Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

Property in Absalom, Absalom!: Rousseau's Legacy in Faulkner

Academic journal article The Faulkner Journal

Property in Absalom, Absalom!: Rousseau's Legacy in Faulkner

Article excerpt

Jefferson, Yoknapatawpha Co., Mississippi

Area, 2400 Sq. Mi.

Population, Whites, 6298

Negroes 9313

William Faulkner, Sole Owner 8c Proprietor

-Legend from Faulkners first map of Yoknapatawpha County, included in first edition of Absalom, Absalom! (1936)

When Quentin Compson recounts Thomas Sutpen's narrative of his early life to Shrevlin McCannon, he uses rhetoric taken almost whole-cloth from Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. With this intertextual gesture, William Faulkner sets in motion a complex set of discourses about property, commerce, inequality and society with a rich history that spans centuries. As a proxy for and reconstruction of prior generations' tales, Quentin's and Shreve's narrative resonates with not only the discourses of generations prior to their own and those of Rosa Coldfield and Quentin's father and grandfather, but also theories of political economy stretching back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, and Adam Smith. In the following analysis, I tease out the ideological stakes and contradictions of the discourses concerning property, commerce, inequality, and society from the eighteenth century and, in particular, the legacy from Rousseau, that echo in representations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! Classical liberal theory, as it was refracted through the lens of nineteenth-century American speculation, as well as Depression-era political economy, creates a complex set of discourses within Faulkner's novel. Specifically, I am interested in exploring the tensions in the conflicting social realities behind the ideological rhetoric of American republicanism, early capitalism and the Old and New South through the lens of the question of property rights and inequality in Faulkner's novel. Faulkner's recycling and reworking of theoretical discourses of property demonstrate the degree to which these questions still resounded deeply in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, reflecting irresolvable tensions in Southern life. Faulkner's evocation of early liberal theory only underscores the instability of property claims and, as a corollary, the fragility of assertions of identity and legitimacy founded on them.


The passage around which my analysis revolves occurs near the beginning of chapter seven, when Quentin reveals Sutpens early history to Shreve, focusing on the time period prior and leading to Sutpens establishment in Mississippi. The narrative represents a dialogue of sorts. Interpolated within the direct discourse form of narration is a free indirect discourse that imputes thoughts to Sutpen (presumably recounted to Quentins grandfather who recounted them to Quentin) which resonate with Rousseaus text:

"-where what few other people he knew lived in log cabins boiling with children like the one he was born in ..., where the only colored people were Indians and you only looked down at them over your rifle sights, where he had never even heard of, never imagined, a place, a land divided neatly up and actually owned by men who did nothing but ride over it on fine horses or sit in fine clothes on the galleries of big houses while other people worked for them; he did not even imagine then that there was any such way to live or want to live, or that there existed all the objects to be wanted which there were, or that the ones who owned the objects not only could look down on the ones that didn't, but could be supported in the down-looking not only by the others who owned objects too but by the very ones that were looked down on that didn't own objects and knew they never would. Because where he lived the land belonged to anybody and everybody and so the man who would go to the trouble and work to fence off a piece of it and say 'This is mine' was crazy; and as for objects, nobody had any more of them than you did because everybody had just what he was strong enough or energetic enough to take and keep, and only that crazy man would go to the trouble to take or even want more than he could eat or swap for powder and whiskey. …

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