Responses to Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!

“We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.” -Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address

Abraham Lincoln delivered this famous address following one of the bloodiest and deadliest battles of the Civil War. It can be said that Confederate soldiers died in vain because they were unable to win the war and uphold their southern ways. Many of Faulkner’s characters also die in vain and Henry is a prime example.

Not only does he fail to save his sister from their half-brother, but also in the end, he is unable to restore honor to his family and then burns to the ground with the last of his line. In contrast, however, Miss Coldfield does not seem to live entirely for naught, as she is able to deliver her story to Quentin. Although she is forever marred and disillusioned by the story of Sutpen and its effects on her family, her perseverance and survival become worthwhile when she relates her knowledge and experiences with power struggles, murder, grief, abandonment and the loss of honor.

“And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept: and as he went, thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” -The Bible

This novel is based loosely around this quote and the story of King David and his son, Absalom, from the Old Testament of the Holy Bible. In the story, Absalom murders his half-brother, Amnon, who is trying to win over his sister, Tamar. Very similarly, Henry kills Charles Bon over Judith; in Faulkner’s version, there also exists a parental interjection, a brief fight, a war and finally, a murder. Both stories trail the establishment, the rise and then the fall of a history, of a family and of the south itself. Ultimately, the Bible’s Absalom perishes in battle, having avenged the honor of his sister, but amidst trying to destroy his father’s empire so that he might rebuild it for himself.

“There is no such thing as ‘was,’ only ‘is’; if ‘was’ existed, there would be no sadness or sorrow.” -William Faulkner

Again, we see Faulkner’s obsession with time reflected in his characters and their lives. This particular quotation applies quite obviously to Miss Rosa Coldfield and her memories of the past. It used to be that tragedy was a highly organized and rare literary form that sparked intense empathy, but lately, it seems that everything is tragic and this leads to an increasingly cold sense of detachment. Of course, everything seems most tragic in the moment and to its cast of characters, but what is special about Miss Rosa is that she holds onto her memories as if they are happening in the present. Her way of life, particularly her attitude and physical isolation, is particularly telling and may even influence Quentin’s later suicide.

“Quentin had grown up with that; the mere names were interchangeable and almost myriad. His childhood was full of them; his very body was an empty hall echoing with sonorous defeated names; he was not a being, an entity, he was a commonwealth. He was a barracks filled with stubborn back-looking ghosts still recovering, even forty-three years afterwardâÂ?¦” (9).

One of Quentin’s personal tragedies is that he constantly feels upstaged by the heroes of war and their history. He realizes that he has missed his chance and he will never be given even the opportunity to measure up and create an honorable name for himself and gain respect for his family. He is constantly living vicariously through other people, such as the soldiers and Miss Rosa, and attempting to find himself within the experiences and achievements of others. Unfortunately, it is those who cannot or do not wish to find themselves who have trouble surviving in this world.

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