| 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
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.1 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."2
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).4 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?
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,7 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.8
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.
* 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.
|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).
|Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha Country.
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963 .
---. William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.
Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
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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.
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Copywright (C) 1999 Shigesako Kazumi