Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth

Some of Absalom, Absalom!’s favored words are sprinkled consistently throughout its length—grim is there on the very first page and manages at least one appearance per chapter (almost, that is—carefree Chapter 7 excepted) until its final showing four pages before the last.*  Other words, what they lack in frequency of use, they make up for in concentration—one densely employed example doesn’t even debut until the book’s final fifteen pages but really makes up for lost time once on the scene.

Quentin and Miss Coldfield—characters whose relationship we’ve watched develop over the course of the story, bonding through such olfactorily memorable moments as Quentin imbibing the scent of Miss Coldfield’s “heat-distilled old woman-flesh”—are reunited as the narrative comes full circle for its climax.  (The two engage briefly in a game of “what’s that smell” for old time’s sake as Miss Coldfield’s shawl is twice described as “fusty” within a single paragraph, but the really serious word-recycling is reserved for characterization of our geriatric heroine’s behavior in the finale.)

Anticipating conflict? “‘She’s going to try to stop me,’ Miss Coldfield whimpered.”  Anticipating revelation?  “‘And now I will have to find it out,’ she whimpered.”  Quentin’s impression?  “It seemed to him that he could still hear her whimpering panting.”  Her respiratory status?  “Still breathing in those whimpering pants.”**  Quietly needing assistance?  “‘I will have to take your arm,’ she whispered, whimpered.”  Anticipating discovery?  “‘I just know she is somewhere watching us,’ she whimpered.”  Momentarily impeded vocal status?  “Not saying words, yet producing a steady whimpering.”  Anticipating ingress via bladed force?  ““I’m going inside,’ she whimpered. ‘Give me the hatchet.’”  Quentin’s largely redundant second impression?  “He could hear Miss Coldfield’s whimpering breathing.”  These nine quotations?  Pages 291-294.

This short-lived but bright-burning bit of vocabulary finally extinguishes itself a few pages later, going out with a bang on page 297 and breathing its last “whimpering panting breath.”  (Happily, Miss Coldfield herself manages to linger a bit longer.)  Although it might boggle the mind to think such flagrant repetition could escape editorial intervention, consider that this version is the corrected text drawn from Faulkner’s original typescript—as the process is explained in an endnote, “We have attempted in this volume to reproduce that text faithfully.”  Whimper fidelis.

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*My copy is the 1990 Vintage International Edition (pictured, sidebar), which is where I get my page counts and numbers.

**Not unlike overalls, no one looks good in whimpering pants.