Chapter 4, Chapter 2

Chapter 4 of Absalom, Absalom! has, as has been mentioned previously, a number of repeated elements: the word probation, the word durance, the phrase you see, and close to a century’s worth of four years-es, to name but a few.  So let’s name a few more.  Sardonic, for example: In Chapter 4, the character of Charles Bon is described as having “an air of sardonic and indolent detachment” (page 74); his manner is, we read, “passive, a little sardonic” (also page 74); his is a “passive and sardonic spirit” (page 79); occasionally he will display “sardonic and surprised distaste” (page 82) or “pessimistic and sardonic cerebral pity” (page 91); even his writing style is characterized as “gentle sardonic whimsical and incurably pessimistic” (page 102).  (As you may have noticed, Chapter 4 is not without a decent supply of pessimism and passivity, either.)

The same Charles Bon who is depicted on page 74 with an “air of sardonic and indolent detachment” is described, four pages after this, as “the man who later showed the same indolence…the same detachment.”  He is—also page 78—“this indolent old man”; he possesses “dilatory indolence” (page 81); he is “that indolent fatalist” (page 83); and his writing style (which seems to invite oddly comma-free lists of descriptors) is “gallant flowery indolent frequent and insincere” (page 102).  He also has—picking up the detached thread—the “detached attentiveness of a scientist” (page 74) and a “surgeon’s alertness and cold detachment” (page 90).

Charles Bon is—in addition to being sardonic, indolent, and detached—one majorly charismatic cat.  His much younger college buddy Henry has a huge man-crush on him and, when Henry takes his pal home with him for a visit, Henry’s sister Judith is just as gaga over him.  Henry and Judith are basically “that single personality with two bodies both of which had been seduced” by the dashing fatalist/scientist/surgeon Bon (this on page 73).  So casually charming is he that, we are told on page 74, he “seems to have seduced the country brother and sister without any effort or particular desire to do so.”  You might say that “he had seduced Henry and Judith both” (which the book says on page 75).  And Henry?  Well, “he loved Bon, who seduced him as surely as he seduced Judith” (page 76).

Or—wait—maybe it’s a bit more psychosexually complex than that: Maybe Henry is working out some incestuous feelings for Judith, and his buddy, Mr. Seducey Seducerson, is just a proxy.  “‘So it must have been Henry who seduced Judith, not Bon,’” says one spectator to the relationship, seemingly channeling a trenchcoated Peter Falk, “‘seduced her along with himself’” (page 79).  All of this triangulated, Dangerous Liaisons-y activity is done “‘with no volition on the seducer’s part…as though it were actually the brother who had put the spell on the sister, seduced her to his own vicarious image’” (page 85).  Or maybe it’s even more complex—and Judith is the stand-in, an “empty vessel” for the otherwise inexpressible feelings between the college chums, an intermediary for “the man and the youth, seducer and seduced”—page 95, still Chapter 4—“who had known one another, seduced and been seduced.”  Mercy me, is it getting hot in here?  Tonight on Cinemax After Dark…William Faulkner’s Seduction, Seduction!

Whatever exactly sort of Freudian quicksand Henry is splashing around in, he can’t really be held accountable; after all, Bon “corrupted Henry” (page 81).  This is apparent even from Henry’s mother’s perspective: “[T]hough the daughter might still be saved from him, [Bon] had already corrupted the son” (page 82).  This is apparent even to the resident Yoknapatawpha County Columbo, as he reconstructs how Bon dazzled his prey with his big city ways: “‘I can see him corrupting Henry gradually into the purlieus of elegance’” (page 87).  Bon, to Henry, is “the mentor, the corrupter” (page 88); he works his “corruption subtly…by putting into Henry’s mind the notion of one man of the world speaking to another” (page 89); his machinations are the essence of “corruption itself” (page 91).  (At least the siblings’ mother is right about Judith, who is fortunately not as susceptible to corruption as she is to seduction: “Surely Bon could not have corrupted her,” we are reassured on page 95, as we are also informed [same page] that he “had not tried to corrupt her to unchastity”—a double negative construction that I’ll leave to readers better equipped with the necessary analytic lockpicks than I to disentangle.)

And, oh my, the glitter!  Chapter 4 includes “the flash and glitter of a myriad carriage wheels,” soldiers’ uniforms adorned with “martial glitter of brass and plumes,” fireworks like “brave trivial glitter against a black night,” and—of course, surrounding the godlike Charles Bon—“a sort of Scythian glitter.”  Four glitters.  In one chapter.  I know there’s a lot of seducing going on, but it’s not set in a strip club, for God’s sake.

Tales Well Calculated

You might be surprised at some of the things you can do while in a state of suspension—in Absalom, Absalom!, examples include one character, replying dreamily to a question, who “answered in some curious serene suspension”; an untroubled family, “the four members of [which] floated in sunny suspension”; and a freshly roused sleeper who is “waking in some suspension so completely physical as to resemble the state before birth.”  (I think I’d hit the snooze button for one more trimester.)

Still—while answering, floating, and waking in it are all perfectly good options—the default state of suspension remains the state of being held in it: Girls on the cusp of adulthood are “in nebulous suspension held, strange and unpredictable”; a woman who feels imprisoned in her house by her marriage is “held there not in durance but in a kind of jeering suspension”; a man embroiled in a complex emotional triangle demands time to make a decision, “holding all three of them…in that suspension while he wrestled with his conscience.”  And as he ponders, the players are left “held in that probation, that suspension.”

And what, exactly, is this “probation”?  For answers—delivered, perhaps, in a curious serene suspension—we should look to Chapter 4 and its story of Henry Sutpen; after all, in the words of one observer, “‘It was Henry’s probation; Henry holding all three of them in that durance.’”  (More holding?  And more durance?)  Long story short: Henry’s best friend Charles Bon and Henry’s sister Judith are engaged to be wed, but Henry discovers his friend already has a previous, legally unresolved marriage in his past.  While Henry and Bon—as he is better known—are off fighting in the Civil War, Henry refuses to let his pal contact Judith until he, Bon, has broken things off with the other woman—and these four years of enforced noncommunication are the “probation.”  Now for the long story long.

Henry writes Judith from the battlefront to explain, “‘since doubtless he refused to allow Bon to write—this announcement of the armistice, the probation.’”*  Being an inordinately dutiful sister, Judith accepts the arrangement without objection, “‘she and Henry both knowing that she would observe the probation.’”  And Henry is like a hawk from the moment he and his buddy sign up: “‘They enlisted together, you see, Henry watching Bon and Bon permitting himself to be watched, the probation, the durance.’”  (Okay, all these probations are one thing, but durance again?)

Being inordinately dutiful, himself, Bon abides by his friend’s wishes and refrains from contacting his fiancée: “‘Henry would not let him; it was the probation, you see.’”  (The fellow recounting this story says “you see” a lot.**)  Henry is adamant that his future brother-in-law get his messy past straightened out—as reports Mr. You See, ultimately “‘[t]hat what was why the four years, the probation’”—but Henry feels conflicted, “‘still loving Bon, the man to whom he gave four years of probation.’”  But he is also resolute, and Judith is left to wait.  “‘She waited four years, with no word from him save through Henry that he (Bon) was alive. It was the probation, the durance.’”  (Durance?  Really?)

For as many times as probation is used in Chapter 4—and it is oodles—it pales compared to the mantra-like repetition of a certain span of time whose recurrence here you may have already noted (the rest of the quote mentioned in the previous paragraph is “‘the man to whom he gave four years of probation, four years in which to renounce and dissolve the other marriage, knowing that the four years of hoping and waiting would be in vain.’”).  Yes, the Civil War figures centrally in Absalom, Absalom!, and, yes, that conflict lasted four years, but come on.  This, for example, is from page 79: “‘And yet, four years later, Henry had to kill Bon to keep them from marrying.’”  (As you may infer, the probation doesn’t exactly end up fixing the whole Henry/Judith/Bon situation.)  Also from page 79: “‘[Judith endured] a period of four years during which she could not have always been certain he was still alive.’”  And from page 79: “‘[Y]et four years later [Bon] was apparently so bent upon the marriage…as to force the brother who had championed it to kill him.’”  And, lastly, from page 79: “‘[Henry had] become a follower and dependent of the rejected suitor for four years before killing him apparently for the very identical reason which four years ago he quitted home to champion.’”  Oh, and by the way?  Four years.

Bon’s first wife is not the only skeleton in his closet—“‘four years later Judith was to find the photograph of the other woman and [their] child’” (page 71).  “‘I don’t think she ever suspected,’” theorizes our narrator for this vignette, “‘until that afternoon four years later’” (page 73).  Bon does eventually write Judith, though, at the end of the war: “‘[F]our years later…she received a letter from him saying We have waited long enough’” (page 80).  “‘[H]ere is the letter, sent four years afterward,’” intones a rueful Mr. You See, “‘four years after she had had any message from him save the messages from Henry that he (Bon) was still alive’” (page 85).

You have likely gathered that Henry ends up killing Bon—an act of righteous eradication long overdue, or so figures the teller of the tale, who thinks Henry should have just gone ahead and done it right after finding out about Bon’s marital situation: “‘[T]hat afternoon four years later should have happened the next day, the four years, the interval, mere anti-climax’” (this also from Chapter 4, on page 94).  But instead, “‘he waited, hoped, for four years’” (page 94).  Yes, “‘Henry waited four years’”—yes, still page 94—all the while “‘holding the three of them in that abeyance, that durance.”  (What th?  You have got to be jok—  #@&%!!! )

• • •

*The Henry/Judith/Bon soap opera is largely related second-hand, thus all the quotations-within-quotations.

**From Chapter 4 (for completists only): “‘he (Henry) could not say that to his friend, I did that for love of you….He couldn’t say that, you see’” (p. 72); “‘he, the living man, was usurped, you see’” (p. 77); “‘You see? there they are: this girl…this father…this brother’” (p. 79); “‘You see? You would almost believe that Sutpen’s trip to New Orleans was just sheer chance’” (p. 81); “‘He had been too successful, you see; his was that solitude of contempt’” (p. 82); “‘So he dared not ask Bon to deny it; he dared not, you see’” (p. 85); “‘but we do not pretend to be God, you see’” (p. 91); “‘They didn’t tell one another anything, you see…Judith, that she knew where Bon and Henry now were’” (p. 96).  Plus the following, from page 90, in which a conversation—about a duel—is described (so handy an interjection is “you see” that not only is the fellow who’s telling the story partial to it, so is the fellow who’s in the story—two sentences in a row!): “‘[T]he guide [was] casually and pleasantly anecdotal:…. “They face one another inside the same cloak, you see, each holding the other’s wrist with the left hand.  But that was never my way”;—casual, chatty, you see, waiting for the countryman’s slow question…“What would you—they be fighting for?”’”

It’s Not You, It’s Me

Thomas Sutpen is the malevolent colossus that bestrides the narrative of Absalom, Absalom! (he’s referred to in the course of the book as a “demon” about sixty-five times—not really the most nuanced of characterizations).  So when it’s revealed in a flashback near the end that, as a younger man, he turned his back on his first wife and child, it’s almost anticlimactic: After other characters have called you things like “this Faustus…this Beelzebub” and even your coterie of underlings has been described—in an amusingly stiff-sounding dab of legalese—as “twenty subsidiary demons,” the bar for rottenness has been set fairly high.

Still, it’s pretty rotten, even if you provide for them financially, for a man to have “repudiated that first wife and that child.”  Especially when it’s done with calculation: “[He] got engaged and then…had a wife to repudiate later”; “he would certainly need…to repudiate the wife after he had already got her.”  The post-separation support might provide some salve—his son will later reflect that Sutpen “‘must have surrendered everything he and Mother owned to her and me as the price of repudiating her’”—but it hardly improves the giver’s diabolic reputation, being “the money…that he (the demon) had voluntarily surrendered, repudiated to balance his moral ledger.”  (The moral ledger is better left to Satan’s accountants than to his subsidiary demons, I would assume.)  The intervening years will cloud Sutpen’s conviction at the wisdom of his decision, though, as he finds when later struggling with a similar quandary: “[T]his second choice [was] as obscure…as the reason for the first, the repudiation.”

Karma’s a you-know-what, though, and Thomas Sutpen eventually winds up on the boomerang end of some really primo repudiation himself at the hands of his second, “real” son, Henry.  When Sutpen makes an incendiary accusation against a cherished college friend of Henry’s named Charles Bon, it sparks “Henry’s violent repudiation of his father and his birthright.”  Furious at the allegations leveled at his comrade, Henry leaves his home without a trace, “vanished, his birthright voluntarily repudiated.”  So angry is Henry on behalf of his friend that “he repudiated blood birthright and material security for his sake.”  Naturally, it becomes the talk of the town, as one relative recounts (albeit without providing much in the way of additional detail), “‘I saw Henry repudiate his home and birthright.’”*

So Henry leaves his home (and birthright), “his back rigid and irrevocably turned upon the house, his birthplace and all the familiar scene of his childhood and youth which he had repudiated for the sake of that friend.”  All for his friend—“the man for whose sake he had repudiated not only blood and kin but food and shelter and clothing,” “the friend for whom he had already repudiated home and kin and all”—the man that Henry felt he must defend “to the extent of repudiating father and blood and home,” the friend for whom he would muster the “strength to repudiate home and blood in order to champion,” the compadre whose honor would justify Henry’s disavowal of his family and “the irrevocable repudiation of the old heredity.”  Together, Sutpens père and fils are “the father who decreed and forbade, the son who denied and repudiated.”

All of which makes for a total of four birthright-repudiations (six if you count abjurals), three blood-repudiations, three father-repudiations, three home-repudiations, two kin-repudiations, one “roof under which he had been born”-repudiation, and an assortment of general-category creature-comfort-repudiations (“food and shelter and clothing,” “material security”) and life-history-repudiations (“the familiar scene of his childhood and youth,” “the old heredity,” “and all”).  Repudiation, repudiation—yeah, in my head now, it totally just sounds like nonsense.

• • •

*Other such rebuffs also include two instances of birthright abjuring—a word surely not best behooved by being used more than once in a book (no matter how formally you dress it up): “Henry had formally abjured his home and birthright” and, fewer than 25 pages away from this, “Henry had formally abjured his father and renounced his birthright and the roof under which he had been born.”  Nor did that roof get off with mere formal abjurement, either: Henry also “had repudiated the very roof under which he had been born.”  So there.

Unabridged Too Far

In my last post I mentioned a character from Absalom, Absalom! who possesses the striking imaginative ability to channel the sensual experiences of other people so wholly that it’s as though he were swapping bodies with them in mid-throes—a “complete abnegate transference,” as it is described.  I had cited this fellow’s impressive talent for foxy metamorphosis mostly just to be childish, of course, but also in the context of making fun of how many times the book was using the word metamorphosis.  Less distracted by all the sexual shapeshifting and I probably would have thought to turn my attention to abnegate while I was at it, as well.  A book doesn’t need more than one abnegate.  It’s the same reason Alfred Hitchcock doesn’t keep popping up again over and over in the same movie once he’s made his cameo.

One character’s meager savings—accumulated through years of self-denying frugality—are “a symbol of [his] fortitude and abnegation.”  Another character, resigning herself to an unenviable but inevitable situation, feels “peaceful despair and relief at final and complete abnegation.”  (As has been noted elsewhereif you’re given your choice of despairs, definitely go with the peaceful variety.)  That “complete abnegate transference” referred to above occurs between two college friends, Charles and Henry, the latter of whom idolizes the former so much that he has graphic daydreams of what it must be like in his shoes—yes, let’s go with shoes—and also displays towards him (this only two pages after the complete abnegate transference) “complete and abnegate devotion.”  And if you’re thinking that maybe it seems like these examples have another repeated element in common, you’re not completely off-base.

Absalom, Absalom! includes not just “complete abnegate transference,” “complete and abnegate devotion,” and “complete abnegation” itself, but also “complete despair”—ah, full circle—along with such other all-present-and-accounted-for examples as a “complete instant,” a “complete affront,” a “complete pauper,” “complete chattel,” “complete nonsense,” “complete detachment,” “complete finality,” “complete inertia,” “complete irrelevance,” “complete surrender,” “complete mystical acceptance,” “the complete picture,” and—okay, now full circle—“a complete metamorphosis.”

Various items and persons are described as “rounded and complete,” “stillborn and complete,” “queenly and complete,” “accomplished and complete,” and “instantaneous and complete.”  (In a grayer area are those objects only “apparently complete” and Heisenbergianly “complete or not complete.”)  A precocious boy is said to have been “produced complete…entering the actual world not at the age of one second but of twelve years.”  A woman experiences a “reversal so complete” that she weds a man she’s hated since she was a little girl.  A gossip blankets an entire town with her latest news in the space of a morning: “It did not take her long and it was complete.”  A widower commissions two tombstones, “his wife’s complete and his with the date left blank.”  A butterfly—once it has emerged from its, yes, metamorphosis—is “complete and intact.”

In Absalom!’s 100% world, things are “completely gone,” “completely alone,” “completely static,” “completely outraged,” “completely indifferent,” “completely physical,” “completely unaware,” and—no argument here—“completely enigmatic.”  A man with impulse control issues is “completely the slave of his secret and furious impatience.”  An indecisive shadow has “faded again but not completely away.”  A hungry woman tragically has no tools to work her garden—paging O. Henry—“even if she had known completely how.” One sketchy gent, not intimately acquainted with morality during his lifetime, “dying had escaped it completely.”  A proud woman accepts her neighbors’ charity but takes steps to “carry completely out the illusion that it had never existed.”  The structure of a burning house has collapsed to the point that one witness can see “completely through it a ragged segment of sky.”  That strange wedding mentioned in the previous paragraph can only come about after the bride-to-be’s ugly adolescent memories “vanish so completely that she would agree to marry” the man she once considered “the ogre-face of her childhood.”  (I give it a year.)

Characters in Absalom, Absalom! are forever chasing an elusive sense of plenitude.  A social climber with grand schemes to “complete the shape and substance of that respectability” which he lacks, makes crazy-pariah predictions for his ultimate popular vindication: “‘my design [will] complete itself quite normally and naturally and successfully to the public eye.’”  (The bwa-ha-ha-ha at the end is implicit.)  Budding homeowners seek “money with which to complete [their] house” and, while eventually comes “the day…the house was completed,” the need remains for “a piece of furniture which would complement and complete the furnishing” and a plow in the garden to “complete the furrow”—and estranged relatives still prove disinclined to make holiday visits and “complete the ceremonial family group even four times a year.”*

At one point in the story, an older woman seeking closure looks back at her life and reflects that she “could get up and go out there to finish up what she found she hadn’t quite completed.”  Something not completed?!  Get crackin’, Madam!  In another scene, a character is considering the phenomenon of unhappy marriages (hmm, I seem to be getting the tiniest tingle on my Theme Sensor here); she asks, “‘So is it too much to believe that these women come to long for divorce from a sense not of incompleteness but of actual frustration and betrayal?’”  My answer would bewhatever the source of the problem is—in this book, it sure as heck isn’t incompleteness.

• • •

*I’ve taken a bit of license here in yoking together an assortment of the book’s domestic scenarios into a single, unhappy-in-its-own-way clan.


In Absalom, Absalom!, there is a major character, Henry Sutpen, who kills a man who is not only his best friend but also engaged to marry Henry’s sister, Judith.  This may sound like I’m revealing a big plot twist, but we actually learn this information early on—it’s only page 6, and already old Miss Coldfield is sharing about her nephew and how he “shot the fiance to death…and then fled, vanished, none knew where.”

Henry the shooter may have vanished, never to be heard from again, but it’s hardly the last time we’ll hear about the fact that he’s never heard from again.  “Henry had just vanished,” we’re told on page 61.  And then a page later: “Henry just vanished.”  And five pages after that: “Henry up to now was just vanished.”

The incident is also revisited from Judith’s perspective: “her brother had quitted the house in the night and vanished, none knew why or where.”  The incident is also revisited from their father’s perspective—repeatedly: “[he] had been told that his son had done murder and vanished”; “one of [his] children vanished…doomed to be a murderer”; “[his] son gone, vanished.”  The incident will even be revisited many years hence: “was it…four years since Henry vanished [?]”

Funny, considering that it’s Miss Coldfield who first tells the story about her nephew Henry, because she once, as a much younger woman, lived with her own aunt—that is, until the occasion of her aunt deciding to abandon the family, i.e., “the night the aunt climbed out the window and vanished.”  (Miss Coldfield doesn’t seem to have a lot of luck in the kin-constancy department.)  Yes, she shared a house with her aunt “up to the time the aunt vanished”—although the older woman’s departure might not have been too heartbreaking, considering that, till then, the niece had been “the object and victim of the vanished aunt’s vindictive unflagging care and attention.”

Miss Coldfield also has a sister, Ellen—Henry and Judith’s mother.  And Ellen…?  Yes, vanished.  Metaphorically, though, in her case: The sublimation of her own personality into that of her horrible husband is described as her being “vanished into the stronghold of an ogre.”  As Miss Coldfield sees it, “her sister [was] a woman who had vanished not only out of the family and the house but out of life too.”  Like a brief-lived insect, “Ellen…completed…the butterfly’s summer and vanished.”*

As for Miss Coldfield’s niece, Judith?  In her life, “she had seen almost everything else she had learned to call stable vanish like straws in a gale.”  And Charles Bon, the fiance whom Henry shot?  Well, he was a very colorful character to say the least, a man to inspire such wildly poetic descriptions as “almost phoenix-like…born of no woman and impervious to time and, vanished, leaving no bones nor dust.”

And what of Charles Bon’s son, whom we meet later in the story as he is being abruptly plunged into alien circumstances?  “[A]ll that he had ever been familiar with was vanishing about him like smoke,” we learn of that moment, as he is stripped even of his clothing: His “shirt and stockings and shoes…vanished”—in a cloud of seemingly prerequisite vapor—“as if they had been woven of chimaeras or of smoke.”  (This character will fall out of the narrative for many years, only to reappear much later, now hitched: “a grown man…who had vanished and then returned with an authentic wife.”)

And getting back to Miss Coldfield—when we first meet her, we are told of an odd vocal characteristic that she has: “Her voice would not cease, it would just vanish.”  Or, to put it another way (which is pretty much the same way), hers was a “voice not ceasing but vanishing.”  A.k.a. a “vanishing voice.”  (Near the end of the book, there is a scene in which she is propositioned by her brother-in-law, Thomas Sutpen; so outraged is her response that she immediately takes her leave of his eponymous plantation—which is to say, she “vanished from Sutpen’s Hundred.”**)

It is not only members of the extended Coldfield/Sutpen family that can pull this vanishing act: In one crowd scene, a “circle of faces…seemed to advance and waver and shift and vanish” until the participants have—same page—“vanished back into the region from which they had emerged.”  (This rather undulatory, literal-sea-of-faces facial aspect will recur in a later episode—“like a tide in which the strange harsh rough faces…swam up and vanished.”)

Vanish naturally lends itself to descriptions of ephemeral and indefinite phenomena: “an explosion—a bright glare that vanished and left nothing”; “events [that] transpire…and fade, vanish”; “all truth, evidence vanished into a moiling clump”; an idea that “touched and then vanished from…[the] mind”; and the “prisoner soul” that “dies, is gone, vanished.”  In that same and-to-dust-we-shall-return vein, we have a collapsing grave (“that mound vanishing slowly back into the earth”), some sinking tombstones (“slabs…vanishing into the hole”), and further proof—this time more sanguinary than cemetery—of the ground’s absorptive capabilities (“old unsleeping blood that had vanished into the earth”).

Also making (dis)appearances are—and if I may, for just a moment, before I begin this inventory, let down my otherwise devoutly maintained facade of cool scholasticism and say, What is the deal with this guy and the word “vanish”?!—handwriting so faint that it “might fade, vanish, at any instant”; “snow on [an] overcoat sleeve…vanishing”; a person gone missing who “seemed to vanish in broad daylight”; transients in a shelter who “lived beneath [the roof] and vanished”; “some tree, vanished, burned for warmth”; tears that are “vanishing, disappearing instantaneously”; “red spots [that] wheeled and vanished across the retinae”; an imploding house afire whose “whole lower hall vanished”; and a man reaching for a hidden weapon whose “hand vanishes beneath the blanket and reappears, holding his pistol.”

At one point, a character reflects on a piece of vanishment-related advice handed down through his family—how, in life, it was best to avoid “that picayune splitting of abstract hairs while (Grandfather said) Rome vanished and Jericho crumbled.”  To this I can only reply that, when the occasions of a certain V-word in a certain novel start to near the half-century mark, maybe it wouldn’t hurt for the editor to be just a teensy bit more picayune.

• • •

*Mind you, to call Ellen’s vanishing metaphorical is not to suggest that Henry or his aunt’s aunt literally, you know, vanished.

Also, that same ogre (which is some kind of symbol of how Judith’s youthful traumas are being replayed through her relationship with her husband) has a few more magic tricks up its sleeve: “in which the ogre-face of her childhood would apparently vanish so completely that she would agree to marry the late owner of it”—until it finally steps off the stage for the last time: “[there] was no ogre, because it was dead, vanished.”

**During a flashback, it is mentioned that the young Thomas Sutpen had two brothers—“two brothers who had vanished.”

Two, Four, Six, Eight …

If words can be said to paint a picture, there are certain scenes in Absalom, Absalom! that are like canvases with way too many layers of Pantone on them.  In Chapter 8, for example, some Harvard students are having a discussion in dormitory quarters that cannot keep out the winter chill—on page 236, the occupants are pictured as “their breathing vaporised faintly in the cold room.”  Four pages after this and the imagery receives a second coat: “They stared at each other…their quiet regular breathing vaporising faintly and steadily in the now tomblike air.”

Three pages later and there is another touch-up: The room is as “quiet as the visible murmur of their vaporising breath.”  Further on in the chapter, having presumably allowed for drying time, the artist dabs on a few final licks of pigment to the steamy exhalation concept—“[e]ven while they were not talking their breaths in the tomblike air vaporised gently and quietly” (p. 260)—while adding on a fresh overlay of tomblike air.  At one point even, it’s almost as if the author is replying to a sarcastic question from the audience: Hey, so is the room pretty tomblike?  Answer, page 275: “The room was indeed tomblike.”

The conversationalists here are Quentin and Shreve, hashing out the tangled family history at the center of the book’s narrative.  So vividly do their reminiscences evoke the memories of their subject—the decades-old story of Henry Sutpen and Charles Bon—that at times it’s as if the tellers of the tale are sharing the stage with the players in their story.  (I say, “at times.”  It’s at a lot of times.)

This not-at-all-confusing fictional device—that Quentin and Shreve somehow accompany Henry and Charles during their various circa-Civil War experiences, just as the latter share space with the former in their early-1900s university settings—is rendered thusly: “in the cold room where there was now not two of them but four” (p. 236—hey, the whole gang’s hanging out in the dorm!) and so: “not two of them there and then either but four of them riding the two horses through the iron darkness” (p. 237—whoosh, now everyone’s on the battlefield in the 1860s!).

If this notion seems a tad fuzzy, allow the author to elaborate: “So that now it was not two but four of them riding the two horses through the dark…four of them and then just two—Charles-Shreve and Quentin-Henry” (p. 267).  Now allow him to elaborate some more: “So it was four of them who rode the two horses through that night” (also p. 267).  And a bit more after that: “[They were] still not talking since there was nothing to say, the two of them (the four of them)”—(yes, still p. 267).

So—the story of Henry and Charles (and Quentin and Shreve) continues: “So it was four of them still who got off the boat in New Orleans”; “four of them who sat in that drawing room”; “four of them there, in that room in New Orleans in 1860 just as”—Gentle Reader, are you getting the idea yet?—“in a sense there were four of them here in this tomblike room in Massachusetts in 1910.”  (Where do I begin—that all four of these “four of them” quotes are from the same page, or about the return of tomblike?)

And, no, the author is not done yet.  At a certain point after this, our tale-tellers Quentin and Shreve are yanked abruptly out of their story and back into the present such that they are no longer “participants” in the recollection—“[f]irst two of them, then four; now two again” (p. 275).  This not-at-all-confusing development is helpfully explicated on the following page as “two, four, now two again, according to Quentin and Shreve, the two the four the two still talking”—until they all find themselves “the two the four the two facing one another in”—where else but?—“the tomblike room.”

Ah, and with that last brushstroke in place—fini!

It Is What It Is

Each of Absalom, Absalom!’s various conspicuously repeated words is like a little weight with its own distinct measure of flamboyance: The degree to which any one of them tips the scale into flagrant exhibitionism is the product of how showoffy it is, multiplied by the number of reiterations you stack up on the weighing platform.  Fierce, for example, is hardly a vocabulary peacock, but—used over thirty times in a single novel—it does begin to call attention to itself.  (On our scale, fierce is, like, 2 grams.)  On the other hand, something like epicene—defined as “having the characteristics of both sexes”—even if used only twice (a stylish college dandy likened to an “almost epicene object d’art” and a period of prepubescence characterized as “one anonymous climaxless epicene and unravished nuptial”)—well, it very much tips the scale.  (Epicene: kilo and a half.)  Especially if its appearances are in two successive chapters, only 35 pages apart.

So, upon first encountering a word like fatalistic—there’s a mention early on in the book of someone’s “expression of fatalistic and amazed determination”—one might not even register its heft.  (We’re talking 10 grams here; 15, tops.)  But even if each minor shift in a scale’s balance is unnoticeable with the addition of every tiny incremental weight, that scale is shifting nonetheless; eventually, it may just clonk over onto the table.

It is with the Chapter 4 introduction of Charles Bon—the epicene object d’art mentioned above and also an “indolent fatalist” who befriends Henry Sutpen at school—that one may begin to sense a serious tilt in the equilibrium; resignation may start to set in at the inevitability of this particular overuse as Bon is said to possess “fatalistic and impenetrable imperturbability” and is referred to as “the fatalist to the last” and “Bon the fatalist.”  (This all within a single chapter, which furthermore concerns Bon’s complicated relationship with Henry and his sister Judith—“[p]erhaps in his fatalism he loved Henry the better of the two”—and also establishes the chronological limitations of his deterministic influence—“[s]urely Bon could not have corrupted her to fatalism in twelve days.”*)

Bon may not be Absalom!’s sole bearer of the weight of this weary surrender—another character at one point regards an unwelcome sight with “aghast fatalistic terror”—but he is certainly its standard bearer: In later chapters, others will recall his memory (“Bon whom Mr Compson had called a fatalist”), reminisce about his salient characteristics (“the weariness, the fatalism”), and gauge themselves by his standard (“[he] maybe even turned fatalist like Bon now”**).

Of course, Bon’s solemn perspective makes perfect sense within a fictional cosmos of such desperately tragic preordination that the word doom appears as many times as fierce.  It’s probably hard to lighten up when your every step is so perilously permanent and life offers no do-overs—every “decision instantaneous and irrevocable,” every move leading to “subsequent irrevocable courses of resultant action,” every positive development in the grand scheme of things met with the “irrevocable negation of the design.”  Here you are, trying to make your way in “the irrevocable world,” ever mindful of the passage of “all irrevocable time,” standing on the threshold—“that irrevocable demarcation”—of the rest of your life, serving the “irrevocable sentence” of your years on this planet, doing your best to protect yourself from “irrevocable and incalculable damage,” seeking to forge your own identify after “the irrevocable repudiation of the old heredity,” chasing after some “lost irrevocable might-have-been,” and trying to plumb—unsuccessfully—the “irrevocable and unplumbable finality” of your destiny.  You’ve got a right to be a little tetchy.

After all, things are tough all over—for the fatalistic female as much for the fatalistic fellow: a gal could find herself “irrevocably husbanded,” but then later (not so irrevocable after all, the husbanding, it would seem) “irrevocably estranged”—“not only divorced from, but irrevocably excommunicated from all reality,” just praying that her latest travail might fall “irrevocably outside the scope of her hurt or harm.”  Maybe the family home is threatened because the once-husband has “his back rigid and irrevocably turned upon the house”; maybe he suffers from Peter Pan Syndrome and has “irrevocably lost count of his age.”

This can lead a person to say things like “it is irrevocable now” (p. 252) and “it was done, irrevocable now” (p. 272).  This can result in curiously tangled concepts such as “irrevocable undefeat” (it may not be clear what, precisely, undefeat is, but we do know that it’s permanent).  This can produce such snake-eating-its-tail configurations as “a curious and outrageous exaggeration in which was inherent its own irrevocability,” which, if a touch baffling, sounds way too self-contained to argue with.

To close, it would feel appropriate here to make some fanciful suggestion as to how much irrevocable would weigh on my proposed metaphorical scale—but I’m just afraid that once I suggested it, I wouldn’t be able to take it back.  Ever.

• • •

*Surely not.  She remains—next sentence—“anything but a fatalist.”

**For whatever reason—whether it’s regarding his fatalism, his “expression which was not smiling but just something not to be seen through,” his “cryptic” vocal stylings, or his fool/not-a-fool dualism—Bon’s is the character who really seems to kick Faulkner’s descriptive Xerox into high gear.