed Jason tighten upᾰ“mistress that he had been keeping in New Orleans, leading him to prevent his marrying Judith later (as Father thought), or maybe he knew from the moment he saw Bon’s name in one of Henry’s letters that Bon was his son, his firstborn, from his marriage to the Spanish daughter of a wealthy planter in Haiti when Sutpen had quit Virginia to make his fortune in the West Indies and could not have Bon marry his own half-sister (though no one else would have known), or maybe he just refused to acknowledge Bon as his son (either as begat by him or further by permitting his marriage to Judith) because his mother was part negro (which was why he had left Bon and his mother in Haiti to come to Mississippi) and he as the would-be progenitor of a noble southern line could not suffer a nigger to soil the House of Sutpen, later revealing this to Henry so that he would kill Bon. But why would Sutpen, who himself took a French negro as his mistress and would have taken Rosa Coldfield (and probably did take Milly Jones) as one to secure a male heir to his throne, resent Bon for taking a mistress, even one with one-eighth-black blood, and why would he resent Bon for having black blood (or even Sutpen’s own blood), who showed so little concern for the respectability Rosa Coldfield said he sought in his heretical association with his own slaves, his working with them and his naked and bloody fighting with them with his children (or at least Judith and Clytie) looking on? Yes, maybe none of these were the reason; maybe Sutpen saw himself in Bon (whether he was really Sutpen’s true son (of that Spanish and perhaps-nigger woman) or not), who like him had a mistress (or maybe more than one) and like himself came to the South to prosper and marry and have a family, while Henry was just like his mother, stagnant and whining and effeminate, who probably would not have amounted to anything even if he had not eventually killed Bon and had to flee the Hundred.” Quentin thought he could see sweat shining on Jason’s face now. “Probably when Bon came the next Christmas Sutpen didn’t do nothing but actually acknowledged Bon as his son (whether spoken or unspoken, of blood or in spirit, nigger or not, though probably of blood and a nigger) and welcomed his marriage to Judith, which caused Henry to reject his father and his birthright, if any birthright he had, knowing it would probably go to Bon now. Probably Bon then in secret told Henry that he would not marry Judith in order to assuage him, (and whether or not Henry believed him) somehow he and Bon were reconciled, and they enlisted together in the University regiment and went off to the War. After four years Henry must have known that Bon was writing to Judith and still intended to marry her, and so he sought out his father’s regiment, said he had a message for his father Colonel Sutpen, and speaking to his father for the first time in four years told him he could not let Charles marry Judith, but his father would not hear it, would not listen to his wife’s son and told him to welcome his brother. So Henry returned to his own regiment to confront his brother, raised his pistol at him and told him that he was his brother and could not let him marry his sister, but whether Bon believed him or not or knew it already or just sensed it, he would not abandon his intentions, ‘Unless you stop me, Henry,’ he said, maybe telling him, ‘I’m the nigger that’s going to sleep with your sister, with my sister,’ or probably, ‘I’m the Sutpen that’s going to replace you, for your father and your sister and your mother,’” Quentin finished, with perhaps a slight emphasis on “mother.”
“I’d ‘a killed him just for being a royal French bastard.” Quentin wondered if he could not see actual steam rising from Jason’s quilted form; he smiled faintly in the firelight, his lip making a thin shadow above his chin. “I’m going to bed,” Jason growled. “I’m getting a headache and the firelight is making it worse.”