restricted access Absalom, Absalom!: Telling Scratches
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Absalom, Absalom!:
Telling Scratches

And so maybe if you could go to someone, the stranger the better, and give them something—a scrap of paper—something, anything, it not to mean anything in itself and them not even to read it or keep it, not even bother to throw it away or destroy it, at least it would be something just because it would have happened, to be remembered even if only from passing from one hand to another, one mind to another, and it would be at least a scratch. . . .

(Absalom, Absalom! 127)

Many critics have noted that William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! has something to say about its own narration.1 Indeed, this novel begs the critic to explore questions of narrative technique, but not in isolation. The narrative experimentation in the novel (the insistence, the undermining, [End Page 431] and the self-reflection of the telling) does not exist apart from the tale; it depends on it as it creates it. In Absalom, Absalom! the story and the telling eat each other's tails—but in some miraculous way, out of this mutual devouring that ought to produce nothing, rise shades, the delineation of the unspoken, and a silence that tells.

As I add my critical voice to the many that have gone before, I must ask: What is there about this novel that continually commands a reading while resisting the finality of "having been read"? Do we assume that a story that requires so much active sense-making from its "readers" (both in and outside the novel) must ultimately make sense? Do we expect to emerge with a sense (not only of what the story is about but also of what we ourselves are about in reading it)?2

I would suggest that, as critics, we do not write about Absalom, Absalom! merely because, like Miss Rosa, "we want it told." We are more deeply implicated than that: we want in on the telling. Thus, we persist in scratching out our own inconclusive versions, refusing to let the story end.

In the first part of this essay, I examine a "narratologically difficult" passage of the novel in an attempt to describe some of the elements that contribute to its ambiguity and power. In the second part, I consider technical subtleties as points of access through which we can begin to ask theoretical questions concerning what can be represented by the novel, what motivates the telling, and what can be passed "from one hand to another, one mind to another. . . ."

Finally, in the third part, I address the question of what these insights into the narrative may mean for criticism—for our own "telling scratches."


Quentin and Shreve face each other across a lamplit table in a cold dormitory room in Cambridge, and Quentin begins to narrate, placing before his listener another part of the tale: "He told Grandfather about it." Thus Chapter Seven of Absalom, Absalom! opens with Quentin's recitation of what "Grandfather said" that Thomas Sutpen told him, a narration that Shreve interrupts only occasionally to ask a question and then to urge Quentin to "go on."

One of Shreve's interruptions is particularly significant because it seeks to establish the origins of the revelations contained in Quentin's tale; in so doing it attempts to put into logical sequence not the events themselves but the pieces of the story, the understanding and telling of the events. When Shreve asks when and how Mr. Compson came to know that Charles [End Page 432] Bon was Sutpen's son, Quentin says that he, Quentin, told him:

"And Father said—"

"Your father," Shreve said. "He seems to have got an awful lot of delayed information awful quick, after having waited forty-five years. If he knew all this, what was his reason for telling you that the trouble between Henry and Bon was the octoroon woman?"

"He didn't know it then. Grandfather didn't tell him all of it either, 'ike Sutpen never told Grandfather quite all of it."

"Then who did tell him?"

"I did." Quentin did not move, did not look up while Shreve watched him. "The day after...