Rosa's Voice in Absalom, Absalom! :Text beyond Gender



When Faulkner was asked "Who is the central character of Absalom, Absalom!?" he answered, "The central character is Sutpen, yes.  The story of a man who wanted a son and got too many, got so many that they destroyed him.  It's identically the story of Quentin Compson's hatred of the bad qualities in the country he loves" (FU 71).  From the standpoint that The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! are the most important novels in the Yoknapatawpha Saga in which Faulkner wanted to "tell about the South. What's it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there" (AA 142), it is certain that Quentin is a central character who assumes a role in reconstructing Sutpen's story and recognizes what the South is.  It is also true that Sutpen, who represents power, is situated at the center of the plot. However, the image of Sutpen, who is told about indirectly through multiple narrators and "seen as the mirage of presence in speech" (Matthews 130), fades gradually as time passes after we've finished reading the novel.  On the other hand, Rosa Coldfield's voices, which seem as if they came from the depth of the underground, never stop haunting and spellbinding the readers' minds.  Considering that Rosa is a marginal character in the plot, why does she keep giving such a strong impression to readers?  I would like to consider the significance of Rosa's voice.


   Generally speaking, female characters in Faulkner's novels have either creative or destructive power.  The former characters are described as the incarnation of maternity or fertility and have naiveté, innocence, beauty of health, and gentleness of Mother of Earth.  The latter characters, which is numerous in Faulkner's novels, shows the negative aspects.  Faulkner is sometimes called a misogynist, since he often wrote about the destructiveness of women.  These women lack autonomy and talk little in their own voices.  They are often described from a man's point of view and made a "blank screen" (Wittenberg 242), the object of men's projections.  However, only Rosa is able to speak eloquently in her own voice.

   This novel has a very complicated structure, and Rosa never fails to appear at the crucial point of its structure.  Quentin himself had no direct connection with Sutpen except for the fact that his grandfather was Sutpen's acquaintance.  Rosa is the only living witness of Sutpen's story.  It was when Quentin actually met the ghost-like Henry Sutpen hiding in the devastated Sutpen Hundred that he realized the past of Sutpen's story as the real.  It was Rosa that led Quentin to meet Henry.  This story begins with Rosa's telling about Sutpen to Quentin; and Rosa's telling in the fifth chapter is put at the middle of the story; and in the final chapter, a letter of Quentin's father telling of Rosa's death and of the epilogue of the story was put on the table in Quentin's room at Harvard.  It was Rosa who involuntarily helped to burn down Sutpen Hundred and draw a curtain to the whole story.  In addition, Rosa's fifth chapter is mostly written in italics and its visual images give appalling effects. 

  The fifth chapter appears to be narrated by only Rosa herself, but there have been a lot of discussions concerning who really narrates or whether multiple voices exist.1 The reason is because metaphors are affluent and the whole chapter is narrated in incandescent, poetic words.2John T. Matthews argues that there have been many critics who have dismissed her telling as "varieties of irrelevance" (Matthew 122). 3 Minrose C. Gwin comments, " Absalom, Absalom! thus becomes a shifting, fluid mass of madness, a hysterical narrative . . . "(Gwin 83).  It may be true that Rosa was unable to speak out about what she really wanted to say.  I would take the stand that her desire is not actually expressed in voices but repressed in the depth of her mind.  While recollecting her past, she fell into half unconsciousness, or the "preconscious" according to Freudian term, and her inner voice, another subject of her own, was speaking in a style of an interior monologue. The unconscious of Rosa, which is "the dreamer clinging yet to the dream" (AA 113), looks like a "dream."  In the fifth chapter the word "dream" appears 24 times.  According to Freud, what is repressed in the unconscious sometimes appears in "dream."  Drifting between conscious and unconscious while talking to Quentin, Rosa's subject became objectified and began to speak to another subject in the depth of her mind.  Consequently her telling became an "unspeakable monologue" (Parker 63).  In this chapter there are two Rosas: the one actually talking to Quentin and the other speaking unconsciously.  In the latter voice, she calls herself "Rosa Coldfield or Rosie Coldfield" and the subject of her own in her talking varies from "I" to "you" or to "she."  Thus her ego splits into both narrator and listener in her "interior monologue." 4

   Benjy in The Sound and the Fury is mentally retarded and cannot speak but can only feel.  Addie in As I Lay Dying is already dead.  Faulkner marvelously succeeds in putting their voices into letter.  In Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner also succeeds in putting unspoken words, "pathos", into letter.  Maruyama Keizaburo, a psychologist, describes "pathos" as "another language waving violently in the depth of mind" (Maruyama 37).  Faulkner begins the story with the description of "the dim coffin-smelling gloom sweet and oversweet with the twice-bloomed wisteria against the outer wall by the savage quiet September" (AA 4) and then this actual wisteria transforms into metaphor in Rosa's mind by "sense, sight, smell" (AA 115), which belong to realm of "pathos."  Here appears the wisteria in the past, Rosa's psychological landscape.  The first chapter can be taken as a dialogue between Rosa and Quentin, but the fifth chapter, particularly Rosa's talking, which comes just after the first chapter in time sequence, is written in italics. In the last part, where Rosa seems to have woken up from the dream, the italics disappear.  This may be Faulkner's rhetoric to distinguish between conscious and unconscious.  In the final scene, the description, "He [Quentin] was not even listening to her;" (AA 40) means that Quentin also got involved in Rosa's unconscious speech and was mesmerized between conscious and unconscious. 


   Sutpen is sometimes compared to Macbeth in that he ruins himself for his ambition. Both were as "a walking shadow"(AA 139, Macbeth 5.5.24).  After returning home from the war Sutpen tried to reconstruct The Sutpen Dynasty and he needed Rosa only to get a son.  If the prosaic lines where Rosa became enraged to hear of Sutpen's real purpose of marriage are changed into the form of poetry, then it is clear that there is an echo of Macbeth.  

And then one afternoon—oh there was a fate in it:
afternoon and afternoon and afternoon: do you see?
the death of hope and love, the death of pride and principle,
and then the death of everything
save the old outraged and aghastunbelieving
which has lasted for forty- three years–—(AA136)

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creep in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterday have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.         (Macbeth 5.5.17-23)

The repetition of "afternoon" is a parody of "to-morrow."  Why is "afternoon"  repeated here?  Because it all happened in the middle of the afternoon: that Bon was murdered; that Sutpen returned home from the war; that Sutpen made a proposal of marriage to Rosa; and that Rosa talked to Quentin in "a dim hot airless room"(AA 3).  In Absalom, Absalom! the contrast between light and darkness is effectively heightened and produces a Gothic atmosphere.  The crazy heat and the dazzling brightness of the sun in the South described as "the savage quiet September sun"(AA 4) paradoxically emphasizes the image of darkness in the novel as the original title of this novel, "The Dark House", suggests.  The following speech in Macbeth suggests the inversion between light and darkness.

By the clock 'tis day,
And yet dark night strangles the traveling lamp;
Is't night's predominance or the day's shame
That darkness does the face of earth entomb
When living light should kiss it ?       (Macbeth 2.4.6-9)

In the same way Sutpen's dark ambition was contrasted to the brightness of the afternoon.  There are a lot of resembling expressions between the two works; "She should have died hereafter"(Macbeth 5.5.17), " The way to dusty death"(Macbeth 5.5.23) vis a vis "there was a fate in it", "the death of hope and love, the death of pride and principle and then the death of everything"(AA 136).  Rosa found in Sutpen "the light-blind bat-like image"(AA139) and Macbeth was described as "the instrument of darkness. . . . "(Macbeth 1.3.124)  There are also quite a lot of common vocabularies between the two works; "madness, villain, hell, bloody, furious, despair, accursed, grief, shadow, illusion, insane, conflict, kill, doom, fate."  All of these words are full of  gothic implications.  While Macbeth hesitated to realize his ambition, Lady Macbeth was keen to do anything to fulfill the ambition.  Macbeth fell into being the tool of Lady Macbeth and hurried himself to ruin.  For Rosa, Sutpen was once the object of terror as "ogre"(AA 135) but after he returned from the war without power, he was "not ogre; villain true enough, but a mortal fallible one less to invoke fear than pity"(AA 135).  When Rosa was proposed to, she claimed "I was the sun"(AA 135).  She "might be the sun" for the "furious mad old man"(AA 136) and decided to "give airy space and scope for your[Sutpen's] delirium"(AA 35-36).  Macbeth said "I 'gin to be a-weary of the sun,"(Macbeth 5.5.48) when he found the Birnam Wood was moving and his ruin was approaching just as the witches had prophesied.  In accordance with his speech, Rosa, who was once the "forgotten root"(AA 116) and a "blind subterranean fish"(AA 116), put herself in the highest position, the "sun."  However, when Rosa found Sutpen's real intention, she instantly rejected him and crushed his ambition to revive.  As a result, Sutpen unwillingly revealed the self-contradiction of his own ambition: though he seemed to control and dominate women, he could not realize his ambition unless he depended on women.  He should have known that women, who were supposed to exist outside of men, had been inside in his ambition latently, as if already in his unconscious.  In this point the positions of Sutpen and Rosa became inverted, and it was Rosa herself who controlled Sutpen's fate, as the existence of Lady Macbeth was fatal to Macbeth. 

   In the beginning of the play Macbeth was made to wake to his ambition to throne by the witches who spoke the ambiguous words "Fair is foul, and foul is fair" (Macbeth 1.1.11).  The three witches were androgynous, as suggested by Macbeth's speech "You should be women; and yet you beards forbid me to interpret that you are so" (Macbeth 1.3.45-46).  They lived outside the order of patriarchy.  Terry Eagleton comments:

Their words and bodies mock vigorous boundaries and make sports of fixed positions. . . . Foulness – a political order which thrives on bloodshed – believes itself fair, whereas the witches do not so much invert this oppositions as deconstruct it.                                                  (Eagleton 3) 

"The physical fluidity of the three sisters becomes inscribed in Macbeth's own restless desire" (Eagleton 2), and as a result Macbeth became "a walking shadow, a poor player" (Macbeth 5.5.24).

Judith, Rosa and Clytie were leading "the busy eventless lives of three nuns in a barren and poverty-stricken convent" (AA 124), "not as two white women and a negress, not as three negroes or three whites, not even as three women, but merely as three creatures . . . "(AA 125).  The image of these three women is paraleled with the three witches who are watching the doom of Macbeth, leading their own community.  In the same way Rosa, who said " . . . the child [Rosa] who watching him was not a child but one of that triumvirate mother-woman which we three, Judith Clytie and I, made, which fed and clothed and warmed the static shell and so gave vent and scope to the fierce vain illusion . . . "(AA 131), was trying to shield and guard "the antic fury of an insane child" of Sutpen. (AA 131)

In addition, the split between logos and pathos is observed in both works.  Both Macbeth, who became "a blind automaton of battle" (Eagleton 7), and Lady Macbeth, who repeated the gesture of washing off the blood from her hand, remind us that Rosa's body "still advanced, ran on; but I, myself that deep existence which we led, to which the movement of limbs is but a clumsy and belated accompaniment like so many unnecessary instruments played crudely and amateurishly out of time to the tune itself . . . "(AA 109).  Rosa's speech," . . . the part as the faulty though eager amateur might steal wingward in some interim of the visible scene to hear the prompter's momentary voice. "(AA 118) and the speech in Macbeth," . . . a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more."(5.5.24-26) correspond with each other.  Macbeth was killed by Macduff who was "from his mother's womb untimely ripped" (Macbeth 5.6.55-56) and Rosa also laments that she herself could not go out of the "lightless womb" "because of some caesarean lack"(AA 116).  From these points stated above, the plot of Macbeth works as a subtext in Rosa's speaking. The vocabulary, rhythm of prose, and imagery are internalized in Faulkner, both consciously and unconsciously, and consequently the two works are related as "intertextual."


Concerning Rosa's eloquent speaking, her use of strong words and the wide range of her vocabulary, which seem to go beyond the difference of gender, Andrea Dimino comments on, "the transgression of gender boundaries. This transgression is significantly related to the chapter's other key themes: creativity and autonomy"(Dimino 189).  Her narration made the text transgress gender, and the innate masculinity underlying her femininity erupted like magma.  Releasing what was long repressed in the depths of her mind as an "interior monologue," she experienced catharsis.  What is notable is that Faulkner expressed the masculine coexisting with the feminine in her mind through talking and words, not appearance or looks.  Another example of female character who seems to transgress the gender boundary is Drusilla in The Unvanquished.  While Faulkner describes her masculinity through her appearance and acts, he presents Rosa's masculinity through words.  Quentin could never imagine that Rosa, who looked like "the ghost" (AA 4) "in the eternal black"(AA 3) or the witches in the fog in Macbeth, had such a rich world where words were springing so abundantly.  Faulkner invites us into her interior world as if with an endoscope.  Her dead-like appearance helps to emphasize the intensity of her inner pathos. 


 The strong relationship between Macbeth and The sound and the Fury, as the title shows, has often been discussed, but it is certain that the relationship between Macbeth and Absalom, Absalom! is even stronger, though not externally.  André Bleikasten states, "Psychoanalysis relates the writing process to dreamwork and assumes fantasy structures to lie beneath all literary texts" (220).  It is difficult to conclude how consciously Faulkner constructed the world of Macbeth in Rosa's inner world.  It may be said that Faulkner sought to shape the character of Sutpen like Macbeth intentionally, considering Faulkner's commitment to Macbeth.5  In the play of Macbeth the existence of witches and Lady Macbeth was crucial.  Rosa might have taken the role of the witches or Lady Macbeth, but Faulkner realized that it was impossible for Rosa to assume that role in actual Southern society.  Therefore, Faulkner constructed the world of Macbeth in the depth of Rosa's mind and put her repressed desire into words.  In the fifth chapter, the voices of conscious and unconscious Rosa and the voices of Lady Macbeth and the witches existing in the conscious and unconscious of Faulkner himself are reverberating.  Or is Faulkner's writing of this novel done unconsciously as if in a dream? 6

  Rosa's sharp tone of voice makes readers forget about gender differences.  The power of her voice breaks up the binary system of gender in the South.  As Quentin's father laments "Years ago we in the South made our women into ladies.  Then the War came and made the ladies into ghosts" (AA 7), the Southern women were made "ghosts" and had no identity and no words of their own.  Rosa spoke for them.   Faulkner had modeled Rosa with Lady Macbeth and the witches, and as a result the stereotyped female figure of the South was marvelously inverted. 

  Faulkner foregrounds such a woman as Rosa and invites readers to construct a new female image by listening to the voices of the repressed ego. Deborah Clarke comments," . . . the voice — and the silence — of the women denies the grounds of narrative authority on which novels are based"(63).  Rosa's voice made the story of Sutpen, which embodied the paternal authority, retreat as a story of a "walking shadow" or "poor player."  Here is an inversion of "Fair is foul, and foul is fair."  Rosa's speaking makes readers foresee the breaking up of Southern society, not only from the outside but the inside as well.



1.      For example: "Chapter 5 is not Rosa's literal speech, nor is it the narrator's paraphrase or recounting, not is it Quentin's remembered translation; it is more precisely some collaboration of all three"(John T. Matthews 121). "This new voice—an expansion and blurring of Miss Rosa's identity—could be called 'Miss Rosa' in quotation marks . . . "(Andrea Dimino 184).  Stephen M. Ross discusses an excess, a plenitude of voice in Rosa's narrating, using Mikhail Bakhtin's dialogism. (Ross 73-86)

2.      Hortense J. Spillers writes, "Rosa Coldfield's long italicized passages in Absalom, Absalom! might be combed for Shakespearean allusions, as well as an archaic vocabulary that telescopes and traverses latter-day Romantics"(Spillers 91).

3.      Matthew presents some examples.( Matthews 122)

"Olga Vickery, for example, in The Novels of William Faulkner (Baton Rouge, 1959) argues that Rosa presents the most 'distorted' account, a 'rank melodrama' that constructs a world wholly divorced from 'reality' "(p. 87-88).

"Rosa's role is important to Michael Millgate (The Achievement of William Faulkner [New York, 1963]) only as it prepares for Quentin's major responsibility in recreating the past"(p. 153-54).

"Cleanth Brooks (William Faulkner [New Haven, 1978]) also subordinates Rosa by concentrating on Sutpen's mythic career."

4.      Keizaburo Maruyama argues that outer conscious is awakening and consciousness of the depth is a language of dream, that is inner language with which plural subjects are speaking. (Life and Superabundance 235)

5.      Timothy K. Conley comments how Faulkner was influenced by Shakespeare and states "like many southern writers before him, Faulkner believed that Shakespeare was his yardstick, his casebook, and his competition"(85).

6.      When Faulkner asked about the title of The Sound and the Fury, he answered, "The familiar words of the title had come one day 'out of my unconscious'"(Blotner 220).



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Clarke, Deborah. "Familiar and Fantastic: Women in Absalom, Absalom!" The Faulkner Journal 2.1 (Fall 1986): 62-72.

Conley, K. Timothy. "Faulkner's Shakespeare, Shakespeare's Faulkner." Shakespeare and Southern Writers: A Study in Influence. Ed. Philip C. Kolin. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1985. 83-124.

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Copyright (c)2006 YOSHIMURA Ikuko

Yoshimura Ikuko is part-time lecturer at Kanseigakuin University. Her publications include an essay,"Joe ChristmasAbjection in Light in August." Kobe Studies in English. No.14, 2000. 67-79.