In Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, "Was," and "Fire in the Hearth"

In the plantation system, one would assume that bound labor serves to underscore the power of the white landowner. However, the representation of black labor in both AA and GDM is hazy at best. In AA, black labor is shrouded by Sutpen's efforts to repress the reality that his mastery is produced by bound labor. A product of this repression is a silent and animalistic portrayal of Sutpen's slaves. As Richard Godden points out: "Faulkner's aporetics ensures difficulty, the sheer opacity of which draws into hiding (or secretes the real contradiction) from which the plantocracy takes and retains it's particularity" (Difficult 20). More evidence of obscurities in labor can be found in the misdated Haitian revolution and buried within the very name of Charles Bon. In “Was” and “The Fire and the Hearth," labor begins to rise to the surface of race relations. Tomey’s Turl and Lucas Beauchamp are both able to manipulate the very systems of labor meant to oppress them to exert their own agency while still marginalized as either a slave or a tenant. In both novels, black labor reveals how white mastery is maintained and how it is challenged, rendering labor a destabilizing force for the power structure of plantation society.

Labor begins in AA! with the erection of Sutpen’s Hundred, and Sutpen is often described working in tandem with his slaves: "Sutpen had built a brick kiln and he had set up the saw and planer which he had brought in the wagon--a capstan with a long sapling walking-beam, with the wagon team and the negros in shifts and himself too when necessary" (AA 27). Only Sutpen's beard distinguishes him from his slaves: "the bearded white man and the twenty black ones all stark naked beneath the crouching and pervading mud" (AA 28). Gretchen Martin credits Sutpen’s backcountry origins for his egalitarian labor practices, arguing that yeomen farmers were more independent than plantation farmers and preferred to work their own land: "By working in the fields, he benefits from his own labor, can oversee the industry of his slaves, and demonstrate his own physical power by asserting another backcountry value of masculinity based on strength, stamina and the ability to endure physical hardship. He thus controls his slaves by example rather than force" (Martin 6).

While Richard Godden acknowledges the cultural change Sutpen experiences in moving from the mountains to the plantation, he takes a different approach to Sutpen's unorthodox behavior by way of Hegel's "Lordship and Bondage," which he paraphrases: "The lord seeks absolute because independent, authority. At the moment of his supremacy he is troubled because he recognizes, in objects through which he represents that supremacy (to himself), labor that is not his own. He knows that his lordship depends upon the labor of the bound man" (Fictions 55). As a result, Godden argues that black actually produces white "the master's body is made by the slave's work, a fact that casts interdependency as white dependency" (Fictions 72). When the slave owner realizes this dependence a "labor trauma" ensues: "the primal scene of bound southern labor--that unthinkable and productive episode during which the master both recognizes and represses the fact that since this mastery is slave-made, he and his blacks are in whiteface" (Fictions 4). It could be interpreted that by working alongside his slaves, Sutpen is trying to repress the knowledge that his mastery is really slave-made and his identity is dependent upon their bound labor. The narrators also serve to help Sutpen in this endeavor. Sutpen's Hundred seems to "rise" out of the swamp through Sutpen's sheer will obscuring the black labor necessary to erect it (AA 28). Furthermore, Mr. Compson refers to the "legend of Sutpen's wild negros" but their story is never really told. Instead, the narrators provide a white plantation society's construction of black slaves as a "pack of hounds" (AA 27). As Thadious Davis argues, "the lack of telling by the blacks who inhabit the world of AA reduces them to an involved dependency upon the actual narrators, and their lack of telling function, inversely to establish the abstract quality of this existence," hence the untold legend (Signifying 75). As a result, the silence of Sutpen's slaves in the narrative simultaneously serves to mystify them and support Sutpen's repression.

Godden links Sutpen's peculiar behavior with his slaves in Jefferson to his experience with slave revolution in the West Indies, particularly through the description of Sutpen's raree shows: "Ellen seeing not the two black beasts she had expected to see but instead a white one and a black one, both naked to the waist and gouging at one another's eyes as if their skins should not only have been the same color but should have been covered with fur too" (AA 20). Of course, Ellen finds Sutpen's opponent "lying at his feet" (AA 20). These results are much the same as Sutpen's suppression of a plantation revolt in Haiti: "he just put the musket down and had someone unbar the door and then bar it behind him, and walked out into the darkness and subdued them" (AA 204). Within this context, Sutpen is once again juxtaposed with his slaves and proven fiercely superior: "maybe at last they themselves turning in horror and fleeing from the white arms and legs shaped like theirs and from which blood could be made to spurt and flow as it could from theirs and containing an indomitable spirit which should have come from the same primary fire which theirs came from but which could not have" (AA 205). Sutpen, then, is the ultimate symbol for the plantocracy because he not only suppresses a revolution in Haiti, but he discourages one in Mississippi by continuing to quell the revolutionary spirit in his slaves, which Godden refers to as Sutpen's "pre-emptive counter-revolution" (Fictions 53). His superiority is defined not only through his triumph over the slaves, but through the "primary fire" of his origin, distinctly different and far superior to that of the slaves. It is also important to note as Godden does, that Faulkner places the Haitian revolution in the wrong time. Buried underneath this error, is "an anomalous archaism; they [the slaves] are historically free and yet doubly constrained, by a fiction (Absalom, Absalom!) and by a counter-revolutionary violence (Sutpen's) that is necessary to the workings of the plantation system" (Fictions 53). Sutpen prevents a significant and successful slave revolution before it can happen. He's that good.

Godden pushes this connection further by arguing that Sutpen's "practice of slave holding has allowed him to repress his knowledge of the dependence of master on slave," a knowledge he obtains in adolescence when a slave dispels him from the front door of a plantation house and sends him around back (Fictions 66). This moment is a crucial one in AA as it constitutes the inception of Sutpen's design. Critics have interpreted it in a myriad of ways. Irwin for instance, reads this scene through a Freudian Oedipal lens: "He [Sutpen] incorporates into himself the patriarchal ideal from which that affront sprang in much the same way that a son comes to terms with the image of his father as a figure of mastery and power by impersonalizing and internalizing that image as the superego, accepting the justice of the father's mastery even though that mastery has been exercised against the son" (Irwin 98). According to Irwin, Sutpen's internal conflict after this event replaces the planter as his father. Sutpen must decide against killing the planter in order to become him, therefore maintaining the mastery of the father/planter. Bon's arrival on Sutpen's doorstep is subsequently, "the return of the repressed" (Irwin 84). Carolyn Porter builds on Irwin’s claim arguing that “at stake is the self-perpetuation of the patriarchal mechanism itself” as Sutpen’s boyhood experience “systematically foregrounds the very distinction between the ‘personal father’ and the ‘mastery of fatherhood’ on which that model depends if the ‘mechanism’ is to achieve its ends” (Unmaking 181). More in line with this argument, John Matthews describes this moment as a "metaphysical concussion" in which "the privileges of social, racial, and financial standing, the law of property, the blight of accumulation all seem to burst on Sutpen in the moment of the insult" (Matthews 589).

Even though we never hear the “balloon-faced” slave speak, he actually does the most critical work in the novel because it is through this encounter that Sutpen gains self-consciousness. Sutpen finally sees himself as the world sees him, which sets into motion his entire design. Something from inside Supten "escapes" and he seems to enter the perspectives or the consciousness of the slave and the master simultaneously: “something in him had escaped and—he unable to close the eyes of it—was looking out form within the balloon face,” and, “he himself seeing his own father and sisters and brothers as the owner, the rich man (not the nigger) must have been seeing them all the time” (AA 190). Godden stresses the importance of the three gazes together and the use of the word “progenitor” signaling an unending cycle: “Sutpen can never recover himself as an independent being because he will always see himself (and his class) from within the ‘balloon face’...he destroys what is not himself (black, master), only to recognize that he has preserved it within a new and modified self (boy, black, master)” (Fictions 58).

Labor plays a crucial role here. After all, this is when Sutpen forms his design, and at the center of that design is the need for “land and niggers and a fine house” (AA 192). As a result of this experience, Sutpen has gained “disorienting insight into the dependencies of slave production…what he breathes is the breath of slaves that he will breathe it no matter where he sits on the hierarchy” (Fictions 61). It is this very realization that Godden argues is displaced by Sutpen’s experiences in Haiti: “Having experienced slavery as the suppression of revolution, he can, in his own defense, displace his knowledge that the master’s mastery depends upon the body and the consciousness of the bound man” (Fictions 63). As a result, his seemingly egalitarian or yeoman-influenced treatment of his slaves is actually a brutal suppression of not only potential revolution, but the realization that the very legacy he intends for his dynasty is made by black labor, and to reiterate “since his mastery is slave-made, he and his are blacks in whiteface” (Fictions 4).

Even Sutpen's choice of name for the son he disowns and deserts in Haiti can be interpreted within the terms of labor: "Sutpen's discovery that his first family is 'black' marks the return of his childhood recognition that a white skin emerges from a laboring black body; whether that labor produces property as cotton or property as person is less significant than that fact that Eulalia's child is potentially a white dynast in black skin" (Fictions 68). Godden points out the similarities between Bon, meaning good, and the idea of slaves as property or goods: "Sutpen does not deny his son his patronym, since Eulalia does not give birth to a son but to goods, and in naming him as such Sutpen declares Bon dead, and himself an owner not a father" (Fictions 69). Bon's return of course destroys Sutpen's design. As Henry's older brother, he displaces Henry as the true heir to Sutpen's Hundred. As Judith's suitor, the implications expand to incest, miscegenation and finally, linking with labor, to the continuation of Sutpen's legacy as the product of his slave: "Indeed, it is as goods and not as a son that Bon threatens him; the threat derives not from miscegenation but form labor, since Bon reminds Sutpen of 'the actual conniption of things' under slave production--that every master and every master's son is a black in white-face" (Fictions 75). Bon, above all is the most destabilizing figure in the novel. Not only is he the most similar to Sutpen, in appearance, origin and behavior, but he literally obliterates boundaries. Since black produces white, any ambiguity in black identity leads to ambiguity in white identity: "Where the properties of the selfhood of the zoning class- from face, to skin, to sex to land- are determined by the laboring other, any looseness of the other threatens that self's best parts" (Difficult 10). Bon undermines almost every binary making it impossible to positively categorize him, annihilating Sutpen's identity, which depends on Bon's, as white master and even as fundamentally as father.

Davis points out that in AA! Sutpen’s slaves are silent and entirely constructed by the whites enmeshed in Southern plantation society, which "suggests that the Negro is intended, in the proper order of things, to serve the white man. Generally it is this provincial view of 'Negro' growing out of his social functions in the South to which Sutpen adheres in formulating his design and to which the narrators conform" (Signifying 81). As a result, the black slaves in AA are doubly constrained, first by the white narrative perspective and then by Sutpen's rigorous counter-revolutionary actions. GDM presents a different portrayal of black labor. While still constricted by limitations inherent in share-cropping and a Jim Crow South, Lucas Beauchamp is given his own distinctive voice and though Tomey’s Turl doesn’t speak much, he drives the action of “Was” from start to finish. Unlike the silent slaves in AA, black laborers in GDM secure autonomy and agency by manipulating the very systems of labor that are intended to suppress them.

“Was” begins with a fox chase followed quickly by what seems to be the bi-annual event of Tomey’s Turl’s escape to the Beauchamp plantation. In an interesting turn of events, Tomey’s Turl initiates work for his white counterparts, Uncle Buck and Buck’s great-nephew Cass, by forcing them to chase him in a game that is ultimately the vehicle for Turl’s agency and "underscores the ritualistic nature of the games played by blacks and whites both, as part of the mutual performance of the races before as well as after emancipation" (Lives 145). The chase ends in a card game in which Turl is once again central to the action as the dealer and yet mostly ignored by the other characters: “Still neither he nor Uncle Buddy looked up. They just sat there while Tomey’s Turl’s saddle-color hands came into the light and took up the deck and dealt” (GDM 28). Davis argues that the chase Turl orchestrates is similar to the game of hide-and-go-seek in which “a clear new place for the reformation of the possibilities of interaction is created” resulting in a “stratagem for exercising his will” (Games 46). What is implicit in Turl's escape is that instead of working, his only function as a slave on the McCaslin plantation, he exerts his own agency to pursue not only a personal, but a romantic quest. In response, the McCaslins must work to recapture a slave that has violated the system of slavery by acting upon his own will. As a result, Turl’s actions explore how power can be subverted even within the constraints of slavery.

That Turl’s chase ends in marriage is also important: it “constitutes the willful institution of a legally recognized black family with an economic stake in the social order and with a traceable genealogy” (Games 70). Turl’s subversion takes on more significance within the context of “The Bear,” as Isaac McCaslin discovers that his grandfather, LQCM, just like Thomas Supten, creates a miscegenated line of descendants. The miscegenated incest only threatened in AA is enacted through a sexual relationship between LQCM and his daughter and slave Tomasina. Turl is doubly McCaslin, as LQCM is both his father and his grandfather.

His “status as both black and white, as both within and without familial structures combines with this willful transgression of cultural constrictions, social domination, and political economy to open a critical space for reading GDM as a miscegenated text, one whose form and logic resist containment and defy boundaries” (Games 11). Perhaps empowered by his mixed heritage, Turl successfully orchestrates a chase resulting in not only the exercise of his will but in the participation in a legal contract of marriage, usually denied to slaves because of their marginalized social status. It is important to note that Turl does not accept the inheritance that comes as a result of his parentage: "there was made an especial provision (hence a formal acknowledgement, even though only by inference and only from his white half-brothers) for their father's negro son. It was a sum of money, with the accumulated interest, to become the negro son's on his verbal demand but which Tomey's Turl, who elected to remain even after his constitutional liberation never availed himself of" (GDM 102). It could be inferred that Turl refuses the inheritance, just as he refuses to accept the implied apology for not being officially recognized as a McCaslin. If this is the case, he opts for labor over inheritance in an effort to establish his independence from his former master.

“The Fire and the Hearth” fast-forwards the McCaslins and the Beauchamps out of slavery and into share-cropping. Lucas Beauchamp is a proud man and quite rich in his own right. Despite the three thousand dollars in his bank account, a portion of it being the inheritance his father refused, he too remains on McCaslin land. Similarly to Turl, Lucas exerts his own will and autonomy, not through games but through his own entrepreneurial endeavors. His determination to maintain a moonshine monopoly illustrates his value of financial autonomy: "he was not going to let George Wilkins or anyone else move not only into the section where he had lived for going on seventy years but onto the very place he had been born on and set up competition in a business which he had established and nursed carefully and discreetly for twenty of them, ever since he had fired up for his first run not a mile from Zack Edmonds’ kitchen door" (GDM 43). It is clear that he is not motivated by money since “he already had more money in the bank than he would ever spend” (GDM 42). The moonshine business allows Lucas to earn money outside of the oppressive share-cropping system while outsmarting his white counterpart, Edmonds, inheritor of LQCM. It is implicit that his moonshine labor detracts from his farm labor, thereby undermining Edmonds' mastery. Additionally, moonshine is of course illegal, so Lucas is also circumventing not only the oppressive economic system in the South, but he is also challenging the legal system, and with a bit of a leap, Jim Crow society in general.

It is important to note that Lucas’ view of share-cropping in itself is another illustration of his sense of autonomy. While the land belongs to Edmonds (inheritor from the McCaslin distaff line after Isaac McCaslin repudiates), Lucas feels a strong sense of ownership, although his meaning of ownership seems slightly warped: "But it was his own field, through he neither owned it not wanted to nor even needed to. He had been cultivating it for forty-five years, since before Carothers Edmonds was born even, plowing and planting and working it when and how he saw fit (or maybe not even doing that, maybe sitting through a whole morning on his front gallery, looking at it and thinking if that’s what he felt like doing" (GDM 35). In this sense, the land belongs to Lucas because of his labor, which is of course the inverse of Sutpen's realization that he therefore must repress. This independence through labor is the very argument Godden uses to explain why Lucas stays on McCaslin land: "To leave would be to desert the artifact, the land which grants evidence of his own independence (Economy 63).

Furthermore, Lucas clearly does not feel as though he needs to follow Edmonds’ direction. He displays complete autonomy regarding his crops, only engaging farm labor if he “feels like” it and especially only how he wants to: "refusing to use improved implements, refusing to let a tractor so much as cross the land which his McCaslin forbears had given him without recourse for life, refusing even to allow the pilot who dusted the rest of the cotton with weevil poison, even fly his laden airplane through the air above it, yet drawing supplies from the commissary as if he farmed, and at an outrageous and incredible profit, a thousand acres" (GDM 112). Lucas manipulates what should be an oppressive system, refusing to follow Edmonds' direction, which is implicit in the owner/tenant relationship, and taking whatever he needs to farm with no recourse whatsoever. As Godden states, "Lucas' field by his own account therefore becomes a clash of wills (Economy 64).

Not only is Lucas unique in his autonomy, but he also considers enlisting his own share-cropper of sorts. During his endeavors to eliminate George Wilkins' threat to his moonshine business, he discovers a gold coin and becomes convinced there are more. While he muses about his treasure hunt, he even considers hiring out the labor involved to the very man he intended to have imprisoned: “he even thought of taking George into partnership on a minor share basis to do the actual digging; indeed, not only to do the actual work but as a sort of justice, balance, libation to Change and Fortune, since if it had not been for George, he would not have found the single coin” (GDM 48). This “minor share basis” is oddly reminiscent of Lucas’ own labor relationship with Edmonds and would actually place Lucas himself in the role of property owner with the ability to dole out labor and compensation as he sees fit. Fittingly, he proceeds to trace his linage, not through the black McCaslin line, but through the white descendants, naming Buck and Buddy, Zack and Isaac as McCaslins come before him and decides he will not share even a “jot” of the coins with an “interloper” (GDM 49). Of course, Lucas' idolization of LQCM seems to completely erase slavery, not to mention LQCM's repulsive engagement in incest with his own daughter, Lucas' grandmother.

Also counter to Lucas' seemingly infallible confidence and sense of entitlement is the episode buried within "The Fire and the Hearth," in which Zack Edmonds appropriates Lucas' wife after the death of Zack's wife and the birth of his son. After six months, Lucas breaks and demands his wife back, clearly outraged that Edmonds' behaves as though Lucas and his wife are still property and he has a right to Lucas' wife if he wants to exert it. Much like Lucas' acceptance of the inheritance reverses Turl's refusal, the agency proudly displayed through Turl's marriage is subverted by Zack's abuse of Lucas' marriage. Zack's actions negate Lucas' personhood: "You thought that because I am a nigger I wouldn't even mind" (GDM 52). A fight to the death ensues although it literally ends in miss-fire: "I aint got any fine big McCaslin farm to give up. All I got to give up is McCaslin blood that rightfully aint even mine at least aint worth much since old Carothers never seemed to miss much what he give to Tomey that night that made my father. And if this is what that McCaslin blood has brought me, I don't want it neither. And if the running of it into my black blood never hurt him any more that the running of it out is going to hurt me, it won't even be old Carothers that had the most pleasure" (GDM 56). Both Lucas and Zack survive. However, it is Lucas' willingness to die that Godden links to labor as another reflection of the Hegelian dialectic: "Lucas had to kill the master or leave that land. Finally, he does neither since to do the latter would be to leave his laboring self and to the do the former would be to kill himself" (Economy 65). It seems as though despite Lucas' freedom, he is unable to maintain the same independence illustrated through his father, Turl who ironically was a slave.

As stated earlier, Turl exerts independence from LQCM by refusing the inheritance. Lucas not only accepts it, but requests it. Turl is able to assert masculinity through creative agency and Lucas' domestic life is threatened. In this instance, Lucas is able to achieve mastery over Zack. He gets to the gun first and pulls the trigger. What constitutes "counter-revolutionary revisionism" is not that the gun misfires, but that Lucas credits LQCM for it (Economy 69): "Because I wouldn't have used the second one, he though. I would have paid. I would have waited for the rope, even the coal oil. I would have paid. So I reckon I aint got old Carothers' blood for nothing, after all. Old Carothers, he thought. I needed him and he come and spoke for me" (GDM 57). Lucas replaces his own actions with spiritual intervention from Carothers, once again undermining his own agency.

It is perhaps unfair to suggest that Lucas sabotages his own independence, especially when he is ensconced in an oppressive society. More accurate is the point that labor continues to be a site of ambiguity and the destabilization of boundaries in GDM as Lucas experiences both autonomy and disenfranchisement through labor systems. Lucas himself roots his power in labor towards the end of "The Fire in the Hearth." When Edmonds’ tells Lucas to stop his treasure hunt, Lucas stresses his autonomy, rooted in masculinity: “I’m the man here. I’m the one to say in my house, like you and your paw and his paw were the ones to say in his. You aint got any complaints about the way I farm my land and make my crop, have you?…Long as I do that, I’m the one to say about my private business” (GDM 116). He continues to place himself on an equal level with his white ancestors, oblivious to the limitations placed on him as a tenant farmer and as a black man, perhaps simply refusing to accept these limitations as his own reality.

While Lucas may struggle personally with his place amongst a white dynasty that does not entirely accept him as family, it is his entrance into the public space , as a black man and a tenant farmer, that makes his tenuous place in society so heartbreakingly real. When he finally decides to choose his wife Molly over the tangible representation of his connection to LQCM (the gold coins he believes are buried on McCaslin property), the Chancellor won't even acknowledge his humble declaration: "You have waited too late. This bill has been presented in due form and order. I am about to pronounce on it" (GDM 124). It is not until Roth Edmonds echoes Lucas' change of heart that the bill is withdrawn. Lucas may be the one to "say about his private business," but when his private business goes public, his will and his rights are restricted. Godden notes that "a free black voice might be the death of the ventriloquial white subject as landowner or author" but it is too soon for Lucas to be that voice (Economy 86).

–Megan Mitchell

Works Cited

Davis, Thaddious M. Games of Property: Law, Race, Gender, and Faulkner's Go Down, Moses. Durham: Duke UP, 2003. Print.
----, "The Signifying Abstraction: Reading "the Negro" in Absalom, Absalom!" William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!: A Casebook. By Fred C. Hobson. New York: Oxford UP, 2003. 69-106. Print.
Godden, Richard. " A Difficult Economy: Faulkner and the Poetics of Plantation Labor.” A Companion to William Faulkner. By Richard C. Moreland. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2007. N. Pag. Print.
----, Fictions of Labor: William Faulkner and the South's Long Revolution. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 1997. Print.


----, William Faulkner: An Economy of Complex Words. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2007. Print.

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom!: The Corrected Text. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.
Go Down, Moses. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.

Irwin, John T. Doubling and Incest/repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner. Baltimore [u.a.: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996. Print.

Martin, Gretchen. "Vanquished by a Different Set of Rules: Labor vs. Leisure in William Faulkner's Absalom Absalom!" Mississippi Quarterly 61.3 (2003): 397. Print.

Matthews, John T. "The Marriage of Speaking and Hearing in Absalom, Absalom!" The John's Hopkins University Press 47.3 (1980): 575-94. Print.

Porter, Carolyn. "Absalom, Absalom!: (Un)Making the Father." The Cambridge Companion to William Faulkner. By Philip M. Weinstein. Cambridge [England: Cambridge UP, 1995. 168-96. Print.
----, William Faulkner: Lives and Legacies. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.