The Hidden Caribbean "Other" in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!: An Ideological Ancestry of U.S. Imperialism

By Stanchich, Maritza | The Mississippi Quarterly, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

The Hidden Caribbean "Other" in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!: An Ideological Ancestry of U.S. Imperialism


Stanchich, Maritza, The Mississippi Quarterly


AFRICAN BLOOD IN THE GUISE OF A SEDUCTIVE HAITIAN CREOLE seethes to the surface of William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! in a Civil War era showdown between father and son, master and slave, colonizer and colony. In this ancestral conflict, nothing less is at stake along with Thomas Sutpen's plantation than the South, the American myth of individuality and freedom, and its imperialist designs. America as empire is the foundation of this 1936 novel, though references to colonialism are minimal. The West Indies, and Haiti in particular, is marginally depicted and interpreted in the novel, both as foreign land of conquest and financial foundation of Sutpen's Hundred. Applying the contrapuntal perspective Edward Said uses in Culture and Imperialism reveals what the novel represents--and what it omits--about the Caribbean and how that reflects United States imperialism.(1)

A contrapuntal reading of this novel by one of the foremost twentieth-century writers of the United States reveals the American constructions of race supremacy and inferiority used to exploit the "other" at home and abroad, rooting out an ancestry of ideology. Toni Morrison, in Playing in the Dark,(2) explores how an "othered" race informs the American literary imagination, and how it contributes to, indeed defines, the American myth of rugged individualism and freedom that Sutpen embodies. The novel's rhetoric reflects an American white supremacy that informs domestic policy regarding slaves and mulattos, and is then expanded into imperialist policy. Though historical in scope, Absalom, Absalom! is also informed by American imperialism in the Caribbean in the decades preceding the novel--as the United States occupied Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

As a low-class white teen, Sutpen boldly sets out to construct his supremacy in Haiti, where he successfully and single-handedly quells a slave rebellion and abandons his French and Spanish Creole wife and son after learning they carry African blood. Having used Haiti to hone his supremacist "design" and perfect his ability to dehumanize those closest to him, he descends on Mississippi with a pack of" wild" Haitian slaves and a Martinican architect to erect his estate, his egomaniacal monument, on a one-hundred-square-mile plantation. But Sutpen's "machine" breaks down when his Haitian-born son, Charles Bon, suddenly appears in Mississippi, threatening to marry Sutpen's daughter just as the U.S. Civil War breaks out. By using Haiti and a mixed-race Haitian Creole that can "pass" for white as the fulcrum of the story, Faulkner extends the curse of Southern slavery outside the South, encompassing the entire American agenda in and out of its borders. The Caribbean is the source not only of Sutpen's lineage but of the Southern plantation system as well, and both are challenged simultaneously.

As a boy, Sutpen first flees to the wilderness after being "othered" at the front door of the mansion by a house slave dressed in finery Sutpen's family could never afford, who notices Sutpen's bare feet and dirty clothing and tells him to use the back door. There Sutpen confronts his predicament and makes his decision: "So to combat them you have got to have what they have that made them do what he did. You got to have land and niggers and a fine house to combat them with."(3) Sutpen's first perceptions of the power of the land-owning, white ruling class form the basis of his own supremacist philosophy. He is psychologically assaulted by the realization that he is doomed to an ancestry of "white trash." Rather than renounce the system that relegates him so solidly to the margins, he adopts its values and begins his unrelenting mission toward the dominant center.

Once Sutpen realizes the hierarchy of race and class, he sets out to Haiti to elevate his class through race supremacy. He bases this life-forming decision on a lesson he learned in the few months he spent in school in the deep rural South with other poor children younger than he.

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