- "The Faithful Gravedigger":The Role of "Innocent" Wash Jones and the Invisible "White Trash" in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!
"They mought have killed us but they aint whupped us yit air they?"—Wash Jones in Absalom, Absalom!
Although his appearance in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! spans, strictly speaking, no more than a dozen pages, Wash Jones is a pivotal character whose actions have far-reaching impact upon the outcome of the Sutpen story and whose plight, along with that of his granddaughter, Milly, extends beyond an individual tragedy to reveal the delusions and helplessness of the "poor white trash" in the Civil War South.
After Rosa Coldfield has rebuked his crude proposition, it is to the Jones family, specifically to Milly, that Thomas Sutpen turns in a last desperate attempt to accomplish his "design" for a dynasty with a male heir. Sutpen's dynastic failure becomes cruelly definitive and attains horrific dimensions when Wash murders Sutpen and then proceeds, in a rampage borne of inconsolable humiliation and despair, to cut the throats of both his granddaughter and her out-of-wedlock child (by Sutpen) immediately after the infant's birth. Rosa and Jason Compson relate the incident at different times, yet the person whose veracity we are actually called upon to trust is Wash, for he is putatively (in Shreve McCannon's speculative [End Page 23] reconstruction) the only first-hand witness to the central event of the novel: Henry Sutpen shooting Charles Bon. Wash reports it to Aunt Rosa: "'Air you Rosie Coldfield? Then you better come out yon. Henry has shot that durn French feller. Kilt him dead as a beef'" (133).
Thus, Wash Jones assumes a significance far greater than his mere physical presence in the novel would suggest. He cuts down Sutpen, thereby smashing the Colonel's design and quest for immortality, and is so disillusioned that he even ends his own ancestral line in the annihilation. Beyond the Coldfields, the Compsons, and the members of other more respected families, Wash is the ultimate authority for the circumstances of Charles Bon's death. Therefore, merely in the novel's basic narrative facts, Wash plays a role of crucial importance. Accordingly, this essay illumines Faulkner's art by examining Jones not simply as a reporter of events but as an analogue and foil to Sutpen, both of them tragic Innocents of approximately the same age and sharing the same poor white southern tradition.
Even though Sutpen exemplifies the southern nouveau riche aristocrat and Jones the white "riffraff"—the latter relegated to a similar social stratum to southern blacks and ridiculed by the slaves themselves—the circumstances of Sutpen's and Wash's origins, lives, and deaths contain many parallels. Their fates, as Wash laments inarticulately, shortly before his death, do seem inextricably bound together. Faulkner's repeated, vividly descriptive images of young Sutpen and old Wash, and later of Ellen Coldfield and Milly Jones, invite comparison because he draws them in precisely similar language. Wash resembles the young Thomas Sutpen, who never discovers his innocence, but the parallel ceases with Sutpen's unpardonable degradation of Milly. When Sutpen jokes cruelly that Milly would have been more valuable to him if she had been a mare, Wash does not sulk and vengefully conclude that he must form a materialistic design, as did young Sutpen after being confronted by the "monkey nigger" butler (189). Jones's reaction, the response of a poor white rather than a planter, is blurred, uncomprehending, impotent moral outrage. Wash, an enraged old man with a scythe, lashes out and cuts down Sutpen. The scene is richly symbolic: Time ultimately "kilt" the Sutpen design, but it cannot teach a doubting Thomas his real mistake.
Who is Wash Jones? According to Quentin's and Mr. Compson's imaginative recon struction of events, Wash Jones is "a gangling malaria-ridden white man" (183). He is more than sixty years old by the time of his death in 1869 and has lived with his granddaughter for fourteen years [End Page 24] as a squatter and handyman in Sutpen's "abandoned and rotting fishing camp in the river bottom" (125). The short story "Wash," first...