Thomas Sutpen’s pursuit of his “grand design” begins from a moment of existential crisis. After being denied entry to a plantation house, Sutpen experiences a sudden, overwhelming rush that sparks a ruthless, lifelong attempt to reinvent himself as a southern planter and patriarch. He will stop at nothing to construct that life, with the ultimate goal of making an imprint on history, leaving a legacy behind for the world to see. This moment of realization bears the tone of many existentialist texts, yet Sutpen’s subsequent actions deviate from that paradigm. Throughout his pursuit, he lacks the insight and empathy to fully comprehend the purpose and value of the design itself. This failure is mirrored by his attempt to provide a coherent narrative of his own life in Chapter 7. Despite being the only figure in the novel who might be capable of an authoritative account, the version he offers is conspicuously bereft of details—particularly the “how” and “why” of his pursuit. By contrast, the possible narratives proposed by Quentin and Shreve rely heavily on imagination and interpretation. Their lack of first-hand factual knowledge is ultimately less important than the spiritual and emotional truth they are able to uncover in their reading of the Sutpen myth. In this sense, it is the two boys at Harvard who more fully engage with the existentialist project of creating meaning from disordered and chaotic events. They will not succeed—if nothing else, Absalom, Absalom! is a novel obsessed with failures—but the significance of their attempt, manifested through Quentin’s unique understanding of history, is depicted as noble and even heroic. Through the narrative structure of the work as a whole and the embedded autobiographical narrative of Sutpen himself, Faulkner demonstrates the importance of interpretation and imagination in deriving meaning from history.

A common trope across existentialist texts is the experience of a secular epiphany. As Camus wrote, “It happens that the stage sets collapse… one day the ‘why’ arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement” (Camus, 448). This feeling of a sudden, profound moment of clarity is evident in Chapter 7 of Absalom, Absalom!. Quentin recalls Sutpen’s narration to his grandfather: “all of a sudden it was not thinking, it was something shouting it almost loud enough for his sisters on the other pallet and his father in the bed…to hear too… It was like that, he said, like an explosion—a bright glare that vanished and left nothing…” (AA, 192). The language and tone in these lines clearly situate Sutpen in the existentialist tradition—the moment of clarity, the “collapse” of the stage sets. Summarizing this position, William Sowder writes: “The rebuff at the front door…triggered the first and most important crisis in Sutpen's life: he suddenly found himself on the threshold of self-encounter and free choice. Accompanying this awakening were certain other elements which stamp the existentialist hero: the Look, the situation, abandonment, anguish, and total commitment” (Sowder, 487). The notion of free choice is essential—Sutpen seemingly rejects his assigned position in life as a low-class white person. By establishing his “design,” he is seemingly making a commitment to transcend his status. As the story unfolds, however, it becomes clear that Sutpen’s obsessive, materialistic conception of his design prevents him from understanding anything about his motivations or the true value the design itself.

Sutpen continues telling his story to General Compson, and it becomes clear that the details he cannot (or will not) include are equally significant to those he does include. Regarding his flight from Virginia, Quentin explains, “He went to the West Indies. That’s how he said it: not how he managed to find where the West Indies were nor where ships departed from to go there, nor how he got to where the ships were and got in one nor how he liked the sea nor about the hardships of a sailor’s life… He just said ‘So I went to the West Indies,’…” (AA, 193). This kind of blunt, simplistic narration becomes emblematic of Sutpen and his design in general. His obsession with the pursuit of his design overtakes everything else, even free will. As Sowder notes, “Existentially, he refused to consider an infinite number of economic possibilities in order to accept at once the restricted possibilities of agrarianism. His relief from anguish was immediate. No longer did he suffer the torment inherent in contingency; on the contrary, he enjoyed the comforting security of the planned life” (Sowder, 495). Tied in with this rejection of free will is a complete absence of moral awareness. Sutpen’s narrow perspective prevents him from acknowledging the costs and actual value of his design. As he tells General Compson, “‘You see, I had a design in my mind. Whether it was a good or a bad design is beside the point…’” (AA, 212). A closer look at the text will reveal the functions of and possibilities for narrative to address the existentialist project that Sutpen ultimately rejects in favor of his design.

The context within the novel of Sutpen’s autobiographical narrative highlights the link between the failure of his design and his flawed conception of his own personal history. Specifically, this is emphasized by the framing of his narration to General Compson—their conversation happens during the hunt of Sutpen’s French architect. The symbolism of the architect fleeing Sutpen’s Hundred is impossible to ignore. Jonathan Cullick notes, “The pursuit, an attempt to maintain the design against the architect's flight, motivates and initiates the autobiographical narrative that explains and justifies the origins of the design” (Cullick, 49). Additionally, the context for Sutpen’s traumatic experience as a boy is key—he was sent to the plantation house to deliver a message. This seemingly minor detail introduces the significance of language. As Cullick explains, “When the house servant turns him away from the front door and directs him to the back, he is being made aware not only of his class status, but of his inability to author, and command an audience for, his utterance. In his possession, the message is inert and unresponsive to his intentions.” (Cullick, 51). Indeed, Sutpen’s fury as a result of this rejection returns again and again to the message he was supposed to deliver. “But he did expect to be listened to because he had come, been sent, on some business which, even though he didn’t remember what it was and maybe at the time (he said) he might not even have comprehended, was certainly connected somehow with the plantation…” (AA, 189). It is noteworthy that Sutpen cannot recall the actual content of the message, pointing again to his shortcomings as a storyteller. These carefully chosen details included by Faulkner in his authorial design draw attention to the significance of narrative and interpretation in our understanding of history—both that of an individual and of a society at large. For Faulkner, the active process of interpreting and making sense of narrative is the essential act. In this regard, his attitudes draw similarities to the existentialist project.

In Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus, he outlines his concept of the absurd. “This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart” (Camus, 455). In other words, man’s inherent desire for order and meaning creates friction with the utter lack of meaning in the universe. In Faulkner’s world, this attempt at establishing meaning and value occurs in the world of narrative. Duncan Aswell elucidates this connection: “The act of interpreting experience is possibly the highest of which man is capable, but it is simply another of his futile efforts to transcend finite limits, important only because of the struggle and ambition it involves and reveals, not because of its achievement. Storytelling is of necessity falsification, not a method of getting at the facts but a means of satisfying the innate human desire for logic and coherence” (Aswell, 75). In the telling and re-telling of the Sutpen myth throughout Absalom, Absalom!, the dual emphasis on struggle and failure is prevalent. At one point, Quentin comments on language, “…that meagre and fragile thread, Grandfather said, by which the little surface corners and edges of men’s secret and solitary lives may be joined for an instant now and then before sinking back into the darkness…” (AA, 202). This imagery echoes Faulkner’s musings on language in other texts (notably Addie Bundren’s vision of spiders swinging from a beam), and is a powerful comment on the fleeting and futile nature of human connection through the medium of language. None of the narrators can achieve a complete, “accurate” account of Sutpen’s life, yet their differing approaches offer insight into the true value of the myth itself. Aswell summarizes: “Is it not the very search for and failure to find some lasting significance in life that every character in the novel is engaged in and that the telling of the story—from Sutpen to Quentin's grandfather to Mr. Compson to Quentin to Shreve—itself reflects?” (Aswell, 75). An analysis of Quentin’s view of history indicates the extent to which the Sutpen myth takes on both personal and historical significance for all of the characters involved.

Embedded in Sutpen’s autobiographical narrative in Chapter 7 is a key passage describing Quentin’s unique conception of history. Some of the most oft-quoted lines in the entire Faulkner corpus shed light on Quentin’s philosophy: “Maybe nothing ever happens once and is finished. Maybe happen is never once but like ripples maybe on water after the pebble sinks, the ripples moving on, spreading… a different molecularity of having seen, felt, remembered, reflect in a different tone the infinite unchanging sky, it doesn’t matter: that pebble’s watery echo whose fall it did not even see moves across its surface too at the original ripple space, to the old ineradicable rhythm…” (AA, 210). The evocative imagery Faulkner uses provides a breathtaking examination of the function of interpretation. No event or story is ever as simple as it may appear—the ripples that spread across the water represent the ever-shifting impact of the original event. Different ways of “having seen, felt, remembered” produce different interpretations and new narratives of every historical event. The image of “reflecting” the “infinite unchanging sky” in different tones further clarifies this concept. They sky is permanent and inevitable, but different perspectives of that sky produce myriad impressions of it. As Quentin and Shreve (and to a lesser extent, Rosa and Quentin’s father) struggle to piece together Sutpen’s narrative, they imagine a variety of possible explanations.

By contrast, Sutpen himself proves incompetent as a narrator of his own life story. Jonathan Cullick posits a reason for this narrative failure: “Just as he [Sutpen] is detached from other human beings, treating them as mere resources for his plans, he is detached from himself and his own experience. The fact that Sutpen returns to Grandfather for advice thirty years later indicates that the failure to interpret in his narrative thirty years earlier was not merely a momentary omission, but a fundamental flaw in his ability to narrate” (Cullick, 55-6). This inability to reflect and comprehend his own motivations and actions signals the final failure of Sutpen to achieve a lasting legacy. Quentin even notes this lack of comprehension on the part of Sutpen, stating “…he was not talking about himself. He was telling a story. He was not bragging about something he had done; he was just telling a story about something a man named Thomas Sutpen had experienced …” (AA, 199). So alienated is Sutpen from his own consciousness that he can only report on key events as they pertain to his design—the result is a fractured story bereft of nuance and emotional resonance.

The distinction between Quentin and Sutpen as narrators of the Sutpen myth points to the displacement of Sutpen as “existential hero” of the novel. Though he is set up to play this role through the epiphany he experiences as a boy, his rejection of free will and obsessive focus on his design prevent him from fulfilling this role. His design will fail, of course, but more important than that material failure is his failure to form a coherent narrative of his life. As Cullick states, “Part of Sutpen's failure, then, is his innocence of the nature of history—his ignorance that his narrative, in the form in which he chooses to relate it, is highly revisable.” (Cullick, 57). The contrast here with Quentin is significant. Quentin does think about history; he grasps the mutable, infinite, and complex nature of past events and becomes obsessed with the implications of this realization (perhaps to his own detriment). Through his act of interpretation and imagination, Quentin actually comes closer to performing the role of existential hero. As he continues his musings on history, he thinks “…maybe it took Father and me both to make Shreve, or Shreve and me both to make Father or maybe Thomas Sutpen to make all of us” (AA, 210). Here Quentin brings his broader view of history back to the Sutpen myth. Thomas Sutpen “makes” the other narrators because his life provides an opportunity for interpretation and the creation of new narratives. Since there is no one “true” version of Sutpen’s story, the narrators are free to read into his actions and compose their own conceptions of what the story means. Donald Kartiganer summarizes the significance of the narrators’ participation: “The most vital truth of Absalom, Absalom! is that the possibility of value depends entirely on the ability of the human imagination to create it” (Kartiganer, 301). In other words, the only value one can truly find in Sutpen’s myth is that which he or she creates through imagination. Sutpen possesses no such imagination, once again asserting his failure as both narrator and existential hero.

One of the central problems in the text that points to the importance of imagination is the role of Charles Bon. It is suggested at various points in the text that Bon may not “actually” have existed at all. None of the narrators ever had personal contact with him, and Rosa repeatedly laments that she never saw him, narrowly missing him on one occasion when he was in Jefferson. Yet in their interpretation of the myth as a whole, Shreve and Quentin position Bon as the counterpoint to Sutpen’s ruthless inhumanity. Kartiganer highlights the significance of this decision: “It is as if Faulkner were saying that since Bon's values are what might be called humanistic ones, then it is right that the only "proof" of the existence of such a being should be in itself a product not of factual, inhuman science, but of the human imagination. Even as Bon's values are based on a faith in the significance of the human individual, on the scientifically irrelevant, intangible qualities of love and pity, so too, the very creation of Bon becomes itself an act of faith, an antirationalistic invention” (Kartiganer, 301). Here again, the carefully constructed form of the novel parallels the message it was meant to convey. To derive humanistic value from Sutpen’s myth based on the facts alone would be impossible. By “inventing” a more humane foil to Sutpen, Quentin and Shreve are able to construct meaning from the tale using imagination. Karitganer emphatically concludes: “To do away with Bon as moral agent is to do away with the possibility of human value in Absalom, Absalom!; without Bon's humanism we are left with only the code of Sutpen, obviously corrupt, or with an alternative of utter meaninglessness and nihilism” (Kartiganer, 301).

While Faulkner certainly engages with the problems of nihilism and amorality, he repeatedly asserted the significance of human virtue throughout his career. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, for example, he refers to “…the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice” (Stockholm Address). With these lofty words in mind, it is intriguing to consider the perplexing conclusion of Absalom, Absalom!. Though Shreve and Quentin are able to plausibly reconstruct Sutpen’s life in such a way as to uncover humanistic value, Quentin is clearly unsatisfied. His suicide can be regarded as an inevitability, and his peculiar final words highlight his impossible position. Aswell describes his paradox: “He [Quentin] seems doomed to keep haunting the places where his honor died, but his final assertion that he doesn't hate the South suggests that he is not yet ready to throw himself into the Charles… Quentin has not only observed and articulated the failure of all the attempts to assert a more than momentary significance, but he too is engaged in the same hopeless task through an imaginative projection of his own obsessions upon the historical personalities he is trying to re-create” (Aswell, 79). Though his haunted consciousness is more prominently discussed in The Sound and the Fury, Quentin’s denial of hatred for the South in the closing lines represents a bizarre kind of affirmation of the culture that Sutpen’s story so clearly condemns. Aswell compellingly argues that Quentin’s imaginative re-interpretation of Sutpen’s life should provide him some measure of comfort, though of course he cannot comprehend it. “The restless struggle and dissatisfaction, the refusal to acknowledge defeat, exemplified by all the characters, is a form of that permanence for which they all seek, yet, ironically, the form none of them is willing to accept” (Aswell, 84). Quentin is doomed, and perhaps the greatest travesty is that he cannot even see what he and Shreve have accomplished.

Thomas Sutpen’s autobiography in Chapter 7 of Absalom, Absalom! momentarily positions him as an existential hero, based on the epiphany he experiences after being turned away from the plantation house. However, he quickly abandons free will and uncertainty in favor of the pursuit of his rigid, materialistic design. His failure to achieve this design and establish permanence through Sutpen’s Hundred is reflected by his failure as a narrator of his own life story. In both senses, Sutpen’s shortcomings stem from his inability to interpret and understand his own experiences. This lack of reflection and comprehension leads to a complete abandonment of morality, virtue, and value. In embracing a radically different understanding of history, Quentin and Shreve are able to reconstruct Sutpen’s life using imagination and interpretation. While their lack of concrete factual knowledge results in an ultimately flawed account, it is in the act of constructing that account through imagination that they succeed in responding to the existentialist challenge of bringing order to absurd and incoherent events. No one will ever know what “really” happened to Thomas Sutpen, but in struggling to compose a plausible narrative of his life and motivations, Quentin and Shreve are able to uncover meaning from the myth. Sutpen’s Hundred decays and eventually turns to dust, but his story survives—in spite of myriad “inaccuracies.” Quentin may be unable to see the significance of this feat, but he has created the kind of permanence that Sutpen never could.

–Bill Keane

Works Cited
Aswell, Duncan. “The Puzzling Design of ‘Absalom, Absalom!’” The Kenyon Review. Vol. 30, No. 1 (1968): pg. 67-84.

Camus, Albert. “The Myth of Sisyphus.” From Basic Writings of Existentialism. Ed. Gordon Marino. New York: Random House, 2004.

Cullick, Jonathan S. " ‘I Had a Design’: Sutpen as Narrator in ‘Absalom, Absalom!’” The Southern Literary Journal. Vol. 28, No. 2 (Spring, 1996): pg. 48-58.

Faulkner William. “The Stockholm Address.” From American Literary Essays. Ed. Lewis Leary. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1950.

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! New York: Vintage International, 1986.

Kartiganer, Donald M. “Faulkner's ‘Absalom, Absalom!’: The Discovery of Values.” American Literature. Vol. 37, No. 3 (Nov., 1965): pp. 291-306.

Sowder, William J. “Colonel Thomas Sutpen as Existentialist Hero.” American Literature. Vol. 33, No. 4 (Jan., 1962): pg. 485-499.