Faulkner's Narrative Technique in Absalom, Absalom!:
A Comparison with the Narrative Structure of a Film *


     Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! reads like a detective story. In 1909 Quentin and three other characters try to clear up the cause of a tragic event that took place in the Sutpen family in 1865. 
     As the chapters go on, the Sutpens' secrets are revealed by degrees. The first secret "bigamy" is revealed in Chapter 4 when Mr. Compson suggests that Bon got married to an octoroon and even had a child by her. In Chapter 7, Quentin and Shreve bring to light the second secret "incest": Bon was Sutpen's son born in Haiti. And in Chapter 8, Quentin and Shreve disclose the last secret "miscegenation": Sutpen's first wife was of mixed blood, and so Bon, Sutpen's son, is also "partly black". 
     The Sutpens' last secret is eventually disclosed by Quentin and Shreve, and most Faulkner scholars have not questioned whether Quentin and Shreve's disclosure is true.Indeed many scholars persist in trying to prove the factuality of Bon's "black blood", even though nowhere in the novel is it actually stated as a truth or a fact that Bon is "partly black." 
     In my opinion, the discussion of Bon's racial background has not been closed up to now because the novel has effective devices to make the readers believe Quentin and Shreve's conclusion that Bon is "partly black."3 In order to answer the question why the readers are made to do so, in this paper, I would like to clarify the nature of these devices by an analysis of Faulkner's narrative technique in Chapter 8 of Absalom, Absalom!.


     In Chapter 8 there is a climax where Quentin and Shreve finally reveal the Sutpens' secret by means of a description of a conversation between Henry and Bon 46 years earlier (Absalom 285).In the description Bon tells Henry that he has Negro ancestry. However, as the careful reader realizes, the conversation has only been imagined by Quentin and Shreve. Why, then, do readers use this description as grounds to believe that Bon is "partly black", even though it is not stated in the novel to be true? 
     Some critics give us a hint to the answer to this question. The reliability of the description, for example, is mentioned by Dirk Kuyk Jr. when he observes, "no other passage in the book can attain greater reliability than this account, which confirms some important details and casts new light on others.... "(42). In the same way, Hugh M. Ruppersburg points out the description's "authoritative tone" when he says, "The episode reverberates with a more authoritative tone than the rest of the chapter...."(126). It seems therefore to be the "reliability" and "authoritative tone" of the description that make the readers believe that the conversation actually took place. 
     How, then, does this effect come about? Why does the description seem to be what really happened in the novel, even though it was in fact only imagined by two of the novel's characters? 
     When examining the narrative technique by which readers are kept unconscious of a narrator narrating the narrative, and in which the event narrated, whether fact or fiction, is reported as if it were what really happened, a look at the narrative technique in films is helpful. In the film Stage Fright (1950), Alfred Hitchcock uses an interesting trick that he calls "un flashback qui etait un mensonge" (Truffaut 188). In the opening scene of the movie, one major character looks back into the past, but at the end of the movie, this retrospective scene is revealed to be a lie. In one cinema, the audience actually got angry when they discovered that this retrospective scene had been in fact a lie. Regarding this episode James Monaco says, "They [audiences] weren't able to accept the possibility that the image would lie, although they would have been quite willing to believe that the character had lied. The image on the screen is simply invested with an immutable aura of validity. " (Monaco 173) This "validity" of film, which makes audiences consider the character's lie to be a fact, is similar to the "reliability" produced by the scene of Quentin and Shreve's conversation in Chapter 8 in which the readers are made to feel as if the events actually happened when in fact they were only created by the two characters. 
     I would now like to consider how this validity, or reliability is realized in another film, The War of the Roses (1995). This film is in what is called 'nested-boxes style'. The primary narrative6 is about the lawyer Gavin and his client, a young man. The secondary narrative is about Gavin's friends, Mr. and Mrs. Rose. As to the narrative situation, in the opening and the ending of the film the character in the primary narrative, Gavin, tells his friends' story (the secondary narrative) to his client. In film it is the camera that produces the primary narrative frame; however, the audience are unconscious of the existence of the camera, because it does not exist in the narrative world as a narrator. The audience listen to the narrative told by the lawyer, the narrator of the secondary narrative, and watch him and his client through the lens of the camera. In this way, the audience are the narratees of the lawyer's story and on the same narrative level with him. 
     When Mr. and Mrs. Rose's story (the secondary narrative) begins, the lawyer, the narrator of the secondary narrative, disappears. The audience cannot see or hear him. Accordingly, the narrative discourse is made by not the secondary narrative narrator's (the lawyer's) voice, but by the story's characters', Mr. and Mrs. Rose's, voices. The audience feel as if they are watching before their eyes the secondary narrative's characters, Mr. and Mrs. Rose, talking to each other. The audience are on the same narrative level with Mr. and Mrs. Rose, not with the lawyer. It is impossible to think the lawyer saw and heard all of the story he tells, because he cannot have spent twenty-four hours a day with Mr. and Mrs. Rose, even if they were old friends. However, the audience do not consider that the story told by the lawyer has been made-up by him. As the secondary narrative about Mr. and Mrs. Rose is going on, the audience believe it is really happening. In The War of the Roses it can be said that it is the secondary narrative character's lines directly reaching the audience by the disappearance of the secondary narrative narrator, that makes the audience regard the past events, which are in fact only being told by the lawyer, as actual events that are taking place before their eyes. How, then, does the novel Absalom, Absalom! realize its "reliability" or "authoritative tone"?


     To examine how reliable the narrative of the novel is to readers, I would like to classify the narrative situations of Chapter 8 in Absalom, Absalom!, which includes Henry and Bon's conversation on the battlefield imagined by Quentin and Shreve, into two categories and six types. One category is whether the narrator is the External narrator,which is excluded from the primary narrative told by the narrator himself, or the primary narrative character. When the External narrator tells a narrative, the readers believe that the narrative discourse is true. When a character who does not always report a truth tells a story, on the other hand, the readers do not necessarily believe that this character's narrative discourse is true. The other category is whether the narrative is a narratized discourse, or a reported discourse in the form of the characters' dialogue. The reported discourse style gives the readers a stronger impression that the reported event really happened in the novel because the degree of the narrator's intrusion is lower in reported discourse than in narratized discourse.

     Type 1-a is where the External narrator produces the primary narrative in the form of narratized discourse.

     Shreve stood beside the table, facing Quentin again though not seated now.... and they--Quentin and Shreve--thinking how after the father spoke and before what he said stopped being shock and began to make sense.... (235-6)

In the above, the External narrator tells the primary narrative by using narratized discourse from zero focalization in the first half, and from Quentin and Shreve's perspectives in the last half. In this type of narration, the readers are situated in the position where they can directly hear the External narrator telling the story and are on the same narrative level with him. The readers believe there is no lie in narrative discourse of this type. 
     Type l-b is where the External narrator produces the primary narrative in the form of reported discourse and reports the primary narrative characters' dialogue.

     "I dont know, " Quentin said. 
     " All right, " Shreve said. "Maybe I dont either.... Dont you believe that?" 
     "I dont know," Quentin said. (259)

This above reports the dialogue between Quentin and Shreve, the characters in the primary narrative. While the characters are talking, the readers believe they are directly hearing the characters' voices, almost totally unaware of the fact that it is in fact the narrator who is producing this primary narrative. The narrative discourse of type l-b is as reliable as that of type l-a, because both types are delivered by the External narrator. In type l-b, however, the readers feel the vividness of the event as if it were really happening in their presence because the presence of the narrator is weak. 
     Type 2-a is where the primary narrative character produces the secondary narrative in the form of narratized discourse.

" So it wasn't her [Judith] that told Bon. She wouldn't have, maybe for the reason that she knew he--the demon--would believe she had. " (237)

Here, Shreve, a character in the primary narrative, tells the Sutpens' story of approximately 50 years earlier (the secondary narrative) to his narratee Quentin. Because Shreve plays a role of a narrator without the External narrator's reported sentences, the presence of the External narrator becomes so weak that the readers feel as if they are hearing Shreve himself speaking to them. This type of narrative is different from type l-a in that we have the presence of a character from the primary narrative as narrator of the secondary narrative, and this results in the character's presence being stronger than that of the External narrator. For this reason, the narrative discourse of this type is less reliable than that of typel-a. 
     Type 2-b is where the character in the primary narrative produces the secondary narrative in the form of reported discourse and reports the dialogue between the characters in the secondary narrative.

"The old man didn't move and this time Henry didn't say ' You lie,' he said ' It's not true' and the old man said, 'Ask him. Ask Charles then' .... " (237)

Here again Shreve, a character in the primary narrative, delivers the secondary narrative and the presence of the External narrator is consequently very weak. Shreve also reports the voices of the other characters in correspondingly dialogic style, and as a result the readers are given a more vivid account in this type of narration than in type 2-a. The narrative discourse of type 2-b is, however, less reliable than that of type l-b because the readers do not believe that the characters' lines in 2-b are really spoken. In type 2-b, the readers are kept aware of the fact that a character in the primary narrative, Shreve, is telling the secondary narrative; for one thing, single quotation marks suggest that the secondary narrative characters' lines are reported by Shreve's words; for another, there are constant reminders to the readers that it is Shreve who is telling the secondary narrative, an example being when Shreve asked Quentin, "Listen, dont you remember how your father said it. . . ?" (237) By this type of constant reminding, type 2-b narrative discourse gives the readers the impression that they are hearing Shreve's voice as representing the dialogue between the secondary narrative characters. By means of these devices, the readers cannot completely neglect Shreve as the narrator of the secondary narrative. 
     Type 3 is the narrative structure of the italicized part at the end of Chapter 8, which includes the climax where Quentin and Shreve imagine Henry and Bon's dialogue on the battlefield 46 years earlier. It is the unique description in this dialogue which seems to give the readers the most reliable information in the novel. I would now like to make clearer the unique quality of type 3 in comparison with the four other types of narration in Absalom, Absalom! and one other type of narration in the film The War of the Roses. Type 3 narrative structure can be further classified into two sub-types (a and b), according to whether the narrative discourse has dialogic style or not. The italicized parts in the narrative discourse quoted below can be regarded as type 3-a.

". . . nevertheless she [Rosa] told you [Quentin], or at least all of a sudden you knew ---" 
     He [Shreve] ceased again. It was just as well, since he had no listener. Perhaps he was aware of it. Then suddenly he had no talker either, though possibly he was not aware of this. Because now neither of them was there. They were both in Carolina and the time was forty-six years ago, and it was not even four now but compounded still further, since now both of them were Henry Sutpen and both of them were Bon, compounded each of both yet either neither, smelling the very smoke which had blown and faded away forty-six years ago from the bivouac fires burning in a pine grove, the gaunt and ragged men sitting or lying about them, talking not about the war .... " (280)

In the non-italicized part in the above, the External narrator is setting the scene where Quentin and Shreve together imagine the story about Henry and Bon. This setting suggests that the italicized part means that the battlefield scene 46 years ago is only imagined by Quentin and Shreve. The conversation thus becomes a secondary narrative created by Quentin and Shreve. This is a similar narrative structure to that of type 2 in that the character in the primary narrative, described by the External narrator, produces the secondary narrative. However the narrative structure of type 3 has two radical differences from that of type 2. 
     The first difference is that in type 3 the readers cannot hear the voices of Quentin and Shreve although they are the narrators of the secondary narrative, (in type 2, they can hear Shreve's voice). This situation is caused by the fact that Quentin and Shreve are no longer talking to anyone. In the non-italicized part the External narrator sets up this unreal scene and explains that Quentin and Shreve, who have so far talked to each other about the Sutpens, now together imagine what happened 46 years ago without words, having 'no listener' or 'no talker'. The narrator-narratee relationship established between Shreve and Quentin up to this point is broken. At the same time, the readers are no longer the narratees of the story by Quentin and Shreve. The readers, therefore, are now aware of the narrative as coming from the External narrator. 
     The second difference between type 2 and type 3 is that in type 3, Quentin and Shreve disappear even as the focal characters who imagine Henry and Bon's story. Properly speaking, the readers must hear the External narrator telling the story from the perspectives of Quentin and Shreve. In type 3-a, however, even Quentin and Shreve's presence as the focal characters is very weak. Compare this with the last half of type l-a, which is similar to type 3-a, where their presence as the focal characters is strong. This weakness is effected in the italicized part of type 3 by there being no indicators such as "thinking" (236) or "knew" (267), which suggest the narrative discourse is being told from Quentin and Shreve's perspectives. 
     In type 3-a, as the readers become almost completely unaware of the presence of Quentin and Shreve as narrators, the secondary narrative comes to be felt as if it was the primary narrative by the External narrator. The External narrator is dominant and the information is, therefore, considered to be reliable. 
     In the italicized description of type 3 narrative structure, the narrative situation reported in dialogic style can be called type 3-b.

    ---So it's the miscegenation, not the incest, which you [Henry] cant bear. Henry doesn't answer. 
    --- . . . He [Sutpen] didn't need to tell you I [Bon] am a nigger to stop me. He could have stopped me without that, Henry. 
    ---No! Henry cries.---No! No! I will --- I'll
---He springs up; his face is working; Bon can see his teeth within the soft beard which covers his sunken cheeks, and the whites of Henry's eyes as though the eyeballs struggled in their sockets as the panting breath struggled in his lungs --- the panting which ceased, the breath held, the eyes too looking down at him where he sat on the log, the voice now not much louder than an expelled breath:
    - You said, could have stopped you. What do you mean by that? Now it is Bon who does not answer, who sits on the log looking at the face stooped above him.(285)

Type 3-b is similar to type 2-b in that the narrative discourse is made by the dialogue between characters in the secondary narrative. Type 3-b is, however, different from type 2-b in that in type 3-b the secondary narrative frame seems to have disappeared because the presence of the secondary narrative narrator is weak.9 In type 2-b, because the presence of the secondary narrative narrator is strong, the readers are not sure whether the characters' words in the secondary narrative are really spoken or not. On the other hand, the narrative discourse of type 3-b gives the readers the impression that they directly hear the real voices of the characters in the secondary narrative. 
     In The War of the Roses, two main factors realizing the validity of the images on the screen are that the voices of the secondary narrative characters seem to directly reach the audience and that the narrator of the secondary narrative seems to disappear. Unlike the film, however, the novel Absalom, Absalom! cannot completely attain this type of validity only by these two devices. The audience of the film are not conscious of the existence of the camera, which makes the primary narrative frame, because the camera is completely outside the narrative.10 This is why the audience think that they are directly seeing what is happening in the film. The novel, however, needs the narrator, who, by the act of telling, makes the primary narrative frame and produces the narrative. The novel is not born until it is told; it is, therefore, impossible to realize a narrative situation in which the narrator does not completely exist. In spite of this fact, the narrative discourse of type 3-b in Absalom, Absalom! succeeds in attaining a type of reliability and authoritative tone that makes this novel transcend the limitation of its genre. 
     Type 3-b is a narrative situation similar to type l-b in that the secondary narrative frame seems to disappear. A comparison between these two types, therefore, can make clear two notable characteristics of type 3-b. First, the External narrator's role in type 3-b is limited to the external description of the characters' behavior, facial expressions and voices, and the psychological description of Henry. Although the External narrator sometimes expresses his own opinion in type l-b narrative situation (Absalom 240), the External narrator in type 3-b almost never does so and is thoroughly impersonalized . 
     Second, in type 3-b narrative situation the present tense is used when the External narrator tells the story. This is a rare case, in general, as the past tense is usually used when narrative is told, and even in Absalom, Absalom!, this is the one and only scene in which the present tense is used most frequently. This frequent use of the present tense produces the effect of the readers feeling as if the drama of the scene were not in the past but in the present and happening in their presence simultaneously with their present reading. In this way, the External narrator in this scene does not so much play the role of a narrator in the ordinary sense; rather, the narrator is like a movie camera which projects what is happening now in the film.


     In this paper, I have attempted to make clear the reasons for the reliability of the narrative in the scene in chapter 8 where the secret of Bon's black parentage is told. First, and in reference to the secondary narrative narrator, it is important that the battlefield scene is not told by the voices of Quentin and Shreve, who should logically create the secondary narrative frame, and that the scene is not narrated from their perspectives. Finding no trace of the secondary narrative narrators, the readers think that the characters' words in the secondary narrative are being directly reported without any adaptation by Quentin and Shreve. 
     Next, as to the narrator of the primary narrative, it is important that the External narrator holds back completely from expressing his opinion, and that the External narrator by using the present tense, plays the role of a kind of a camera. Thoroughly disappearing of the External narrator in this way gives the reader the impression that the events being narrated are not being reported as in a story but are actually happening as they are being told. 
     In Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner succeeds in making the readers feel as if the dialogue between Henry and Bon is a fact in the novel by creating two remarkable kinds of narrators. One is Quentin and Shreve, the characters in the primary narrative, who can easily disappear from the narrative discourse even though they are also the narrators (in the logical sense) of the secondary narrative. The other is the External narrator who not so much tells the story in the past in his own words, as simultaneously shows what is happening now. It is mainly by these remarkable narrative devices that Faulkner succeeds in making the readers believe Bon's black parentage to be a fact, even though there is no actual evidence in the novel to prove this 'fact.'

* This is a revised version of a paper read at the First General Meeting of the William Faulkner Society of Japan held at Hiroshima University on October 19, 1998. 
I am grateful to Ms. Anne McDonald, one of the author's colleagues and also a staff of Caledon (Culture and Language Education Center in U.K.) for giving me helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. 


1. In the discussion of how Quentin learns of Bon's "blood" it is presupposed that Bon is Sutpen's part black son. Brooks (1963) 441; Brooks (1990) 325; Parker 324-5. 
2. Noel Polk first disclosed that it is doubtful whether Bon is really Sutpen's part black son (Polk 138-9). Arguing against Polk, Daniel J. Singal searches for grounds to believe that Quentin and Shreve's conclusion is right (201-2). 
3. The degree of the narrators' reliability is also important subject to give us a key to clearing up the question I ask here, but this is not my concern in this paper. As I had already observed in another paper, Absalom, Absalom! also has the device to make the reader sympathize more with Quentin than with Rosa and Mr. Compson. Shigesako 68. 
4. William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (New York: Vintage Books, 1990). Subsequent page references in this paper will be to this edition. 
5. Cleanth Brooks (1990) also says that the technique used in this scene may be called "cinematic" (317). 
6. If the narrative within the narrative is called "the secondary narrative", the narrative which includes "the secondary narrative" and is not included by any can be called "the primary narrative". The primary narrative in The War of the Roses is the one describing Gavin and his client. In Absalom, Absalom! it is the one describing Quentin and Shreve. 
7. In this paper I use the words "the External narrator" as the narrator who produces the primary narrative frame and is not included as a character in the narrative told by himself. (Shigesako 74). The use of this term in this paper is different from that of narratology. See Genette and Prince. 
8. It is for this reason that Kuyk (44) and Singal (206) believe the narrative discourse of type 3 to be true. 
9. As to this scene, Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan also points out, "It is as if Shreve and Henry are at the same narrative level.... " (49). 
10. Film does not always need a narrator because it shows the image as shot by a camera. According to Claude-Edmonde Magny, it is under the influence of the novel that the narrator's point of view matters in the film. (28).


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---. William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990. 
Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! New York: Vintage Books, 1990. 
Genette, Gérard. "Discours du recit, essai de methode" in Figures III. Trans. Hanawa Hikaru and Izumi Ryouichi. Tokyo: Suiseisha, 1985.
Kuyk, Dirk, Jr. Sutpen's Design: Interpreting Faulkner's "Absalom, Absalom!" Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990. 
Magny, Claude-Edmonde. L'Age du Roman Américain. Trans. Nakamura Shinichirou and Miwa Hidehiko. Tokyo: Kodansha,1958.
Monaco, James. How to Read a Film: the Art, Technology, Language, History, and Theory of Film and Media. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981. 
Parker, Hershel. "What Quentin Saw 'Out There,'" Mississippi Quarterly 27, 1974: 323-26.
Polk, Noel. Children of the Dark House: Text and Context in Faulkner. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. 
Prince, Gerald. A Dictionary of Narratology. Trans. Endou Kenichi. Tokyo: Shohakusha, 1997.
Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. A Glance beyond Doubt: Narration, Representation, Subjectivity. Columbia: Ohio State University Press, 1996. 
Ruppersburg, Hugh M. Voice and Eye in Faulkner's Fiction. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1983. 
Singal, Daniel J. William Faulkner: The Making of a Modernist. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997. 
Truffaut, François. Le cinéma selon Alfred Hitchcock. Robert Laffont, 1966. 
Shigesako, Kazumi, "Faulkner's Narrative Technique in Absalom, Absalom! (III)," Bulletin of Hijiyama University 4, 1998: 65-78.

Copywright (C) 1999  Shigesako Kazumi