Slap on a Smile

Henry Sutpen is a major player in the narrative of Absalom, Absalom!, and his depiction offers a master class in how to construct a fully-fleshed fictional personality through the accumulation of assorted detail.  If an author wanted to convey, for example, that a character was provincial and something of a puritan, how might he or she go about that process?  William Faulkner demonstrates.

One might begin by describing the character’s background, “raised in provincial North Mississippi.”  Here, in this “provincial backwater,” brought up in a “puritan country household,” the character might demonstrate his “puritan heritage” by spending a sexually tentative adolescence socializing with his fellow “provincial virgins.”  After this, he could move on to “a small new provincial college,” where his “puritan’s provincial horror of revealing surprise or ignorance” might be challenged by new experiences, but his “provincial soul” could remain intact, as well as his “puritan’s humility.”  (Another authorial strategy is to describe the character as having a “puritan character.”)

In the event that such techniques fail to adequately communicate the desired amount of puritanical provincialism, a writer might furthermore portray the protagonist’s “provincial face,” “provincial manners,” “fierce provincial’s pride,” and “puritan’s provincial mind.”  Or address him as “Henry, the provincial” and “Henry the puritan”—also effective.

This same light touch can be applied to rendering the subtleties of a character’s demeanor.  Take Charles Bon, Henry’s college chum, whose seemingly pleasant disposition is a facade meant to keep others at arm’s length—“an expression on his face you might call smiling except that it was not that but just something you couldn’t see through or past.”  Or, as is clarified later within the same sentence, “the smiling that wasn’t smiling but was just something you were not supposed to see beyond.”

The gradations of Bon’s countenance are more finely delineated as the chapter continues, with such additional descriptions as “that expression which might at a glance be called smiling,” “that expression which was not smiling but just something not to be seen through,” and “that expression you might call smiling but which was not, which was just something that even just a clodhopper bastard was not intended to see beyond.”  This rainbow of facial colorings is rendered with even greater precision (albeit to slightly more repetitive effect than one might expect contained in a single sentence) as Bon “lounged into the lawyer’s office and watched from behind that something which could have been called smiling…watching [the lawyer] from behind the smiling…listening courteous and quiet behind that expression which you were not supposed to see past.”

Oddly enough, it is the sight of his provincial puritan friend that especially elicits this toothy subterfuge: “Bon would look at him for a moment with that expression which could have been smiling…and Henry panting, ‘Stop! Stop!’ and Bon watching him with that faint thin expression.”  Or “Bon…sits looking at Henry with that expression which might be called smiling”; or “Bon…again watched Henry with that faint expression about the eyes and mouth which might be smiling.”  Considering that the above are among over a score of expressions exhibited in the book, it might rightly be the reader instead who—smiling or more likely wincing—is at some point compelled to pant, “Stop! Stop!”*


*Among that score are a number of the amazed variety, no big surprise: “the expression of fatalistic and amazed determination,” “his expression of grim and embittered amazement,” “Shreve’s expression of cherubic and erudite amazement.”  At the other end of the emotional spectrum is one character with an “expressionless and rocklike face”—or, put another way (which Faulkner, of course, does): “the grim rocklike man who had looked at him…with absolutely no alteration of expression.”