Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Faulkner's Cryptic Closet: Forbidden Desire, Disavowal, and the "Dark House" at the Heart of Absalom, Absalom!

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Faulkner's Cryptic Closet: Forbidden Desire, Disavowal, and the "Dark House" at the Heart of Absalom, Absalom!

Article excerpt

IN THE CLIMACTIC SCENE OF ABSALOM, ABSALOM!, AS QUENTIN COMPSON and Rosa Coldfield approach the near-ruins of Sutpen's Hundred, Quentin anxiously denies that the secret within carries any significance: "What is it she's got hidden there? What could it be? And what difference does it make? Let's go back to town, Miss Rosa" (291). The bravado with which he follows these entreaties undermines his prior attempts to neutralize the threat, however: "I am not afraid. I just dont want to be here. I just dont want to know about whatever it is she keeps hidden in it" (293). Quentin's obvious terror emerges in his fretful repetitions (the interrogative "what" and later the recurrence of "I just dont want") as well as in the revealing disjunction between his emphatic desire not to know and his assertion that the knowledge makes no difference anyway--if the knowledge truly carried no consequences, of course, he would not have to avoid it so assiduously. Just as Quentin's denial of fear actually uncovers the fear it purports to hide, the old house has come to embody not only its own hidden secret, but the way in which the act of hiding assumes the shape of hiding itself. In other words, the moment we infer that something is hidden, we have begun to trace the contours of what that something might be or might do, rendering it not so safely contained as its concealment may suggest. As Faulkner demonstrates throughout the novel, going to the trouble of hiding something--whether it be the troubling past of a first wife or a dying brother in the attic--ratifies the terrifying power of the facts that characters attempt to bury neatly: if the fact requires covering up, then it must hold dangerous implications for the world at large.

In his succinct delineation of the ways in which hiding requires being partially known, a phenomenon he refers to as "coming into hiding," Malcolm Bull observes that "just as the covers of a book conceal its contents yet recall its content to someone who has previously read it, so the silent earth somehow echoes with the voices of the dead. It is as though the dead are revealed not despite but because of their concealment" (11-12). Bull's use of a cemetery as a figure for revealing concealment seems appropriate for a house which has preemptively entombed Henry Sutpen, and yet Bull's account does not reach Quentin's fear. Even if Quentin has inferred that the house's secret relates to the last living member of the family whose saga Miss Rosa and Mr. Compson have been recounting, why should the idea that Henry lies hidden within be so terrifying?

We must recover the sense of danger mentioned above and the possibility that the house conceals not only a body (as does Bull's more benign graveyard) but also knowledge that will have catastrophic implications if released. In Shreve's version of these incidents, Quentin enters the house and fully realizes both the truth and the fanatical injunction against its revelation:

   [Quentin] saw that Clytie's trouble wasn't anger nor even distrust,
   it was terror, fear. And she didn't tell [Quentin] in so many words
   because she was still keeping that secret for the sake of the man
   who had been her father too as well as for the sake of the family
   which no longer existed, whose here-to-fore inviolate and rotten
   mausoleum she still guarded.... it was not rage but terror, and
   not nigger terror because it was not about herself but was about
   whatever it was that was up stairs, that she had kept hidden up
   there for almost four years; and she didn't tell [Quentin] in the
   actual words because even in the terror she kept the secret;
   nevertheless she told [Quentin], or at least all of a sudden
   [Quentin] knew. (279-80)

Shreve depicts the house as a tomb even as he deepens the sense that this particular burial ground requires careful protection and containment: Clytie "guards" this "mausoleum," striving to keep the secret even as the structure that hides it has been breached. …

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