In most of Faulkner’s earlier fiction, however, the question of man’s relation to the past functioned as a minor theme. In Sartoris (1929) this question pervaded the entire novel. In Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner devotes his mature powers to a full spectrum examination of man’s reliance on the past and of the extent to which man is responsible for the past. In this novel, Faulkner also attempts to connect or show the relationship between man’s present actions and those of the past. In previous novels, Faulkner’s characters have struggled to achieve a significant and meaningful relationship with the past. In some instances, as with young Bayard Sartoris, too much reliance upon the past prevents the character from securing a firm grasp on the present and leads ultimately to disaster. Other characters reject the past too completely and, like Jason Compson in The Sound and the Fury, become the product of a materialistic age which has neither meaning nor virtues.
The past, for Faulkner, cannot be completely rejected, but neither should it be the dominant influence on one’s present life. Sartoris expresses this view perhaps with more forthrightness than does Absalom, Absalom!: “Yet the man who professes to care nothing about his forebears is only a little less vain than the man who bases all his actions on blood precedent.” In looking back into the past, Absalom, Absalom! investigates man’s efforts to reconstruct the causes which influence man’s present actions and tries to determine whether or not these causes stem from the old virtues or from opposite motives.
Absalom, Absalom! is often considered Faulkner’s greatest achievement. It is also his greatest condemnation of the morals, mores, and ethics of his own southern culture. In this story of incest, fratricide, lust, ambition, and slavery, Faulkner presents a cumulative view of man being defeated by passions and ambitions beyond the scope of humanitarian ethics. Yet, even in condemning the values of the southern culture, Faulkner is able to present his material with excellent control and esthetic distance.
Faulkner’s strong condemnation of the values of the South emanates from the actual story which he has Quentin tell in response to a Northerner’s question: “What is the South like?” Quentin then tells the story of the Sutpen family whose history must be seen as analogous to the history of the South. The father, Thomas Sutpen, stands for all the great and noble qualities found in the South and at the same time represents the failure of the South. Sutpen’s basic belief that he could build a system of morals in the same manner as he would build anything else caused him and the South to overlook certain humanitarian values, since the wealth of both Sutpen and the Old South was built upon the enslavement of another race. Consequently, Thomas Sutpen’s dedication to establishing his own great heritage (or design) is analogous to the rise and fall of the antebellum South, which established its design without considering the humanitarian implications of slavery.
Perhaps Faulkner’s strongest condemnation of the values of the South comes from the son’s (Henry Sutpen’s) willingly sanctioning incest but resorting to fratricide to prevent miscegenation. Various other aspects of the novel also are critiques of the Southern mode of living which Faulkner, like Quentin at the end of this novel, both loved and hated.
Thus, in Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner has given us a novel which denies the moral basis upon which the old South was built, and a novel which inquires into the amount of responsibility the modern man should feel for the sins and evils of the past. Those who, like Sutpen, reject the past completely are destroyed; those, like Miss Rosa, who live only in the past become embittered and hateful; those like Mr. Compson who see the past only as a commentary of human fallibility become cynical and sardonic; and those like Quentin, who see in the events of the past a reflection of their own personal lives and desires, become suicides. Ultimately, Faulkner does not offer a definite answer to man’s proper relationship with the past, but instead, he offers a thorough and devastating examination of various negative responses to the question.