Discussion Prompts

Absalom, Absalom! discussion prompts:

CHAPTERS 1-3

1. In Chapter 1, the most significant events of the entire story are revealed. However, because of the many narrators and complex narrative structure, it is a great challenge to decipher.  How many narrators are there, and what is their relationship to one another? What, so far as you can make out, “happened,” as opposed to what is conjectured by the various narrators?

2. A question arises as to why Faulkner had Miss Rosa narrate the first chapter, in which we hear Sutpen referred to as a demon. Would our view of Sutpen be different if we had not already been prejudiced by Miss Rosa’s view? Generally speaking, Chapter 2 depicts Sutpen as a strong, powerful, independent, and individualistic man. Who is Sutpen? Is he evil? Innocent? Superhuman? Mad? Heroic?

3. What characteristics does this novel share with classical tragedy? Could Sutpen have meant to name his daughter Cassandra instead of Clytemnestra? (Clytemnestra was the wife of Agamemnon, who killed both her husband and Cassandra. Cassandra was the daughter of the king of Troy who predicted the fall of Troy and was not believed, and who also predicted her own death, and Agamemnon’s, at the hands of Clytemnestra — and was not believed.)

4. The book’s title is taken from the biblical story of Absalom, the rebellious son of King David, told in the second book of Samuel–a dynastic tale of incest, rebellion, revenge, and violent death. If you get a chance, read the Absalom bible story.  How is your perspective of Faulkner’s novel enlarged?

CHAPTERS 4-5

5. Mr. Compson describes events that give us more information about the relationship between Charles Bon and Henry Sutpen.  How does this information clarify our understanding? How does it mislead us? What do we learn about Charles Bon?  If we are viewing Absalom, Absalom! as a myth or classical tragedy, what does the character of Charles Bon represent?

6. At the end of Chapter 5, Rosa tells Quentin that she knows “something” is hiding at Sutpen’s Hundred.  What is going to be revealed? How has your view of Supten expanded or changed?

7. Faulkner’s original title for the novel was “Dark House,” and as in much of his work, we see in Absalom, Absalom! strong elements of the gothic literary convention: a ruined and possibly haunted house, a demonic hero, family secrets, hints of incest, a melodramatic plot, an overwhelming mood of decadence and decay. Yet in its intensity, the novel transcends much gothic fiction. How does Faulkner’s use of gothic elements contribute to the novel’s dramatic effect?

CHAPTERS 6-7

8. Structurally, Chapter 6 divides the first part of the novel (when Quentin is in Mississippi listening to others tell the Sutpen story) and the second (when Quentin is at Harvard telling the Sutpen story himself). What do you think about the Compson family, particularly Quentin, of The Sound and the Fury (1929) playing a central role in Absalom, Absalom!(1936)? Does Faulkner want readers of Absalom, Absalom! to assume that Quentin’s involvement in the Sutpen story is one of the reasons for his suicide, which takes place three months later in The Sound and the Fury?

9. In Chapter 7, we get insight into Sutpen’s early history that brings his character into sharper focus. What do we learn about his attitudes toward strength and power and fear?

10. Why does Faulkner have Quentin tell his story to Shreve McCannon, a Canadian, in a room at Harvard in January, 1910? Why does this reconstruction of a uniquely Southern tale take place on Yankee soil? What is the meaning of the relationship between story and setting, as contained in the following phrase: “that fragile pandora’s box of scrawled paper which had filled with violent and unratiocinative djinns and demons this snug monastic coign, this dreamy and heatless alcove of what we call the best of thought”?

CHAPTERS 8-9

11. Consider Faulkner’s brilliant development of the character of Charles Bon, the son that Sutpen has cast off. In both Quentin and Shreve’s retelling and in Miss Rosa’s, he is a figure of romance, while in Mr. Compson’s version he is an opportunist, using both Judith and Henry to revenge himself upon his father. Which of these perspectives is more satisfying to you, and why? Why is the element of doubt about Bon’s motivation–even about the extent of his knowledge about his origin–so crucial to Faulkner’s plan?

12. In the last few pages of the novel we learn at last, as in a mystery, what Quentin’s role in the story has been. He has entered into the final chapter of the nightmare of the Sutpen family with his own eyes, accompanying Miss Rosa to Sutpen’s Hundred, where he sees the dying Henry. He seems unable to emerge from this experience into ordinary life. Why does the past have such hallucinatory power for Quentin? What does his meeting with Henry mean to him? Do you see Clytie’s burning of the house, with herself and Henry in it, as a final purgation of the family curse? Why then does this history seem to be a nightmare from which Quentin is unable to awaken?

13. To what degree do you see the self-destructiveness displayed by just about all of the figures in this novel as Faulkner’s deliberate allegory of the South?  How does this novel explore the meaning of history, and about the extreme pressure of the past, particularly in the South, upon the inhabitants of the present?

14. What do you make of the book’s final line, in which Quentin hysterically insists that he doesn’t hate the South?

Comparing THE SOUND AND THE FURY, AS I LAY DYING, and ABSALOM, ABSALOM!

1. In all three of these novels the family is central to structure, plot, and meaning. It is the source of grief and identity as well as the locus of all individual psychic struggles. Do you see all of Faulkner’s characters eternally trapped within their familial roles? How do the families differ in each of these novels, and how are they similar? How do the particularly important symbolic roles of the mother and the father differ from book to book?

2. Faulkner has often been accused of an extremely misogynistic representation of women. Consider Caddy Compson, Dilsey, Dewey Dell and Addie Bundren, Judith Sutpen, Rosa Coldfield, the wife of Charles St. Valery Bon, and other female characters in these three novels. How would you describe Faulkner’s notion of the feminine, as compared with the masculine? Do you agree with the critic Irving Howe that “Faulkner’s inability to achieve moral depth in his portraiture of young women clearly indicates a major failing as a novelist”?

3. Faulkner tries to make himself disappear in these works. Instead of using the traditional third-person narrator that most readers associate with the author, he directs a chorus of voices that intertwine, complement, and contradict one another. As readers, we must rely on what we learn from the characters themselves as to time, place, plot, and matters of cause and effect. Why do you think Faulkner prefers to make his characters speak “directly” to his readers? How does this technique affect your ability to believe in the worlds that exist in these novels? How would more direct intervention by an authorial voice change your experience?

4. All of these novels question our assumptions about time as regular, linear, sequential, predictable. What are some of the ways in which time is disrupted in these works?

 

The Sound and the Fury discussion prompts:

Part One: April 7, 1928
1. With his title, Faulkner alludes to a monologue in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  In the play at this point, Macbeth has learned of Lady Macbeth’s suicide. His soliloquy: “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow/ Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,/ To the last syllable of recorded time/ And all our yesterdays have lighted fools/ The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!/ Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/ And then is heard no more. It is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing.” Why did Faulkner choose such a phrase for his title? How is this passage applicable to the story? Do you find the novel as dark as this monologue?

2. The book challenges us right off the bat, with the first section narrated by Benjy despite his idiocy, and with Faulkner’s interspersal of stream-of-consciousness storytelling. How do we find our way in Benjy’s chapter? How many time periods are interspersed? What are some of the events Benjy is remembering? If Benjy is the “idiot” of Macbeth’s speech, can he still be regarded as a sentient and reliable observer of his family?

3. Crucial events are recounted in Benjy’s section, and later clarified or amplified by other narrators (Quentin in Part 2, and Jason and an omniscient narrator later on). Does Benjy strike you as a central narrating consciousness? Does his voice seem authentic to you? If he is voicing another’s thoughts, how does this affect the impact of his narration?

4. Regarding Benjy, Faulkner once commented: “To that idiot, time was not a continuation, it was an instant, there was no yesterday and no tomorrow, it all is this moment, it all is [now] to him. He cannot distinguish between what was last year and what will be tomorrow, he doesn’t know whether he dreamed it or saw it.” Why would Faulkner use such a character to introduce the Compson family story? How does this attitude affect your experience of that story? In a story more about memory than action, what is Benjy’s significance?

Part Two: June 2, 1910
1. Which characters might represent emotional or moral value? Who reflects love, or honor, or loyalty? As we get to know Quentin better through his narration of Part 2, how does he fit into Faulkner’s scheme? What about Jason, or Caddy’s daughter Quentin, or Caddy herself? Collectively do they seem to you simply one tortured family, or do you detect a broader allegory? And how do Mrs. Compson and her husband fit into the scheme?

2. Each section of the novel is headed with a date. Note that three of the narratives (1, 3 and 4) are on dates in April 1928 (April 7th, then the 6th, then the 8th), while Quentin’s narrative is on June 2, 1910–perhaps the end of his life after his freshman year at Harvard. Why does Faulkner present the story in this order? For now, we stop after Quentin’s narration–what are your hopes or guesses about what’s coming in Parts 3 and 4, in terms of connections to what we’ve just read, or in terms of sheer coherence?

3.  Why does Faulkner have Quentin narrate his own section despite being dead for almost a generation–a long flashback of sorts? What’s the significance of his dual obsession with Caddy’s virginity and the loss of family honor? What do you make of his false confession of incest? What is Father’s influence on Quentin?  What’s are aspects of Father’s philosophy?

4. Caddy is at the center of her brothers’ experiences and narratives. She is presented as maternal, promiscuous, erotic, at times domineering–and perhaps unknowable, given the unreliable narrations of her brothers. Does she appeal to you as a sympathetic character? Is her downfall more of a cause of the family tragedy, or an effect? Why does each brother have a narrative voice while she has none?

Part Three: April 6, 1928
1. How does this section differ from Benjy and Quentin’s? What does the difference signify about each brother’s personality, specifically in terms of isolation and happiness?

2. Jason is an embittered man with a nasty sense of humor. Still, he is Mrs. Compson’s favorite, the one she depends on. He imagines people saying of his siblings, “one of them is crazy, another one drowned himself, the other one was turned out into the street by her husband.” Do you think he succeeds at all in preserving the appearance of normality, which is so important to him? How would you describe his thinking and reasoning in general? What are his activities and preoccupations? What is the effect of his narrative mood and voice, in light of the the two preceding narratives (Benjy’s and Quentin’s)?

3. What kind of new system does Jason envision for the Compson family? How does this system differ from the Compson family as presented byBenjy and Quentin? Does Jason succeed in creating this new Compson family system? Why or why not?

4. Again, in which characters, if any, do we find love, honor, loyalty, strength? Is Jason the embodiment of the opposite traits? How does Caddy’s daughter, Quentin, fit into the scheme of value here? Do Benjy’s perceptions function as a sort of touchstone for the reader?

Part Four: April 8, 1928
1. With each section the narrative voice becomes more coherent, and we finish with a fairly straightforward and traditional third-person voice. Why do you think Faulkner has chosen to present things in this way and in this order? What is the effect on the narration?

2. Although this section isn’t told from the first person, the third person narration favors Dilsey’s perspective. It is also the closest we come to hearing a female voice in the novel. Why do you think Faulkner chose not to have Dilsey, Caddy, Caroline, or Miss Quentin narrate her own section? What do you think they might have said?

3. What role does Dilsey play in the novel? Why does the fourth narrative focus upon her, and why might Faulkner have chosen not to give her her own voice for it? What is the significance of the black church and black community in this last section? The novel ends on Easter Sunday–how does the shift to an overtly Christian frame work for you?  Note that the clock appears to be off by three hours.

Wrap-Up of the whole novel:
1. After reading the rest of the novel, revisit Benjy’s narrative (Part 1).  Reconsider Faulker’s comments about Benjy: “To that idiot, time was not a continuation, it was an instant, there was no yesterday and no tomorrow, it all is this moment, it all is [now] to him. He cannot distinguish between what was last year and what will be tomorrow, he doesn’t know whether he dreamed it or saw it.” Why would Faulkner use such a character to introduce the Compson family story? How does this attitude affect your experience of that story? In a story more about memory than action, what is Benjy’s significance?

2. Part 2 (Quentin’s narration, from 1910) casts a shadow over events in the other three sections.  Did this structure “work” for you?

3. I finished the novel thinking about what Faulkner is saying about “the South.”  Does the story comment most powerfully about the region or about humanity in general?

4. The novel weighs a number of philosophical and psychological issues–the meaning of time, the psychopathology of family–but it does not exactly clarify them. So, what would you say the novel is “about”? Think again of the Macbeth quotation:  Life is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” What does Faulkner’s story, told multiple times so to speak, signify in the end? What does it achieve? In what ways does the novel focus our attention on the challenge of representing consciousness believably? Does the novel enrich you–does it give you tools to use going forward as a reader?

5. Shortly after The Sound and the Fury was published, the noted critic Clifton Fadiman dismissed the novel, claiming that its themes were too “trivial” to deserve the elaborate craftsmanship Faulkner lavished on them. Many other critics have countered that the novel’s themes extend beyond the story of the Compson family specifically, and grapple with issues central to human life in general. In what way might the themes of the novel extend beyond the story of the Compsons’ decline?

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As I Lay Dying discussion prompts:

For all October meetings:

1. Which are the most intelligent and sympathetic voices in the novel? With whom do you most and least identify? Is Faulkner controlling your closeness to some characters and not others? How is this done, given the seemingly equal mode of presentation for all voices?

2. What is the effect of each chapter being in first-person narration? For Mission Impossible veterans, how does this compare with the narrative voice(s) in the other books we’ve read?

3. Faulkner allows certain characters–especially Darl and Vardaman–to express themselves in language and imagery that would be impossible, given their lack of education and experience in the world. Why does he break with the realistic representation of character in this way?

4. What are the distinctive characteristics of each character that have been revealed thus far? What is the importance of the order of characters telling their stories? (For example, Cash is part of almost every chapter and yet does not have his first say until chapter 18.)

5. What is your response to the section spoken by Vardaman, which states simply, “My mother is a fish”? What sort of psychological state or process does this declaration indicate? What are some of the ways in which Vardaman insists on keeping his mother alive, even as he struggles to understand that she is dead?

6. What are some of your favorite passages thus far?

November / December meetings:

7. What makes Darl different from the other characters? Why is he able to describe Addie’s death [p. 48] when he is not present? How is he able to intuit the fact of Dewey Dell’s pregnancy? What does this uncanny visionary power mean, particularly in the context of what happens to Darl at the end of the novel? Darl has fought in World War I; why do you think Faulkner has chosen to include this information about him? What are the sources and meaning of his madness?

8. Anse Bundren is surely one of the most feckless characters in literature, yet he alone thrives in the midst of disaster. How does he manage to command the obedience and cooperation of his children? Why are other people so generous with him? He gets his new teeth at the end of the novel and he also gets a new wife. What is the secret of Anse’s charm? How did he manage to make Addie marry him, when she is clearly more intelligent than he is?

9. Some critics have spoken of Cash as the novel’s most gentle character, while others have felt that he is too rigid, too narrow-minded, to be sympathetic. What does Cash’s list of the thirteen reasons for beveling the edges of the coffin tell us about him? What does it tell us about his feeling for his mother? Does Cash’s carefully reasoned response to Darl’s imprisonment seem fair to you, or is it a betrayal of his brother?

10. Jewel is the result of Addie’s affair with the evangelical preacher Whitfield (an aspect of the plot that bears comparison with Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter). When we read Whitfield’s section, we realize that Addie has again allied herself with a man who is not her equal. How would you characterize the preacher? What is the meaning of this passionate alliance, now repudiated by Whitfield? Does Jewel know who his father is?

11. This is a novel full of acts of love, not the least of which is the prolonged search in the river for Cash’s tools. Consider some of the other ways that love is expressed among the members of the family. What compels loyalty in this family? What are the ways in which that loyalty is betrayed? Which characters are most self-interested?

12. The saga of the Bundren family is participated in, and reflected upon, by many other characters. What does the involvement of Doctor Peabody, of Armstid, and of Cora and Vernon Tull say about the importance of community in country life? Are the characters in the town meant to provide a contrast with country people?

13. Does Faulkner deliberately make humor and the grotesque interdependent in this novel? What is the effect of such horrific details as Vardaman’s accidental drilling of holes in his dead mother’s face? Of Darl and Vardaman listening to the decaying body of Addie “speaking”? Of Vardaman’s anxiety about the growing number of buzzards trying to get at the coffin? Of Cash’s bloody broken leg, set in concrete and suppurating in the heat? Of Jewel’s burnt flesh? Of the “cure” that Dewey Dell is tricked into?

14. Even the reader of such an unusual book may be surprised to come upon Addie Bundren’s narrative on page 169, if only because Addie has been dead since page 48. Why is Addie’s narrative placed where it is, and what is the effect of hearing Addie’s voice at this point in the book? Is this one of the ways in which Faulkner shows Addie’s continued “life” in the minds and hearts of her family? How do the issues raised by Addie here relate to the book as a whole?

15. In one of the novel’s central passages, Addie meditates upon the distance between words and actions: “I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle from one to the other; and that sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words” [pp. 173-74]. What light does this passage shed upon the meaning of the novel? Aren’t words necessary in order to give form to the story of the Bundrens? Or is Faulkner saying that words–his own chosen medium–are inadequate?

16. What does the novel reveal about the ways in which human beings deal with death, grieving, and letting go of our loved ones?

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