The Narrative Sources of Absalom, Absalom!
Ambiguity and indeterminacy are major elements throughout Faulkner's fiction; very seldom does he deploy an omniscient third-person narrative perspective, and when he does, he typically gives readers reasons to question the reliability of even that kind of authority. But Absalom, Absalom! is an extreme case. The novel tells the story of Thomas Sutpen, who died 40 years before it begins, as that story is reconstructed by five narrators: an anonymous third-person voice ("From a little after two oclock," etc.), Rosa ("'Because you are going away,'" etc.), Father ("'Then one day he quitted Jefferson,'" etc.), Quentin ("'He told grandfather about it,'" etc.) and Shreve ("'That this old dame grew up in a household,'" etc.). Of these, only Rosa ever knew Sutpen firsthand, and much of the story she tells focuses on Charles Bon, whom neither she nor any of the other three ever saw in person. In addition, the stories that these narrators tell – or invent – rely regularly on accounts provided by other sources, like Quentin's Grandfather and Sutpen himself, and often contradict each other without providing readers with any definitive way to determine what "really" happened. Faulkner's technique foregrounds both the way "the past" remains essentially unknowable even as it continues to determine the present, and how, in the absence of verifiable "truth," people construct and cling to "narratives" and "meanings" that may only reflect their own preconceptions and desires.
The table below is one of the two ways we try to represent this complex pattern. It allows you to see what parts of the story each main narrative source is responsible for. It's based on the event data we created for Absalom, where each summary identifies the source or sources behind the event. Many events rely on multiple sources – as when in chapter 7, to give a conspicuous example, Quentin retells the account of Sutpen's pre-Yoknapatawpha life that Sutpen himself told General Compson who in turn told it, apparently, to Quentin. The event data includes all the sources we can identify, with the source that seems to us most responsible for the passage given first, and separated by the others with a semi-colon, like this: "[SOURCE: Sutpen; Grandfather-Quentin]." The table here is organized by the source we consider to be each event's "main" one, but when you click on an event itself, you can see any others that the novel mentions. The table itself may tell its own story. Note, for example, the prominence of Father, although he is present only in 3 of the novel's 9 chapters.
"Grandfather-Quentin" is one of the 5 "composite main sources" you'll see below. These are entities we created to reflect how much uncertainty the novel builds into its narrative. Quentin tells Shreve what Sutpen told Grandfather, but the novel never depicts Grandfather himself telling Quentin what Sutpen told him. This missing piece makes it impossible to verify how accurately Quentin's version repeats Grandfather's – so the authority for 43 events in chapter 7 has to be this composite one. And just to make things more complicated: we use both "Quentin-Shreve" and "Shreve-Quentin" as sources, to reflect the way that while the novel several times mentions how the two college students work together in "some happy marriage of speaking and hearing" (253) to express and understand the Sutpen story, in some places the novel puts the story they construct together inside quotation marks that indicate it is Quentin who is doing the actual speaking, and in others it is Shreve who is talking inside the quotation marks. It has to be remembered, though, that even if Quentin and Shreve agree about "what happened," that's no guarantee that their reconstruction of the Sutpen story is any more reliable than Rosa's or Father's. Readers have to decide what to believe or conclude for themselves. Our goal in sorting the novel's events by what we judge to be their main sources – cumbersome and constructed as it is – is just to help you do that.
Citing This Source
Martin, Worthy, Stephen Railton and Doug Ross, "The Narrative Sources of Absalom, Absalom!" Digital Yoknapatawpha, University of Virginia, http://faulkner.iath.virginia.edu/family/aa_sources.php (Date added to project: 2022)