Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

What Is Gothic about Absalom, Absalom!

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

What Is Gothic about Absalom, Absalom!

Article excerpt


During the second World War, when he was just setting out to build Faulkner's reputation into the national monument it has since become, Malcolm Cowley placed Absalom, Absalom! "in the realm of Gothic romances, with Sutpen's Hundred taking the place of the haunted castle on the Rhine, with Colonel Sutpen as Faust and Charles Bon as Manfred." (1) By now one is aware of so many louder literary echoes, so many prototypes and conventions Faulker assimilated into his most ambitious novel, that one hesitates to single out the Gothic vein once again. What if Leslie Fiedler does call it "the most gothic of Faulkner's books"? He has found a Goth hiding under the bed of practically every virgin in American literature, and I cannot agree with him that it is the Gothic form "that has been most fruitful in the hands of our best writers." (2)

Rather I tend to share Cleanth Brooks's annoyance when he calls this Faulkner's greatest work and insists it is a great deal more than "Gothic sauce to spice up our preconceptions about the history of American society." He cites as a typical misreading one preface that starts off, "It is a terrible Gothic sequence of events, a brooding tragic fable...." (3)

Undaunted by these strictures critics nevertheless go on using the epithet without defining it or explaining why it seems to them important. Thus Michael Millgate, considering Absalom more like Jane Eyre than Moby-Dick, finds that Faulkner has resumed the Gothic tradition from "European sources," without saying what these are, what they signify, or how Faulkner came by them. (4) As Millgate observes, both Faulkner's and Charlotte Bronte's plots are set in great houses which harbor secret inmates and are set on fire by desperate females, who go up in flames. The Pequod and the House of Usher also harbor secret inmates and go down in water, though the Pequod is without desperate females. Are these significant likenesses--or distinctions? The question might rather be whether these are stately tragic endings or just melodramatic and contrived. Insofar as they may be "Gothic," is it a virtue or a flaw?

Concluding his essay "Revaluation of the Gothic Novel" with an unusually warped summary of the "diseased and disgusting" world depicted in Sanctuary, Robert D. Hume decides it is indeed Gothic, hence "offers no conclusions." "It emphasizes psychological reaction to evil," he writes, "and leads into a tangle of moral ambiguity for which no meaningful answers can be found." (5) To counter such a self-defeating and pointless conclusion one must both redefine the Gothic and give some regard to the corpus of Faulkner's work. For this purpose I think Absalom a more promising starting point than Sanctuary if only because the segment of Faulkner's world it transects is more comprehensive with respect to human and literary history than Sanctuary taken by itself. Here I propose to test Brooks's conclusion and some others against my own reading and to give the Gothic element no more than its due in accounting for the book's triumphs and its shortcomings.


Any examination of a book with such a singular title must pause to consider the relevance of that title to the author's intention. Faulkner could have picked one alluding to the house of Sutpen or even the house of Compson. Just as the title of the favorite earlier work which introduced Quentin recalls the disintegration and despair of Macbeth, so the title of this sequel evokes the anguish of David in his Pyrrhic victory over his rebellious son. In each case the hero's soliloquy summarizes the despair that comes over him as his ambitious career passes in review before his eyes and he sees himself diminished by the punishment it has invited. What distinguishes Sutpen from David is that he founds no line and has no prophet like Nathan to point out the enormity of his transgressions. Starting from humble, country-bred obscurity, both do achieve epic renown. …

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