• "I think that in time the Jim Bonds are going to conquer the Western Hemisphere. Of course it wont be quite in our time and of course as they spread toward the poles they will bleach out again like the rabbits and the birds do, so they wont show up so." — (AA 302)

Just as it is nearly impossible to open Absalom, Absalom! to find a sentence that makes sense on its own — often it is difficult to discover where sentences begin — Faulkner challenges our attempts to approach his work in the hopes of understanding how the writer felt about a single topic. Ideas in Faulkner tend to bleed; indeed, when writing about Faulkner, one can start writing a sentence that unpacks miscegenation in Absalom, Absalom!, when the writing is done, the sentence one has written is actually about, say, the taste of sarsaparilla in The Sound and the Fury. Yet such is the beauty and the power of the fictional universe that Faulkner created in Yoknapatawpha County: it contains so very much, and all mixes together within a universe of mixtures that stresses the “impossibility of isolation” (Vernon 161) within a "Southern culture [that] is deeply purist and intolerant of mixtures" (Andrews 4). Thus the issue we face when reading Faulkner is one of what Peterson calls "interpretive containment" — Faulkner thwarts readers' attempts to arrive at a clear answer about any one thing within the novelist's body of work.
Yet racial mixture stands among the most important of these themes in these latter tales of a fallen, denuded South and warrants an effort toward understanding it. Miscegenation has been noted as both a theme in the plot as well as a structuring device in AA. It appears to be the most crucial mixture in a novel that mixes subjectivities, past with present, voices and modes of textuality. Such mixtures speaks to one of the central tensions between Faulkner's intention as a writer, which was to represent reality, and the experience of reading him, which — as he mixes subjectivities, past with present, and textual modes — feels surreal. Indeed, the mixed forms within AA communicate nicely his take on miscegenation as a theme: In AA, Faulkner approaches the theme of miscegenation with an ambivalence that denies readers moral purchase that suits his Darwinian understanding that mixture was a biological reality.
At first glance it seems that Faulkner's universe tends to punish those characters who cross racial boundaries, particularly Joanna Burden in Light in August and Charles Bon in AA, who are both involved in interracial relationships and violently murdered. These two characters represent a strong taboo in Southern society; as Andrews notes, "White male hegemony promoted a double standard which tolerated one form of miscegenation, between white men and black women, while virulently prohibiting the other form." (497) It would seem, then, the murders of Burden and Bon illustrate Faulkner reflecting the white male hegemon's take on miscegenation by placing affairs between white women and black men at the center of his texts and punishing those characters who cross that boundary. As for relationships between white men and black women, (e.g., Thomas Sutpen's relationships with both Clytie's mother, a slave, and the Black Haitian woman who is Charles Bon's mother) Faulkner tends to bury them within narrative blind spots, as if they deserve less attention.
Yet AA's ending shows that Faulkner's ultimate goal is not to dramatize or celebrate racial containment; indeed the murder of these miscegenators does not snap the universe back into racial order. After Bon is removed, the novel leaves us with the image of the mulatto Jim Bond — the "Bon" last name now adorned with a final, triumphant "d" that stresses the inescapable bond between his and Sutpen's bloodline — the first of a race that, as Shreve says, "are going to conquer the Western Hemisphere." (AA 302) The novel traces the original miscegenatory sin, in which Thomas Sutpen creates the part-black Charles Bon with an "octoroon" Haitian, through society's attempts to eliminate a mixed bloodline by keeping Bon from Judith. In Shreve's vision for the future, quoted above, the earth becomes is a place where mixed-race Jim Bonds rule. Thus on one level, Faulkner's world punishes miscegenation through murder, and on another, we can almost hear Faulkner himself laughing over the failure of racial containment as he confronts the reader with this image of Jim Bond.
The shooting of Charles Bon, who is the product of miscegenation and whose interest in Judith threatens a new round of racial mixture, is something like a Rosetta Stone for looking at miscegenation in AA, for it argues that miscegenation must be considered within a greater context of human behaviors. While Faulkner never gives a clear answer as to why Henry Sutpen kills Bon, the novel’s description of their final confrontation offers at least four compelling for Henry to do so, three of them having to do with protecting his sister Judith. The first of these reasons, as Entzminger writes, is Henry's fear of miscegenation. “Blackness is offered as the final answer for which the narrators and readers search to explain why Henry kills Charles,” she writes. Indeed, it may be the case that Henry wants to protect his sister – and thus the Sutpen bloodline -- from marrying a man whom she may not know is part black. The scene of their final confrontation bears this out explicitly: “So it’s the miscegenation, not the incest, which you can’t bear,” Bon says to Henry, as if to egg him on. “I'm the nigger that's going to sleep with your sister. Unless you stop me Henry.” (285-6)
Yet in spite of our sense that Bon here offers a clear answer as to why he is murdered – that it is, in the end, miscegenation – the novel’s form revisits events from different perspectives, inviting readers to question whether any iteration of their confrontation is definitive. For example, after (as Quentin tells us, or dreams) Henry finds out that Bon is already married to another woman in New Orleans, it may be that Henry may wants to protect his sister from wedding a man who is already married, and thus the murder may be a result of Henry’s fear of his sister entering a bigamous relationship.
Beyond Henry’s fear of bigamy lies his complicated relationship with incest, and the novel never explicitly states who knows that Bon and Judith are, in fact, half-siblings; yet the reader is led to believe that Thomas Sutpen knows that Bon is his son from a first marriage to a Haitian woman, and thus Henry may kill Bon in an attempt to protect his sister from committing incest with a man she doesn’t know she’s related to. Finally, the homoerotic tenor that underlies Henry’s relationship with Bon — culminating with the confrontation with a phallic pistol (285-286) — suggests a fourth reason for Henry’s murder of Bon: He too has fallen in love with the worldly, exotic Bon, with his "sixteenth-part black blood and his expensive esoteric Fauntleroy clothing" (158) and is jealous of his sister.
To come to terms with miscegenation as a theme in AA, we must approach it within the greater context. Just as Faulkner's universe punishes characters for miscegenation as the novelist himself tends to laugh at it, the multiple potential reasons for Bon's murder suggest that miscegenation itself occupies a slippery place within a greater universe of deviant sexual behaviors. As Entzminger notes, "By blurring the boundaries and emphasizing the interconnections of race, gender and sexuality, Faulkner reveals that hierarchical categories are arbitratary, they serve to facilitate denial, and they are mutually imbricative, relying on each other to function." (1)
The mix of sexual and racial identities within the Henry-Charles-Judith triangle dovetails nicely with new understandings of race and sexuality that emerged as the novel came out. Nelson writes that American culture redefined how it produced sexual identity between the 1880s and the 1930s. Where people had been once defined by their sexual roles, the time period saw a shift toward people being defined by the object of their desires. This shift solidified sexual roles, so to speak, allowed for the creation of categories such as the homosexual, defined by his or her sexual desire for a member of the same sex. This shift occurred concurrently with what Nelson calls a discursive restructuring of racial identities that solidified race along similar lines. “Ultimately,” she writes, “both shifts rendered types of ‘beings’ from what had been ways of ‘acting’ — formerly, one performed an act of sodomy or one was placed into slavery; now, one's very being was defined as homosexual or as black.” This new way of thinking may help to explain why it is the case in the novel that, as Nelson notes, the choice of whether to kill Bon because of incest and miscegenation is presented as either/or, but not both. “Bon desires Judith either as her brother, making this desire incestuous, or as a ‘nigger,’” she writes, “making this desire miscegenistic.”
The question of why Henry kills Bon is thus existentially loaded, for in answer he must decide what kind of man he is: A heterosexual man who must kill the black man to protect his sister, in which case he affirms his heterosexuality as well as his and his sister’s white supremacy; or, if he kills Bon to prevent incest, he tacitly acknowledges his own relation to Bon’s blackness and thereby surrenders his white privilege. (Nelson) Thus the murder forces the reader to view miscegenation not as an isolated undesirable end which Henry murders Bon to avoid, but as one of several deviant sexual behaviors that existing concurrently within a greater deviant universe populated by incestuous, bigamist and homosexual predilections.
To describe this complicated interplay of these fears – miscegenation, bigamy, incest and homosexuality – Entzminger invokes Michael Davidson’s term hermophobia, “which describes human fears and obsessions with blood, [and] suggests the way the prohibitions against miscegenation, incest and homosexuality correlate: ‘Bleeding disorders raise concerns about the porousness of boundaries … -- concerns that parallel phobias about sexual deviance and racial mixing.” (qtd. in Entzminger) This idea of miscegenation-fear-as-hermophobia resonates with what was happening in Faulkner's life, as well as in Southern broader society of the time. Argiro describes how 19- and early-20th-century Southern society structured itself around notions of blood purity, which was presumed to define racial identity which in that culture "defined both social boundaries and legal statutes." (114) One famous statute came at the end of the 19th century, as Plessy v. Ferguson established the notion that blacks could live lives that were "separate but equal" — the operative idea here being that blacks, while perhaps worthy of freedom, were not to mix with whites by virtue of being physically different. Peterson notes that one of Plessy's attorney's argued that the privilege of whiteness was a form of personal property that it was the government's responsibility to protect. (235) Thus the mixing of races threatened to upend everything for which antebellum Southern society stood, particularly the white male's ability to lay claim to pure whiteness and thus genetic superiority of the white male, or, as it goes in AA, "the divine right to say 'Go there' conferred upon them by an absolute caste system." (276)
Argiro argues that Faulkner was vocal about Civil Rights but "ambivalent about the possible outcome of racial mixing" (Argiro 113). In the early 20th century, mixed race people were a painful reminder of the antebellum era; at that time Southerners popularly believed that “mulattoes were a dying breed,” and therefore “the sins of the antebellum fathers were fading from view” (Tredell 122). Such sins were close to Faulkner who, as Joel Williamson's biography of Faulkner notes, "never openly recognized his mulatto kin" (qtd. in Argiro 111). This complicated "constellation of affairs retains a startling similarity to the prevailing treatment of racial matters in the greater corpus of Faulkner's works," mostly conveyed through what Agiro calls a deep "social discomfort" among all of his characters. This is particularly true of those characters who are a product of miscegenation, such as Light in August's dangerous, wayfaring Joe Christmas and Charles Bon, whose pursuit of Judith threatens to upend Thomas Sutpen's design.
This legal and social backdrop made Darwin's ideas — which described the common origin between whites and blacks — deeply challenging to Southern intellectuals, including Faulkner, who recognized that ideas about a shared common origin threatened to compromise hermophobia that structured the Southern hierarchy. Vernon writes that Faulkner himself was interested in Darwin, particularly after the 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial, which started Southern intellectuals talking about the past, present and future of the human species. Where Southern culture was built upon notions of blood purity, firmly constructed racial and sexual identity, Darwin suggested both a common past and a common future driven by the interbreeding of different forms of the same species. As Peterson writes, "In the evolutionary process species to do not simply branch: they branch, branch again, rejoin, refuse, branch again, the different lines always merging with other lines as new lines shoot out, the whole resembling an impenetrable mess." (161) In short, evolutionary history was one of miscegenation.
What did that mean for the future? Absalom, Absalom!'s form and its character's stories illustrate Faulkner's concern about what racial intermixture meant for the human race and the author's ultimate ambivalence, rooted in Darwin's ideas, about miscegenation. For example, when discussing Bon's letter to Judith, Jason and Quentin Compson conduct a shadow discussion the effect that miscegenation will have on the human race in coded terms, substituting white for brightness, and black for darkness. As Jason Compson gives Quentin the letter that Charles Bon has written to Judith, they quibble about whether there is enough light on the porch for Quentin to read the letter:
"You will probably have to go inside to read it," Mr. Compson said."Maybe I can read it here all right," Quentin said."Perhaps you are right," Mr. Compson said. "Maybe even the light of day, let alone this—" he indicated the single globe stained and bug-fouled from the long summer and which even when clean gave off but little light—"which man had to invent to his need since, relieved of the onus of sweating to live, he is apparently reverting (or evolving) back into a nocturnal animal, would be too much for it, for them ... Perhaps any more light than this would be too much for it." (71)
This passage speaks to the complicated interplay Faulkner establishes between white and black, and light and dark. In particular, changes in Southern society included both technological advances that provided electricity (which powers the "bug-fouled bulb") and the societal ones which freed the slaves. Given that the document Quentin and Jason are discussing is a letter that Bon, the product of miscegenation, wrote to the white Judith decades earlier, we can see in these lines Jason's fear of progress is inextricably linked with his fear that man will "evolve" back into a "nocturnal" -- that is, dark -- animal. Thus miscegenation seemed to represent a return to a darker age.
Faulkner entertains questions about miscegenation formally, as well; indeed, we might understand radically integrated form of Absalom, Absalom! as an act of narrative miscegenation, which Vernon argues has strong hints of the "naturalist novel, biography, autobiography, and the oral tale largely associated in the American South with black culture.” (156) A Darwinian reading of miscegenation places race centrally to the Absalom, Absalom!, and suggests the threat of mixture as the novel's central crisis. This novel establishes this concern through its dramatization, using evolutionary terms, of the creation of Sutpen's Hundred:
"So he and the twenty negroes worked together, plastered over with mud against the mosquitoes and, as Miss Coldfield told Quentin, distinguishable one from another by his beard and eyes alone and only the architect resembling a human creature because ... working in the sun and heat of summer and the mud and ice of winter, with quiet and unflagging fury." (28)
The images at play here — the "creature," in the mud, at the mercy of the elements — harken to evolutionary ideas about the beginnings of life that so concerned Faulkner and his contemporaries. We might view it as an attempt to trace, as Vernon writes, "the naturalist idea of a person's devolving into a beast, of a person's allowing the repressed animal to emerge and conquer, [which] follows from a widespread nineteenth century Darwin-derived correspondence between ... the development of the individual and the development of the species." (159) Yet when the labor is done, only Sutpen emerges from the mud to inhabit the "embryonic formal opulence" (note the evolutionary resonance of the "embryo" here, as well) of the mansion (30). Thus the construction of Sutpen's Hundred is twin valenced: it is an act that reinforces Sutpen's animality and ties him to his slaves, yet it is also the construction of a space that sanctifies the privelege of whiteness as well as the idea that the white master, who has crawled out of the mud, is more highly evolved. Therefore, when Bon passes the threshold to Sutpen's Hundred, he undermines the design by physically intruding into a white space.
We can also see miscegenation in the physical intrusion of Black history into the white narrative space. In addition to a naturalist novel, Vernon also sees miscegenation in how he conceptualizes Absalom, Absalom! as Quentin's autobiography, framed through the story of Thomas Sutpen. That is, to tell his own story, Quentin toys with the form of the biography which celebrates a white Southern man's achievements. In this way the narrative is framed as a white space, which "invokes a direct correspondence with the evolutionary process whereby genetic transmission through sexual intercourse becomes narrative transmission through conversational intercourse.” (Vernon 170) While this creates a complicated relationship between the story being told — a white form, the autobiography — and the way it is told: orally, a traditionally African-American tradition. Meanwhile, both AA and Go Down, Moses extratextual documents offer the stories of historically subaltern black figures the means to physically penetrate the novel — in the former, it is black Bon's letter which physically intrudes upon white narrative space; in "The Bear," it is the slave records that seem to physically impose themselves as if in an act of miscegenation.
AA seems designed to thwart attempts to get any critical purchase on miscegenation. In its complicated universe, we have an author who creates narratives in which characters are punished for miscegenation, just as the author himself commits forms of formal miscegenation by incorporating black forms in white texts. This might be the best illustration of Faulkner's general view on the topic: Southern society abhors a mixture, yet, as Darwin tells us, nature itself does not. Such were the dueling concerns of Faulkner's world, and the circumstances that guided his explorations.
–Andrew Cedermark

Works cited

Andrews, Karen. "The Shaping of Joanna Burden in "Light in August"." Pacific Coast Philology. 26.1/2 (1991): 3-12 . JSTOR. Web. 30 Oct. 2013.

Andrews, Karen M. "White Women's Complicity and the Taboo: Faulkner's Layered Critique of the Miscegenation Complex'." Women's Studies 22.4 (1993): 497.

Argiro, Thomas. "As Though we were Kin": Faulkner's Black-Italian Chiasmus." MELUS 28.3, Italian American Literature (2003): 111-32.

Entzminger, Betina. "Passing as Miscegenation: Whiteness and Homoeroticism in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!" Faulkner Journal 22.1 (2006): 90-105.

Friday, Krister. "Miscegenated Time: The Spectral Body, Race, and Temporality in Light in August." Faulkner Journal 16.3 (2000): 41.

Nelson, Lisa K. "Masculinity, Menace, and American Mythologies of Race in Faulkner's Anti-Heroes." Faulkner Journal 19.2 (2004): 49-68.

Tredell, Nicolas. William Faulkner : The Sound and the Fury; As I Lay Dying. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. Chapter 4: Division, Death and Desire: Race and Form in Faulkner in the 1980s. Google Scholar.
Vernon, Alex. "Narrative Miscegenation: "Absalom, Absalom!" as Naturalist Novel, Auto/Biography, and African-American Oral Story." Journal of Narrative Theory 31.2 (2001): 155-79.