Faulkner's "Absalom, Absalom!" and the Mysterious Rosa Coldfield
First edition cover of William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!
Plot Overview of Absalom, Absalom!
William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! begins in the year 1833, when the stranger, Thomas Stupen, rides into Jefferson, Mississippi, and promptly begins building himself an empire. He builds a plantation named Stupen’s Hundred, takes a wife, Ellen Coldfield, and has two children, Judith and Henry. Ellen’s much younger sister, Rosa, comes to live at Stupen’s Hundred after Rosa’s only guardian, her father, nails himself in the attic and throws the hammer out the window in protest of the Civil War. Despite attempting to fulfill Ellen’s deathbed wish to look after Judith and Henry, Rosa finds herself continuously marginalized and therefore must live vicariously through Judith, especially during the occasion of Judith’s engagement to Henry’s friend, Charles Bon. When Stupen insists the engagement be broken and Henry, Stupen’s heir to the fortune, storms out of the house renouncing his birthright, Stupen’s dynasty begins to crumble.
The Civil War ruptures the South; Charles Bon and Henry enlist, as do Stupen and Quentin’s grandfather, General Compson. Stupen seeks out Henry to explain that Charles is Judith’s half-brother, and also half-black. After the war, Henry kills Charles at the gates of Stupen’s Hundred and exiles himself. Stupen attempts to rebuild the dynasty ruined by war. He proposes marriage to Rosa, with one stipulation: Rosa must give Stupen a male heir before the wedding. Rosa refuses. Stupen has an affair with Milly Jones, the granddaughter of Wash Jones, a man who lives on Stupen’s property. Milly gives birth to a girl. When Stupen denounces her and her daughter, Wash Jones kills him.
In 1910, Rosa Coldfield, now a living artifact of the Old South, tells the Stupen story to Quentin Compson. She asks Quentin to return with her to Stupen’s Hundred, for she suspects someone has been living there. Quentin agrees, and they enter Stupen’s Hundred to find Henry and Clytie, another half-black Stupen child. When Rosa tries to reach out to them again three months later, a paranoid Clytie sets the plantation on fire, killing herself and Henry, leaving Rosa the single survivor of the past.
Absalom, Absalom! focuses on the narration of the events rather than the events themselves. The story is narrated through three times, first by Rosa, then by Quentin’s father Mr. Compson, and finally by Quentin and his college roommate, Shreve. Each narration shows the bias and values of the storyteller.
Rosa’s winding, complex, and confusing narrative often leaves readers and critics with questions of Rosa’s truthfulness to her story and her motives for changing it. The recent critics have come to many different conclusions about Rosa. Critics cannot seem to agree with even the basic ideas of Rosa’s motives. Deborah Garfield argues in her article “To Love as ‘Fiery Ancients’ Would” that Rosa never married because she longed after an ancient eros type of love and would not settle, even though she was riddled with a desire to marry. Olivia Edenfield claims Rosa lacks a role to fulfill even though she desperately searches for one in “’Endure and then endure’: Rosa Coldfield’s Search for Role in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!” Patrick O’Donnell attributes Rosa’s significant loss in “Sub Rosa” not to the lack of a role, but to the lack of an identity. In her article “’Listen to the being ghosts’: Rosa’s words of madness that Quentin can’t hear,” Betina Entzminger argues that Rosa, a hysteric, tells her story as a stern warning to Quentin whose own hysterics will eventually cause his death shortly after the events of the book. Laurel Bollinger states in “That Triumvirate Mother-Woman” that Rosa is a strong character and the downplay of Rosa’s narrative from the critics was something Faulkner never intended. Alain Geoffroy in “Through Rosa’s looking-glass: narcissism and identification in Faulkner’s ‘Absalom, Absalom!’” sees Rosa as a fully narcissist character with her entire worldview centered around herself and her own wants. In “Be Stupen’s Hundred: Imaginative Projection of Landscape in ‘Absalom, Absalom,’” Thadious Davis argues that Rosa and the other characters are extensions of their settings; she ties ghostly Rosa with the ghostly 1910 ruins of the Coldfield House and Rosa’s imaginative interpretation of Stupen to her interpretation of the “suitably demonic” Stupen’s Hundred (9).
The variation in the critics’ interpretation and their argumentative structure provide windows into what literary or social theories they find the most applicable for studying Absalom, Absalom! For this study, the critic’s motives for interpretation will be analyzed upon their discussions of Rosa’s relationships with Charles Bon and Thomas Stupen. From the many critics who produce scholarship on Rosa, the texts of Laurel Bollinger, Olivia Edenfield, and Alain Geoffroy provide the most polarizing speculation on the mystifying character of Rosa Coldfield.
Laurel Bollinger’s “That Triumvirate Mother-Woman: Narrative Authority and Interdividuality in Absalom, Absalom!” explores power in the novel, particularly Rosa’s power as the storyteller to alter the events of history. Bollinger’s critique would most likely be classified as a feminist text, however, the focus tends to be less on the gendered women’s struggle in the Civil War Era South and more about a discourse’s power to make and unmake events of history, albeit a power given to a woman, who under the social society of the Old South, has no power. Bollinger notes that the women in the novel, including Rosa, “seem to have power over their own narrative futures—and in this, their alternate narration threatens to revise the novel as a whole” and further, the women even threaten to take the story from Faulkner himself. Bollinger’s is one of the only articles in which the critic suspects Rosa, a woman, to have such an extraordinary amount of power from her narration that she, a fictional character, threatens to overtake the author. While Bollinger’s critique takes the framework of a feminist text, she explores the power of Rosa’s narration to make history, more so than her struggles as a Civil War Era woman.
Many critics, if not all, consider Rosa a “failed narrator.” She fails to make a connection with her audience, Quentin, and she fails to relate the facts of the story correctly. Her narration, which the readers should consider a reputable story, considering she lived the events, becomes the narration the characters and readers trust the least. In this failure, Bollinger implies that Faulkner empowers Rosa to tell history as she sees fit. Bollinger recognizes about Rosa’s story-telling that the narration, not necessarily the history, proves problematic and that “narrative authority in this text assumes a spectral quality that reinforces our interest in it, just as the now-absent subject has claimed our imagination.” Bollinger and Faulkner recognize the limitations of a narration like Rosa’s: one perspective, limited knowledge, long distances of time. The story must expand beyond Rosa’s narrative scope, otherwise, no interest would spark the reader’s inquiries, and even the other characters in the text obsess over the woman’s tale.
Bollinger’s fascination with Rosa’s power lies at the heart of the art of storytelling and re-writing historical events, a subject Hayden White focused on in his essay entitled “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact.” In his essay, White explains creation of the story part of history purely belongs as a function of the author. He says that “[h]ow a given historical situation is to be configured depends on the historian’s subtlety in matching up a specific plot structure with the set of historical events that he wishes to endow with a meaning of a particular kind” (1716; italics removed). He further ushers in the literary, authorship aspect of storytelling by saying, “this is essentially a literary, that is to say fiction-making, operation” (1716). In White’s opinion, historians who overtake the facts fail. Historians who connect the facts beautifully succeed. In other words, for White, authors write the real history by picking, choosing, and relating the facts. White argues that many historians write with bias (1712), and no Rosa scholar would disagree that, as a historian, Rosa certainly asserts her opinion as fact and allows her emotion to overtake the actual facts of the story at times. When Rosa allows her emotions to overtake fact, she fails as a narrator and her words lose trust. However, sometimes, the problem stems from the way Rosa relates the facts rather than the history itself. Rosa’s narrative in this instance dangerously constricts the facts because “the problem emerges more from the narration than from the narrative—that is, from the language of the telling rather than the content of what is told” (Bollinger). Bollinger’s and White’s articles explore the power of Rosa and all narrators by exposing where history is written: in the minds of the historian.
Bollinger explores Rosa’s power to “unmake” Charles Bon by simply not discussing him in the ultimate act of historian power. This idea stems directly from White’s writings expressing the idea that events in a history can be made by either suppressing or subordinating historical facts, something Rosa does to an alarming extent (1715). Therefore, Bollinger believes that Charles Bon dies twice: once, literally, at the wrong end of Henry’s bullet, and once, figuratively, in the tight lips of Rosa. In White and Bollinger’s view, Rosa makes the decision to write Bon out of history deliberately, not by accident, as many other critics believe. Bollinger gives Rosa much more credit for what comes out of the narrator’s mouth—nothing narrated is accidental.
Exploring the role of Rosa as the novel’s historian begs study in a story such as this; Rosa, the oldest and primary source of historical events, is the one person who should have the most credibility but tells the readers and the other characters the least amount of fact. Rosa’s bias toward certain characters replacing her “facts” often lead critics to consider her narration a failure. For White, Rosa’s bias neither benefits nor hinders, as long as she keeps the facts straight. White laments the modern practice of writing the literary aspects of history—the bias—out of the discipline (1729).Continued on Next Page »
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