In his novel Absalom, Absalom
(1936), William Faulkner traces the rise and fall of antebellum Southern culture by following the life story of a single man, using a mixture of equally unreliable narrators.
The story opens on the night before Quentin is to depart for Harvard; he is summoned to the dark, hot home of family friend Rosa Coldfield, who tells him her version of the story of her brother-in-law, Thomas Sutpen. Sutpen arrived in the area in the 1830s and acquired the land on which Sutpen’s Hundred was built through devious and possibly illegal means. He established a thriving plantation there and seemed poised for wealth and influence. Rosa’s description of Sutpen is dark and foreboding, describing him consistently as a devil or demon. Rosa tells Quentin that Sutpen was a savage, awful man who forced his slaves to fight for his amusement, sometimes taking part in the fights. Sutpen, marrying Rosa’s older sister Ellen in a bid for social status, has two children, Judith and Henry. Rosa implies that she believes the South lost the Civil War because it was led by men like Sutpen, whom God wished to punish. On Judith’s wedding day, her brother Henry killed her fiancé in front of the gates of Sutpen’s Hundred.
Quentin’s father tells the same story with a vastly different tone. Sutpen was initially regarded as a mystery, a man who took rooms in town and somehow purchased his land with Spanish gold. He would disappear for long periods of time, once returning with a large number of slaves. He began clearing the land and building Sutpen’s Hundred. He lived a wild life until, one day, he came into town to court Ellen Coldfield; he suddenly ceased his wild ways, dedicating himself to her family. However, the town began to suspect that he had acquired his wealth illegally, and on the day he became engaged to Ellen, he was arrested, though later bailed out by the Coldfields.
His father tells him more about Rosa. Her mother died in childbirth, and Ellen, who was much older, was already married to Thomas Sutpen when Rosa was born. Ellen seemed transformed by her association with Sutpen, turning into someone Rosa despised. Mr. Compson also tells of Charles Bon, Judith’s fiancé whom her brother Henry killed, who had been Henry’s friend and roommate at college. A sophisticated man with foreign manners, Bon seemed to cause a falling out between Henry and his father. Alone and in poverty after the war, Rosa did not move to Sutpen’s Hundred even though she had been asked to look after Judith, until a poor farmer, Wash Jones, sat on his horse outside her window and called her name.
Mr. Compson produces a letter from Charles to Judith, elaborating on Charles’s story, telling Quentin that Charles and Henry had become great friends and Charles and Judith had fallen in love when Thomas Sutpen told Henry that Charles had a secret wife who was part black. Refusing to believe this of his friend, Henry denounced his father, leaving home. Charles confirmed it was true, but since the woman was black, it didn’t count. Henry was conflicted about this, and throughout the war, delayed giving his blessing to Charles marrying his sister. Mr. Compson implies that Henry was in love with both his sister and Charles.
Rosa picks up the story; Wash Jones summoned her because Henry had killed Charles. Rosa raced to Sutpen’s Hundred, staying there until Thomas Sutpen returned. He took an interest in Rosa and she became engaged to him. Later, he insulted her in a way she refuses to explain, and she fled the plantation. She tells Quentin someone has been living at Sutpen’s Hundred, hiding there for years.
At school, Quentin learns that Miss Rosa has died. He tells his roommate, Shreve, the story, and listens as Shreve re-tells it in his own way. Quentin reveals that after failing to rebuild the plantation, Thomas Sutpen began sleeping with Wash Jones’s daughter, who died in childbirth; Wash Jones murdered Thomas Sutpen in revenge. Quentin remembers how Charles Bon’s illegitimate son was brought from New Orleans and raised by Judith into a man tormented by his mixed-race status, and who, in turn, had a son, Jim Bond, a large, simple-minded man. Shreve recounts how Quentin told him that he and Miss Rosa investigated Sutpen’s Hundred, finding Jim Bond and one of Thomas Sutpen’s illegitimate daughters with his slaves, Clytie, living there, just as Rosa had predicted—and also something else.
Quentin goes on to tell Shreve that before he came to build his plantation, Thomas Sutpen had worked as the foreman on a sugar plantation in the West Indies; he married and had a son—Charles Bon. When Sutpen realized his wife had Negro blood, he left her and started over. When he discovered that Charles Bon was engaged to his daughter, he told Henry they were half-siblings in hope that he would stop the marriage, but Henry didn’t; later, Sutpen told Henry that Charles was part-black, which enraged Henry, leading him to kill Charles.
Quentin and Shreve imagine the day that Henry killed Charles Bon. When Judith found the body, Henry had replaced a photo of her with a photo of his illegitimate family; the roommates speculate this was to let her know Charles did not deserve her grief. Quentin tells Shreve that when he took Rosa to the house, they found Henry hiding there, waiting to die. This shook Rosa; she eventually called for an ambulance to come to help him, letting go of her bitterness. When Clytie saw the ambulance approaching, she thought it was police coming to arrest Henry; she set the house on fire. The story ends as Shreve asks Quentin why he hates the south. Quentin insists that he does not.