The Postmodernist Features In Absalom Absalom English Literature Essay

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1st Jan 1970 English Literature Reference this

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There exists the opinion that the works of William Faulkner, a Nobel-prize winner and one of the pioneers of modernism, can be analyzed not only from the perspective of modernism but also from the perspective of postmodernism. Since his novels occupy the chronological position between these literary tendencies, it can be suggested that there are certain features that reflect them and that the text can be accepted as transitional between modernism and postmodernism. On the one hand, Faulkner widely uses stream of consciousness and free indirect speech; on the other hand, there is intertextuality, multiple narrators (the majority of them are unreliable), peculiar irony, etc. Let us analyze Faulkner’s novel “Absalom, Absalom!” as an example of these phenomena.

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“Absalom, Absalom!” written in 1936 is one of about twenty Faulkner’s works that take place in a fictionalized Yoknapatawpha County. It deals with the themes of fate, rage, incest and degeneration. The novel’s title itself can be seen as an intertextual reference to the Biblical story of David, the legendary king of Israel, and his son Absalom. There are certain parallels between this story and the novel’s plot: Absalom kills his step-brother for raping their sister Tamar, while Henry kills Charles Bon (who finally appears to be his half-brother) for seducing his sister Judith. Biblical Absalom is killed by people of David’s general Joab for the rage against his father, though David asks his people not to be cruel with Absalom. The title of the novel cites David’s weeping after his son’s death. The rage of the son in the novel is presented by Henry’s denial of his father’s way of life, his dynasty; this is why Sutpen is obsessed with the idea of having another son who could become his heir, but finally he is deceived by the fortune – none of his efforts to create another family is successful, and the last one ultimately leads Sutpen to death. Another parallel should be mentioned – Absalom was considered to be the most handsome man in the whole world, while the surname of another Sutpen’s son, Charles Bon, means “beautiful” and several times is outplayed in the novel. For example, the only living member of Sutpen’s family at the end of the novel is called Jim Bond, and not Bon; this surname means “slave”.

The work represents some heroes that acted in his earlier Yoknapatawpha novel, “The Sound and the Fury” (1929) – Quentin Compson, his father and grandfather. The novel has multiple narrators, such as Miss Rosa Coldfield, Mr. Compson, Quentin Compson and his university roommate Shreve. Each one of them, though repeating the same story about the rise and fall of Thomas Sutpen, cite different sources of information, mixing together their own memories, feelings, impressions and words and opinions of others. In the novel, Faulkner constantly uses the technique of “stream of consciousness”, which makes reading and proper understanding far more difficult. The first chapters are the most complicated for the reader. However, the story is retold again and again with new details and a certain number of discrepancies – ages and places, for example (critics notice them not only in “Absalom, Absalom!”, but also in other Yoknapatawpha works – they are often described as a necessary part of Faulkner’s universe).

Until the very end of the novel, it remains unclear what is true and what is not, and which one of these multiple narrators is the most reliable. It can be seen as a postmodernist feature: the reader, actually, does not see any events in chronological order; he sees only certain texts dedicated to these events that somehow repeat each other or, on the contrary, reject what was said before. For example, the ones who could possibly have real information are Miss Rosa, Mr. Compson and Grandfather (whose words are often being retold by Mr. Compson and Quentin though, which makes them less reliable). Quentin and Shreve could not be eyewitnesses of the depicted events, but they constantly retell and even reinvent them, creating their own version of the possible truth.

The narrators, as we see, are unreliable, for none of them could look at the situation in general, though taking part in some important events (Quentin’s help to Miss Rosa, for example, gives him an opportunity to see the outcome of the story). Each of them can only make suggestions about the real facts – it is significant that Quentin and Shreve, who never knew and could not have known Henry Sutpen and Charles Bon, easily fancy their dialogues; Miss Rosa, in turn, mentions that sometimes she thinks that she simply invented Charles and that he never existed. In many ways fantasy becomes far more important for heroes than real dates and numbers, and it also can be seen as a reflection of the postmodernist conception of the game: the reader never knows whether he is right or wrong, he is often being mocked by the author. A vivid example of such mockery is one of the dialogues between Quentin and Shreve – the one where they discussed Sutpen’s decline and his affair with Millie Jones. Quentin narrates this story, sometimes being interrupted by Shreve, and after mentioning that Millie gave birth to Sutpen’s child, he describes their breakup with Sutpen, Wash Jones’s anger, etc. At the same time, Shreve repeatedly asks why Sutpen rejected the boy and his mother if he was dying to have a son; but Quentin keeps talking on and on and only after a certain time he corrects Shreve, saying that Millie gave birth to a girl.

As it was stated earlier, the reader does not always notice these discrepancies in different narrators’ speeches. At the same time, the edition of the novel contains the chronological data, family relations and short biographies of the main characters. After such a complicated, tangled and saturated narration, this information does not seem to be only a pseudo-historical comment, but also the author’s irony. It also shows a huge discrepancy between the chronological structure of events and its reinvented version, which is more psychologically filled.

There are certain intertextual connections between “Absalom, Absalom!” and “The Sound and the Fury”. First of all, they are connected with the figure of Quentin Compson – though “The Sound and the Fury” is written earlier, it depicts Quentin’s suicide, and in “Absalom” he is alive yet. Though there is no personal information about Quentin in “Absalom”, his being a protagonist helps to understand motives of his suicide. It is clear that by reinventing and recovering facts about Sutpen’s family and its tragic destruction Quentin experiences something important for his own self. This is why he and Shreve keep repeating the same history even when all necessary details are discovered and the reason for Sutpen’s fall is found. Quentin’s conscience unifies all variations of the truth.

Postmodernist studies often deal with the statement that postmodernism does not reflect any nostalgic feelings about the past; its prerogative is critical revision. “Absalom, Absalom!” in contradistinction to “The Sound and the Fury”, never refers to the past with nostalgia – only with fear, with a sense of tragedy; none of the heroes would choose to return to this past. One of the reasons for such attitude is the very fact of the war, when the South was totally changed – Thomas Sutpen’s story can be seen as an allegory of the whole past.

The paternal metaphor which is also important for postmodernist theory is also presented in the novel in different contexts. In order to feel self-identity, one must struggle against some paternal figure, if not with the father himself, and create a possibility for self-separation. This is exactly what happens to Sutpen, and later to his son Henry. Moreover, this is why Sutpen fights so hard to gain property and certain social status; he wants to have a place of his own where no one would step in without his personal acceptance. Self-separation for him began when he, being a little boy, was not allowed to enter the house of a rich white man, though he was also white. The same situation, however, is repeated in the text – when Clytie, Sutpen’s illegitimate daughter, does not allow Wash Jones to come in. Several characters mention that the only Sutpen’s mistake and guilt was his “innocence” – from the postmodernist point of view, innocence is a belief in cultural myths, and the narration shows how the myth about the power of “rich white men” destroys itself. Sutpen cannot understand the non-viability of his plan:

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You see, I had a design in my mind. Whether it was a good or bad design is beside the point; the question is, Where did I make the mistake in it, what did I do or misdo in it, whom or what injury by it to the extent which this would indicate?

Faulkner’s style in “Absalom, Absalom!” is considerably unique and significant. As it was stated before, he uses a narrative mode of stream of consciousness to create monologues of the characters, inner and explicit. Stream of consciousness is believed to be a modernist feature, which underlines the transitional nature of Faulkner’s work. There are several repeated images in “Absalom, Absalom!” – for example, it reflects an exceptional attitude to life and death for in the imagery system of the novel they have no precise boundaries. Certain characters are metaphorically mentioned as the ones who never lived and never even existed – such metaphors are specific features of Miss Rosa’s speech. For example, she describes feelings of Sutpen and Ellen in the following way: “Love, with reference to them was just a finished and perfectly dead subject”; describing someone’s illness or death, she often uses the verb “to vanish” – gradually vanishing Ellen, who was mentally disturbed for some years before her passing away; Henry, who also disappeared, was practically dead long before his real death. Living is often being compared to a dream, and this metaphor is also widely presented in Miss Rosa’s monologue – for example, when she arrives at Sutpen’s Hundred to know about Bon’s murder, she prays it to be a dream:

Ay, wake up, Rosa; wake up – not from what was, what used to be, but from what had not, could not have ever, been; wake, Rosa – not to what should, what might have been, but to what cannot, what must not, be; wake, Rosa, from the hoping, who did believe there is a seemliness to bereavement even though grief be absent; believed there would be need for you to save not love perhaps, not happiness nor peace, but what was left behind by widowing- and found that there was nothing there to save…

Such a combination of possibilities, facts, future, past and present confirms the postmodernist idea that the universe is nothing more than a text, because in the reality of Faulkner’s work nothing else seems to matter. A single answer to the question about the whole living can never be found, and all that we can be satisfied with is the multiplicity of possible versions.

Let us draw some important conclusions. We see that many features of Faulkner’s poetry are considered to be postmodernist. There are such features as intertextuality, which, on the one hand, connects the novel and the Biblical story of Absalom and his betrayal of his father, King David; on the other hand, intertextual references link the text with other Yoknapatawpha works (first of all, with “The Sound and the Fury”). Also, we see the reflection of paternal metaphor at different levels of the plot – relationships between Sutpen and his father, Sutpen and the world of “rich white people”, Sutpen and his legitimate and illegitimate kids – Judith, Clytie, Charles Bon and, most notably, Henry. This metaphor is seen as the main failure of Sutpen’s plan, for it misled him and made him believe in the cultural myth connected with property and social position. Distrust in such myths is also one of the distinguishing peculiarities of the postmodernist paradigm, and from the point of view of this paradigm, the non-viability of Sutpen’s plan is completely logical.

Faulkner uses multiple narrators (the Compsons, Miss Rosa, Shreve), none of whom can be accepted as reliable. In addition to using the “stream of consciousness” narrative mode, the author creates the unique atmosphere, which is characterized by constant and repeated reinventing of the memory of Sutpen’s story. The text itself presents many texts – very long monologues or, rarely, dialogues of the characters.

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