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Impressions of morality in Absalom, Absalom!

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Title:
Impressions of morality in Absalom, Absalom!
Creator:
Stephenson, Eric G. R
Place of Publication:
Denver, CO
Publisher:
University of Colorado Denver
Publication Date:
Language:
English
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vii, 57 leaves : ; 29 cm

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Subjects / Keywords:
Morality in literature ( lcsh )
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bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )

Notes

Bibliography:
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 55-57).
Thesis:
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree, Master of Arts, English
General Note:
Department of English
Statement of Responsibility:
by Eric G.R. Stephenson.

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|University of Colorado Denver
Holding Location:
|Auraria Library
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All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
37759279 ( OCLC )
ocm37759279
Classification:
LD1190.L54 1996m .S74 ( lcc )

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Full Text
IMPRESSIONS OF MORALITY IN ABSALOM, ABSALOM!
by
Eric G.R. Stephenson
B.S., University of Colorado at Boulder, 1982
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
1996


This thesis for the Master of Arts
degree by
Eric G.R. Stephenson
has been approved
Rex Burns
0^1% Hia
Date


Stephenson, Eric G.R. (M.A., English)
Impressions of Morality in Absalom, Absalom!
Thesis directed by Professor Rex Bums
ABSTRACT
This thesis demonstrates that Absalom, Absalom! is a novel
dense with impressionistic elements that lead to a moral
conclusion. The introduction, or first chapter, states the thesis
and outlines the discussion to follow. The second chapter
delineates several impressionistic qualities present in Absalom.
The method by which this is done is primarily through a
chronological study of the novels first chapter, which depicts
the psychological process of Quentin Compsons mind. Concepts
discussed include: the primacy of perception of a central
consciousness; inductive reasoning; the idea of sensation over
reason; oxymoron, synesthesia, and repetition; how imagination
and memory affect perception; stream of consciousness; and the
gestalt-induced shock of recognition. The third chapter builds on
the second by explaining the phenomenological aspects of
Absaloms impressionistic message. Basically, the chapter shows
that through an expanding awareness of the Sutpen legacy, the
reader approaches but never fully attains a complete
understanding of the Sutpen drama. This way of knowing, it is
noted, reflects reality: multiple perceptions of the same event
increase awareness; memory is an everpresent advisor to
conscious thought; the convergence of multiple perceptions and
memory can lead to an epiphany; and so on. The fourth chapter
explains how the impressionistic structure of Absalom leads to a
moral conclusion. Finally, the fifth chapter summarizes the essay
iii


by asserting that literary impressionism deserves more critical
attention, and that Absalom deserves to be understood as an
impressionistic novel.
This abstract accurately represents the conter! of t
candidates thesis. I recommend its pWt^licati
Signed
Rex Bums
iv


DEDICATION
I dedicate this thesis to my parents, who taught me to honor
intelligence, creativity, and perseverance.
V


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
I would like to acknowledge Dr. Rex Burns for his patience,
Dr. Richard Dillon for his meticulous attention to detail, and Dr.
Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky for his exuberance. Discussing the works of
Faulkner with each of them has been a privilege that I shall
always remember.
vi


CONTENTS
CHAPTER
1. INTRODUCTION.................................1
2. IMPRESSIONISM AS PSYCHOLOGY IN THE NOVEL.....7
3. IMPRESSIONISM AS MEANING IN THE NOVEL........25
4. IMPRESSIONISM AND MORALITY IN THE NOVEL......38
5. CONCLUSION...................................52
WORKS CITED.........................................55
vii


CHAPTER 1
INTRODUCTION
The essence of literary impressionism is as elusive as it
is beguiling. Maria Elisabeth Kronegger, for example, opens the
first chapter of her book Literary Impressionism by admitting
that the modern critic must demonstrate the need for redefining
the concept of impressionism in artistic creation (23). The
remainder of her discussion is largely an attempt to interpret
impressionism in postmodern terms. In Literary Impressionism,
James and Chekhov, H. Peter Stowell admits to the "checkered
critical history" of the subject. In turn, he applies gestalt and
existential theory to impressionistic literature (5). James Nagel
devotes the first thirty-five pages of his book Stephen Crane and
Literary Impressionism to definition, then classifies six
different narrative methods as impressionistic. This
representative sample shows that critics of literary
impressionism seem to be unsure of their terminology. They offer
1


multiple interpretations of the concept and then redefine
impressionistic theory in a variety of ways.
The issue is significant because writers as diverse as
Crane, Conrad, Flaubert, James, and Chekhov have all, at one time
or another, been categorized as impressionists, have all been
considered participants in this vaguely defined literary
movement. Connections do exist. At the most basic level, they can
all be classified as writers who present materials "as they
appear to an individual temperament at a precise moment and
from a particular vantage point rather than as they are presumed
to be in actuality" (Holman 244). This working definition
underscores the importance of the primacy of perception. To the
impressionist, a subjective impression of an objective reality
means as much as objective reality itself. A host of intriguing
literary assumptions follows. The impressionist shifts from
describing concrete reality to rendering the perceived mood and
atmosphere surrounding that reality. Each moment is
comprehended after the sensation has been modulated by
consciousness and arrested by time (Hie 77). Because sensation
2


precedes comprehension, knowledge is acquired through the
process of induction; flashes of frozen time become information
bytes of phenomenological meaning. These frozen moments are
then depicted as either a matrix of increasingly complex
psychological states or a cluster of multiple viewpoints. In both
cases, since memory is everpresent in thought, memories color
each new sense impression; what is perceived is affected by what
is remembered, and knowledge grows through a sustained act of
the imagination or a ratiocination, either of which leads to a way
of knowing quite unlike the well-ordered epistemology of
deductive reasoning.
Given these characteristics, one wonders why the writings
of William Faulkner have been largely ignored by critics who
study impressionism. Although masterpieces like Absalom,
Absalom! are distinguished by each of the structural qualities
just mentioned, Kronegger, S to well, and Nagel barely allude to
Faulkner in their books on literary impressionism. The most
plausible reason for this neglect has to do with a general critical
indifference toward impressionism. Nagel admits that he
3


was astonished to discover that The Literary History
of the United States, Fourth Edition, does not even mention
the term, implying that despite the enormous impact of
Impressionism on painting and music, the movement had
no influence on American literature whatever, (ix)
In fact, some go so far as to suggest that impressionism be
dropped from the critical lexicon, citing that separate fleeting
impressions can not be built up into an organic whole of
sufficient size, nor can a single fleeting impression be
maintained and developed long enough to produce a major work
(Brown 81). While this facile assumption reduces literary
impressionisms dynamic vision of a changing world into mere
pictorialism, as Stowell puts it (14), it explains much: the idea
of Faulkner as impressionist has been largely ignored because the
idea of literary impressionism has been largely ignored. Today,
only a small group of critics are willing to discuss the
impressionistic tendencies of a large group of writers.
It is also true that some critics of literary impressionism
tend to take their arguments to phenomenological extremes that
emphasize the fragmentation and instability of modern society.
4


One of Kroneggers claims illustrates this tendency with
remarkable succinctness:
Detached from traditional values, all artistic impressionist
creations become autonomous entities, reflecting a
detachment of social, political, religious and sacred events.
Impressionist writers have lost contact with the historical
and mythological worlds of classical antiquity as well as
with the religious world of Scripture. (21)
So much for Absalom having anything to do with impressionism,
assuming we accept Kroneggers proclamation as gospel. But we
do not because her approach borders on being as incautious as the
antipodal viewpoint that overemphasizes and then dismisses
separate fleeting impressions. To be an impressionist is not
necessarily to be a postmodernist.
Insofar as critics who study literary impressionism run the
risk of becoming an endangered species, then, it would be wise to
give one of Kroneggers more catholic interpretations equal
attention: "Impressionist creations in various countries are
different expressions of the same basic idea, and may be
recognized as being merely different symptoms in the same
general syndrome" (33). This same basic idea, this same
general syndrome, is merely a healthy respect for the primacy
5


of perception. With impressionism comes the understanding that
each subjective impression owes its existence to an objective
reality that can be understood in empirical terms. Accordingly,
Faulkners impressionistic vision does not signify an atomization
of meaning, nor does it represent a loss of contact with the
historical and mythological worlds of classical antiquity as
well as with the religious world of Scripture. To the contrary,
his separate fleeting impressions coalesce into a gestalt of
phenomenological meaning which, in turn, is framed by a moral
statement. By design, Faulkner uses an impressionistic approach
in order to advance larger statements on the human condition. It
is time to delineate the impressionistic elements so prevalent in
his fiction and clarify the ends to which they lead.
6


CHAPTER 2
IMPRESSIONISM AS PSYCHOLOGY IN THE NOVEL
Some of the currents of impressionism in Faulkners fiction
run very near the surface. In Absalom, Mr. Compson describes New
Orleans as a "city foreign and paradoxical, with its atmosphere at
once fatal and languorous, at once feminine and steel-hard" (86).
Abstractions like "paradoxical," "languorous," "feminine," and
"steel-hard," represent subjective impressions of an objective
reality. They create an atmospheric effect of mystery, sensuality,
and foreboding. Later in the same passage Mr. Compson labels
Henry Sutpen a "grim humorless yokel out of a granite heritage
where even the houses, let alone clothing and conduct, are built in
the image of a jealous and sadistic Jehovah" (86). Mr. Compson's
account characterizes Henry's psyche in a way that a conventional
historical interpretation cannot. His descriptions suggest an
awareness more intuitive than intellectual, yet as compelling as
the sedulous grind of logic. The reader sensesnot reasonsthat
Henrys visit to the foreign, fatal alleys of ante-bellum New
7


Orleans might have initiated an inexorable chain of events that
could spell disaster for the Sutpen clan.
But what of the deeper impressionistic currents in Absalom
that seem to lead toward chaos? What of the separate fleeting
impressions that swirl about in so many directions? The entire
novel gives the impression of shadowy, nightmarish uncertainty
as Quentin Compson tries unravelling a tale that has reached him
from a bakers dozen of incomplete sources, many of which either
contradict each other or are inconclusive where the informants
knowledge failed. Indeed, Quentin is the novel's key listener and
interpreter. It is his duty to invest the Sutpen family saga with
an order that brings together these separate fleeting
impressions, to make sense of the legend as best he can by
bringing into focus the myriad impressions given him by the
novel's principal characters, as well as by interpreting his own
imperfect impressions of reality. Faulkner's letter to his
publisher during the writing of Absalom clarifies his method:
"Quentin Compson, of The Sound and the Fury, tells it, or ties it
together, he is the protagonist so that it is not complete
8


apocrypha" (Williamson 244). In short, Quentin is the lense
through which the disparate elements of the Sutpen legacy come
into focus.
The only way Quentin can hope to make sense of the
fragments of information given him is through inductive
reasoning, which is the logical foundation upon which
impressionism rests. Maurice Merleau-Ponty defines the essence
of this epistemology:
Psychology does not provide its explanations by
identifying among a collection of facts, the invariable
and unconditional antecedent. It conceives or comprehends
facts in exactly the same way as physical induction, not
content to rate empirical sequences, creates notions
capable of coordinating facts. . Since explanation is not
discovered but created, it is never given with the fact, but
is always simply a probable interpretation. (115)
The coordinating facts that lead to probable interpretations
in Absalom all exist in thought and usually in the domain of the
unconscious. Reality begins with each perceiving consciousness,
not with a third-person narrator delineating a chronological,
omniscient account. Every explanation that Quentin seeks is
created, or generated, from someones impression and then
filtered through Quentins own impression-generating
9


Imagination. For instance, he must interpret the words of: Rosa,
the injured Southern belle who remembers Sutpen as a gothic
horror story; his father, who reinvents the Sutpen legacy in the
grand, tragic tradition; and Shreve, a teller of tall tales who
creates a story of revenge featuring Charles Bon, Bon's mother,
and their conniving lawyer. It is in this unpleasant subliminal
world of the imagination, or in Faulkners words, this shadowy
miasmic region (54), this quicksand of nightmare (113-14),
where sense impression meets memory and metacognition, the
result being an impression of reality created through the inner
play of the mind. In essence, the novel is a paradoxical but
organic blend of impressionistic induction which leads toward,
but never to, complete objective comprehension.
A study of the difficult first chapter shows that Absalom
contains each of the previously mentioned impressionistic
elements, beginning with Quentins inductive reasoning. The first
two-and-a-half pages take the reader on a compulsory stroll
through the involute corridors of Quentins mind. A third-person
narrator serves as tour guide by invoking three separate but
10


interwoven centers of consciousness: the disembodied, foreboding
narration itself; Rosa Coldfields mind, illuminated by her archaic
and bitter recountings; and Quentins psyche, which evolves
through four levels of expanding awareness. These four levels are
his sense impressions of his immediate physical surroundings,
his reanimation of Thomas Sutpen's ghost, his personalized
reconstruction of Miss Rosa's tale, and the application of the
legend to his own condition.
When the reader first enters Quentins mind, Quentin
seems little more than a slave to sensation, lulled into a lethean
funk by his surreal environment. In impressionistic terms, his
mental state might be characterized as not simple and well
ordered, but an indistinct and obscure picture made up of an
irresistible flood of confused and ever changing sense
impressions (0verland 241). In a "dim hot airless room with
blinds all closed and fastened," Miss Rosa's "grim haggard amazed
voice" seduces him until "at last listening would renege and
hearing-sense self-confound" (3). The wistaria wafting through
the room is "coffin-smelling gloom sweet" (4). Miss Rosa
11


emanates "the rank smell of female old flesh" (4). Because
Quentins conscious perception of reality is arrested by the
otherness of these bizarre surroundings, mood overwhelms
objectivity and he becomes more inclined to feel than think.
isolated from the familiar, transported into the past, and
bombarded by symbols of decay, his reason, or "hearing-sense,"
gives way to sensory impression (4). James Nagel summarizes
this impressionistic narrative method as
the objective presentation of the sensory and
interpretive experiences of a character at the
primary level with minimal compensatory correction
by the narrator. The effect is one of psychological
immediacy, of sharp sensory detail uncluttered by
expository intrusions. (50)
Nagel considers the third-person, limited narrative mode the
natural expression of Literary Impressionism because fictive
data should be rendered primarily as originating from within the
fiction itself and as having been perceived by the narrator or one
or more of the characters. The author records what the center of
intelligence experiences and thinks and nothing else (43). In
Absalom, the reader-as-spectator is denied an omniscient
narrative viewpoint presented sequentially in units of
12


chronological time. From the start, Quentin and the reader share a
limited, unreliable, and distorted power of perception that
repeatedly reduces plot to a series of moment-to-moment
instants of consciousness.
Likewise, the lexicon of the narration challenges the reader
to approach the text from an impressionistic perspective.
Unorthodox configurations like "grim haggard amazed" (3), "quiet
thunderclap," "gloom sweet," and "cloudy flutter" (4) shock and
bewilder the reader into thinking in emotional, not logical, terms.
How, one wonders, can a voice be simultaneously "grim" and
"amazed?" What, exactly, does a "quiet thunderclap" sound like?
And does a coffin smell "gloom sweet?" The language itself
forces the reader to pause and puzzle over several contradictory
word-clusters. Throughout the novel, oxymoron, synesthesia, and
repetition pack each sentence tight with ambiguous meaning:
Clytie is described as "perverse inscrutable" (126); youthful
passion is characterized as all "hushed wild importunate blood
and light hands hungry for touching" (251); Quentin's interrogation
13


of Henry Sutpen is a numbing repetition of questions that leaves
off where it begins:
And you are?
Henry Sutpen.
And you have been here?
Four years.
And you came home?
To die. Yes.
To die?
Yes. To die.
And you have been here?
Four years.
And you are?
Henry Sutpen. (298)
Each anomolous word combination, phrase, or passage represents
a breakdown of the rational order. In the first chapter, these
breakdowns mirror the mood attributed to Quentin. In a meta-
reality inhabited by a nothusband, a crone who resembles a
crucified child, the soundless Nothing, notpeople, and
notlanguage, Rosas voice becomes the ever-changing currency
of meaning, not ceasing but vanishing into and then out of the
long intervals like a stream (4). Language is understood less as
thought and concept, and more as sensation and sound image
(Kronegger 17). Like Quentin, the reader is given a lexicon of
14


impressionistic imagery that tends to overwhelm the senses
rather than clarify issues germane to the Sutpen history.
While sharp sensory detail and psychological
immediacy are the building blocks of impressionistic narrative,
they represent only an incipient influence on impressionistic
literature. In Absalom, Quentin's sense impressions transmute
into more compelling images as psychological immediacy defers
to imagination and memory. The funereal sights, sounds, and
smells of Rosa's room bombard him until his fertile imagination,
which is now wedded to Rosa's voice, conjures up a protean
impression of Sutpen's ghost. At first, Sutpen's apparition is
presented as a benign and reluctant spirit:
The long-dead object of her impotent yet indomitable
frustration would appear, as though by outraged
recapitulation evoked, quiet inattentive and harmless,
out of the biding and dreamy and victorious dust. . [The]
ghost mused with shadowy docility as if it were the voice
which he haunted where a more fortunate one would have
had a house. (3-4)
Indeed, this ghost is a fragment of memory housed in Rosas
psyche and released only through her grim haggard amazed
voice. But as her account increases in velocity and vehemence,
15


Sutpen's persona assumes Biblical proportions to the romantic
Quentin. Transmogrified into a "man-horse-demon," Sutpen
intrudes "upon a scene peaceful and decorous as a schoolprize
watercolor" (4). In "the long unmaze" of Quentin's imagination he
watches Sutpen's horde "overrun suddenly the hundred miles of
tranquil and astonished earth and drag house and formal gardens
violently out of the soundless Nothing," creating "the Be Sutpen's
Hundred like the olden time Be Light (4).
In the same "long unmaze" of his imagination, Quentin the
subject creates an image of Sutpen the mutable object through
Rosa's faulty recollection to form a relationship in keeping with
the aesthetic of impressionism. Stowell aptly describes this
aesthetic as "an integrated juxtaposition," or "subjective
objectivism," where
the perceiver superimposes on an object actual physical
qualities based upon his own memory, mood, and
perspective; the object takes on and reflects the physical
properties of the surrounding environment; the object and
its reflectionsthe entire mise-en-scenesimultaneously
infuse the perceiver's own set of physical and
psychological characteristics. . There is one reality, the
perceived consciousness of things continually changing. (32)
1 6


<
Rosa superimposes a demonic, superhuman image upon Sutpen,
this image is transmitted to Quentin, Quentin manufactures his
own dramatis personae, and the reader is left to work with the
remaining reality, the perceived consciousness of continually
changing historical events. In the absence of a more even-handed
historical account of the Sutpen legacy, memory becomes
impression, a process which represents the inception of meaning.
Rosa's idiosyncratic pattern of thinking can be understood by
Quentin and the reader only in terms of a psychological
impression that paints Thomas Sutpen's portrait in ominous
shades. As a result, the visceral impact of her testimony carries
considerable force, and Sutpen appears before Quentin as a
creature of epic proportions.
Quentin's appropriation of the Sutpen image and subsequent
application of the image to his own circumstances represents a
more complex impressionistic depiction having to do with stream
of consciousness and the manipulation of time. Stowell notes that
literary impressionists depend "on simultaneity through the
cross-cutting of scenes, the fragmentation of image complexes,
17


and the sensory fusion of past and present," all of which lead to a
"privileged moment" of awareness (35). Quentin's psychomachia
embodies this principle. Once he awakens from his daydream, his
"hearing" reconciles the unreal quality of Rosa's monologue, and in
a state of mild schizophrenia, he seems to "listen to two separate
Quentins now" (4). The first Quentin is a Harvard student who,
despite his revulsion, must listen to "garrulous outraged baffled
ghosts ... to one of the ghosts [Rosa] which had refused to lie
still even longer than most had, telling him about old ghost
times" (4). This fragment of Quentin's unconscious denial equates
Rosa with the ghost of Sutpen and, at a broader level, with the
ghostly spectre of the entire antebellum South. The second
Quentin is a young man "too young to deserve yet to be a ghost"
yet must still be one "for all of that," since, like Rosa, he is "born
and bred in the deep South" (4). In effect, an uncomfortable
relationship between Quentin's unconscious perception of past
and present breaks into open conflict.
The following passage shows how Faulkners stream of
consciousness writing can prove to be intrinsically
18


impressionistic. A third-person narrator presents Quentin's
schism as a pair of "notpeople" speaking a subconscious
"notlanguage," or a dialogue once removed from conscious thought,
but because Quentin must consciously process the notpeople's
dialogue, he momentarily surfaces to consciousness in an effort
to confront and then comprehend the reality of his situation.
Throughout the passage, which Faulkner set in italics to indicate
a replication of the stream of consciousness of Quentin's inner
voice, we see Quentin's notpeople interpreting Miss Rosa's
monologue loosely and then correcting themselves with closer
facsimiles of her actual words:
It seems that this demonhis name was Sutpen-(Coionei
Sutpen)Colonel Sutpen. Who came out of nowhere and
without warning upon the land with a band of strange
niggers and built a plantation(Tore violently a plantation,
Miss Rosa Coldfield says)tore violently. And married her
sister Ellen and begot a son and daughter which(Without
gentleness begot, Miss Rosa Coldfield says)without
gentleness. Which should have been the jewels of his pride
and the shield and comfort of his old age, only(Only they
destroyed him or something or he destroyed them or
something. And died)and died. Without regret, Miss
Coldfield says(Save by her) Yes, save by her. (And by
Quentin Compson) Yes. And by Quentin Compson. (5)
19


Nagel points out that stream of consciousness is the logical
extension of Impressionistic modes of narration. As the process
of recording sensational responses gives way to rendering mental
activity, the fictional presentation of passages of thought seems
the next likely step (77). In this particular passage of thought,
the first italicized voice-"it seems that this demon-his name
was Sutpen"is notperson number one, or the Quentin from
Harvard who must lend an ear to living ghosts recounting ghost
tales. This voice is marked by a distinctly colloquial tone: Who
came out of nowhere . with a band of strange niggers and built a
plantation. The initial parenthetical lines'"(Colonel Sutpen),
(Tore violently a plantation, Miss Rosa Coldfield says), (Without
gentleness begot, Miss Rosa Coldfield says)-on the other hand,
represent the corrective ghost-voice of Miss Rosa, or our second
notperson.
However, a shift in narratorial voice occurs with "Which
should have been the jewels of his pride and the shield and
comfort of his old age" Notice that this fragment is not in
quotations, yet it is characterized by Rosa's poetic and elevated
20


diction, quite unlike the quotidian voice of the earlier
unparenthetical lines. A reversal of identity has taken place
among Quentins notpeople. Rosas persona now enters the text in
a position that would have been inhabited previously by Quentins.
Likewise, the next parenthetical passage--"(On/y they destroyed
him or something or he destroyed them or something. And died)"
sounds like the voice of our first notperson, the young Harvard
student, Quentin.
This structural juxtaposition represents a gestalt, or
phenomenological synthesis of seemingly disparate elements,
that binds Quentin's rent persona. He is still the youth who dreads
the ghosts from his past, but now he begins to realize that he,
too, is one of these ghosts. Suddenly, he has become aware of a
heretofore dormant segment of his personality. The final lines
suggest a furthering of Quentin's and Rosa's psychological
integration with a net effect of remorse: "Without regret, Miss
Rosa Coldfield says(Save by her) Yes, save by her. (And by
Quentin Compson) Yes. And by Quentin Compson" (5). While it is
likely that the pronoun "her" refers to Rosa, we can no longer tell
21


with absolute certainty which statements apply to whom or what.
What we can infer, however, is that the rational Quentin, his
subconscious notpeople, and Rosa's identity are synthesized into a
single entity, which represents an unsettling epiphany for
Quentin. The quarrel that haunts him, the anguish that he cannot
reconcile with his here-and-now, makes it virtually impossible
for him to avoid suicide in The Sound and the Fury, he despises
the loss of a heritage (and a sister) far less idyllic in reality than
in his imagination, and yet he knows that he is inextricably linked
to the same heritage (and lineage). Judith Lockyer offers a nearly
identical argument, stating that in Absalom, Quentin
"participates completely in the creation of the story of one man
that grows into his own story. Finally, in The Sound and the Fury,
we witness the desintegration of his ability to live in the
paradox" (51-52). Translated in broader terms, Rosa's and
Quentin's unison of regret is a reflection of the Zeitgeist of the
post-war South.
The shattered fragments of Quentins past synthesize with
Rosas memory of despair to form a new way of seeing similar to
22


the experience defined by Henry James as a suddenly-determined
absolute of perception. James describes the experience as
follows:
[The] whole cluster of items forming the image is on these
occasions born at once; the parts are not pieced together,
they conspire and interdepend; but what it comes to, no
doubt, is that at a simple touch an old latent and dormant
impression, a buried germ, implanted by experience and then
forgotten flashes to the surface as a fish, with a single
squirm, rises to the baited hook, and there meets instantly
the vivifying ray. (151)
But regarding Absalom, swamps, snakes, and impenetrable fog
would be more suitable metaphors for latent impressions than
flashing fish and vivifying rays. Quentin's interior quagmire
represents a sense of loss rendered through the passage of time
and a sense of despair inflicted through the recapture of the past
in the immediacy of the present. In effect, he observes but fails
to come to terms with his condition. His overwhelming
melancholy precludes him from enjoying the present and
anticipating a promising future. This is one of the most integral
designs in Absalom. Through a masterful impressionistic
narration that explores the microcosm of Quentin's mind, Faulkner
23


has illustrated a young man's perplexity at having to cope with
suppressed emotions that portend his solipsistic demise.
24


CHAPTER 3
IMPRESSIONISM AND MEANING IN THE NOVEL
The impressionistic elements of Absalom indicate that on
one level the novel can be understood only in phenomenological
terms that transcend reason. An expanding matrix of impressions
represents a form of ambiguous meaning that can never be fully
comprehended, cannot therefore be told, but can only be suggested
through images whose import must in great part be intuited
inductively, not known in the scientific way. The "total picture"
becomes "the sum of infinite touches and sense impressions, and
must be focused anew at each step or turn of the process: it is
the characteristic manner of impressionistic rendering" (Perosa
80). When Charles Bon leaves for college, he is on an inductive
search for phenomenological meaning:
[He was] almost touching the answer, aware of the jigsaw
puzzle . just beyond his reach, inextricable, jumbled, and
unrecognizable yet on the point of falling into pattern which
would reveal to him at once, like a flash of light, the
meaning of his whole life. (250)
25


The puzzle pieces never fall completely into place for Bon, or for
anyone else in the novel. Of all the characters in Absalom, Mr.
Compson is the one who most clearly articulates an awareness of
this inability to understand the mystery of existence. Upon finally
intuiting that his interpretion of why Henry puts Bon on
"probation" is spurious, Mr. Compson notes that "it just does not
explain," and that "something is missing." Puzzled, he describes
memory in cryptic terms:
We have a few old mouth-to-mouth tales; we exhume
from old trunks and boxes . letters without salutation
or signature, in which men and women who once lived
and breathed are now merely initials or nicknames out of
some now incomprehensible affectation ... we see dimly
people ... in this shadowy attenuation of time . .
performing their acts of simple passion and simple
violence, impervious to time and inexplicable. (80)
What can only be remembered, he implies, lacks immediate
experience and must remain a troubling speculation, while the
forms of knowledge most worth knowing usually exist beyond the
limits of human comprehension. Hence, while there is a certain
kind of unity and cohesion to Absalom, in many ways the novel
remains unsolvable because in Faulkners world, existence is
unsolvable.
26


Joel Williamson has noticed that this Faulknerian
worldview of unsolvability corresponds to Platonic idealism
(355). The Allegory of the Cave posits that man is a prisoner
chained in a cave for life, his only view the caves far wall. Above
and behind him there is a walkway upon which various forms
move about. A source of light shines in through the mouth of the
cave, passes around the forms on the walkway, and makes
shadows on the far wall. All that the man sees are these shadows,
and so he mistakenly assumes that they are the whole of reality
when in actuality they are merely manifestations. In fact, reality,
or truth, exists in the forms on the walkway and the light that
shines from beyond the cave. While the shadows serve man as
clues to reality, they should not be mistaken for the essence.
Hence, man can understand reality only as the idea of the thing,
not as the thing itself.
Williamson rightly uses the Allegory of the Cave to
underscore the tension that exists between realism and idealism
in Faulkners writing. Platos allegory correlates closely with
literary impressionism, for it shows that "the human heart in
27


conflict with itself can never fully understand its condition or
fate. None of the characters in Absalom manage to escape
themselves or their circumstances, try as they might to make
sense of a world beyond their control and comprehension. The idea
of the thing becomes a composite of minds that wax, wane, and
interpret one another within an enclosed, entropic system. Life is
reduced to a montage of phenomenological impressions with each
impression of the same object differing, as if two people sitting
in Platos cave glean two wholly different meanings from the
same shadow that flickers before them on the far wall.
To Rosa, Thomas Sutpen is an infuriating and everpresent
recollection, a certain segment of rotten mud (138) who walked
in but never fully out of her life, a walking shadow. He was the
light-blinded bat-like image of his own torment cast by the
fierce demoniac lantern up from beneath the earths crust (139).
Lodged in Rosas memory as the incarnation of masculine
injustice, Sutpens image seems to be more real to Rosa than the
very real physical presence of Quentin next to her. She wages war
with a memory while using Quentin indifferently in her benighted
28


quest for a form of redemption that she will neither attain nor
comprehend. Yet to Quentins grandfather, Sutpen was a man
worthy of occasional admiration and intimacy, a man who could
sit by a fire with a peer and recall his own youthful innocence,
with his eyes quiet and sort of bright . and Grandfather said it
was the only time he ever knew him to say anything quiet and
simple: On this night I am speaking of (and until my first
marriage, I might add) I was still a virgin (200). Quentins
father attributes a machine-like quality to the man who, with a
grim and unflagging fury . erected that shell of a house and
laid out his fields, then for three years he had remained
completely static, as if he were run by electricity and someone
had come along and removed, dismantled the wiring or the
dynamo (31-32).
On the other hand, despite the fact that a complete picture
of Sutpen can never be fully realized, it is also true that the
perception of plot and character increases with the progressive
awareness of the perceiver; both fictional character and reader
grow in awareness as their ability to perceive the connections
29


among fragments expands (Stowell 17). With each additional
narrative, with each additional piece of information, the reason
for Sutpens inability to sustain a dynasty becomes increasingly
apparent. Undoubtedly, the sum total of Quentin's psychological
progression throws into relief the impressionistic theory that
the "gradual unfolding of meaning coincides with the slow
process of perception" (Perosa 80). While his early fantasy of
Sutpen differs significantly from General Compson's informed
remembrance, his way of knowing seems to be a very real and
familiar extention of the reasoning process. As the novel
progresses, his ongoing ratiocination deserves cautionary
approval when he and Shreve speculate on and then clarify Henry's
possible motivations for killing Bon, for instance. Or in detailing
the failure of Thomas Sutpens grand design, Quentin offers this
speculation about Sutpen:
His trouble was innocence. All of a sudden he discovered,
not what he wanted to do but what he just had to do. . And
that at the very moment when he discovered what it was, he
found out that this was the last thing in the world he was
equipped to do. . Because he was born in West Virginia, in
the mountains. (179)
30


Through the melodic structure of perceiving consciousnesses,
and the rhythms of phenomenological time (Stowell 59), Quentin
reconstructs historical material as would any individual in
reality-piecemeal, through surmise and speculation. He is
confronted by a story whose characters he guesses at, and his
deliberate exploration of these characters and events results in
an expanded awareness of his own condition.
Some critics fail to notice any ratiocinative connections
and argue that Absaloms message is primarily chaotic. Walter
Slatoff points out that at the end of Absalom there are four
commentaries on the meaning of the Sutpen story, each
commentary offering the reader a different impression (171). The
first is provided by the image of the idiot Jim Bond. The
remaining link to the Sutpen legend, Bond howls like an animal
until he is driven away like one. The second is provided by the end
of Mr. Compson's letter, which offers a half-hearted and pathetic
"hope" that Sutpen is punished while Miss Rosa receives the
commiseration that she deserves. The third commentary belongs
to Shreve the Northerner who summarizes the story with a
31


ruthless absurdity and taunts Quentin with a cruel: "Now I want
you to tell me just one more thing. Why do you hate the South?"
Then there is Quentin's final commentary of "7 dont! I dont! I dont
hate it! I dont hate it" (303). Slatoff is correct in assuming that
"on a cognitive level" there is "no resolution" to the ending of the
novel and that Quentin's bitter repetition is "a psychological
oxymoron of simultaneous love and hate, with internal conflict
and self-contradiction." The conflicting and self-contradicting
machinery of Quentin's mind has been delimited. Accordingly,
Slatoffs skepticism is understandable. By the end of Absalom,
the only thing the reader can say with absolute certainty is that
Quentin and Shreve create a harrowing tale of revenge, incest,
miscegenation, and fratricide out of the few details he garners
from Rosa and Mr. Compson (Young 322).
It would be incautious, however, to interpret Faulkner's
impressionistic epistemology in cognitive terms alone. For
example, when Absalom is reduced to the bare elements of plot,
action, and chronology, it becomes little more than a morality
tale indicting monomania, violence, and racism. But to the
32


literary impressionist, depicting time chronologically runs
contrary to psychological realism. As Leon Edel points out, the
"mind cannot accomodate itself to chronological or mechanical
time, but is constantly moving blocks of time from past-to-
present-to-past, and without regard for logical sequence" (100).
This certainly holds true for Quentin, whose obsession with the
past is of central concern to the meaning of Absalom. In
Faulkner's own words, "Life is motion, and motion is concerned
with what makes man move. . The aim of every artist is to
arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it
fixed," which Faulkner does faithfully in his literature (Stein 49).
Faulkner also explains that "time is a fluid condition which has no
existence except in the momentary avatars of individual people.
There is no such thing as was--only is. If was existed, there
would be no grief or sorrow" (Stein 132).
Faulkner is saying that was, or memory, is always with us,
and since it is ever present in thought, it ceases to be an object
of the past. Furthermore, time exists only in the here-and-now of
our "momentary avatars which, as we have seen, can be reduced
33


to phenomenological shards of impression and thought. As Jean-
Paul Sarte has shown, Faulkner "decapitates time" in his novels
because his heroes "never foresee: the car takes them away, as
they look back" (74). This violation of chronological sequence is
in imitation of the human consciousness itself; throughout
Faulkner's stories, "blocks of time" glide untethered through the
text like disembodied spirits. In the absence of a palatable here-
and-now, hope surrenders to that might-have-been which is the
single rock we ding to above the maelstrom of unbearable
reality (120), consciousness becomes mostly memory, and
impressions of the past are held suspended in and given the
texture of the present. As Quentin "looks back" obsessively, he
closes off his future, and his "psychological oxymoron," which is
a symptom of his unresolved conflict with this everpresent past,
manifests itself in the shock he feels when he meets the ghost-
person of Henry Sutpen, who has finally come home to die. In the
end, Henry the ghost-person, the physical manifestation of the
past, catalyzes in Quentin a phenomenological change that even
34


Quentin seems to have perceived and comprehended during a lucid
moment of ratiocination:
Maybe happen is never once but like ripples maybe on the
water after the pebble sinks, the ripples moving on,
spreading, the pool attached by a narrow umbilical
watercord to the next pool which the first pool feeds, has
fed, did feed, let this second pool contain a different
temperature of water, a different molecularity of having
seen, felt, remembered, reflect in a different tone the
infinite unchanging sky, it doesnt matter. (210)
Yet the narrow umbilical watercord is only a temporary link
between separate realities, separate moments, in the unconscious
minds domain of guilt, regret, lust, and revenge. Quentins shock
of recognition is merely another addition to an ever-expanding
pattern of phenomenological meaning.
To use another analogy, if we view the ending of the novel
as we would a Monet painting, we detect a paradoxical resolution.
When one studies a Monet painting from three feet, he is likely to
see little more than a blur of soft-toned red, blue, yellow and
green hues, yet when he removes to a distance of, say, fifteen feet,
before him sprawls a tranquil lily pond, a surrounding forest, and a
boat carrying two reposed lovers. When considered metaphorically
as a literary painting of Sutpen, Absalom is a tragic masterpiece
35


with each allusive character and chain of events representing an
amorphous color that gains distinctive shape and form only when
the canvas is viewed from the proper distance. Jim Bond, Rosa
Coldfield, Mr. Compson, Shreve, and Quentin all shade the Sutpen
portrait in an impressionistic blend of human emotion, and their
fatalistic composite produces an artificial re-creation of reality
which, by its very ambiguity, its very unknowability, approaches
verisimilitude, approaches what Kronegger describes as "the
flickering, unstable semi-transparent moment-to-moment being of
consciousness" (61) that, with other flickering moments,
coalesces into a coherent but mysterious image. And what are we
to make of Miss Rosa's mysticism? No clue is presented in the
novel to explain how she "knows" that "something" is in the Sutpen
mansion. It seems that a Cassandralike intuition and unshakable
faith justify her actions. As Hyatt Waggoner points out in his
essay Past as Present: Absalom, Absalom!:
Considered as an integral symbol the form of Absalom says
that reality is unknowable in Sutpen's way, by weighing,
measuring, and calculating. It says that without an
"unscientific" act of imagination and even faithlike
Shreve's and Quentin's faith in Bon-we cannot know the
things which are most worth knowing. (183)
36


Ultimately, the unknowability of Sutpens way, combined with
Shreves and Quentins acts of imagination, reveals the
impossible and yet exhilarating task Faulkner has set for himself
in advancing his epistemology. The truth is that he tries to
elucidate the experience of the ineffable even though the
structure of Absalom leads the reader to conclude that one might
never perceive enough to obtain definite knowledge of the human
soul. At best, understanding truths of the heart in Faulkner's
impressionistic fiction "consists of perceiving and knowing one's
fluid relationship to the ever-changing world" (Stowell 45).
37


CHAPTER 4
IMPRESSIONISM AND MORALITY IN THE NOVEL
Some critics believe that impressionism signifies the
desintegration of meaning. At impressionisms extreme boundary,
they assume, stability and coherence dissolve completely and
take on the character of the fragmentary. As we recall, Kronegger
is convinced that impressionist creations become autonomous
entities, reflecting a detachment of social, political, religious
and sacred events," and that impressionistic writers have
separated themselves from "the historical and mythological
worlds of classical antiquity as well as with the religious world
of scripture (21). Julia Van Gunsteren claims that reality is
illusory to the literary impressionist (53). Flaubert says that
the ideal book is one about nothing, a book with no exterior
attachment ... a book which would have almost no subject, or
whose subject at least would be almost invisible, if that is
possible (Steegmuller 228-29).
38


They misunderstand the essence of literary impressionism.
In truth, an impressionistic novel can have a very visible subject,
and it can present a compelling depiction of reality. Faulkner, it
should be noted, is a heuristic writer. It seems to be in his nature
to combine impressionism with issues of morality, which is what
he does in Absalom. Our discussion has already demonstrated how
psychological and philosophical meaning can proceed from an
impressionistic rendering. Now we must analyze the social,
religious, historical and mythological imagery imbedded in
Absaloms unusual narrative and show how the impressionistic
structure of Absalom leads to an overwhelming moral conclusion.
Here some key ideas need to be reintroduced. First, in
Faulkners own words, without Quentin the novel becomes
complete apocrypha. Next, Waggoner notes that the form of
Absalom should be considered as an integral symbol and that
within this symbolic realm, reality is unknowable in Sutpens
way. Finally, Stowells theory of subjective objectivity
sensibly acknowledges the importance of the object in
impressionisms subject/object relationship. The combination of
39


these concepts corresponds with Faulkners impressionistic
understanding of human existence. In Absalom, Quentin represents
a central consciousness that interprets a surrounding organic
reality in terms of an interactive subject/object relationship.
Included in Absaloms organic reality are religious, moral,
historical, and mythological elements. These elements exercise a
considerable influence on the subject/object relationship, which
is, in turn, a fundamental aspect of impressionism. Therefore, it
is naive to assume that any impressionistic work can be entirely
about nothing, a book with no exterior attachment, because it is
impossible to separate subject from object in an impressionistic
work. Absalom is no exception. It is a novel that demonstrates an
unusual pattern of meaning derived from an ever-growing
collection of subjective responses to certain exterior
attachments.
These subjective responses are interpreted not only by
Quentin, but by the reader as well, and this raises another
important point. Absalom is structured in the form of multiple
narratives, with each narrative offering varying degrees of
40


information. Through an accumulation of data gathered from each
successive passage, the reader develops a knowledge considerably
broader than the knowledge gained by any of the characters in the
novel. In effect, he becomes the primary center of consciousness.
He observes the limitations of each character's mind, which
allows him to avoid the same errors in reasoning. For example,
from beginning to end, Rosa never seems to realize that Bon had a
mistress, much less a half-sister named Judith Sutpen. To her
vindictive way of thinking, Sutpen is an "ogre" who rejects the
marriage of his daughter for reasons that appear purely evil. On
the other hand, in Chapter IV, Mr. Compson confesses a knowledge
of Bon's Creole mistress, yet initially he is unaware of the blood
relationship between Judith and Bon. Representing a still greater
source of knowledge is Quentin, who has been told by his grand-
father that Bon and Judith were indeed related. Yet Quentin is not
aware of Bon's mixed blood until after his meeting with Henry.
The reader, too, is teased into searching for motives that do not
become evident until late in the novel. Most notably, although
Bon's murder is cited as fact in Chapter I, the circumstances are
41


not provided until a stockpile of information has been gathered by
Chapter VIII.
As the individual with the most information, the reader is
also the one most qualified to make informed conclusions
regarding the Sutpen fiasco. This point was well brought out in an
exchange during one of Faulkners class discussions at the
University of Virginia:
Q: Mr. Faulkner, in Absalom, Absalom! does any one of the
people who talks about Sutpen have the right view, or is it
more or less a case of thirteen ways of looking at a
blackbird with none of them right?
A: Thats it exactly. I think that no one individual can look
at truth. It blinds you. You look at it and see one phase of it.
Someone else looks at it and sees a slightly awry phase of
it. But taken all together, the truth is in what they saw
though nobody saw the truth intact. So these are true as far
as Miss Rosa and as Quentin saw it. Quentins father saw
what he believed was truth, that was all he saw. But the old
man was himself a little too big for people no greater in
stature than Quentin and Miss Rosa and Mr. Compson to see
all at once. . .It was, as you say, thirteen ways of looking
at a blackbird. But the truth, I would like to think, comes
out, that when the reader has read all these thirteen
different ways of looking at the blackbird, the reader has
his own fourteenth image of that blackbird which I would
like to think is the truth. (Gwynn 273-74)
Each way "of looking at the blackbird" is, in fact, another
narrative design that adds to the reader's growing understanding
42


of events. Stowell classifies this structure of multiplicity as
decidedly impressionistic and applies it to his theory of
"subjective objectivity." Through multiple viewpoints, he says,
the world becomes objectified by the mere fact that one
point of view acts as a check on the other. This allows us to
believe we are experiencing a balanced reality, that we are
privy to both the inside and the outside world, the subject
and the object. (222)
We have already seen how the inside world of the subject is not
so easily explained or understood. However, through multiple
narrations that lead to an expanding awareness of outside, or
objective, events, more obvious conclusions can be reached.
Absalom is "a narrative about narrative" that lends itself to
ratiocination (Reed 147). Joseph Reed considers the most
important narrative design in the story "a perfect arrangement"
between "Quentin the Teller and Shreve the Hearer" (168). Lynn
Gartrell Levins detects four narrative forms in the novel-Rosa's
Gothic, Mr. Compson's Greek tragedy, Quentin's chivalric romance,
and Shreve's tall talewhich leads her to conclude that "not one
figure of Thomas Sutpen emerges by the end of the novel, but
43


four" (9). Cleanth Brooks sees Quentin as the sleuth in "a
wonderful detective story" (Faulkner 311).
While each of these critics interprets the design of
Absalom uniquely, it is difficult to deny that the narrative voices
conspiring to form Faulkner's "fourteenth" way of looking at the
blackbird equal a tragic vision that condemns the horrors of
racism and slavery. As we recall, the perceiving consciousness
draws impression from the unconscious, or through an
unscientific act of imagination or even faith. This idea
underscores the importance of the impressionistic influence in
Absalom because feeling, not reason, springs from the
unconscious. To acknowledge feeling, to hear it in the deep
hearts core, as Yeats puts it, (39), is as much a part of the
novels essence as is Sutpens way of weighing, measuring, and
calculating. Insofar as a feeling simply is, some phenomena are
capable of appearing absolutely and unconditionally wrong. This,
the crucial link between impressionism and morality in Absalom,
requires acceptance of a pronounced authorial intrusion. Like his
fictional character Quentin, or the reader who represents the
44


fourteenth way of looking at the blackbird, William Faulkner the
narrator must also be regarded as a perceiving consciousness that
exists within the organic reality of his novel. Using subjective
objectivity as his model, Faulkner the creator expresses the
subjective impression, or feeling, that Thomas Sutpens grand
design and the roots of the Southern tradition are all wrong.
Williamson ably articulates Faulkners attitude toward his home
and heritage:
Faulkner argued that the modern Southern order was not
natural or harmonious, either in slave times or since.
Values had been diminished, obscured, and all but lost: sex
roles, race roles, andto use a convenient term he wisely
never used-"class" roles had been misconstrued.
Institutions had been created (religious, economic, social,
and political) that were incongruent with or even hostile to
the eternal verities. The result was that individual
Southerners often found themselves off balance and at war
within themselves between their concern for what Is and
what Ought To Be. Faulkner neatly caught the essence of
those struggles when he said, in his Nobel Prize speech,
that the true story of man was that of "the human heart in
conflict with itself." (359)
Faulkner chooses to express this feeling symbolically in
Absalom. Hence, there is yet another form of resolution supported
by the novels impressionistic structure and inspired by
45


Faulkner's sense of morality that needs to be discussed.
Essentially, racism produces tragic results. By establishing a
tragic tone and maintaining it throughout, Faulkner elevates a
tale that two thousand years ago would not have passed for
tragedy. Undeniably, Thomas Sutpen is not wholly tragic in the
classical sense. Far from being a high-born figure who falls from
a lofty height, Sutpen is poor white trash from the hills of West
Virginia who learns nothing from his hubris. His last words of
Dont you touch me. . Stand back, Wash (231) indicate no
signs of repentance or revelation. His death is pathetic-he is
hacked to pieces by Wash Jones, a sychophant land squatter and
Sutpens business partner. However, other Sutpen qualities
conform to the classical definition. He possesses an imposing
stature: the townspeople of Jefferson believe that "given the
occasion and the need, this man can and will do anything (35). He
is a man not liked ... but feared (57), willing to fight his
slaves man-to-man, which no other plantation owner in Jefferson
would dare attempt. He is awarded for his martial prowess in the
Civil War and rises to the rank of Colonel. A moral blindspot
46


contributes to his demise-his innocence of the nuances intrinsic
to Southern society, combined with his ruthless disposition, lead
to the collapse of his grand design. The mere fact that he pursues
a grand design and fails is in the tragic tradition.
Faulkner uses mythological and Biblical allusions to
intensify the novels impressionistic message. Sutpen the
"demon has a face like "the mask in a Greek tragedy" (49). He is
Jeffersons favorite spectator sport. The community chants a
chorus in steady strophe and anti-strophe: Sutpen. Sutpen.
Sutpen. Sutpen (24). (Nagel describes the use of hypnotic
repetition in literature as an impressionistic device which
engenders a narrative evocation of mood, of the budding romance
and its possibilities [80].) In Sutpens later years, he becomes an
"ancient, stiff-jointed Pyramus" (144). Rosa speaks with "an air
Cassandralike and humorless and profoundly and sternly
prophetic" (15). Begging Rosa to "at least save Judith" from
doom (15), Ellen is portrayed as Niobe without tears (8). Like
Antigone, Judith requires that her brother receive a proper burial.
Clytemnestra, or "Clytie," is Sutpens harbinger of disaster:
47


"presiding aloof upon the new, she deliberately remained to
represent ... the threatful portent of the old" (126). Sutpen is an
inverted image of King David, whom God promised an eternal
kingdom, hence the ironical title Absalom, with Henry and Bon
playing the roles of Absalom and Amnon waging mortal combat
over a defiled sister.
The novels ongoing ratiocination culminates with the
revelation that Bon's "mother was part negro (283). Brooks
speculates that Henry might be the person who informs Quentin of
Bon's ancestry: "Presumably, it was from Henry Sutpen that
Quentin learned the crucial facts. Or did he? Here again Faulkner
may seem to the reader either teasingly reticent or, upon
reflection, brilliantly skillful" (History 199), but Brooks' claim
sounds more like a cautious guess than a confident statement of
fact. The careful reader of Absalom knows that with every plot
twist there is the likelihood of being told another "old mouth-to-
mouth" tale, of being given another subjective impression of an
objective reality. Nevertheless, the impression we do finally
accept as real is the one in which Thomas Sutpen's fear of
48


miscegenation ruins him. Sutpens phobia creates a ripple effect
of disaster that begins with his family and reaches to the depths
of Southern society. Ellen is emotionally ruined when Sutpen
breaks his children's engagement. Judith is doomed to be "the
same as a widow without ever having been a bride" (167). She
dies as a result of nursing the intractable and bitter Charles
Etienne Bon. Henry becomes a dispossessed fugitive for murdering
his half-brother. Clytie, because of her morganatic ancestry to
Sutpen, refuses to live as a member of Black society yet is
precluded from the racist environment of Southern white society.
The idiot Jim Bond, "the scion, the last of his race" (300),
watches the ramshackled Sutpen mansion burn to cinders until
someone comes and drives him off.
Henry's murder epitomizes the tragedy in greater scope.
Unlike his father who approaches life with a cruel logic, Henry
(Quentin and Shreve infer) is a sensitive man who loves Bon,
rescues him in battle, apes his manners, and is willing even to
accept an incestuous marriage between Bon and Judith. Yet when
Henry finds out that Bon is part Black, his ingrained prejudice
49


overpowers his compassion and he shoots Bon at the Sutpen gate.
How Henry, who as a little boy vomits at the sight of his father
fighting a slave, assumes such a proud and insecure disposition is
a mystery. His conduct is a paradox in keeping with Absaloms
impressionistic design.
it seems likely that through the Sutpen tragedy, Faulkner is
intimating the decline of the Southern tradition. In the same way
that the bleak, battle-scarred terrain of the Deep South
correlates to the degenerating Sutpen family, Thomas Sutpen's
grand design is flawed identically to the tradition he embraces.
Both Sutpen and the South are punished for the moral violation of
slavery, "as if nature held a balance and kept a book and offered
recompense for the torn limbs and outraged hearts even if man
did not" (202). The repeated failure of Sutpen's grand design
illustrates the power of retributive justice. His mechanical logic,
will to power, and lack of compassion deal him a fate similar to
that of the plantation owner who once commanded a Black servant
to turn the fourteen-year-old Sutpen away. Indeed, the owner of
Sutpen's Hundred turns Wash Jones away as casually as he might
50


swat a fly. Yet years after the war, a swollen, profligate Sutpen
struggles with Wash to run a meager store in the heart of a once-
fertile country inhabited by men
who risked and lost everything, suffered beyond endurance
and had returned now to the ruined land, not the same men
who had marched away but transformed . into the likeness
of that man who abuses from very despair and pity the
beloved wife or mistress who in his absence has been raped.
(126)
Finally, four decades after Sutpens death, the Sutpen mansion,
the last substantial testament to his prowess, perishes in
flames. Perished, too, has the notion that an authors
impressionistic message cannot lead to a moral conclusion. By
studying a fusion of subjective, multiple viewpoints, the careful
reader perceives Faulkners unequivocal message.
51


CHAPTER 5
CONCLUSION
Absalom Is an impressionistic tour-de-force. It is an
exemplum that champions the primacy of perception. It is a
lesson on how subjective impressions of an objective reality can
lead to an awareness more intuitive than logical. It is a
testament to the inductive complexity of psychological realism,
to the power of everpresent memory. It is a model of the
ratiocinative process that often leads to an irresistible
conclusion. It is one of the most important novels that, until now,
has never been interpreted extensively in impressionistic terms.
The school of literary impressionism deserves
resuscitation for two main reasons. First, it formally introduced
the idea that individual perception can be as important to the
structure and meaning of a novel as the development of plot. This
idea exposed writers to more literary possibilities than can be
described in this summary, but to our second point,
impressionism advanced the cause of the psychological novel, and
52


what, if nothing else, is Absalom but a psychological novel? As
our discussion has shown, impressionism and psychology are
virtually synonymous aspects of Absaloms difficult message.
More to the point, the impressionistic structure of the story
represents a depiction of the mind and its perceived surroundings
that should be considered more realistic than the ones offered by
the vast majority of novels that are limited by conventional
narrative structures.
It should be emphasized, too, that if writing reflects the
mind of its writer, then Faulkner was neither a champion of
Saussurean linguistics, nor an inventor of postmodern theories
that emphasize the instability of language. He was as much a
moralist as he was a writer of psychological novels, and he was a
very didactic moralist at that. Hence, Absaloms impressionistic
narrative design proceeds toward, and not away from, a
meaningful social, historical, and psychological statement. The
Sutpen legacy cannot be reduced to one letter and a few
gravestones. Therefore, Faulkers fiction offers us a new way of
interpreting the impressionistic novel. Insofar as a healthy
53


perception of reality depends upon new perspectives, perhaps this
fresh reading of Absalom will come to represent literary
impressionisms fourteenth way of looking at a blackbird.
54


Works Cited
Brooks, Cleanth. History and the Sense of the Tragic: Absalom,
Absalom! New Haven: Yale UP, 1954.
. William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country. New Haven:
Yale UP, 1963.
Brown, Calvin S. Symposium in Literary Impressionism.
Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature 17 (1968):
79-85.
Edel, Leon. The Modem Psychological Novel. New Haven: Grove,
1964.
Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! New York: Vintage, 1986.
Gwynn, Fredrick L., and Joseph L. Blotner, ed. Faulkner In the
University: Class Conferences at the University of Virginia.
Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1959.
Holman, Hugh C., and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature.
6th ed. New York: Macmillan; London: Collier Macmillan,
1992.
Ilie, Paul. Symposium in Literary Impressionism. Yearbook of
Comparative and General Literature 17 (1968): 72-79.
James, Henry. "Preface to What Maisie Knew. Art of the Novel:
Critical Prefaces. Ed. R.P. Blackmur. New York: Scribner,
1946. 149.
Kronegger, Maria Elizabeth. Literary Impressionism. New Haven:
College and University, 1973.
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Levins, Lynn Gartrell. Faulkners Heroic Design: The
Yoknapatawpha Novels. Athens: UP of Georgia, 1976.
Lockyer, Judith. Ordered by Words: Language and Narration in the
Novels of William Faulkner. Carbondale: Southern Illinois
University Press, 1991.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Trans.
Colin Smith. New York: Humanities, 1962.
Nagel, James. Stephen Crane and Literary Impressionism.
University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1983.
Overland, Orm. The Impressionism of Stephen Crane: A Study in
Style and Technique. Americana-Norvengica. Ed. Sigmund
Skard and Henry Wasser. Philadelphia: UP of Pennsylvania,
1966. 236-245.
Perosa, Sergio. Naturalism and Impressionism in Stephen Cranes
Fiction. Stephen Crane: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed.
Maurice Bassan. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1967. 81-
85.
Reed, Joseph W., Jr. Faulkners Narrative. New Haven: Yale UP,
1973.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Time In Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury.
Paris: Situations, 1947.
Slatoff, Walter J. The Edge of Order: The Pattern of Faulkner's
Rhetoric. William Faulkner: Four Decades of Criticism. Ed.
Linda Welshimer Wagner. East Lansing: Michigan State UP,
1973. 155-78.
Steegmuller, Francis, comp., ed. and trans. The Letters of Gustave
Flaubert: 1857-1880. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982.
56


Stein, Jean. William Faulkner: An Interview. Writers at Work:
The Paris Review. Ed. Malcom Cowley. New York: Viking,
1958. 127-38.
Stowell, H. Peter. Literary impressionism, James and Chekhov.
Athens: UP of Georgia, 1980.
Van Gunsteren, Julia. Katherine Mansfield and Literary
Impressionism. Atlanta: Rodopi, 1990.
Waggoner, Hyatt. Past As Present: "Absalom, Absalom!" Lexington:
UP of Kentucky, 1959.
Williamson, Joel. William Faulkner and Southern History. Oxford:
Oxford Press, 1993.
Yeats, William Butler. The Collected Works of William Butler
Yeats. Ed. Richard J. Finneran. Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan,
1989.
Young, Thomas D. Narration as Creative Act: The Role of Quentin
Compson in Absalom, AbsalomF Critical Essays on William
Faulkner: The Compson Family. Ed. Arthur F. Kinney. Boston:
G.K. Hall, 1974. 318-31.
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Full Text

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IMPRESSIONS OF MORALITY IN ABSALOM, ABSALOM! by Eric G.R. Stephenson B.S., University of Colorado at Boulder, 1982 A thesis submitted to the I University of Colorado at Denver in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts 1996

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This thesis for the Master of Arts degree by Eric G.R. Stephenson has been approved ()'/_ 23_!l_(o __ Date

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Stephenson, Eric G.R. (M.A., English) Impressions of Morality in Absalom, Absalom! Thesis directed by Professor Rex Burns ABSTRACT This thesis demonstrates that Absalom, Absalom! is a novel dense with impressionistic elements that lead to a moral conclusion. The introduction, or first chapter, states the thesis and outlines the discussion to follow. The second chapter delineates several impressionistic qualities present in Absalom. The method by which this is done is primarily through a chronological study of the novel's first chapter, which depicts the psychological process of Quentin Compson's mind. Concepts discussed include: the primacy of perception of a central consciousness; inductive reasoning; the idea of sensation over reason; oxymoron, synesthesia, and repetition; how imagination and memory affect perception; stream of consciousness; and the gestalt-induced shock of recognition. The third chapter builds on the second by explaining the phenomenological aspects of Absalom's impressionistic message. Basically, the chapter shows that through an expanding awareness of the Sutpen legacy, the reader approaches but never fully attains a complete understanding of the Sutpen drama. This way of knowing, it is noted, reflects reality: multiple perceptions of the same event increase awareness; memory is an everpresent advisor to conscious thought; the convergence of multiple perceptions and memory can lead to an epiphany; and so on. The fourth chapter explains how the impressionistic structure of Absalom leads to a moral conclusion. Finally, the fifth chapter summarizes the essay iii

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by asserting that literary impressionism deserves more critical attention, and that Absalom deserves to be understood as an impressionistic novel. This abstract accurately represents the candidate's thesis. I recommend its iv

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DEDICATION dedicate this thesis to my parents, who taught me to honor intelligence, creativity, and perseverance. v

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ACKN0\1\A...EDGMENTS I would like to acknowledge Dr. Rex Bums for his patience, Dr. Richard Dillon for his meticulous attention to detail, and Dr. Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky for his exuberance. Discussing the works of Faulkner with each of them has been a privilege that I shall always remember. vi

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CONTENTS CHAPTER 1. INTRODUCTION .................................................................................... 1 2. IMPRESSIONISM AS PSYCHOLOGY IN THE NOVEL ................... 7 3. IMPRESSIONISM AS MEANING IN THE NOVEL ........................... 25 4. IMPRESSIONISM AND MORALITY IN THE NOVEL ...................... 38 5. CONCLUSION .......................................................................................... 52 WORKS CITED ....................................................................................................... 55 vii

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CHAPTER1 INTRODUCTION The essence of "literary impressionism" is as elusive as it is beguiling. Maria Elisabeth Kronegger, for example, opens the first chapter of her book Literary Impressionism by admitting that the modern critic must "demonstrate the need for redefining the concept of impressionism in artistic creation" (23). The remainder of her discussion is largely an attempt to interpret impressionism in postmodern terms. In Literary Impressionism, James and Chekhov, H. Peter Stowell admits to the "checkered critical history" of the subject. In turn, he applies gestalt and existential to impressionistic literature (5). James Nagel devotes the first thirty-five pages of his book Stephen Crane and Literary Impressionism to definition, then classifies six different narrative methods as impressionistic. This representative sample shows that critics of literary impressionism seem to be unsure of their terminology. They offer 1

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multiple interpretations of the concept and then redefine impressionistic theory in a variety of ways. The issue is significant because writers as diverse as Crane, Conrad, Flaubert, James, and Chekhov have all, at one time or another, been categorized as impressionists, have all been considered participants in this vaguely defined literary movement. Connections do exist. At the most basic level, they can all be classified as writers who present materials "as they appear to an individual temperament at a precise moment and from a particular vantage point rather than as they are presumed to be in actuality" (Holman 244). This working definition underscores the importance of the primacy of perception. To the impressionist, a subjective impression of an objective reality means as much as objective reality itself. A host of intriguing literary assumptions follows. The impressionist shifts from describing concrete reality to rendering the perceived mood and atmosphere surrounding that reality. Each moment is "comprehended after the sensation has been modulated by consciousness and arrested by time" (llie 77). Because sensation 2

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precedes comprehension, knowledge is acquired through the process of induction; flashes of frozen time become information bytes of phenomenological meaning. These frozen moments are then depicted as either a matrix of increasingly complex psychological states or a cluster of multiple viewpoints. In both cases, since memory is everpresent in thought, memories color each new sense impression; what is perceived is affected by what is remembered, and knowledge grows through a sustained act of the imagination or a ratiocination, either of which leads to a way of knowing quite unlike the well-ordered epistemology of deductive reasoning. Given these characteristics, one wonders why the writings of William Faulkner have been largely ignored by critics who study impressionism. Although masterpieces like Absalom, Absalom! are distinguished by each of the structural qualities just mentioned, Kronegger, Stowell, and Nagel barely allude to Faulkner in their books on literary impressionism. The most plausible reason for this neglect has to do with a general critical indifference toward impressionism. Nagel admits that he 3

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was astonished to discover that The Literary History of the United States, Fourth Edition, does not even mention the term, implying that despite the enormous impact of Impressionism on painting and music, the movement had no influence on American literature whatever. (ix) In fact, some go so far as to suggest that impressionism be dropped from the critical lexicon, citing that "separate fleeting impressions can not be built up into an organic whole of sufficient size, nor can a single fleeting impression be maintained and developed long enough to produce a major work" (Brown 81). While this facile assumption reduces literary impressionism's "dynamic vision of a changing world into mere pictorialism," as Stowell puts it (14), it explains much: the idea of Faulkner as impressionist has been largely ignored because the idea of literary impressionism has been largely ignored. Today; only a small group of critics are willing to discuss the impressionistic tendencies of a large group of writers. It is also true that some critics of literary impressionism tend to take their arguments to phenomenological extremes that emphasize the fragmentation and instability of modern society. 4

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One of Kronegger's claims illustrates this tendency with remarkable succinctness: Detached from traditional values, all artistic impressionist creations become autonomous entities, reflecting a detachment of social, political, religious and sacred events. Impressionist writers have lost contact with the historical and mythological worlds of classical antiquity as well as with the religious world of Scripture. (21) So much for Absalom having anything to do with impressionism, assuming we accept Kronegger's proclamation as gospel. But we do not because her approach borders on being as incautious as the antipodal viewpoint that overemphasizes and then dismisses "separate fleeting impressions." To be an impressionist is not necessarily to be a postmodernist. Insofar as critics who study literary impressionism run the risk of becoming an endangered species, then, it would be wise to give one of Kronegger's more catholic interpretations equal attention: "Impressionist creations in various countries are different expressions of the same basic idea, and may be recognized as being merely different symptoms in the same general syndrome" (33). This "same basic idea," this same "general syndrome," is merely a healthy respect for the primacy 5

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of perception. With impressionism comes the understanding that each subjective impression owes its existence to an objective reality that can be understood in empirical terms. Accordingly, Faulkner's impressionistic vision does not signify an atomization of meaning, nor does it represent a loss of contact with the "historical and mythological worlds of classical antiquity as well as with the religious world of Scripture." To the contrary, his "separate fleeting impressions" coalesce into a gestalt of phenomenological meaning which, in turn, is framed by a moral statement. By design, Faulkner uses an impressionistic approach in order to advance larger statements on the human condition. It is time to delineate the impressionistic elements so prevalent in his fiction and clarify the ends to which they lead 6

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. CHAPTER2 IMPRESSIONISM AS PSYCHOLOGY IN THE NOVEL Some of the currents of impressionism in Faulkner's fiction run very near the surface. In Absalom, Mr. Compson describes New Orleans as a "city foreign and paradoxical, with its atmosphere at once fatal and languorous, at once feminine and steel-hard" (86). Abstractions like "paradoxicai," "languorous," "feminine," and "steel-hard," represent subjective impressions of an objective reality. They create an atmospheric effect of mystery, sensuality, and foreboding. Later in the same passage Mr. Compson labels Henry Sutpen a "grim humorless yokel out of a granite heritage where even the houses, let alone clothing and conduct, are built in the image of a jealous and sadistic Jehovah" (86). Mr. Compson's account characterizes Henry's psyche in a way that a conventional historical interpretation cannot. His descriptions suggest an awareness more intuitive than intellectual, yet as compelling as the sedulous grind of logic. The reader senses--not reasons--that Henry's visit to the "foreign," "fatal" alleys of ante-bellum New 7

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Orleans might have initiated an inexorable chain of events that could spell disaster for the Sutpen clan. But what of the deeper impressionistic currents in Absalom that seem to lead toward chaos? What of the "separate fleeting impressions" that swirl about in so many directions? The entire novel gives the impression of shadowy, nightmarish uncertainty as Quentin Compson tries unravelling a tale that has reached him from a baker's dozen of incomplete sources, many of which either contradict each other or are inconclusive where the informants' knowledge failed. Indeed, Quentin is the novel's key listener and interpreter. It is his duty to invest the Sutpen family saga with an order that brings together these "separate fleeting impressions," to make sense of the legend as best he can by bringing into focus the myriad impressions given him by the novel's principal characters, as well as by interpreting his own imperfect impressions of reality. Faulkner's letter to his publisher during the writing of Absalom clarifies his method: "Quentin Compson, of The Sound and the Fury, tells it, or ties it together, he is the protagonist so that it is not complete 8

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apocrypha" (Williamson 244). In short, Quentin is the tense through which the disparate elements of the Sutpen legacy come into focus. The only way Quentin can hope to make sense of the fragments of information given him is through inductive reasoning, which is the logical foundation upon which impressionism rests. Maurice Merleau-Ponty defines the essence of this epistemology: Psychology does not provide its explanations by identifying among a collection of facts, the invariable and unconditional antecedent. It conceives or comprehends facts in exactly the same way as physical induction, not content to rate empirical sequences, creates notions capable of coordinating facts. . Since explanation is not discovered but created, it is never given with the fact, but is always simply a probable interpretation. (115) The "coordinating facts" that lead to "probable interpretations" in Absalom all exist in thought and usually in the domain of the unconscious. Reality begins with each perceiving consciousness, not with a third-person narrator delineating a chronological, omniscient account. Every explanation that Quentin seeks is "created," or generated, from someone's impression and then filtered through Quentin's own impression-generating 9

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imagination. For instance, he must interpret the words of: Rosa, the injured Southern belle who remembers Sutpen as a gothic horror story; his father, who reinvents the Sutpen legacy in the grand, tragic tradition; and Shreve, a teller of tall tales who creates a story of revenge featuring Charles Bon, Bon's mother, and their conniving lawyer. It is in this unpleasant subliminal world of the imagination, or in Faulkner's words, this "shadowy miasmic region" (54), this "quicksand of nightmare" (113-14), where sense impression meets memory and metacognition, the result being an impression of reality created through the inner play of the mind. In essence, the novel is a paradoxical but organic blend of impressionistic induction which leads toward, but never to, complete objective comprehension. A study of the difficult first chapter shows that Absalom contains each of the previously mentioned impressionistic elements, beginning with Quentin's inductive reasoning. The first two-and-a-half pages take the reader on a compulsory stroll through the involute corridors of Quentin's mind. A third-person narrator serves as tour guide by invoking three separate but 10

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interwoven centers of consciousness: the disembodied, foreboding narration itself; Rosa Goldfield's mind, illuminated by her archaic and bitter recountings; and Quentin's psyche, which evolves through four levels of expanding awareness. These four levels are his sense impressions of his immediate physical surroundings, his reanimation of Thomas Sutpen's ghost, his personalized reconstruction of Miss Rosa's tale, and the application of the legend to his own condition. When the reader first enters Quentin's mind, Quentin seems little more than a slave to sensation, lulled into a lethean funk by his surreal environment. In .impressionistic terms, his mental state might be characterized as "not simple and well ordered, but an indistinct and obscure picture made up of an irresistible flood of confused and ever changing sense impressions" ({ZJverland 241). In a "dim hot airless room with blinds all closed and fastened," Miss Rosa's "grim haggard amazed voice" seduces him until "at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound" (3). The wistaria wafting through the room is "coffin-smelling gloom sweet" (4). Miss Rosa 1 1

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emanates "the rank smell of female old flesh" (4). Because Quentin's conscious perception of reality is arrested by the otherness of these bizarre surroundings, mood overwhelms objectivity and he becomes more inclined to feel than think. Isolated from the familiar, transported into the past, and bombarded by symbols of decay, his reason, or "hearing-sense," gives way to sensory impression (4). James Nagel summarizes this impressionistic narrative method as the objective presentation of the sensory and interpretive experiences of a character at the primary level with minimal compensatory correction by the narrator. The effect is one of psychological immediacy, of sharp sensory detail uncluttered by expository intrusions. (50) Nagel considers the third-person, limited narrative mode "the natural expression of Literary Impressionism" because fictive data should be rendered primarily "as originating from within the fiction itself and as having been perceived by the narrator or one or more of the characters. The author records what the center of intelligence experiences and thinks and nothing else" (43). In Absalom, the reader-as-spectator is denied an omniscient narrative viewpoint presented sequentially in units of 12

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chronological time. From the start, Quentin and the reader share a limited, unreliable, and distorted power of perception that repeatedly reduces plot to a series of moment-to-moment instants of consciousness. Likewise, the lexicon of the narration challenges the reader to approach the text from an impressionistic perspective. Unorthodox configurations like "grim haggard amazed" (3), "quiet thunderclap," "gloom sweet," and "cloudy flutter" (4) shock and bewilder the reader into thinking in emotional, not logical, terms. How, one wonders, can a voice be simultaneously "grim" and "amazed?" What, exactly, does a "quiet thunderclap" sound like? And does a coffin smell "gloom sweet?" The language itself forces the reader to pause and puzzle over several contradictory word-clusters. Throughout the novel, oxymoron, synesthesia, and repetition pack each sentence tight with ambiguous meaning: Clytie is described as "perverse inscrutable" (126); youthful passion is characterized as all "hushed wild importunate blood and light hands hungry for touching" (251); Quentin's interrogation 13

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of Henry Sutpen is a numbing repetition of questions that leaves off where it begins: And you are----? Henry Sutpen. And you have been here----? Four years. And you came home----? To die. Yes. To die? Yes. To die. And you have been here----? Four years. And you are----? Henry Sutpen. (298) Each anomolous word combination, phrase, or passage represents a breakdown of the rational order. In the first chapter, these breakdowns mirror the mood attributed to Quentin. In a metareality inhabited by a "nothusband," a crone who resembles "a crucified child," "the soundless Nothing," "notpeople," and "notlanguage," Rosa's voice becomes the ever;..changing currency of meaning, "not ceasing but vanishing into and then out of the long intervals like a stream" (4). Language is "understood less as thought and concept, and more as sensation and sound image" (Kronegger 17). Like Quentin, the reader is given a lexicon of 14

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impressionistic imagery that tends to overwhelm the senses rather than clarify issues germane to the Sutpen history. While "sharp sensory detail" and "psychological immediacy" are the building blocks of impressionistic narrative, they represent only an incipient influence on impressionistic literature. In Absalom, Quentin's sense impressions transmute into more compelling images as psychological immediacy defers to imagination and memory. The funereal sights, sounds, and smells of Rosa's room bombard him until his fertile imagination, which is now wedded to Rosa's voice, conjures up a protean impression of Sutpen's ghost. At first, Sutpen's apparition is presented as a benign and reluctant spirit: The long-dead object of her impotent yet indomitable frustration would appear, as though by outraged recapitulation evoked, quiet inattentive and harmless out of the biding and dreamy and victorious dust. ... [The] ghost mused with shadowy docility as if it were the voice which he haunted where a more fortunate one would have had a house. (3-4) Indeed, this ghost is a fragment of memory housed in Rosa's psyche and released only through her "grim haggard amazed voice." But as her account increases in velocity and vehemence, 15

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Sutpen's persona assumes Biblical proportions to the romantic Quentin. Transmogrified into a "man-horse-demon," Sutpen intrudes "upon a scene peaceful and decorous as a schoolprize watercolor" (4). In "the long unmaze" of Quentin's imagination he watches Sutpen's horde "overrun suddenly the hundred miles of tranquil and astonished earth and drag house and formal gardens violently out of the soundless Nothing," creating "the Be Sutpen's Hundred like the olden time Be Lighf' (4). In the same "long unmaze" of his imagination, Quentin the subject creates an image of Sutpen the mutable object through Rosa's faulty recollection to form a relationship in keeping with the aesthetic of impressionism. Stowell aptly describes this aesthetic as "an integrated juxtaposition," or "subjective objectivism," where the perceiver superimposes on an object actual physical qualities based upon his own memory, mood, and perspective; the object takes on and reflects the physical properties of the surrounding environment; the object and its reflections--the entire mise-en-scene--simultaneously infuse the perceiver's own set of physical and psychological characteristics. . There is one reality, the perceived consciousness of things continually changing. (32) 16

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Rosa superimposes a demonic, superhuman image upon Sutpen, this image is transmitted to Quentin, Quentin manufactures his own dramatis personae, and the reader is left to work with the remaining reality, the "perceived consciousness" of "continually changing" historical events. In the absence of a more even-handed historical account of the Sutpen legacy, memory becomes impression, a process which represents the inception of meaning. Rosa's idiosyncratic pattern of thinking can be understood by Quentin and the reader only in terms of a psychological impression that paints Thomas Sutpen's portrait in ominous shades. As a result, the visceral impact of her testimony carries considerable force, and Sutpen appears before Quentin as a creature of epic proportions. Quentin's appropriation of the Sutpen image and subsequent application of the image to his own circumstances represents a more complex impressionistic depiction having to do with stream of consciousness and the manipulation of time. Stowell notes that literary impressionists depend "on simultaneity through the cross-cutting of scenes, the fragmentation of image complexes, 17

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and the sensory fusion of past and present,.. all of which lead to a .. privileged moment" of awareness (35). Quentin's psychomachia embodies this Once he awakens from his daydream, his "hearing" reconciles the unreal quality of Rosa's monologue, and in a state of mild schizophrenia, he seems to "listen to two separate Quentins now" (4). The first Quentin is a Harvard student who, despite his revulsion, must listen to .. garrulous outraged baffled ghosts . to one of the ghosts [Rosa] which had refused to lie still even longer than most had, telling him about old ghost times" (4). This fragment of Quentin's unconscious denial equates Rosa with the ghost of Sutpen and, at a broader level, with the ghostly spectre of the entire antebellum South. The second Quentin is a young man "too young to deserve yet to be a ghost" yet must still be one "for all of that," since, like Rosa, he is "born and bred in the deep South" (4). In effect, an uncomfortable relationship between Quentin's unconscious perception of past and present breaks into open conflict. The following passage shows how Faulkner's stream of consciousness writing can prove to be intrinsically 18

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impressionistic. A third-person narrator presents Quentin's schism as a pair of "notpeople" speaking a subconscious "notlanguage," or a dialogue once removed from conscious thought, but because Quentin must consciously process the notpeople's dialogue, he momentarily surfaces to consciousness in an effort to confront and then comprehend the reality of his situation. Throughout the passage, which Faulkner set in italics to indicate a replication of the stream of consciousness of Quentin's inner voice, we see Quentin's notpeople interpreting Miss Rosa's monologue loosely and then correcting themselves with closer facsimiles of her actual words: It seems that this demon--his name was Sutpen-(Golonel Sutpen)--Golonel Sutpen. Who came out of nowhere and without warning upon the land with a band of strange niggers and built a plantation--(Tore violently a plantation, Miss Rosa Goldfield says)--tore violently. And married her sister Ellen and begot a son and daughter which--(Without gentleness begot, Miss Rosa Goldfield says)--without gentleness. Which should have been the jewels of his pride and the shield and comfort of his old age, only--(Only they d(fJstroyed him or something or he destroyed them or something. And died)--and died. Without regret, Miss Goldfield says--(Save by her) Yes, save by her. (And by Quentin Gompson) Yes. And by Quentin Gompson. (5) 19

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Nagel points out that "stream of consciousness is the logical extension of Impressionistic modes of narration. As the process of recording sensational responses gives way to rendering mental activity, the fictional presentation of passages of thought seems the next likely step" (77). In this particular passage of thought, the first italicized voice--"it seems that this demon--his name was Sutpen .. --is notperson number one, or the Quentin from Harvard who must lend an ear to living ghosts recounting ghost tales. This voice is marked by a distinctly colloquial tone: "Who came out of nowhere . with a band of strange niggers and built a plantation." The initial parenthetical lines--.. (Colonel Sutpen), (Tore violently a plantation, Miss Rosa Goldfield says), (Without gentleness begot, Miss Rosa Goldfield says)"--on the other hand; represent the corrective ghost:-voice of Miss Rosa, or our second notperson. However, a shift in narratorial voice occurs with .. Which should have been the jewels of his pride and the shield and comfort of his old age... Notice that this fragment is not in quotations, yet it is characterized by Rosa's poetic and elevated 20

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diction, quite unlike the quotidian voice of the earlier unparenthetical lines. A reversal of identity has taken place among Quentin's notpeople. Rosa's persona now enters the text in a position that would have been inhabited previously by Quentin's. Likewise, the next parenthetical passage--"(Only they destroyed him or something or he destroyed them or something. And died)"sounds like the voice of our first notperson, the young Harvard student, Quentin. This structural juxtaposition represents a gestalt, or phenomenological synthesis of seemingly disparate elements, that binds Quentin's rent persona. He is still the youth who dreads the ghosts from his past, but now he begins to realize that he, too, is one of these ghosts. Suddenly, he has become aware of a heretofore dormant segment of his personality. The final lines suggest a furthering of Quentin's and Rosa's psychological integration with a net effect of remorse: "Without regret, Miss Rosa Goldfield says--(Save by her) Yes, save by her. (And by Quentin Compson) Yes. And by Quentin Compson" (5). While it is likely that the pronoun "her' refers to Rosa, we can no longer tell 21

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with absolute certainty which statements apply to whom or what. What we can infer, however, is that the rational Quentin, his subconscious notpeople, and Rosa's identity are synthesized into a single entity, which represents an unsettling epiphany for Quentin. The quarrel that haunts him, the anguish that he cannot reconcile with his here-and-now, makes it virtually impossible for him to avoid suicide in The Sound and the Fury; he despises the loss of a heritage (and a sister) far less idyllic in reality than in his imagination, and yet he knows that he is inextricably linked to the same heritage (and lineage). Judith Lockyer offers a nearly identical argument, stating that in Absalom, Quentin "participates completely in the creation of the story of one man that grows into his own story. Finally, in The Sound and the Fury, we witness the desintegration of his ability to live in the paradox" (51-52). Translated in broader terms, Rosa's and Quentin's unison of regret is a reflection of the Zeitgeist of the post-war South. The shattered fragments of Quentin's past synthesize with Rosa's memory of despair to form a new way of seeing similar to 22

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the experience defined by Henry James as a "suddenly-determined absolute of perception." James describes the experience as follows: [The) whole cluster of items forming the image is on these occasions born at once; the parts are not pieced together, they conspire and interdepend; but what it comes to, no doubt, is that at a simple touch an old latent and dormant impression, a buried germ, implanted by experience and then forgotten flashes to the surface as a fish, with a single 'squirm,' rises to the baited hook, and there meets instantly the vivifying ray; (151) But regarding Absalom, swamps, snakes, and impenetrable fog would be more suitable metaphors for latent impressions than flashing fish and vivifying rays. Quentin's interior quagmire represents a sense of loss rendered through the passage of time and a sense of despair inflicted through the recapture of the past in the immediacy of the present. In effect, he observes but fails to come to terms with his condition. His overwhelming melancholy precludes him from enjoying the present and anticipating a promising future. This is one of the most integral designs in Absalom. Through a masterful impressionistic narration that explores the microcosm of Quentin's mind, Faulkner 23

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has illustrated a young man's perplexity at having to cope with suppressed emotions that portend his solipsistic demise. 24

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CHAPTER3 IMPRESSIONISM AND MEANING IN THE NOVEL The impressionistic elements of Absalom indicate that on one level the novel can be understood only in phenomenological terms that transcend reason. An expanding matrix of impressions represents a form of ambiguous meaning that can never be fully comprehended, cannot therefore be told, but can only be suggested through images whose import must in great part be intuited inductively, not known in the scientific way. The "total picture .. becomes "the sum of infinite touches and sense impressions, and must be focused anew at each step or tum of the process: it is the characteristic manner of impressionistic rendering" (Perosa 80). When Charles Bon leavesfor college, he is on an inductive search for phenomenological meaning: [He was] almost touching the answer, aware of the jigsaw puzzle ... just beyond his reach, .inextricable, jumbled, and unrecognizable yet on the point of falling into pattern which would reveal to him at once, like a flash of light, the meaning of his whole life. (250) 25

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The puzzle pieces never fall completely into place for Bon, or for anyone else in the novel. Of all the characters in Absalom, Mr. Compson is the one who most clearly articulates an awareness of this inability to understand the mystery of existence. Upon finally intuiting that his interpretion of why Henry puts Bon on "probation" is spurious, Mr. Compson notes that "it just does not explain," and that "something is missing." Puzzled, he describes memory in cryptic terms: We have a few old mouth-to-mouth tales; we exhume from old trunks and boxes ... letters without salutation or signature, in which men and women who once lived and breathed are now merely initials or nicknames out of some now incomprehensible affectation . we see dimly people . in this shadowy attenuation of time . performing their acts of simple passion and simple violence, impervious to time and inexplicable. (80) What can only be remembered, he implies, lacks immediate experience and must remain a troubling speculation, while the forms of knowledge most worth knowing usually exist beyond the limits of human comprehension. Hence, while there is a certain kind of unity and cohesion to Absalom, in many ways the novel remains unsolvable because in Faulkner's world, existence is unsolvable. 26

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Joel Williamson has noticed that this Faulknerian "worldview" of unsolvability corresponds to Platonic idealism (355). The "Allegory of the Cave" posits that man is a prisoner chained in a cave for life, his only view the cave's far wall. Above and behind him there is a walkway upon which various forms move about. A source of light shines in through the mouth of the cave, passes around the forms on the walkway. and makes shadows on the far wall. All that the man sees are these shadows. and so he mistakenly assumes that they are the whole of reality when in actuality they are merely manifestations. In fact, reality, or truth, exists in the forms on the walkway and the light that shines from beyond the cave. While the shadows serve man as clues to reality, they should not be mistaken for the essence. Hence, man can understand reality only as the idea of the thing, not as the thing itself. Williamson rightly uses the "Allegory of the Cave" to underscore the tension that exists between realism and idealism in Faulkner's writing. Plato's allegory correlates closely with literary impressionism, for it shows that "the human heart in 27

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conflict with itself' can never fully understand its condition or fate. None of the characters in Absalom manage to escape themselves or their circumstances, try as they might to make sense of a world beyond their control and comprehension. The idea of the thing becomes a composite of minds that wax, wane, and interpret one another within an enclosed, entropic system. Life is reduced to a montage of impressions with each impression of the same object differing, as if two people sitting in Plato's cave glean two wholly different meanings from the same shadow that flickers before them on the far wall. To Rosa, Thomas Sutpen is an infuriating and everpresent recollection, a "certain segment of rotten mud' (138) who walked in but never fully out of her life, a "walking shadow. He was the light-blinded bat-like image of his own torment cast by the fierce demoniac lantern up from beneath the earth's crusr (139). Lodged in Rosa's memory as the incarnation of masculine injustice, Sutpen's image seems to be more real to Rosa than the very real physical presence of Quentin next to her. She wages war with a memory while using Quentin indifferently in her benighted 28

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quest for a form of redemption that she will neither attain nor comprehend. Yet to Quentin's grandfather, Sutpen was a man worthy of occasional admiration and intimacy, a man who could sit by a fire with a peer and recall his own youthful innocence, with "his eyes quiet and sort of bright . and Grandfather said it was the only time he ever knew him to say anything quiet and simple: 'On this night I am speaking of (and until my first marriage, I might add) I was still a virgin'" (200). Quentin's father attributes a machine-like quality to the man who, with a "grim and unflagging fury . erected that shell of a house and laid out his fields, then for three years he had remained completely static, as if he were run by electricity and someone had come along and removed, dismantled the wiring or the dynamo" (31-32). On the other hand, despite the fact that a complete picture of Sutpen can never be fully realized, it is also true that the perception of plot and character increases with the progressive awareness of the perceiver; both fictional character and reader grow in awareness "as their ability to perceive the connections 29

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among fragments expands" (Stowell 17). With each additional narrative, with each additional piece of information, the reason for Sutpen's inability to sustain a dynasty becomes increasingly apparent. Undoubtedly, the sum total of Quentin's psychological progression throws into relief the impressionistic theory that the "gradual unfolding of meaning coincides with the slow process of perception" (Perosa 80). While his early fantasy of Sutpen differs significantly from General Compson's informed remembrance, his way of knowing seems to be a very real and familiar exterition of the reasoning process. As the novel progresses, his ongoing ratiocination deserves cautionary approval when he and Shreve speculate on and then clarify Henry's possible motivations for killing Bon, for instance .. Or in detailing the failure of Thomas Sutpen's grand design, Quentin offers this speculation about Sutpen: His trouble was innocence. All of a sudden he discovered, not what he wanted to do but what he just had to do .... And that at the very moment when he discovered what it was, he found out that this was the last thing in the world he was equipped to do. . Because he was born in West Virginia, in the mountains. (179) 30

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Through "the melodic structure of perceiving consciousnesses, and the rhythms of phenomenological time" (Stowell 59), Quentin reconstructs historical material as would any individual in reality--piecemeal, through surmise and speculation. He is confronted by a story whose characters he guesses at, and his deliberate exploration of these characters and events results in an expanded awareness of his own condition. Some critics fail to notice any ratiocinative connections and argue that Absalom's message is primarily chaotic. Walter Slatoff points out that at the end of Absalom there are four commentaries on the meaning of the Sutpen story, each commentary offering the reader a different impression (171 ). The first is provided by the image of the idiot Jim Bond. The remaining link to the Sutpen legend, Bond howls like an animal until he is driven away like one. The second is provided by the end of Mr. Compson's letter, which offers a half-hearted and pathetic "hope" that Sutpen is punished while Miss Rosa receives the commiseration that she deserves. The third commentary belongs to Shreve the Northerner who summarizes the story with a 31

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ruthless absurdity and taunts Quentin with a cruel: "Now I want you to tell me just one more thing. Why do you hate the South?" Then there is Quentin's final .commentary of 111/ dont! I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate if" (303). Slatoff is correct in assuming that "on a cognitive level" there is "no resolution" to the ending of the novel and that Quentin's bitter repetition is "a psychological oxymoron of simultaneous love and hate, with internal conflict and self-contradiction." The conflicting and self-contradicting machinery of Quentin's mind has been delimited. Accordingly, Slatoffs skepticism is understandable. By the end of Absalom, the only thing the reader can say with absolute certainty is that Quentin and Shreve "create a harrowing tale of revenge, incest, miscegenation, and fratricide out of the few details he garners from Rosa and Mr. Compsonn (Young 322). It would be incautious, however, to interpret Faulkner's impressionistic epistemology in cognitive terms alone. For example, when Absalom is reduced to the bare elements of plot, action, and chronology, it becomes little more than a morality tale indicting monomania, violence, and racism. But to the 32

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literary impressionist, depicting time chronologically runs contrary to psychological realism. As Leon Edel points out, the "mind cannot accomodate itself to chronological or mechanical time, but is constantly moving blocks of time from past-to present-to-past, and without regard for logical sequence" (1 00). This certainly holds true for Quentin, whose obsession with the past is of central concern to the meaning of Absalom. In Faulkner's own words, "Life is motion, and motion is concerned with what makes man move. . The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed," which Faulkner does faithfully in his literature (Stein 49). Faulkner also explains that "time is a fluid condition which has no existence except in the momentary avatars of individual people. There is no such thing as was--only is. If was existed, there would be no grief or sorrow" (Stein 132). Faulkner is saying that was, or memory, is .always with us, and since it is ever present in thought, it ceases to be an object of the past. Furthermore, time exists only in the here-and-now of our "momentary avatars" which, as we have seen, can be reduced 33

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to phenomenological shards of impression and thought. As Jean Paul Sarte has shown, Faulkner "decapitates time" in his novels because his heroes "never foresee: the car takes them away, as they look back" (74). This violation of chronological sequence is in imitation of the human consciousness itself; throughout Faulkner's stories, "blocks of time" glide untethered through the text like disembodied spirits. In the absence of a palatable here and-now, hope surrenders to "that might-have-been which is the single rock we cling to above the maelstrom of unbearable reality'' (120), consciousness becomes mostly memory, and impressions of the past are held suspended in and given the texture of the present. As Quentin "looks back" obsessively, he closes off his future, and his "psychological oxymoron," which is a symptom of his unresolved conflict with this everpresent past, manifests itself in the shock he feels when he meets the ghost person of Henry Sutpen, who has finally come home to die. In the end, Henry the ghost-person, the physical manifestation of the past, catalyzes in Quentin a phenomenological change that even 34

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Quentin seems to have perceived and comprehended during a lucid moment of ratiocination: Maybe happen is never once but like ripples maybe on the water after the pebble sinks, the ripples moving on, spreading, the pool attached by a narrow umbilical watercord to the next pool which the first pool feeds, has fed, did feed, let this second pool contain a different temperature of water, a different molecularity of having seen, felt, remembered, reflect in a different tone the infinite unchanging sky, it doesn't matter. (21 0) Yet the "narrow umbilical watercord" is only a temporary link between separate realities, separate moments, in the unconscious mind's domain of guilt, regret, lust, and revenge. Quentin's shock of recognition is merely another addition to an ever-expanding pattern of phenomenological meaning. To use another analogy, if we view the ending of the novel as we would a Monet painting, we detect a paradoxical resolution. When one studies a Monet painting from three feet, he is likely to see little more than a blur of soft-toned red, blue, yellow and green hues, yet when he removes to a distance of, say, fifteen feet, before him sprawls a tranquil lily pond, a surrounding forest, and a boat carrying two reposed lovers. When considered metaphorically as a literary painting of Sutpen, Absalom is a tragic masterpiece 35

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with each allusive character and chain of events representing an amorphous color that gains distinctive shape and form only when the canvas is viewed from the proper distance. Jim Bond, Rosa Goldfield, Mr. Compson, Shreve, and Quentin all shade the Sutpen portrait in an impressionistic blend of human emotion, and their fatalistic composite produces an artificial re-creation of reality which, by its very ambiguity, its very unknowability, approaches verisimilitude, approaches what Kronegger describes as "the flickering, unstable semi-transparent moment-to-moment being of consciousness" (61) that, with other flickering moments, coalesces into a coherent but mysterious image. And what are we to make of Miss Rosa's mysticism? No clue is presented in the novel to explain how she "knows" that "something" is in the Sutpen mansion. It seems that a Cassandralike intuition and unshakable faith justify her actions. As Hyatt Waggoner points out in his essay "Past as Present: Absalom, Absalom!:" Considered as an integral symbol the form of Absalom says that reality is unknowable in Sutpen's way, by weighing, measuring, and calculating. It says that without an "unscientific" act of imagination and even faith--like Shreve's and Quentin's faith in Bon--we cannot know the things which are most worth knowing. (183) 36

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Ultimately, the unknowability of Sutpen's way, combined with Shreve's and Quentin's acts of imagination, reveals the impossible and yet exhilarating task Faulkner has set for himself in advancing his epistemology. The truth is that he tries to elucidate the experience of the ineffable even though the structure of Absalom leads the reader to conclude that one might never perceive enough to obtain definite knowledge of the human soul. At best, understanding "truths of the heart" in Faulkner's impressipnistic fiction .. consists of perceiving and knowing one's fluid relationship to the ever-changing world .. (Stowell 45). 37

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CHAPTER4 IMPRESSIONISM AND MORALITY IN THE NOVEL Some critics believe that impressionism signifies the desintegration of meaning. At impressionism's extreme boundary; they assume, stability and coherence dissolve completely and take on the character of the fragmentary. As we recall, Kronegger is convinced that "impressionist creations become autonomous entities, reflecting a detachment of social, political, religious and sacred events," and that impressionistic writers have separated themselves from "the historical and mythological worlds of classical antiquity as well as with the religious world of scripture" (21 ). Julia Van Gunsteren claims that "reality is illusory" to the literary impressionist (53). Flaubert says that the ideal book is one "about nothing, a book with no exterior attachment . a book which would have almost no subject, or whose subject at least would be almost invisible, if that is possible" (Steegmuller 228-29). 38

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They misunderstand the essence of literary impressionism. In truth, an impressionistic novel can have a very visible subject, and it can present a compelling depiction of reality. Faulkner, it should be noted, is a heuristic writer. It seems to be in his nature to combine impressionism with issues of morality, which is what he does in Absalom. Our discussion has already demonstrated how psychological and philosophical meaning can proceed from an impressionistic rendering. Now we must analyze the "social," "religious," "historical and mythological" imagery imbedded in Absalom's unusual narrative and show how the impressionistic structure of Absalom leads to an overwhelming moral conclusion. Here some key ideas need to be reintroduced. First, in Faulkner's own words, without Quentin the novel becomes "complete apocrypha." Next, Waggoner notes that the form of Absalom should be considered as "an integral symbol" and that within this symbolic realm, "reality is unknowable in Sutpen's way." Finally, Stowell's theory of "subjective objectivity" sensibly acknowledges the importance of the object in impressionism's subject/object relationship. The combination of 39

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these concepts corresponds with Faulkner's impressionistic understanding of human existence. In Absalom, Quentin represents a central consciousness that interprets a surrounding organic reality in terms of an interactive subject/object relationship. Included in Absalom's organic reality are religious, moral, historical, and mythological elements. These elements exercise a considerable influence on. the subject/object relationship, which is, in turn, a fundamental aspect of impressionism. Therefore, it is naive to assume that any impressionistic work can be entirely "about nothing, a book with no exterior attachment," because it is impossible to separate subject from object in an impressionistic work. Absalom is no exception. It is a novel that demonstrates an unusual pattern of meaning derived from an ever-growing collection of subjective responses to certain "exterior attachments." These subjective responses are interpreted not only by Quentin, but by the reader as well, and this raises another important point. Absalom is structured in the form of multiple narratives, with each narrative offering varying degrees of 40

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information. Through an accumulation of data gathered from each successive passage, the reader develops a knowledge considerably broader than the knowledge gained by any of the characters in the novel. In effect, he becomes the primary center of consciousness. He observes the limitations of each character's mind, which allows him to avoid the same errors in reasoning. For example, from beginning to end, Rosa never seems to realize that Bon had a mistress, much less a half-sister named Judith Sutpen. To her vindictive way of thinking, Sutpen is an "ogre" who rejects the marriage of his daughter for reasons that appear purely evil. On the other hand, in Chapter IV, Mr. Compson confesses a knowledge of Bon's Creole mistress, yet initially he is unaware of the blood relationship between Judith and Bon. Representing a still greater source of knowledge is Quentin, who has been told by his grand father that Bon and Judith were indeed related. Yet Quentin is not aware of Bon's mixed blood until after his meeting with Henry. The reader, too, is teased into searching for motives that do not become evident until late in the novel. Most notably, although Bon's murder is cited as fact in Chapter 1, the circumstances are 41

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not provided until a stockpile of information has been gathered by Chapter VIII. As the individual with the most information, the reader is also the one most qualified to make informed conclusions regarding the Sutpen fiasco. This point was well brought out in an exchange during one of Faulkner's class discussions at the University of Virginia: Q: Mr. Faulkner, in Absalom, Absalom! does any one of the people who talks about Sutpen have the right view, or is it more or less a case of thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird with none of them right? A: That's it exactly. I think that no one individual can look at truth. It blinds you. You look at it and see one phase of it. Someone else looks at it and sees a slightly awry phase of it. But taken all together, the truth is in what they saw though nobody saw the truth intact. So these are true as far as Miss Rosa and as Quentin saw it. Quentin's father saw what he believed was truth, that was all he saw. But the old man was himself a little too big for people no greater in stature than Quentin and Miss Rosa and Mr. Compson to see all at once ... .It was, as you say, thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird. But the truth, I would like to think, comes out, that when the reader has read all these thirteen different ways of looking at the blackbird, the reader has his own fourteenth image of that blackbird which 1 would like to think is the truth. (Gwynn 273-74) Each way "of looking at the blackbird" is, in fact, another narrative design that adds to the reader's growing understanding 42

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of events. Stowell classifies this structure of multiplicity as decidedly impressionistic and applies it to his theory of "subjective objectivity." Through multiple viewpoints, he says, the world becomes objectified by the mere fact that one point of view acts as a check on the other. This allows us to believe we are experiencing a balanced reality, that we are privy to both the inside and the outside world, the subject and the object. (222) We have already seen how the inside world of the subject is not so easily explained or understood. However, through multiple narrations that lead to an expanding awareness of outside, or objective, events, more obvious conclusions can be reached. Absalom is "a narrative about narrative" that lends itself to ratiocination (Reed 147). Joseph Reed considers the most important narrative design in the story "a perfect arrangement" between "Quentin the Teller and Shreve the Hearer" (168). Lynn Gartrell Levins detects four narrative forms in the novel--Rosa's Gothic, Mr. Compson's Greek tragedy, Quentin's chivalric romance, and Shreve's tall tale--which leads her to conclude that "not one figure of Thomas Sutpen emerges by the end of the novel, but 43

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four" (9). Cleanth Brooks sees Quentin as the sleuth in "a wonderful detective story" (Faulkner 311 ). While each of these critics interprets the design of Absalom uniquely, it is difficult to deny that the narrative voices conspiring to form Faulkner's "fourteenth" way of looking at the blackbird equal a tragic vision that condemns the horrors of racism and slavery. As we recall, the perceiving consciousness draws impression from the unconscious, or through "an 'unscientific' act of imagination or even faith." This idea underscores the importance of the impressionistic influence in Absalom because feeling, not reason, springs from the unconscious. To acknowledge feeling, to "hear it in the deep heart's core," as Yeats puts it, (39), is as much a part of the novel's essence as is Sutpen's way of "weighing, measuring, and calculating." Insofar as a feeling simply is, some phenomena are capable of appearing absolutely and unconditionally wrong. This, the crucial link between impressionism and morality in Absalom, requires acceptance of a pronounced authorial intrusion. Like his fictional character Quentin, or the reader who represents the 44

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fourteenth way of looking at the blackbird, William Faulkner the narrator must also be regarded as a perceiving consciousness that exists within the organic reality of his novel. Using "subjective objectivity" as his model, Faulkner the creator expresses the subjective impression, or feeling, that Thomas Sutpen's grand design and the roots of the Southern tradition are all wrong. Williamson ably articulates Faulkner's attitude toward his home and heritage: Faulkner argued that the modern Southern order was not natural or harmonious, either in slave times or since. Values had been diminished, obscured, and all but lost: sex roles, race roles, and--to use a convenient term he wisely never used--"class" roles had been misconstrued. Institutions had been created (religious, economic, social, and political) that were incongruent with or even hostile to the "eternal verities." The result was that individual Southerners often found themselves off balance and at war within themselves between their concern for what Is and what Ought To Be. Faulkner neatly caught the essence of those struggles when he said, in his Nobel Prize speech, that the true story of man was that of "the human heart in conflict with itself." (359) Faulkner chooses to express this feeling symbolically in Absalom. Hence, there is yet another form of resolution supported by the novel's impressionistic structure and inspired by 45

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Faulkner's sense of morality that needs to be discussed. Essentially, racism produces tragic results. By establishing a tragic tone and maintaining it throughout, Faulkner elevates a tale that two thousand years ago would not have passed for tragedy. Undeniably, Thomas Sutpen is not wholly tragic in the classical sense. Far from being a high-born figure who falls from a lofty height, Sutpen is poor white trash from the hills of West Virginia who learns nothing from his hubris. His last words of "'Don't you touch me .... Stand back, Wash'" (231) indicate no signs of repentance or revelation. His death is pathetic--he is hacked to pieces by Wash Jones, a sychophant land squatter and Sutpen's business partner. However, other Sutpen qualities conform to the classical definition : He possesses an imposing stature: the townspeople of Jefferson believe that "given the occasion and the need, this man can and will do anything'' (35). He is a man "not liked ... but feared" (57), willing to fight his slaves man-to-man, which no other plantation owner in Jefferson would dare attempt. He is awarded for his martial prowess in the Civil War and rises to the rank of Colonel. A moral blindspot 46

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contributes to his demise--his innocence of the nuances intrinsic to Southern society, combined with his ruthless disposition, lead to the collapse of his grand design. The mere fact that he pursues a grand design and fails is in the tragic tradition. Faulkner uses mythological and Biblical allusions to intensify the novel's impressionistic message. Sutpen the "demon" has a face like "the mask in a Greek tragedy" (49). He is Jefferson's favorite spectator sport. The community chants a chorus "in steady strophe and anti-strophe: Sutpen. Sutpen. Sutpen. Sutpen" (24). (Nagel describes the use of hypnotic repetition in literature as an impressionistic device which engenders a "narrative evocation of mood, of the budding romance and its possibilities" [80).) In Sutpen's later years, he becomes an "ancient, stiff-jointed Pyramus" (144). Rosa speaks with "an air Cassandralike and humorless and profoundly and sternly prophetic" (15). Begging Rosa to "'at least save Judith"' from doom (15), Ellen is portrayed as "Niobe without tears" (8). Like Antigone, Judith requires that her brother receive a proper burial. Clytemnestra, or "Clytie," is Sutpen's harbinger of disaster: 47

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"presiding aloof upon the new, she deliberately remained to represent ... the threatful portent of the old' (126). Sutpen is an inverted image of King David, whom God promised an eternal kingdom, hence the ironical title Absalom, with Henry and Bon playing the roles of Absalom and Amnon waging mortal combat over a defiled sister. The novel's ongoing ratiocination culminates with the revelation that Bon's "mother was part negro" (283). Brooks speculates that Henry might be the person who informs Quentin of Bon's ancestry: "Presumably, it was from Henry Sutpen that Quentin learned the crucial facts. Or did he? Here again Faulkner may seem to the reader either teasingly reticent or, upon reflection, brilliantly skillful" (History 199), but Brooks' claim sounds more like a cautious guess than a confident statement of fact. The careful reader of Absalom knows that with every plot twist there is the likelihood of being told another "old mouth-to mouth" tale, of being given another subjective impression of an objective reality. Nevertheless, the impression we do finally accept as real is the one in which Thomas Sutpen's fear of 48

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miscegenation ruins him. Sutpen's phobia creates a ripple effect of disaster that begins with his family and reaches to the depths of Southern society. Ellen is emotionally ruined when Sutpen breaks his children's engagement. Judith is doomed to be "the same as a widow without ever having been a bride" (167). She dies as a result of nursing the intractable and bitter Charles Etienne Bon. Henry becomes a dispossessed fugitive for murdering his half-brother. Clytie, because of her morganatic ancestry to Sutpen, refuses to live as a member of Black society yet is precluded from the racist environment of Southern white society. The idiot Jim Bond, "the scion, the last of his race" (300), watches the ramshackled Sutpen mansion burn to cinders until someone comes and drives him off. Henry's murder epitomizes the tragedy in greater scope. Unlike his father who approaches life with .a cruel logic, Henry (Quentin and Shreve infer) is a sensitive man who loves Bon, rescues him in battle, apes his manners, and is willing even to accept an incestuous marriage between Bon and Judith. Yet when Henry finds out that Bon is part Black, his ingrained prejudice 49

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overpowers his compassion and he shoots Bon at the Sutpen gate. How Henry, who as a little boy vomits at the sight of his father fighting a slave, assumes such a proud and insecure disposition is a mystery. His conduct is a paradox in keeping with Absalom's impressionistic design. It seems likely that through the Sutpen tragedy, Faulkner is intimating the decline of the Southern tradition. In the same way that the bleak, battle-scarred terrain of the Deep South correlates to the degenerating Sutpen family, Thomas Sutpens grand design is flawed identically to the tradition he embraces. Both Sutpen and the South are punished for the moral violation of slavery, .. as if nature held a balance and kept a book and offered recompense for the torn limbs and outraged hearts even if man did not .. (202). The repeated failure of Sutpens grand design illustrates the power of retributive justice. His mechanical logic, will to power, and lack of compassion deal him a fate similar to that of the plantation owner who once commanded a Black servant to turn the fourteen-year-old Sutpen away. Indeed, the owner of Sutpens Hundred turns Wash Jones away as casually as he might 50

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swat a fly. Yet years after the war, a swollen, profligate Sutpen struggles with Wash to run a meager store in the heart of a oncefertile country inhabited by men who risked and lost everything, suffered beyond endurance and had returned now to the ruined land, not the same men who had marched away but transformed . into the likeness of that man who abuses from very despair and pity the beloved wife or mistress who in his absence has been raped. (126) Finally, four decades after Sutpen's death, the Sutpen mansion, the last substantial testament to hi's prowess, perishes in flames. Perished, too, has the notion that an author's impressionistic message cannot lead to a moral conclusion. By studying a fusion of subjective, multiple viewpoints, the careful reader perceives Faulkner's unequivocal message. 51

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CHAPTERS CONCLUSION Absalom is an impressionistic tour-de-force. It is an exemplum that champions the primacy of perception. It is a Jesson on how subjective impressions of an objective reality can lead to an awareness more intuitive than logical. It is a testament to the inductive complexity of psychological realism, to the power of everpresent memory. It is a model of the ratiocinative process that often leads to an irresistible conclusion. It is one of the most important novels that, until now, has never been interpreted extensively in impressionistic terms. The school of literary impressionism deserves resuscitation for two main reasons. First, it formally introduced the idea that individual perception can be as important to the structure and meaning of a novel as the development of plot. This idea exposed writers to more literary possibilities than can be described in this summary, but to our second point, impressionism advanced the cause of the psychological novel, and 52

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what, if nothing else, is Absalom but a psychological novel? As our discussion has shown, impressionism and psychology are virtually synonymous aspects of Absalom's difficult message. More to the point, the impressionistic structure of the story represents a depiction of the mind and its perceived surroundings that should be considered more realistic than the ones offered by the vast majority of novels that are limited by conventional narrative structures. It should be emphasized, too, that if writing reflects the mind of its writer, then Faulkner was neither a champion of Saussurean linguistics, nor an inventor of postmodern theories that emphasize the instability of language. He was as much a moralist as he was a writer of psychological novels, and he was a very didactic moralist at that. Hence, Absalom's impressionistic narrative design proceeds toward, and not away from, a meaningful social, historical, and psychological statement. The Sutpen legacy cannot be reduced to one letter and a few gravestones. Therefore, Faulker's fiction offers us a new way of interpreting the impressionistic novel. Insofar as a healthy 53

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perception of reality depends upon new perspectives, perhaps this fresh reading of Absalom will come to represent literary impressionism's fourteenth way of looking at a blackbird. 54

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Works Cited Brooks, Cleanth. History and the Sense of the Tragic: Absalom!" New Haven: Yale UP, 1954. William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country. New Haven: Yale UP, 1963. Brown, Calvin S. "Symposium in Literary Impressionism." Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature 17 (1968): 79-85. Edel, Leon. The Modem Psychological Novel. New Haven: Grove, 1964. Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! New York: Vintage, 1986. Gwynn, Fredrick L., and Joseph L. Blotner, ed. Faulkner In the University: Class Conferences at the University of Virginia. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1959. Holman, Hugh C., and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature. 6th ed. New York: Macmillan; London: Collier Macmillan, 1992. llie, Paul. "Symposium in Literary Impressionism." Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature 17 (1968): 72-79. James, Henry. "Preface to What Maisie Knew." Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces. Ed. R.P. Blackmur. New York: Scribner, 1946. 149. Kronegger, Maria Elizabeth. Literary Impressionism. New Haven: College and University, 1973. 55

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Levins, Lynn Gartrell. Faulkner's Heroic Design: The Yoknapatawpha Novels. Athens: UP of Georgia, 1976. Lockyer, Judith. Ordered by Words: Language and Narration in the Novels of William Faulkner. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991. Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Colin Smith. New York: Humanities, 1962. Nagel, James. Stephen Crane and Literary Impressionism. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1983. 0verland, Orm. "The Impressionism of Stephen Crane: A Study in Style and Technique." Americana-Norvengica. Ed. Sigmund Skard and Henry Wasser. Philadelphia: UP of Pennsylvania, 1966. 236-245. Perosa, Sergio. "Naturalism and Impressionism in Stephen Crane's Fiction." Stephen Crane: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Maurice Bassan. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1967. 8185. Reed, Joseph W., Jr. Faulkner's Narrative. New Haven: Yale UP, 1973. Sartre, Jean-Paul. "Time In Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury." Paris: Situations, 1947. Slatoff, Walter J. "The Edge of Order: The Pattern of Faulkner's Rhetoric." William Faulkner: Four Decades of Criticism. Ed. Linda Welshimer Wagner East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1973. 155-78. Steegmuller, Francis, comp., ed. and trans. The Letters of Gustave Flaubert: 1857-1880. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982. 56

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Stein, Jean. "William Faulkner: An Interview." Writers at Work: The Paris Review. Ed. Malcom Cowley. New York: Viking, 1958. 127-38. Stowell, H. Peter. Literary Impressionism, James and Chekhov. Athens: UP of Georgia, 1980. Van Gunsteren, Julia. Katherine Mansfield and Literary Impressionism. Atlanta: Rodopi, 1990. Waggoner, Hyatt. Past As Present: "Absalom, Absalom!" Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1959. Williamson, Joel. William Faulkner and Southern History. Oxford: Oxford Press, 1993. Yeats, William Butler. The Collected Works of William Butler Yeats. Ed. Richard J. Finneran. Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan, 1989. Young, Thomas D. "Narration as Creative Act: The Role of Quentin Compson in Absalom, Absalom!' Critical Essays on William Faulkner: The Compson Family. Ed. Arthur F. Kinney. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1974. 318-31. 57