To Miss Rosa, Sutpen was ultimately a pure demon. To Mr. Compson, Sutpen was a victim of a hostile universe and proof that man cannot control his own destiny. But to Quentin, he represented many of the events and many of the glories of the past combined with many of the faults which caused the downfall of the South. Consequently, a basic knowledge of his past is important to Quentin so that he can evaluate this man’s importance to the entire history of the South.
From Quentin’s perspective, Sutpen is the epitome of a man who was able to achieve great feats by sheer determination. Here, then, was a man who rose from being the son of a poor and ignorant farmer to become a man of wealth, influence, and power. Sutpen possessed all those basic strengths of character which enable a man to perform feats of power and grandeur. Quentin’s dilemma now is, how could such a man fail to achieve his desired goals? Sutpen’s failure will be correlated with the failure of the South to retain the greatness it once had.
Quentin’s dilemma is the conflict between his admiration of a man who possessed so many of the heroic qualities which enable one to succeed against overwhelming odds and his despair over how a man who possesses these qualities could become utterly devoid of the more important virtues of charity, sympathy and love. Ultimately, Quentin discovers that Sutpen’s error was the same as that of the entire South which “erected its economic edifice not on the rock of stern morality but on the shifting sands of opportunism and moral brigandage.” (New York: Random House, 1951, p. 260.)
Both Sutpen and the South created a design or society which did not take into considerations the ethical and moral questions concerning the enslavement of another race. Both then are guilty of a type of “innocence” in believing that certain obligations could be set aside in order to create a magnificent design or social structure. Sutpen, moreover, was brought up as a type of primitive who could not see the necessity of fencing off land when so much land was available. From this primitive belief, he moves through one episode after another which reveals his degree of innocence.
This innocence is shown in several central episodes. First, as a young boy, Sutpen is confused and bewildered by his first encounter with a caste system. That some people are better than others is a colossal shock to him. Only through innocence could he have escaped encountering such a basic fact in life. Second, his conception of his design is innocent since he merely conceived the design and never considered any of the moral or ethical implications in it.
When the design fails, he is still not concerned about whether or not the design was good or bad, but only about what mistakes he had made. His innocence will not allow him to see that the mistake was in his failure to consider the ethical and moral implications in the design proper. For example, for Sutpen to set his first wife aside is proper, in his view, since he gave her all the money he had. His innocence does not allow him to see the subtleties of any of his actions. Furthermore this chapter also shows how he kept a civilized architect in captivity for about two years, never thinking that he had done anything wrong in forcing the architect to remain because he intends to remunerate him. Only his innocence allows him to think that any human behavior can be justified by proper sums of money.
In handling of the narration of this chapter, Faulkner again uses a circuitous approach. In presenting Sutpen’s death, he forces the reader to approach the final revelation through a rather oblique manner before we finally know that it was a girl and not a boy that Milly gave birth to. This narrative technique also brings the reader more into the story. For example, in this chapter, Shreve, who knows no more about the Sutpen story than does the reader, begins to become one of the narrators and interrupts Quentin frequently by insisting that he (Shreve) be allowed to “play” or tell part of the story.
For the reader interested in the way Faulkner uses and re-works earlier material to become part of a larger work, a comparison could be made between the short story entitled “Wash” (found in Collected Short Stories of William Faulkner, Random House, pp. 535-550), and the manner in which Faulkner integrates this story into the novel.