“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.”
― William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! has been misunderstood as an overly complex novel, meant entirely to allegorize the fall of the American Deep South. While the analogy is valid, there are many other themes and allusions throughout the 1936 text, namely that of the grotesque. The grotesque is a primarily American invention, to which Faulkner utilizes with great skill through a combination of caricature, alienation, and the monstrous. What follows is primary analysis of Absalom, Absalom! itself, along with essays in five texts, Monty Python: Complete and Utter Theory of the Grotesque being the most helpful. Two websites were also used. With these sources, the use of the grotesque in Absalom, Absalom! was ascertained, specifically that of Henry’s grotesque obsession for acceptance, Rosa’s madness, and the grotesque mixture of innocent and guilt in the character of Sutpen. Therefore, different themes in Absalom, Absalom! provide deeper understanding of Faulkner’s novel, thus highlighting the importance of the grotesque in other literature.
“Grotesque” is defined in the dictionary as “strange and unpleasant, especially in a silly or slightly frightening way” (Cambridge Dictionaries Online), which is not terribly helpful when discussing the literary grotesque. To be sure, the “strange” and “silly” are indeed features of the grotesque in literature, but fortunately it runs deeper than that. Wolfgang Kayser, the go-to man of the artistic and literary grotesque, related it to the theme of madness: the primary “expression of our failure to orient ourselves in the physical universe” (185). This position would explain the ubiquitous appearance of the grotesque in fiction, long and short. Ultimately, the grotesque is the mixing of “genuine beauty with real horror,” often via juxtaposition (Brien 6), touching upon “the fantastic, . . . caricature, satire, . . . the bizarre, . . . and . . . the abnormal” (Meindl 14). While it would be foolish to assume that the grotesque does not exist in foreign stories (Kayser himself was German), it can be argued as a quintessentially American genre; indeed, William Van O’Conner has done so in his work on the subject. Unlike the English novel, he states, American novels are not “domesticated”; they are “profound poetry of disorder” and “the novel[s] of violence” (3), two phrases fully capable of defining the grotesque. Edgar Allan Poe, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Herman Melville, Charles Brockden Brown, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman are all famous American authors who dabbled in the grotesque in one form or other, but the one of the indisputable masters of the genre was William Faulkner (O’Conner 26). His 1936 novel, Absalom, Absalom!, is specifically that of the Southern grotesque, here referring to the American Deep South, still feeling the taint of Civil War aftermath. O’Conner believes Southern writers (of whom, besides Faulkner, include Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Eudora Welty) had an obsession with the grotesque because “people were living with a code that was no longer applicable, and this meant a detachment from reality” (6). The political, the innocent, the demonic, the beautiful – nothing is sacred in grotesque writing, and Faulkner accepts that challenge with his depictions of the South and his characters, Thomas Sutpen, Henry Sutpen, and Rosa Coldfield, in the book. Thus, through a combination of caricature, alienation, and the monstrous, Absalom, Absalom! proves to be a truly grotesque novel.
When one thinks of caricature, typically a cartoon image of a famous person will spring to mind, their familiar appearance distorted beyond reality, or as Philip Thomson put it, “a peculiar feature . . . exaggerated to the point of abnormality” (17). It is strange and silly, which, according to the dictionary, must also be grotesque. Thomson disagrees, albeit acknowledging the use of caricature by the grotesque: “When this norm [for caricaturistic exaggeration – a norm of abnormality] is exceeded, the caricature is no longer simply funny, but disgusting or fearsome besides, for it approaches the realm of the monstrous . . . so distorted [as to feel] threatened” (17-8). In Absalom, Absalom!, Thomas Sutpen is a caricature of the South as Faulkner saw it. That is not to say that Sutpen is intended to be humorous (rather the opposite, really), but his story goes beyond mere analogy and into the grotesque. It is directly compared in the text itself: “’But that our cause, our very life and future hopes and past pride, should have been thrown into the balance with men like that to buttress it – men with valor and strength but without pity or honor. Is it any wonder that Heaven saw fit to let us lose?’” (Faulkner 13). Quentin Compson is the main character of the story, in the sense that it is he who obsessively gathers the pieces of Sutpen’s history (since he recognizes, perhaps unconsciously, that it represents the South and thus himself) and ties them together for the reader. Psychoanalytical critics would perhaps draw a parallel between Quentin and Faulkner, who “also lived under the spell of his own family’s history and the history of his own town” (O’Connor 62). Both are proud of their heritage, and yet ashamed of it – a grotesque mix of honor and sin. The problem Faulkner had with the South was its inability to put the past behind it; in fact, his “life philosophy was developed against the South’s obsession with the past” (Meindl 142). Obsession is also grotesque, an ill-fitting union between the rational and irrational. There is no doubt that Sutpen is obsessed by his dream of creating a dynasty. When he comes into town for the first time, the residents notice that he looks and moves like one who has been through a terrible fever, and more besides. Though Sutpen does have some gold with which to buy land, it is through sheer force of will that his Xanadu is created: “Sutpen’s Hundred.” The Negroes he employs are never anything less than subservient, Sutpen apparently having “caught them at the psychological instant by example, by some ascendancy of forbearance rather than by brute fear” (Faulkner 27). He has no money to buy liquor or even another set of clothes, but single-mindedly works on the house, which is symbolic of his irrational obsession. There is no guarantee that once the plantation is built, that he will be able to fill it or even live on it, but Sutpen continues relentlessly. Indeed, it is three years after the monstrosity is complete before he even ventures out to maintain his pursuit of greatness, a quest at which he ultimately fails. It is not entirely through any fault of his own; a theme of fatalism ripples throughout the novel. The beginning of his decline is his marriage to Ellen Coldfield, a mistake “which if he had acquiesced to it would not even have been an error and which, since he refused to accept it or be stopped by it, became his doom” (Faulkner 41). Unlike King Arthur to Queen Guinevere, it is not because Ellen is ill-suited for him, but rather that he has already been married, and the wedding ceremony, intended to be pure and fresh for new beginnings, is already stained by past sins. Like Arthur, though, it is an unacknowledged child and incest that brings the kingdom crashing down. Charles Bon, the hidden son, becomes betrothed to his half-sister, for whom her brother, Henry, has subtle incestuous feelings. Henry, obsessed for acceptance and love (the grotesque combining the sanctity of love with the filth of incest – “the grotesque usually involves itself with the forbidden” [Steig 8]), is not much perturbed by the announcement of Charles Bon’s true father, and only when it is revealed that Charles is part-Negro, does Henry kill him for the miscegenation, revealing his attitude toward the South as a whole. Henry knows “that the South is hovering on the brink of defeat, which he sees as shame and degradation” and thus “condones incest as an ironic final mark of their shame and degradation” (O’Connor 73). Sutpen’s legacy is destroyed, as his first son is dead, Henry flees for his life and sanity, and his daughter is “widowed before she had been a bride” (Faulkner 167). Sutpen fights in the Civil War against the North, and returns a broken man. Without his legacy to carry on his name, Sutpen’s Hundred falls into ruin. It is the rejection of Charles, Sutpen’s Negro son, which “traces southern history to its barest and essential item, its original sin” (Meindl 150). To Faulkner, the South is like Quentin, obsessed with an old story and unable to keep moving forward. The past, according to Faulkner, should be “permeating the present and outlining the future, as something that could be accepted and propitiated by individuals ready to embrace the motion and change of life” (Meindl 149), but ultimately the South cannot. Like a distasteful political cartoon, Sutpen dies through the grotesque means of the monstrous and the pathetic: a scythe wielded by an angry squatter. Faulkner’s message is as clear as his caricature: the South was destroyed by the same moral constipation that destroys Sutpen.
Faulkner’s concern with the validity of his homeland is based on nostalgia, and pure childlike innocence. O’Connor suggests Absalom, Absalom! was written not only to confront Southern ideas, but American thinking in general. The American Dream – America “as the land of new opportunities and great expectations” (O’Connor 20) – is the dream of the innocent, and therefore it comes as quite a shock when the horror of reality becomes evident. Perhaps this, then, is the reason for the grotesque being so prevalent in American literature, the writers’ “grotesqueries are like the corrupted young or the wicked act of the dedicated idealist, doubly a betrayal, doubly evil” (O’Connor 21). It is the idea of alienation: of being in the world, but not part of it; of self-doubt and discombobulation; and in the case of Sutpen, of being grotesquely equally innocent and guilty. Faulkner’s writing style contributes heavily to this theme. He would perhaps, agree with the opinions of the German poet, Morgenstern, who claimed language was akin to imprisonment, and that “one must ‘smash language,’ destroy man’s naïve trust in the most familiar and unquestioned part of his life, before he can learn to think properly” (Thomson 30). The sudden doubt and bewilderment one feels when confronted with unconventional language is, as Thomson notes, “not unlike the sense of disorientation and confusion associated with the grotesque” (30). Absalom, Absalom! is written in stream-of-consciousness, with paragraph markers, punctuation, and proper grammar usually non-existent. It works well as a writing mode because it mimics the human thought process, with one idea tumbling over another, all rushing to the forefront of the brain to ultimately form something coherent. Needless to say, it can be quite overwhelming and puzzling, and Faulkner does not make decipherment any easier, as the events of Absalom, Absalom! are not strictly chronological. Since “[e]ach physical presence, each action, and each description serves to dramatize a conception” (O’Connor 49-50) and Faulkner wanted to examine the past’s effect on the present, it makes sense for scenes to be out of order. The lengthy, round-about prose serves as a sort of memory recall, discussions of the present bringing in events from the past and speculating about the future with random asides:
We have waited long enough. You will notice how I do not insult you either by saying I have waited long enough. And therefore, since I do not insult you by saying that only I have waited, I do not add, expect me. Because I cannot say when to expect me. Because what WAS is one thing, and now it is not because it is died, it died in 1861 and therefore what IS—— […] I cannot say when to expect me. Because what IS is something else again because it was not even alive then. And since because within this sheet of paper you now hold the best of the old South which is dead. . . I now believe that you and I are, strangely enough, included among those who are doomed to live. (Faulkner 104-5).
The voice of this excerpt is Charles Bon, who, while educated, would probably not write like this were he a real person. Stream-of-consciousness is often very colloquial due to its mimicry of raw thought, but Faulkner instead chooses to use his characters’ words as tools for expressing his message, and defended his position by claiming “a novelist is free to put into the mouth of a character better speech than an actual person ordinarily is capable of speaking” (O’Connor 49). This also relates to the number of narrators Absalom, Absalom! has, who all have their own theories on Sutpen’s history and personality, and only when one finishes the novel can there be any understanding of the truth, but even then, there is still uncertainty because (naturally) Faulkner’s narrators are unreliable. This distortion of the facts is grotesque (especially with beautiful words and ugly meaning), but as O’Connor explains, “the reader cannot understand the fullness of [the characters’] lives until he has understood the limited vision of the narrator” (79); it is a way of reminding the reader “that the point-of-view is finally a point-of-view. No single vantage point is wholly reliable” (91). Alienating yet strangely affective, the unreliable narrator works well when discussing the innocence of Sutpen. Rosa Coldfield is horrifically bitter about her experiences with Sutpen, but Mr. Compson’s views are calmly objective. Sutpen himself is surprisingly self-aware of his shortcomings (mostly), but only Quentin and Shreve McCannon speculate as to the why and how. Sutpen’s family was less than ideal, with an alcoholic father and his education being primarily concerned with white superiority over blacks. Such prejudice was so commonplace, that when a black man refused to cater to him, it rocked his whole world. The idea that skin color was not enough to garner respect and deference was mind-blowing, and at the tender age of fourteen, Sutpen decided to create his dynasty: “All of a sudden he discovered, not what he wanted to do but what he just had to do, had to do it whether he wanted to or not, because if he did not do it he knew that he could never live with himself for the rest of his life. . .” (Faulkner 178). Through wealth and a prospective lineage, he alienates himself from society in order to gain the respect he feels he deserves, and despite the South’s loss of the Civil War, Sutpen never loses this childish belief. His violent, racist, and overall monstrous behavior is the result of “a highly complex and flawed man acting in the only way he [knows]” (“SparkNotes: Absalom, Absalom!”). Sutpen is a truly grotesque character, since he “induce[s] both empathy and disgust” (Krut).
The monstrous side of Sutpen is revealed by Rosa’s narration, who paints a truly awful picture of the man. Biased though it may be, it is not entirely unwarranted. The actions of Sutpen are quite horrific enough, even without Rosa’s embellishment. Since the grotesque is a “tense combination of . . . ludicrous and horrifying features” (Meindl 14), both Rosa and Sutpen can be described as monstrous. Rosa’s perception is the ludicrous (her bitterness and exaggeration are too ridiculous to be taken completely seriously) and the horrifying are Sutpen’s actual deeds. Although first impressions are usually wrong, there is something to the old adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, especially when discussing the grotesque. The first physical description of Sutpen does not exactly inspire trust or respect in the onlookers:
A man with a big frame but gaunt now almost to emaciation, with a short reddish beard which resembled a disguise and above which his pale eyes had a quality at once and alert, ruthless and reposed in a face whose flesh had the appearance of pottery, of having been colored by that oven’s fever either of soul or environment, deeper than sun alone beneath a dead impervious surface as of glazed clay. (Faulkner 24).
Though it is not made clear if Sutpen is meant to be exceptionally attractive or ugly, his body is still grotesque, since the grotesque is mainly concerned with the extremes: “big” and “gaunt” along with “alert” and “dead.” To see such a man in the real world may evoke adjectives like “bizarre” or “macabre,” but “the grotesque is more dangerous: the bizarre . . . lacks the disturbing quality of the grotesque . . . [which] is more radical and usually more aggressive” (Thomson 13). The above excerpt, however, is a description of a very young Sutpen, who still had yet to commit any atrocities (at least, those of which the reader is informed); chronologically speaking, he is merely an ambitious, sullen man. Within a month, however, that all changes: Sutpen refuses to talk to anybody about, well, anything. He stays in the town inn, but disappears everyday without a word, the townsfolk having “to depend on inquiry to find out what they could about him” (Faulkner 25). His collection of foreign slaves causes quite a stir, as well as the rumors of his cruel treatment of the architect hired to design Sutpen’s Hundred. When he begins courting the daughter of the respectable Mr. Coldfield, ill feelings overwhelm the populace, and a sort of “vigilante committee” (Faulkner 34) arrest him. It is not out of any particular fondness for the Coldfield family, but the townspeople are convinced Sutpen is involved in shady doings, and any association with the town is “forcing the town to compound it” (Faulkner 33). Even with their minimal contact with him, they are aware of his selfish nature: Sutpen is resourceful, but arrogant (“[he] contrived somehow to swagger even on a horse” [Faulkner 10]). Ever since his altercation with the slave as a teen, Sutpen has striven for total superiority over all people. He does not see them as human beings, but as pawns to be moved about in creating his great dynasty. Not unlike a child with a magnifying glass over a hill of ants, he cares little for those he hurts in the process. It is not his intention to be a better person (indeed, Sutpen rarely exhibits any morals at all), just richer and more powerful. He marries a plantation owner’s daughter in Haiti and has a son, which should have been the beginning of his legacy, but upon the discovery that she has black blood, Sutpen abandons her and tries again in the States. Bestial sexual frustration (humans with animal traits are always a sign of the grotesque) causes him to have relations with a slave, who gives birth to a daughter, Clytie. She remains an unglorified part of his household her whole life. His marriage to Ellen Coldfield was only to gain reputability and the potential for a (white) son, a motive to which he admits to Rosa, his next potential wife, saying, “You may think I made your sister Ellen no very good husband. […] But even if you will not discount the fact that I am older now, I believe I can promise that I shall do no worse at least for you” (Faulkner 132). Rosa is put off, in any case, and Sutpen goes after the young daughter of a squatter on his land (seeking another son since Henry is wanted for the murder of Charles), but disregards her when she births a daughter. It is this last act of monstrosity that leads to his equally grotesque murder: a commoner using a scythe, the weapon of Death. By the end of the novel, it is unclear how much the town really knows, or what is mere conjecture, but his infamy is not hidden, which is why Quentin is unsurprised at Rosa’s angry retelling of Sutpen’s history. It is an older, wretched Sutpen that she describes for Quentin: “He was the light-blinded bat-like image of his own torment cast by the fierce demoniac lantern up from beneath the earth’s crust and hence in retrograde, reverse. . . ” (Faulkner 139). To be fair, though, this is the nature of Rosa’s thoughts after over forty years of blinding resentment. She blames Sutpen for seducing her sister with illusions of grandeur, and for providing the catalyst that influenced Henry to kill Charles, leaving Judith a pre-marital widow. Her childhood was unhappy as well, her mother having died given birth to her, and a father who was dismissive, if not neglectful. Never having any love or acceptance, it is no small wonder, Rosa lives – and dies – alone, with only grievous memories for company. Sutpen is always called a demon in her retellings, her sister is referred to as weak and romantic, and anyone taken in by Sutpen is considered an utter fool. Rosa becomes nearly Sutpen-like by the end of her life, obsessed with what remains of the Sutpen family and with the town’s gossip about her. At the end of her final tale, her speech takes on Gollum/Sméagol (of Lord of the Rings) qualities, talking to Quentin (and herself, too) in the third person: “And now Rosie Coldfield, lose him, weep him; found a man but failed to keep him; Rosa Coldfield who would be right only right, being right, is not enough for women who had rather be wrong than just that who want the man who was wrong to admit it. […] Oh yes, I know, I know . . .” (Faulkner 137). Estranged from society, Rosa never realizes any potential for good in human nature and slips into madness, which is, as Kayser notes, “one of the basic experiences of the grotesque . . . the expression of . . . failure to [be oriented] in the physical universe” (185). Thus, it is Rosa’s own ludicrousness and Sutpen’s horrifying actions that send them both over the edge into monstrous insanity.
The use of the grotesque in literature varies widely; depending on the context, there are hundreds of ways to describe something as grotesque. A cadaver with a still-beating heart would be considered grotesque at a funeral, but a lifesaver in a hospital. Even Kayser realized that “an inadequate understanding of the grotesque is possible; the individual forms and detachable contents are ambiguous and suffused with the most diverse meanings” (181). What always remains consistent is the mixture of horror and beauty, however that chooses to manifest itself in any given situation. Faulkner’s use of the grotesque was a focused and precise attack on what he perceived to be the backwards-thinking of the South. Sutpen and Rosa are two sides of the same coin, as are Charles and Henry: they are grotesque caricatures of alienation and the monstrous, designed to awe and shock readers. After all:
The novelist will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural, and he may well be forced to take over more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. (O’Connor, qtd. Meyer i).
- Brien, Alan. “Nothing More?” Monty Python: Complete and Utter Theory of the Grotesque. Ed. John O. Thompson. London: British Film Institute, 1982. p.6-7. Print.
- Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom!. New York: Vintage International, 1990. Print.
- “Grotesque.” Cambridge Dictionaries Online. Cambridge University Press, 2011. Web. 1 March 2012.
- Kayser, Wolfgang. The Grotesque in Art and Literature. Trans. Ulrich Weisstein. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963. Print.
- Krut, David. David Krut Projects. DK Projects, 2008. Web. 1 March 2012.
- Meindl, Dieter. American Fiction and the Metaphysics of the Grotesque. Columbia: University of Missouri, 1996. Print.
- O’Connor, Flannery. qtd. in Literature and Grotesque. Ed. Michael J. Meyer. Atlanta: Rodopi B.V., 1995. p.i. Print.
- O’Connor, Philip. The Grotesque: An American Genre and Other Essays. Carbondale: Southern University Press, 1962. Print.
- “SparkNotes: Absalom, Absalom!” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC, 2012. Web. 2 March 2011.
- Steig, Michael. “Ruskin: The Imagination at Play Is Like Bad Children.” Monty Python: Complete and Utter Theory of the Grotesque. Ed. John O. Thompson. London: British Film Institute, 1982. p.7-8. Print.
- Thomson, Philip. “Nose and Breast, Puppet and Corpse”; “Back to the Nose”; “Morgenstern: To Smash Language.” Monty Python: Complete and Utter Theory of the Grotesque. Ed. John O. Thompson. London: British Film Institute, 1982. p.13-14, 17-19, 29-30. Print.
Whew! I applaud you if you made it through this whole thing! This was written in 2012 for my college American Literature class, and if I may be so bold, it’s probably the best essay I’ve ever written. My professor was a notoriously tough grader, and I got an A for this, along with very positive feedback (and few criticisms: I clearly didn’t know how to do paragraphs!). Apparently not everyone felt the same, however, because I submitted it to the school’s essay contest and didn’t win, but I’m still very proud of it. Absalom, Absalom! is a horribly complex piece of work, and I only have Monty Python and fellow Pythonites to thank for the spark of the idea (examining the literary grotesque) of how to approach writing an essay for that book. And now I’m sharing it with the world!