Rosa Talking about Personal and Social History:
Love and Narrative in Absalom, Absalom!

TSUKADA Yukihiro

     How does William Faulkner describe personal and social history in his novel? The old women in his novelistic world give us an interesting perspective on this question. Each of those women usually picks out a young man and tells him her own version of the Southern history. Miss Jenny in Flags in the Dust and Miss Rosa Millard in The Unvanquished bear on themselves the burden of old Southern nostalgia, in other words, the myth of the plantation South. It seems that they play an important role in terms of transmitting to the young men the mind of the old South and the ideal virtue as a white male Southerner. Miss Rosa Millard is a notable example. She hides in her bell-shaped skirt the boys, who fired at Northern soldiers by mistake, to protect them. She reaches an amicable agreement with the soldiers, while the boys feel ill at ease beneath her skirt but nonetheless feel safe as if they were sleeping in their mother's arms. In other works, which are typically characterized by the absence of a mother, an old woman is the protector of the boy, his mentor, his nurse, and his surrogate mother.
     Faulkner's old women are so represented as to internalize what the antebellum South was all about. Hence, the young men, including Bayard Sartoris (Young Bayard) in Flags in the Dust and Bayard Sartoris in The Unvanquished, listen to the old woman's stories. Moreover, they repeat the acts and speeches of old women. When the old women talk about the history of the South and tell the story of their own lives, their narratives hold the young men spellbound.
     How is Miss Rosa Coldfield in Absalom, Absalom! characterized as a Southern lady, another mentor of a young Southern gentleman, Quentin Compson? In Absalom, Absalom! what is important is not the fact that Rosa tells Quentin her own story but its act, effect, and process which enables Quentin to journey back into his past. Moreover, Rosa's narrative makes Quentin recreate his past, and simultaneously it spreads his imagination over the reader's one. In her office, a "dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers" (AA 3), Rosa tells her own story and that of the Sutpens to Quentin.
"So maybe you will enter the literary profession as so many Southern gentlemen and gentlewomen too are doing now and maybe some day you will remember this and write about it. [......] Perhaps you will even remember kindly then the old woman who made you spend a whole afternoon sitting indoors and listening while she talked about people and events you were fortunate enough to escape yourself when you wanted to be out among young friends of your own age."
     "Yessum," Quentin said. Only she dont mean that he thought. It's because she wants it told. (AA 5)
Rosa tries to tell her own story and talk about the history of the Sutpens and the South which she has experienced and accepted. Unlike Caddy Compson of The Sound and the Fury, who is never allowed to tell her own story, Rosa is a speaking subject (Gwin Feminine 35).
     Why does Rosa tell Quentin that tragic Southern story concerning the destiny of the Sutpens? Surely it is because Quentin's grandfather was the only friend of Thomas Sutpen, and Quentin is raised up to always respect the Southern honor ( namely he embodies the Compson-ism ). The ideology of the South is inscribed on him, but now he is preparing for a journey to the North. Yet supposing that we find the meaning in Rosa's choice of Quentin, what is important is the reason why Rosa tells him her own story and why Faulkner thereby tries to tell about the South.
     In what follows I will discuss the characteristics of Quentin, Rosa, and the narrative structure of Absalom, Absalom! I will focus on the trans-generational and trans-sexual relationship between Rosa and Quentin in the novel. To explore the reason why Rosa tells the story is to examine why Quentin is selected by her and then why he comes to retell the story himself. To listen to Rosa is to Quentin, and to Quentin is to Rosa, and moreover, to their voices is to Faulkner. In addition, although in Absalom, Absalom! Quentin has been viewed as "the narrator" by many critics, strangely enough he is more like a blank screen on which Rosa projects her repressed desire. Quentin's "blankness" is linked with a process of becoming someone, in other words, a process of identification. In this way, identification is closely related to the narrative, to a kind of love which is represented in Rosa's speech and in her narrative.

     First of all, let us examine the tradition of regional respect toward a Southern lady or "a Southern belle". What does it mean to be a Southern lady? According to W. J. Cash, she is "a central symbol in the South's idea of itself" and is represented as "the goddess Diana" and "the Virgin Mary" (Cash 86). Similarly Diane Roberts states: "like a blank page, the Confederate Woman is an unfilled space, 'pure' so that the ideology of the plantation South may be inscribed on her: she is represented as being what men are not and what blacks are not - soul, not flesh" (Roberts 2). The image of a Southern lady spread throughout the region, and all the Southern women were taught to internalize the image and tried to completely identify with that image: as faithful wife, a Southern belle raised her children, obeyed her husband, read the Bible, and prayed to God (Scott 4-21, Page 38-42)1 . To maintain the slavery system and the patriarchal family structure, girls, from the earliest childhood, were trained to be a good wife and mother. Added to the status as a paragon of the Southern feminine virtues, "the image of the submissive woman was reinforced by evangelical theology" (Scott 7). In this way the image of a Southern lady functioned so as to evoke the nostalgia of the Old South and the self-anxiety of white male Southerners particularly after the devastating loss of the War.2
     As for the position of a Southern lady, The Sound and the Fury gives us an interesting example. It is obvious that the narrative structure of The Sound and the Fury overlaps with the structure of its salient mental image. Faulkner describes the original mental image as follows: "Caddy climbing the pear tree to look in the window at her grandmother's funeral while Quentin and Jason and Benjy and the negros looked up at the muddy seat of her drawers."3 In short, Caddy is located in the center, surrounded by brothers and is never seen but through the gaze of others. Caddy is never concretely presented in the way that her brothers are in the novel. Caddy is an object that is seen and narrated, in other words, an "empty center" or a "blank counter"(Bleikasten Most Splendid Failure 51-58). Consequently, as a Southern lady who "bears the burden of New Southern nostalgia"(Roberts 2), and as a white woman who is idealized and pedestalized, Caddy's voice is silenced. Moreover, to maintain the purity of their women, male white Southerners even denied their natural sexual desires4 . Furthermore, when a Southern lady is no longer sexually "pure," she is even regarded as dead.5
     However, when a Southern lady grows old and becomes de-pedestalized and even asexual, she begins to regain the desire and their voices as well. Therefore, Rosa, who used to repress her desire for telling while young, now sets out to tell it eloquently. Rosa talks as if she renews her sexual/narrative desire by means of retelling her repressed past. In consequence, white male Southerners, only when they are confronted with old women, become a receptacle of their narratives.
     Falling from the pedestal enables an old woman to tell her own story. Surely, her narrative embodies the ideology of the South, but as Quentin testifies: "Maybe you have to know anybody awful well to love them but when you have hated somebody for forty-three years you will know them awful well so maybe it's better then maybe it's fine"(AA 9), Rosa's narrative, from the beginning, concentrates on Thomas Sutpen. Rosa tells not only about the Southern history but also about her own history.
     This is why Rosa tells Quentin about how she was and still is involved in the tragedy of the Sutpens. For Quentin, the confrontation with the problems of the South is unavoidably linked with his identity as a white male Southerner. Simultaneously, to explore Quentin's identity is pertinent to the problem of why Faulkner has to write about the South.
     To explore the historicity of the South, we have to consider the relationship between history and identification. Identification is pertinent to history, and history poses a serious challenge for a politics of identification. When Quentin talks about the South, he is undoubtedly a white male Southerner. Quentin internalizes the history of the South, and he finds that the historical and the political are located within the psychological as powerful shaping forces. In short, Quentin's identity operates as a political and historical formation. Through the process of identification with the South, Quentin formulates his identity as a Southerner. Diana Fuss states that "identification is always inscribed within a certain history: identification names not only the history of the subject but the subject in history" (Fuss 165).
     Quentin's role as a narrator who tells us about the South overlaps with that of Rosa. By telling us about the South, Quentin unconsciously reconstructs his memory of and love for Caddy, just as Rosa does in regard to Thomas Sutpen. For them, narrating the South is recreating in their imaginations their lovers. But, what is more important is that, in Absalom, Absalom!, Quentin is not necessarily a narrator.
     Until Chapter 6, which begins with the narrative of Shreve McCannon, Quentin is not a "voluntary" narrator. From the narrative structure in Absalom, Absalom!, one can infer that Quentin could be represented differently from the typical narrator because Quentin's relation with Rosa is formulated on condition that Quentin is not a narrator but a listener, a blank sheet inscribed with Rosa's narrative. Faulkner views Quentin as "a tabula rasa," on which the desires and fears of others are inscribed. While a Southern lady is usually represented as a "blank page" (Roberts 2), Quentin of Absalom, Absalom! becomes a blank page.6

the mere names were interchangeable and almost myriad. His [Quentin's] childhood was full of them; his very body was an empty hall echoing with sonorous defeated names; he was not a being, an entity, he was a commonwealth. (AA 7)
Quentin's body is filled with "names," in other words, lost voices of the South. He is also represented as "a commonwealth" or "a barracks filled with stubborn backlooking ghosts" (AA 7). These voices merge and mingle as if they were multiple layers of one voice and at the same time one voice of the myriad. In Absalom, Absalom! Rosa inscribes her voice on Quentin whose body is full of myriad voices.
     Quentin is not "a blank page" from the beginning, but he makes himself blank in order to receive the history of the South. In spite of the fact that Quentin receives and assumes myriad voices, strangely enough he becomes "a blank page." The two ideas seem contradictory, but it is the coexistence of two Quentin's selves incompatible to each other that characterizes Quentin's narrative.
he would seem to listen to two separate Quentins now -- the Quentin Compson preparing for Harvard in the South, the deep South dead since 1865 and peopled with garrulous outraged baffled ghosts, listening, having to listen, to one of the ghosts which had refused to lie still even longer than most had, telling him about old ghost-times; and the Quentin Compson who was still too young to deserve yet to be a ghost but nevertheless having to be one for all that, since he was born and bred in the deep South the same as she was -- the two separate Quentin now talking to one another in the long silence of notpeople in notlanguage. (AA 4-5)
Surely Quentin becomes aware of the duality -- the coexistence of two Quentin's selves, for he finds that to listen to Rosa's voice and to reexperience his own past is to receive her/his story and the "heritage" (AA 7) as the history of the South. But, by listening to the voices of ghosts of the South through Rosa's voice, he actively tries to become a blank screen on which Rosa's story is projected.
     This phenomenon is true of the other characters of the novel. Charles Bon is practically bodiless, signifying the historically accepted femininity of the South. Rosa describes Bon as follows:
he [Bon] was absent, and he was; he returned, and he was not; three women put something into the earth and covered it, and he had never been. (AA 123)
Just as Quentin becomes a body as a receptacle full of myriad voices of the ghosts of the South, many voices and desires are projected upon Bon. As Mr.Compson points out, Bon is "a garment" which Judith Sutpen might wear and he is "a piece of furniture which would complement and complete the furnishing of Ellen's house and position" and, for Rosa, he is "the beam filled with a substanceless glitter of tinsel motes darting suddenly upon her" (AA 59). Bon, like Quentin, becomes a blank screen onto which the others project their desires.7
     To identify with someone means to include multiple processes of identification because "identification is, from the beginning, a question of relation, of self to other, subject to object, inside to outside" (Fuss 3). Identification is a psychical process and mechanism that produces self-recognition. Also, identification is not the only way in which a culture proposes materials out of which identity is made. As John T. Irwin points out, the relationship between Judith and Henry Sutpen is a form of doubling. As he thinks, "All right. I will do anything he [Bon] might ask me to do" (AA 264), Henry identifies with Bon as the lover of his sister Judith (Irwin 25-35), just as Quentin, in The Sound and the Fury, identifies with Dalton Ames as the lover of his sister Caddy. Moreover, Quentin and Shreve identify with Henry and Bon:
in the cold room where there was now not two of them but four, the two who breathed not individuals now yet something both more and less than twins, the heart and blood of youth. (AA 236)
To internalize the stories of others makes it possible to read them as one's own story. The memories of others dissolve into one's own memories, and to establish one's own identity brings about an occasion to narrate stories about others. What is important is that this identification is basically consummated by recognizing that Quentin is doomed to die and that Henry and Bon are already dead.
     Each of the characters in the text identifies with someone else, allowing the narrators to create the stories through such identification. In other words, the narrators cannot create and tell the stories without identification. Rosa tells Quentin her own story, identifies with him and becomes a part of his memory. The relationship between Rosa the speaker and Quentin the listener is close to each other, just as the one between Quentin and Shreve. In short, their positions overlap with each other in the reader's mind. The roles of the speaker (Quentin in Chapter 6 and 7, Shreve in Chapter 8 and 9) and the listener (Quentin in Chapter 8 and 9, Shreve in Chapter 6 and 7) are reversible. Through such identification, the narrators are telling stories about others and simultaneously about themselves.
     Moreover, one can infer that, when taking notice of the relationship between Henry and Bon and Judith, the process of identification crosses the gender and color lines. In short, identification may show us the possibility to accept and dissolve problems which include differences, sexual and racial. What is emphasized, above all else, in the novel is an aspect of love, a love through identification.
     The love in Faulkner's novels is very often linked with incest and homoeroticism. Mr. Compson's comment supports this argument. With Henry and Bon, Mr. Compson not only alludes to homoerotic love, but also implies the possibility of incestuous love: "this is the pure and perfect incest" (AA 77). Henry attempts to satisfy his own desire for his sister Judith by identifying himself with her lover Bon. Also, Mr. Compson suggests that Bon's marriage to Judith would have represented a vicarious consummation of the love between Bon and Henry in Absalom, Absalom!, where Judith similarly serves to legitimize homoerotic desire for Bon. Furthermore, Mr. Compson goes on to say that "between Henry and Judith there had been a relationship closer than traditional loyalty of brother and sister even; a curious relationship" (AA 62). The "curious relationship" between Henry and Judith and the homoerotic love between Henry and Bon make their relationships assume the meaning of "pure and perfect" incestuous love. But as Quentin resists, they never touch the objects of their love because only the denial of touching makes their love come into being. In addition, homoerotic and incestuous love lead to the metamorphosis of love. This kind of love frequently comes to the surface in Absalom, Absalom! Rosa describes her love for Thomas Sutpen to Quentin in order to transform her love:
because there is no love of that sort without hope; who (if it were love) loved with that sort beyond the compass of glib books: that love which gives up what it never had -- that penny's modicum which is the donor's all yet whose infinitesimal weight adds nothing to the substance of the loved -- and yet I gave it. (AA 119-120)
Rosa's sexual drive is, first of all, connected with the love of Judith. By identifying herself with Judith, Rosa attempts to experience her love of Bon. By saying "I did not love him; how could I?," Rosa seems to deny and repress her love of Bon, but when we regard Rosa's identification with Judith as Rosa's love for Bon, here we can confirm the metamorphosis of love because, to express her repressed love for Thomas Sutpen, Rosa tries to experience a love by identifying with Judith.
because I did not love him. (How could I have, when I had never seen him?) And even if I did, not as women love, as Judith loved him, or as we thought she did. If it was love (and I still say, How could it be?) (AA 118)
Rosa has never met Bon, and Judith has only few chances to see him. Rosa unnaturally persists in intervening between Judith and Bon. In short, just as Quentin reconstructs and retells his love for Caddy by narrating the story of Sutpen, Rosa creates or re-creates her love for Sutpen by identifying herself with Judith and living for the love of Bon. Rosa invites Quentin to her office, and this leads her to convey and retell the story of love. Although it has been passed from Rosa to Quentin, Quentin to Shreve, it is necessary for the love to be reconstructed because it is basically linked with the traumatic memories repressed in their minds. By retelling the story of repressed love, they "emphasizes new experiencing and new remembering of the past that unconsciously has never become the past. More and more, the alleged past must be experienced consciously as a mutual interpenetration of the past and present"(Schafer 32). To say this in terms of psychoanalysis, the analyst's retellings affect the what and how of the stories told by analysands. In doing so, the analysand (Rosa) reexperiences the past in the present relationship with the analyst (Quentin). Realizing this, Quentin listens to Rosa's voice and thinks in his mind that "she wants it (her story) told" (AA 5).
     Rosa tells Quentin her own story about love, whereby she tries to live and survive, in other words, to regain her life force. Quentin, a young man who is told about her lost love, recreates and enacts it in his own imaginative recreation. Quentin internalizes Rosa's strange love, and then he begins to retell her story and at the same time to tell his repressed love of his sister.

     Why does Faulkner use a multiple narrative structure like Chinese boxes, building up multilayered narratives through identification? In Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner shows us the psychoanalytic dialogue between Rosa the old woman and Quentin the young man. For one thing, Faulkner tries to describe the story as a "mutual interpenetration of the past and present." Surely Faulkner believes that it is time-transcending reverberation of that story that reaches and flies up the imagination of the reader. On the other hand, by listening to Rosa's narrative, Quentin finds close relationship between his personal experience in The Sound and the Fury and the history of the Sutpen. In short, for Quentin, to listen to Rosa's narrative is to reconfirm his personal history, a story of his forbidden love of his sister. Quentin's love is an impossible love that will never be consummated, one that can be realized only as an expectation endlessly postponed. But Faulkner's novels never cease to show the process of pursuing an unattainable love. In regard to the genesis and transmission of the story, Quentin says:

Maybe happen is never once but like ripples maybe on water after the pebble sinks, the ripples moving on, spreading, the pool attached by a narrow umbilical water-cord to the next pool which the first pool feeds, has fed, did feed, let this second pool contain a different temperature of water, a different molecularity of having seen, felt, remembered, reflect in a different tone the infinite unchanging sky, it doesn't matter: that pebble's watery echo whose fall it did not even see moves across its surface too at the original ripple-space, to the old ineradicable rhythm (AA 210)
In Absalom, Absalom!, one ripple/story/love begins to overlap ( and identify ) with another ripple/story/love.
     The old woman tells the young man her own story and talks about the history of the South. By listening to Rosa's narrative, Quentin wonders why Rosa has to talk about the personal and social history. To tell the story is to discover his/her identity, and to give "the voice" to the unspeakable. The image of the ripple above shows the possibility of telling the story and thereby recapitulating the lost love. Love through identification, overlapping with Faulkner's love for telling and writing the story, is a story told by an old woman to a young man, by the writer to the reader, and by the past to the present, like the ripples on water.


1. For further details of a Southern lady, see Gwin's Black and White Women of the Old South: Peculiar Sisterhood in American Literature, and Davis's Faulkner's "Negro": Art and the Southern Context.
2. See Williamson, The Crucible of Race 11-43, 399-500.
3. See Critical Essays on William Faulkner: The Compson Family, 78.
4. As for the masculine inadequacy of white male Southerners in Faulkner's novels, see Williamson, William Faulkner and Southern History, 393.
5. Citing his father's words, Quentin states as follows: "Father couldn't get her (Caddy) to say a word except crying and saying her little daughter was dead" (SF 138). For his father who is inscribed on the ideology of the South, a Southern lady must be represented as the statue on the pedestal at which men look up.
6. As for the blankness, see Bleikasten's The Most Splendid Failure, Doreen Fowler's "Little Sister Death: The Sound and the Fury and the Denied Unconscious", Minrose C. Gwin's The Feminine and Faulkner: Reading (Beyond) Sexual Difference, and John T. Matthews's The Play of Faulkner's Language.
7. This is pertinent to the Compson brother's attitude toward Caddy in The Sound and the Fury: as Benjy lacks deductive reasoning, he formulates Caddy not through language but through objects like the slipper, the cushion, and the fire. For Benjy, Caddy is regarded as "the tree or the fire." For Quentin, she is "the maidenhead." For Jason, she is "the bitch." Caddy is a mirror reflecting their desires. Moreover, it is not hard to find common ground between Bon and Christmas. In Light in August, Joe, with his indeterminable racial status, is viewed as "a tabula rasa, a white sheet of paper on which anyone can write out an identity for him and make him believe it." (Kazin 248)


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