Published in the same year as Gone with the Wind, Absalom, Absalom! is centered around the story of Thomas Sutpen, the man who came to Yoknapatawpha and set out to realize his great design, establishing himself as the patriarch of his plantation known as Sutpen’s Hundred and the siring of what was to be a great legacy. However, it is just as much about the relationship between Quentin and Shreve, Harvard roommates who jointly create the narrative after Quentin chooses this story with which to answer Shreve’s famous question, “Tell about the South,” and about how such stories are constructed and reconstructed.
Relying on recollections of Quentin and the stories he’s been told all his life, especially those by Miss Rosa Coldfield and his father, Jason Compson, as well as the documentary evidence of letters, tombstones, and Quentin’s own experiences, Quentin and Shreve tell the story of Sutpen’s marriage to Ellen Coldfield and their children, Judith and Henry. In an incestuous love triangle, Henry brings home his Ole Miss roommate Charles Bon (whom it is revealed is also the son of Sutpen by his first wife, whom he married in Haiti before realizing that she, too, had “black blood”). The love triangle in part allows for a homosocial bond between Henry and Bon, as Judith is described as the empty vessel which contained their love for each other. After discovering that Charles is not only Sutpen’s son, but the truth of his birth (as well as Bon’s previous plaçage marriage in New Orleans, which produced an heir. Henry ultimately shoots and kills Bon.
According to John Bibler, Quentin looks to Henry and Charles Bon as a possible precedent for the homoerotic bond he shares with Shreve. Unfortunately, the realization that Charles Bon might have “black blood” demonstrates that, after the Civil War, racial status could not be determined for sure. Unlike before the Civil War, when male/male relationships could be acceptable on the basis of what Bibler, relying on Leo Bersani’s concept of “homo-ness,” sees as a potential for a progressive possibilities for anti-hierarchical, egalitarian relationships. What’s interesting to me is the not only fluidity of gender in the novel, but the very permeability of identity: at one point in the narration, as Quentin and Shreve narrate the story of Henry and Charles, they are described as being four, then two, then four. Though John Matthew’s article “This Race Which is Not One” is referencing Light in August in its evocation of Irigaray’s concept of the plurality of female sex, it’s equally applicable to Absalom—not just in terms of race, but in terms of gender and individual identity as well. Even Thomas Sutpen at one point is defined in terms of multiple identities.
In class, we were asked to consider what work the novel does in positioning the South with regard to Gary Richards’ claim that the South functions as a way of quarantining queerness for the rest of the country. If Light in August demonstrates the futility of putting “a white man through the process of establishing his identity and hence exposing the fiction of pure racial difference” (213), as Matthews claims, then perhaps Absalom demonstrates the melancholic repetition of this process: “there is no all, no finish; it is not the blow we suffer from but the tedious repercussive anti-climax of it, the rubbishy aftermath to clear away from off the very threshold of despair” (167). Considering the question of the South specifically as a quarantined region of queerness, Absalom illustrates the process of trying to clear away the rubbishy detritus of despair, the effluvium which results from this process of trying to establish the unestablishable.