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Behind closed doors: the unknowable and the unknowing in 'Absalom, Absalom!' (Special Issue: William Faulkner)

In one sense, William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! is yet another effort to tell the story of the Compson obsessions with time, incest, virginity, and tragedy.(1) Like its predecessor, The Sound and the Fury, this work is a layered narrative in which point of view, chronology, and indeed the veracity of the reconstruction of events are in some ways confounded and confused for the reader. There is no "straight" telling of the story; instead the reader must follow each narrator as he goes back in the past. Inevitably the most crucial moments of the story involve the crossing of some thresholds, and the threshold between narrated events (past) and the narration of them (present) is perhaps the most basic. Indeed, the crux in plot occurs when Quentin "could not pass" Rosa's description of the first meeting of Judith and Henry after Bon's death;(2) he is transfixed, lost in the meaning of this event. Faulkner describes the moment literally in terms of a door Quentin could not pass. And there are other doors that are likewise barred in Absalom, Absalom!: the door of the Tidewater plantation, the Gate at Sutpen's Hundred, and the bedroom door beyond which Charles Bon lay dead are just a few of them.(3)

The crux in narration occurs when the symbolism of the image is applied more generally to the method of storytelling itself in this work. For the reader, some doors are closed in that some events are hidden or postponed (as they are after Shreve's constant refrain, "Wait then"). Another storytelling door is opened; Mr. Compson's mental re-creation of Bon's undergraduate life is an imaginative forcing of the story, a breakthrough of a door which is barred ostensibly by the passing of time. For the most part, however, the narration is full of closed doors. Just as the plantation house at Sutpen's Hundred is a symbol in many ways for Sutpen himself, so are all the book's houses with their closed doors a model for the story as a whole, a story full of shadows, ambiguity, and ignorance, dominated by inscrutability and opacity, both for readers and characters.

The four major narrators in Absalom, Quentin, Miss Rosa, Mr. Compson, and Shreve, all contribute to a telling of the story of the doomed Sutpen family, but each version is inevitably rife with ambiguity, imaginings, and basic ignorance. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the narration mainly occurs in 1909-10, yet the story that it narrates actually spans the previous century, from 1807, with the birth of Sutpen, to 1910, with the death of Miss Rosa during Quentin's first year at Harvard. As Mr. Compson finally concludes his narrative, he articulates the most prominent effect of the various narratives that Faulkner interweaves: "It's just incredible. lt just does not explain. Or perhaps that's it: they don't explain and we are not supposed to know" (p. 124). Mr. Compson must resort to his imagination, to what could have happened, and he repeatedly expresses uncertainty regarding events that have occurred behind closed doors or their imagic equivalents. When he wonders how or even if Miss Rosa knew of the particular relationship between Judith and her brother Henry, the lack of surety is evident:

[Miss Rosa] probably went out [to Sutpen's Hundred], probably once and then no more, and doubtless she did not ask, not even Judith, perhaps knowing she would not be told or perhaps because she was waiting. (p. 97; italics mine)

When Miss Rosa agrees to marry the man whom she had viewed as an ogre all her life, the reader naturally does not understand - it seems to be an impossible and unexplainable reversal; yet the fact must be digested and understood in the very inscrutability of the two characters. When she first sees him after his return from the Civil War in 1866, perhaps she is numbed by the staggering ambiguity of his presence. Mr. Compson likens the encounter to a drama in which the deception of the mask both obscures the actors and confuses the audience:

And what she saw then was just that ogre-face of her childhood . . ., like the mask in Greek tragedy interchangeable not only from scene to scene but from actor to actor and behind which the events and occasions took place without chronology or sequence and leaving her actually incapable of saying how many separate times she had seen him . . . . (p. 74)

Miss Rosa's own narration as Quentin interprets it is similarly full of ambiguity and uncertainty, but her goal is clear to the young man who is about to leave the South. Quentin believes that she narrates her account in the hope that he will write it down

so that people whom she will never see and whose names she will never hear and who have never heard her name nor seen her face will read it and know at last why God let us lose the War: that only through the blood of our men and the tears of our women could He stay this demon [Sutpen] and efface his name and lineage from the earth." (p.8)

Rosa's motive aside, ambiguity permeates the discourse in this novel and doors and gates play a large role in imaging that ambiguity. When Quentin finally arrives at Sutpen's Hundred in 1909 with Miss Rosa, "[h]e looked at the two huge rotting gate posts in the starlight, between which no gates swung now, wondering from what direction Bon and Henry had ridden up that day, wondering what had cast the shadow which Bon was not to pass alive . . ." (p. 454). For Quentin, though the gates have disappeared, closed (or vacant) forever, the uncertainty remains. In the rest of the narratives, for the most part the gates and doors are closed to some character, as if to indicate that the past or the future is irretrievable, unknowable, and misunderstood, and destined to be ambiguous and inscrutable like the characters themselves.

Much is revealed about Faulkner's characters when they are viewed in terms of the closed doors with which they are associated. In the case of Thomas Sutpen, the people of Jefferson are confronted suddenly with a mysterious man whose past is a door which is closed to them. Even when they press him, corner him, and interrogate him, they remain at an impasse as far as their curiosities are concerned. Soon after his arrival,

they would catch him, run him to earth, in the lounge between the supper table and his locked door to give him the opportunity to tell them who he was and where he came from and what he was up to, whereupon he would move gradually and steadily until his back came in contact with something - a post or a wall - and then stand there and tell them nothing whatever as pleasantly and courteously as a hotel clerk. (p. 38; italics mine)

This locked door in Holston House is symbolic of his mysterious, unknown and undocumented past. Just as his family's journey from western Virginia to the Tidewater "didn't have either a definite beginning or a definite ending" (p. 280), so also is he equally indeterminate and enigmatic. "He did not know within a year on either side just how old he was" (p. 283); even he is unsure of all the details of his past. Miss Rosa declares that he "came out of nowhere and without warning" (p. 5); he rode into town "out of no discernible past and acquired his land no one knew how and built his house, his mansion, apparently out of nothing" (p. 9). This closed door in the lodging house in Jefferson is emblematic of Sutpen's mysterious and impenetrable history and of the lack of knowledge and communication that exists between the intractable stranger and the people in Yoknapatawpha County.

Another closed door nestled much deeper in Sutpen's subconscious is even more significant and fundamental to his life and mission. The episode of this door occurs in Tidewater Virginia and provides the background for Sutpen's single-minded and desperate design of gaining revenge by gaining financial and moral ascendancy. Ragged and unkempt, the young boy Sutpen is sent to deliver a message and walks guilelessly right up to the front door of the big plantation house. There, a well-dressed slave blocks the door and pointedly instructs him never to come to the front door again:

And now he stood there before that white door with the monkey nigger barring it and looking down at him in his patched made-over jeans clothes and no shoes and I dont reckon he had even ever experimented with a comb because that would be one of the things that his sisters would keep hidden good - who had never thought about his own hair or clothes or anybody else's hair or clothes until he saw that monkey nigger . . . . (pp. 289-290)

This incident shames him, making him acutely aware of his lowly social place and of his naive ignorance. Before this incident, "he [was] no more conscious of his appearance in [his patched and torn clothes] or of the possibility that anyone else would be than he was of his skin" (p. 286). As a backwoods youth, he "didn't listen to the vague and cloudy tales of Tidewater splendor that penetrated even his mountains because then he could not understand what the people meant" (p. 277). The closed door and the black slave barring it shatter this innocence and make him suddenly and absolutely ashamed of his social inferiority, just as the bite of the fruit makes Adam and Eve instantly and irrevocably aware of their nakedness.

Sutpen is never able to pass or open that door. Although he throws himself with furious ambition into completing the design conceived that day to vanquish the memory of that plantation owner by joining his ranks and surpassing him, he remains essentially crude and artless. For Mr. Compson, what saves Sutpen from the utter damnation of his actions is this pathetic naivete,

that innocence which believed that the ingredients of morality were like the ingredients of pie or cake and once you had measured them and balanced them and mixed them and put them into the oven it was all finished and nothing but pie or cake could come out. (p. 328)

He can never cross that threshold in the Tidewater because he never quite understands and because he continues to believe that by following a simple recipe (such as marrying into an upstanding family), he can make himself respectable. "[H]is code of logic and morality, his formula and recipe of fact and deduction whose balanced sum and product declined, refused to swim or even float" (p. 344) - this is what prevents him from opening that door.

As the years pass, it is this incident which informs Sutpen's existence and shapes his purpose. At one point, the episode resurfaces in his consciousness in one of his rare, candid conversations with Mr. Compson. He tells Quentin's grandfather that he wishes to save the "boy-symbol at the door" (p. 325) and that he would embrace him and allow him to pass the door, and then shut it on his ignorant and provincial past:

now he would take that boy in where he would never again need to stand on the outside of a white door and knock at it: and not at all for mere shelter but so that that boy, that whatever nameless stranger, could shut that door himself forever behind him on all that he had ever known, and look ahead along the still undivulged light rays in which his descendants who might not even ever hear his (the boy's) name, waited to be born . . . . (p. 326)

Later, he is presented with this boy-symbol in his first son, Charles Bon, and yet, befitting the doomed legacy of the Sutpen family, he rejects him for a second time as a threat to his design. Quentin narrates that Sutpen

stood there at his own door, just as he had imagined, planned, designed, and sure enough and after fifty years the forlorn nameless and homeless lost child came to knock at it and no monkey-dressed nigger anywhere under the sun to come to the door and order the child away; and Father said that even then, even though he knew that Bon and Judith had never laid eyes on one another, he must have felt and heard the design - house, position, posterity and all - come down like it had been built out of smoke, making no sound, creating no rush of displaced air and not even leaving any debris. (p. 333)

The appearance of Bon at his door finally presents a crisis which will inevitably destroy his design and betray the vindication of the little boy standing before the barred door of the Tidewater plantation house. The mistakes of his first marriage return to undermine him in the figure of his repudiated, disavowed son. As time begins to run out on his design, he desperately considers different strategies (such as breeding with Rosa Coldfield), but each attempt to repair his plan is futile; it is "as though he were trying to dam a river with his bare hands and a shingle" (p. 202). The young Tidewater boy has grown up but his tragic flaw remains his ruthless self-interest; all that is left for him is the gloomy and inevitable ruins of a barren dynasty.

Quentin is another character who is unable to proceed through a door and for him it is in large part due to the fact that he has not fully understood something very basic to Miss Rosa's narrative. James D. Gray extends this incomprehension from the character Quentin to the reader: "As Quentin listens to the story of Sutpen from Miss Rosa in the opening pages of the novel, [he lacks] what the reader lacks to an even greater degree - sufficient information to make sense of it all."(4) In a later episode, the door is a significant point of convergence between what is narrated and its narration. Long after Miss Rosa relates the scene in which Judith faces Henry in the bedroom at Sutpen's Hundred after his murder of Bon, Quentin is still transfixed, absolutely focused on the sounds and sights and the door of that meeting:

But Quentin was not listening, because there was also something which he too could not pass - that door, the running feet on the stairs beyond it almost a continuation of the faint shot, the two women, the negress and the white girl in her underthings . . . pausing, looking at the door, the yellowed creamy mass of old intricate satin and lace spread carefully on the bed and then caught swiftly up by the white girl and held before her as the door crashed in and the brother stood there. (p. 215)

The analogy of getting through the door or passing it is equivalent for Quentin, in his capacity as listener (and for the reader, in his capacity as interpreter) to that of understanding and making sense of the narrative. And yet he fixates on that scene with its "short brief staccato sentences like slaps" (p. 215) that are exchanged beyond that bedroom door. "He (Quentin) couldn't pass that. He was not even listening to [Aunt Rosa]; he said, |Ma'am? What's that? What did you say?' " (p. 216). He is caught up in his mind's replaying of the vital event, trying desperately to make some sense of the ambiguity which confounds him about this episode. In light of Quentin's incestuous concern for Caddy in The Sound and the Fury, perhaps he is likewise disturbed by the parallels between him and Henry Sutpen, since the latter likewise considers himself to be a protector of his sister's virtue. For Quentin, this is the pivotal moment in the narrative of Sutpen's family, and it is interpreted by him in terms of a closed door which he is unable to pass because he has not fully resolved its implications.

After he and Miss Rosa arrive at Sutpen's Hundred in 1909, they approach the decaying house on foot, and after entering the gallery, are again confronted by a locked door, indistinct in the darkness. And again, it is one which Quentin cannot pass, perhaps because he understands neither why he is there with the withered old woman-child nor what he is looking for. In fact, the pitch darkness which the house itself seems to exude is suggestive of the ambiguity, opacity, and chaos which pervade Quentin's psyche. Faced with this "invisible front door" (p. 457), Miss Rosa orders Quentin to force his way through. " |Break it,' she whispered. |It will be locked, nailed. You have the hatchet. Break it" (p. 457). He protests, begging her to "Listen" and "Wait," and instead makes his way down the gallery to a glassless window, the shutters of which, though they are "closed and apparently locked" (p. 458), he forces with a hatchet blade. After this, there is a final door which he finds difficult to pass: the door which conceals Henry Sutpen. Sensing that this is the culmination of the narrative and of his evening odyssey, he still hesitates, unable at first to cross the threshold: "[He] paused there, saying |No. No' and then |Only I must. I have to' . . ." (p. 464). Here finally is a door which he must pass in order to resolve his mission and understand fully Miss Rosa's narrative; this discovery after all is the keystone of her story, without which her narrative has very ambiguous and shadowy meaning. Quentin does enter the room and understands, and is thereafter haunted, even in his room at Harvard one year later, by the ramifications of his discovery.

The development of Miss Rosa herself is likewise marked by many doors. Throughout her life, she is constantly characterized as on the outside, on the fringe of life and of comprehension. Born very late in the lives of her parents and "at the price of her mother's life and never to be permitted to forget it" (p. 70), she begins life as a marginal figure, to some degree unexpected and unwanted. Furthermore, she feels misunderstood and isolated by the gulf of years separating her from her father and sister. Consequently, she remembers her childhood as

that aged and ancient and timeless absence of youth which consisted of a Cassandra-like listening beyond closed doors, of lurking in dim halls filled with the presbyterian effluvium of lugubrious and vindictive anticipation while she waited for the infancy and childhood with which nature had confounded and betrayed her to overtake the precocity of convinced disapprobation . . . (p. 72; italics mine)

The beginning of her life progresses as a metaphoric wandering through a mansion in which none of the doors are open. She continues, reflecting on her youth,

instead of accomplishing the processional and measured milestones of the normal childhood's time I lurked, unapprehended as though, shod with the very damp and velvet silence of the womb, I displaced no air, gave off no betraying sound, from one closed forbidden door to the next and so acquired all I knew of that light and space in which people moved and breathed as I (that same child) might have gained conception of the sun from seeing it through a piece of smoky glass. (p. 180)

Later in life, marriage is another avenue which she is denied. Her resultant embittered spinsterhood denies her an understanding of love and sex, and her virginity, that "abysmal and purblind innocence" (p. 331), is quite symbolically another closed door.

In the episode of Bon's death, Miss Rosa is repeatedly barred from seeing the dead man. First it is the indomitable Clytie who will not allow her up the stairs at Sutpen's Hundred. Miss Rosa narrates that "I was crying not to someone, something, but (trying to cry) through something, through that force, that furious yet absolute rocklike and immobile antagonism which had stopped me" (p. 170). She continues,

I know only that my entire being seemed to run at blind full tilt into something monstrous and immobile, with a shocking impact too soon and too quick to be mere amazement and outrage at that black arresting and untimorous hand on my white woman's flesh. (p. 173)

(1) John T. Matthews, The Play of Faulkner's Language (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1982), p. 117. (2) William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 215. All subsequent references will be to this edition. (3) For more critical treatment of Faulkner's use of this image, consult Karen Aubrey Ellstrom, "Faulkner's Closing of the Doors in Sanctuary," Notes on Mississippi Writers, 20 (1988), 63-73. This article is very specific to Santuary, and although it does reaffirm Faulkner's use of the image in developing a character (Temple), Ellstrom does not address its narrative function in the work as a whole. Likewise, Lynn Snyder, in her "Doors, Windows, and Peepholes in The Hamlet," Notes on Mississippi Writers, 21 (1989), 19-30, gives a somewhat uncomplicated appreciation of these images in that novel. (4) James D. Gray, "Shreve's Lesson of Love: Power of the Unsaid in Absalom, Absalom!" New Orleans Review, 14 (Winter 1987), 26. It is only Judith's voice calling "Clytie" that releases the latter from her sentry and allows Miss Rosa to run up the stairs. But her path is again obstructed, this time by the figure of Judith standing before the closed door to that chamber" (p. 176), and this time, Miss Rosa is unable to pass.

For Rosa, all these closed doors effectively deny her any verification of the entire incident. As she tells Quentin, she cannot confirm Bon's very existence in her own mind because she never even saw his face: "I do not even know of my own knowledge that Ellen ever saw it, that Judith ever loved it, that Henry slew it" (p. 183). After Judith, Miss Rosa, and Clytie begin to live together, there seems to be a tacit code of silence about the fratricide. In effect they try to shut out the tragedy of the incident, and again, the symbol of the door is invoked. In her rendition of events, Miss Rosa actually reinterprets the death of Bon and concludes that the crisis simply sealed their isolation at Sutpen's Hundred:

No, there had been no shot. That sound was clap-to of a door between us and all that was, all that might have been - a retroactive severance of the stream of event: a forever crystallised instant in imponderable time accomplished by three weak yet indomitable women which, preceding the accomplished by fact which we declined, refused, robbed the brother of the Prey, reft the murderer of a victim for his very bullet. (p. 197)

For these three women, according to Rosa, the shot is a door slamming on the past with its tragic and doomed events. At the same time, this view likewise reveals an unwillingness to face the reality and significance of the event and hence is finally a testimonial to their inscrutability, opacity, lack of understanding and willful ignorance.

In her old age, Miss Rosa is finally ready to reopen that door, to pass it and to acknowledge the sound of Henry's gun as the report of a revolver and not as the slam of a door. Miss Rosa's desire to bring Quentin out to Sutpen's Hundred is really a desire to open that door and to recognize, face, and disseminate throughout the community the implications of that event. But again, there are doors which are blocked. First, there is the outside door, which Quentin eventually unlocks. She enters this, but, in a scene reminiscent of its antecedent after Bon's death forty-four years earlier, it is Clytie again who attempts to prevent her from ascending the staircase, though this time Miss Rosa physically overpowers her. Evidently, she then verifies Henry's presence and departs. This is one of the few instances when she is privy to a secret knowledge, and Quentin's share of this knowledge increases his understanding of her. Her confirmation of Henry's existence likewise strengthens her understanding of the legacy of Thomas Sutpen. But she remains misunderstood by the community of Jefferson because a blaze permanently seals her secret knowledge in 1909. This time, a sheet of fire fills the doorway, but that still does not deter her from trying to pass it. It is a last attempt either to recover a confirmation of her existence (in the figure of Henry Sutpen, who in a way vindicates and justifies her bitter and furious life) or to die finally and be consumed as the impenetrable enigma which she is to everyone except Quentin. As the fire rages on, it is she, instead of Henry, who is taken back to Jefferson behind the closed doors of the ambulance.

The curious relationship between Charles Bon and Henry Sutpen seems at first to be coincidental, but it is actually a carefully conceived plan on the part of the lawyer to open a door that was shut on Charles in his infancy when Thomas Sutpen discovered the impurity of his mother's blood and repudiated both wife and child. When Bon meets Henry Sutpen at the University of Mississippi, he sees his opportunity to regain his birthright or at least force his father to recognize him, and so the two half-brothers become close friends. Bon, on the one hand, is cultured, elegant and urbane, while Henry is puritanical, provincial and artless, and the barrier which exists between the two provides the tension which holds them together. It is this barrier which Henry tries vainly to cross through his aping of Bon's mannerisms and clothes (p. 118). Bon recognizes this and knows that by allowing Henry to pass over this threshold, he will be that much closer to fulfilling his own plan.

Knowing this, Bon reveals to Henry fragments of his refinement, and these are like brief, precisely measured flashes of light that create the desired picture. Mr. Compson likewise sees this posturing in terms of a careful exposure on a photographic plate:

Because (Bon) would be talking now, lazily, almost cryptically, stroking onto the plate himself now the picture which he wanted there; I can imagine how he did it - the calculation, the surgeon's alertness and cold detachment, the exposures brief, so brief as to be cryptic, almost staccato, the plate unaware of what the complete picture would show, scarce-seen yet ineradicable: - a trap, a riding horse standing before a closed a curiously monastic doorway in a neighborhood a little decadent, even a little sinister, and Bon mentioning the owner's name casually ... (pp. 137-138; italics mine)

This scheming is again put in terms of a closed door (the closed door of the exclusive men's club), but what makes it effective is that Henry does not understand the precise and true nature of the relationship. Henry is a dupe, a

puritan who must show nothing at all rather than surprise or incomprehension; - a facade shuttered and blank, drowsing in steamy morning sunlight, invested by the bland and cryptic voice with something of secret and curious and unimaginable delights. (p. 138)

Bon holds the key to this society of savoir-faire and ushers him inside, in expectation of later being ushered through the gates and front door of Sutpen's Hundred. The scene in which Bon instructs Henry in the art of the duel is one in which Bon significantly opens the locked door, and leads Henry into a new world of masculine leisure:

now would come the instant for which Bon had builded: - a wall, unscalable, a gate ponderously locked, the sober and thoughtful country youth just waiting, looking, not yet asking why? or what?; the gate of solid beams in place of the lacelike iron grilling and they passing on ... and now, the solid gates closed behind them instead of before ... and the voice-the mentor, the guide standing aside now to watch the grave provincial face ... (p. 139-140)

Henry is awed and grateful at being allowed to enter the private, incomprehensible domain of the sophisticated male: according to Mr. Compson, Henry, like his father, is inherently innocent,

the bewildered, the (for that time) helpless, who wanted to believe yet did not see how he could, being carried by the friend, the mentor, through one of those inscrutable and curiously lifeless doorways like that before which he had seen the horse or the trap, and so into a place which to his puritan's provincial mind all of morality was upside down and all of honor perished. (p. 141)

But after the Christmas of 1860, some of Henry's innocence is stripped away and suddenly, with the new knowledge that Bon is both married and his half-brother, new closed doors appear.

For the puritan Henry, these are the moral barriers of miscegenation and bigamy (and to a lesser degree, incest) which must not be negotiated at all costs. After four years of war, he wants to keep these doors closed on Charles Bon, and consequently he does not want Bon to cross the gate at Sutpen's Hundred. Henry realizes that to allow him through the gate would be tantamount to recognizing Bon's lineage and endorsing his plan for miscegenation and bigamy. This explains the brief dialogue between the two horsed men outside the gate in 1865: Dont you pass the shadow of this post, this branch Charles; and I am going to Pass it, Henry P. 165). Bon is killed; he is unable to cross this threshold, unable to know the realization of his plan, and unable to know Judith.

There are many other closed doors in Absalom; Goodhue Coldfield, the moral exemplar for the people of Jefferson, nailed the door of his attic behind him, threw the hammer out the window, and refused to come down until finally he died of starvation. Mr. Compson declares that Goodhue was not a coward, but that he objected "not so much to the idea of pouring out human blood and life, but at the idea of waste: of wearing out and eating up and shooting away material in any cause whatever" (p. 100). He closes that attic door because ultimately he does not understand the secessionist movement (he cannot reconcile their demands to his basic principles), nor would the Confederacy understand him.

Clytemnestra is also responsible for barring doors cf the two scenes in which she bars the staircase from Rosa); she also forces the child of Charles Bon through a door, and then carefully guards it against escape. It is Clytie who travels to New Orleans to retrieve the child who return[ed] quietly and docilely to that decaying house which he had seen one time ... returned, crossed that strange threshold, that irrevocable demarcation, not led, not dragged, but driven and herded by that stern implacable presence ..." (p. 247). And it is likewise Clytie who bars the attic door, "guarding his escape or exit as inexorably as a Spanish duenna ..." (p. 250). Meanwhile, Charles Etienne, increasingly isolated and sequestered behind more and more closed doors, is doomed to incomprehension and unquestioning obedience. Clytie similarly closes the door to Wash Jones, who as an outsider is not privy to the close details of the Sutpen legacy; during the Civil War, she yells at Wash, "|Stop right there, white man. Stop right where you is. You aint never crossed this door and you aint going to cross it now'" (p. 351). Denied entrance, he remains ignorant and uncomprehending, and it is in an accompanying state of fevered confusion that he kills Sutpen.

This image of the closed door can be extrapolated from the level of the character within the text to the level of the reader outside the text. Both the character and the reader are plagued at different moments with incomprehension and ambiguity, and both want to join Shreve's appeal to "Wait" until understanding is reached and the issue is resolved. In Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner presents to the reader many closed doors in his telling of the story, and time, irrevocable and undeniable, is the great gatekeeper accountable ultimately for the incertitude and ambiguity in the story. In this way, the reader is in much the same position as Miss Rosa during the aftermath of Bon's death. As she explains to Quentin, she is basically ignorant as to what happened because of the blocked doors and the absence of any real explanation from Clytie or Judith: "You see, I never saw him. I never even saw him dead. I heard an echo, but not the shot, I saw a closed door but did not enter it" (p. 187). In this novel, the reader often does not get a full explanation and so is destined to remain outside the door (text), knocking (reading) again and again in a futile attempt to gain entry.(5)

If the plantation house at Sutpen's Hundred can be thought of as representative of Sutpen's life, then each narrator takes the reader on a slightly different tour of the house. The pace through the house seems rushed at times because there are many rooms and much time covered. Inevitably, the reader passes through rooms so quickly that confusion still exists, but the doors swing shut after the reader exits. The climax of the tour for all the narrators is the one room at the end of the second floor hall through which "a faint light ... fell outward" (p. 464), and yet that door remains shut until the very last possible instant, thereby withholding the epiphany until the final pages of the novel.

There are also misunderstandings between characters in the novel due to the confusing layering of narratives; the problem arises when one character outside the narrative confuses what is being narrated with what the narrator is saying. This occurs when Quentin is relaying Sutpen's account of his own actions in the Haitian rebellion and his subsequent, sudden first marriage, as Sutpen told it to Quentin's grandfather thirty years later:

and when he recovered he and the girl were engaged. Then he stopped.

"All right," Shreve said. "Go on."

"I said he stopped," Quentin said.

"I heard you. Stopped what? He got engaged and then stopped yet still had a wife to repudiate later?

"He stopped talking, telling it," Quentin said. (p. 318)

The confusion that arises between these characters is exactly the same confusion that the reader feels in similar situations.

It is striking how many times the different characters in the novel are forced by the fast pace and the ambiguous narration to interrupt by saying, "Wait." These requests are, according to Karen McPherson, "attempts to put into logical sequence not the events themselves but the pieces of the story, the understanding and telling of events."(6) This request, in effect, is nothing other than a sign of frustrated incomprehension and unreadiness; in most cases, the character has not had time to digest the issues before a new direction is taken by the narrator. After Quentin tells Shreve of his trip to Sutpen's Hundred with Miss Rosa, Shreve repeats the story aloud all the way up to the point at which Quentin mounts the stairs to discover what was hidden in the house besides Jim Bond and Clytie. But there he pauses, waiting for Quentin to disclose the climax. And Quentin does not; instead, he simply confirms the accuracy of the story up to that point and does not elaborate, as if there is more to fathom before that closed door can be opened. And Shreve, inexorably caught up in the story, and wanting to comprehend completely, quietly agrees, and implores him to wait:

"and she (the Aunt Rosa) still said No and so you went on:and there was?"


"Wait then," Shreve said. "For God's sake wait." (p. 270)

McPherson would compare this narrative exchange to those significant struggles at doors and gates throughout the novel. She writes,

Just as the moments of confrontation (that precede violence or "dangerous" revelation in the story) are depicted as power struggles between one who says "Wait" and one who says "You will have to stop me" (Henry and Bon, Clytie and Rosa), the violent impulse of the narrative itself is to cross a threshold into the dangerous, the forbidden, the not-to-be-seen, the not-to-be-told(7).

The fear here, vocalized by the concerned demand "Wait" is of intruding on the unknown in the story before being able to understand its context and implications. McPherson's rhetoric is apt; the reluctance to cross the threshold, which both Quentin and Shreve display more than once, is very real. After this exchange, there seems to be a tacit agreement between Shreve and Quentin not to encroach too much upon that closed door; in later discussion, they conveniently refrain from mentioning it:

"The day after we - after the night when we -"

"Oh," Shreve said. "After you and the old aunt. I see Go on. And Father said - " (p. 332)

Similarly, when Sutpen tells General Compson the story of the siege and his first marriage, the latter interrupts him, "| Wait wait' sure enough now, saying, |But you didn't even know her'" (p. 317). For him, there are still unresolved questions.

At one juncture, both Quentin and Shreve want to tell the story, and they argue over the point. By verbalizing the ambiguities and the puzzling events, each believes that he will be better able to understand the entire story. For the reader, this produces a vexing layering of dialogue between two of the narrators. It is Shreve who is interrupted first.

"And so he came home and found -"

"Wait," Quentin said.

"- what he must have wanted to find or anyway what he was going to find -"

"Wait, I tell you! ... I am telling." (p. 345)

And then Shreve retorts, "No, ... you wait. Let me play a while now" (p. 349). Later, Shreve interjects during Quentin's narration to clarify an ambiguity: "|Wait.' Shreve said: |wait. You mean that he had got the son at last that he wanted, yet still he -'" (p. 357). Quentin does not stop the flow of his narration to address this question, so that Shreve must interrupt again, at which point an exasperated Quentin finally corrects Shreve's errant thinking:

"Will you wait?" Shreve said. "- that with the son he went to all that trouble to get lying right there behind him in the cabin, he would have to taunt the Grandfather into killing first him and then the child too?"

"- What?" Quentin said. "It wasn't a son. It was a girl."

"Oh," Shreve said. "- Come on. Let's get out of this damn icebox and go to bed." (p. 365)

Similarly, the reader is constantly wanting to cry, "Wait," as certain events are skimmed over, and as cryptic, paradoxical, opaque phrases confuse (e.g. Miss Rosa's summary of Bon: "he was absent, and he was; he returned, and he was not" [p. 190]). Likewise in the final scene, it is Quentin who says "Wait" (p. 458) when Miss Rosa tells him to break in the locked door. Apparently, he still needs time to understand. It is only when confronted by the door at the end of the hallway that he dectares finally, "I must. I have to" (p. 464).

Time is one reason why the narrations are occasionally opaque and ambiguous. Most of the characters in the story are dead and many years have eroded certainty about details and referents. The only things that are tangible and authentic are written documents and even these are largely ambiguous in their unspecific and vague nature. Mr. Compson laments this fact, that neither the oral nor the written traditions "explain":

We have a few old mouth-to-mouth tales; we exhume from old trunks and boxes and drawers letters without salutation or signature, in which men and women who once lived and breathed are now merely initials or nicknames out of some now incomprehensible affection which sound to us like Sanskrit or Chocktaw; we see dimly people, the people in whose living blood and seed we ourselves lay dormant and waiting, in this shadowy attenuation of time possessing now heroic proportions, performing their acts of simple passion and simple violence, impervious to time and inexplicable. (p. 124)

Opening doors into the past, the reader becomes all the more cognizant that what lies beyond is obscure. For Quentin, the carved letters on the tombstones at Sutpen's Hundred are the only references to the past which he can interpret personally, and yet even these are cryptic and biased (Sutpen's tombstone makes no mention of his birth, while the words on Judith's tombstone are written from the unmistakable perspective of Miss Rosa). Other written reference points (Henry's letter announcing the probation, Bon's one letter to Judith which she gave to Grandmother Compson, General Lee's letter of recommendation, to name a few) are likewise ambiguous in that they are often unsigned, undated, with no explicit salutation. Hence, the reader, whether following the narration with its inherent ambiguities or relying on the dissociated fragments of manuscript which drift in and out of the text, is ultimately confronted with a door that he cannot pass, a door symbolic of his futile ignorance in the face of the impenetrable past.

In Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! one narrator is not sufficient to tell a story which spans a century. The implications are that each of the four named narrators contributes to the telling of the tale and that with each additional narrative, the picture becomes more complete. The reality is that the ambiguities, misunderstandings, and shadows are multiplied as each narrative adds different tiles to an increasingly complicated mosaic. The result is a largely inscrutable and opaque novel in which the image of the closed or opened door has a two-fold purpose. On the one hand, the closed door is a stopping point for many of the characters, most often indicative of misunderstanding and ignorance. On the other hand, such an image contributes to narrative postponement and layering. Even open doors send the reader, as the one did Sutpen, around to the back, adding tension and obscurity, juxtaposing uncertainty to uncertainty. As Cleanth Brooks concludes, "the point is that we do not know. A powerful ... theme in this novel is the extreme difficulty - if not impossibility - of understanding the past."(8) Quentin, like the reader, is confronted with doors he cannot pass, and even when he crosses thresholds, obscurity, uncertainty and the unspoken are his fate. Beginning in Miss Rosa's hot airless room with the blinds closed, the book ends in Quentin's frigid tomb at Harvard:(90 closed doors seal the settings at the commencement and conclusion of the novel. Yet Quentin has had to obey the summons to enter Miss Rosa's home, and finally he will narrate, incompletely, what he saw in the closed room beyond the vanished gates and the glassless windows of Sutpen's Hundred. Exactly what that represents, he never says. The book ends with a final misunderstanding; Shreve asks, Why do you hate the South?" and Quentin corrects him, insisting adamantly and repeatedly, "|I don't hate it ... I dont hate it ... ' I dont hate it ... I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!" (p. 471). The words trail off like the echoing reverberation of a slammed door in an empty mansion. Like Quentin seeing and hearing Henry Sutpen, the reader, endowed with imagination and accustomed to literary irony, knows what they mean.

(1) John T. Matthews, The Play off Faulkner's Language (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1982), p. 117. (2) William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 215. All subsequent references will be to this edition. (3) For more critical treatment of Faulkner's use of this image, consult Karen Aubrey Ellstrom, Faulkner's Closing of the Doors in Sanctuary," Notes on Mississippi Writers, 20 (1988), 63-73. This article is very specific to Sanctuary, and although it does reaffirm Faulkner's use of the image in developing a character (Temple), Ellstrom does not address its narrative function in the work as a whole. Likewise, Lynn Snyder, in her "Doors, Windows, and Peepholes in The Hamlet," Notes on Mississippi Writers, 21 (1989), 19-30, gives a somewhat uncomplicated appreciation of these images in that novel. (4) James D. Gray, "Shreve's Lesson of Love: Power of the Unsaid in Absalom, Absalom!" New Orleans Review, 14 (Winter 1987), 26. (5) This basic misunderstanding on the part of readers and critics has concerned some Faulkner critics, among them Terrel L. Tebbets, who discusses the subject at length in "Ogres and Pygmies: Sutpen's Stature in Absalom, Absalom!" New Orleans Review, 14 (Winter 1987), 15-26. (6) Karen McPherson, "Absalom, Absalom!: Telling Scratches," Modern Fiction Studies, 33 (Autumn 1987), 432. (7) Ibid., p. 438. (8) Cleanth Brooks, William Faulkner: First Encounters (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 217. (9) Dennis Patrick Slattery, "And Who to Know: Monuments, Text, and the Trope of Time," New Orleans Review, 14 (Winter 1987), 42.
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Author:Ryan, Heberden W.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 1992
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