Friends' Book Discussion Series

West End Library

Friends' Book Discussion Series

Absalom, Absalom! book coverPlease join us for a talk on Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner to be held Wednesday, March 23, at 6:30 p.m. in the small meeting room on the 2nd floor. The talk is the latest in the series on the theme of family relations in Western literature, sponsored by the West End Library Friends. The presenter is Ori Z. Soltes, resident scholar in theology and fine arts at Georgetown University.

Synopsis and discussion questions:

Thomas Sutpen, a poor white man born in Western Virginia, arrives with some slaves inJefferson, Mississippi, and becomes a rich, powerful family patriarch. It is the 1830s. He obtains 100 square miles of land and begins to build a large plantation that includes an impressive mansion. In time, he befriends a local merchant and marries his daughter, Ellen. Ellen bears a son and daughter, both of whom are destined for tragedy. This is one of Faulkner’s masterpieces, that plays, in part, on the biblical story of King David and his son, Absalom. And then some…

1. So what is the connection to the biblical story that resulted in the title of the novel, and what related biblical narrative dealing with David’s family must also be recognized as a starting point for the story?

2. And for that matter, how does Faulkner synthesize biblical with Greek tragic narrative: specifically, how does Thomas Sutpen’s story compare to (terms of both similarities and differences) that of Oedipus?

3. What role does irony play within the narrative—and how is that irony both similar to and different from Sophoclean irony?

4. How does Faulkner play with the issue of fate and free will, both overtly and covertly, in the course of the novel?

5. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is arguably the signal work to engage Greek concerns with fate, free will and irony; Racine’s Phaedre is one of the signal works to center around the 17th-century French literary concern with the struggle between love and honor; Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons is both the first “modern” Russian novel and the first work to handle the concept of nihilism. How is Absalom, Absalom! a signal American work—or southern American work?

6. How might the story of the Sutpen clan be seen to function as a metaphor for America and/or the American south? Why and how does Faulkner use Haiti as one bracket for Sutpen’s story and the Civil War as the other?

7. What are the different layers or strands of family relations and family lines that play out against (or that interweave) each other—that connect the tellers of the tale, from Sutpen to Rosa to Quentin to Faulkner; and that connect characters within the tale, from Henry and Charles Bon to Quentin and Shreve?

8. How does the idea of tales within a tale and multi-valent narrative perspectives echo the issue of multi-valent family lines?

9. How does Faulkner engage the matter of race and gender over and against (or within the context of) the larger category of humanity in terms of alleged differences and similarities, stereotypes, prejudices and truths? How, for example, are Henry and Judith similar and alike and to what extent does that pertain to their respective genders? How are Tom Sutpen’s views on race conventional or unusual for his time and place?

10. What role does Charles Bon’s son play as a specific symbol of the problem of identity—as an individual, a family member, the member of a community, or larger (religious, ethnic, racial, national) group?