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AMANDA R. GRADISEK Walsh University The Eyes of the Strange: Absalom, Absalom! and Domestic Modernism EARLY IN ABSALOM, ABSALOM!, MR. COMPSON MAKES A COMMENT THAT aptly characterizes the plight of the “ladies” of the novel. Telling his son Quentin that it is his duty to listen to the eerie ramblings of an old womanhebarelyknows,Compsoncompellinglyarticulatesthedilemma facing women like the novel’s Rosa Coldfield. “Years ago,” he says, “we in the South made our women into ladies. Then the War came and made the ladies into ghosts. So what else can we do, being gentlemen, but listen to them being ghosts?” (7-8). These remarks, which establish an essential class distinction between women and ladies, also assume that the crumbling of the system on which these identities rely results in the destabilization—theeradication,even—oftheidentitiesthemselves.For the ladies who once played an essential part in the symbolic order of the Old South, life derived meaning from a system that has since been destroyed. Mr. Compson’s comment reflects a common understanding of the women turned into ladies by the South’s aristocratic code: most understand them as symbols of a unique lifestyle, kept safe from the heavy burdens of feminine domestic labor performed by the majority of the women around them. The actual plight of the average white woman, even across class boundaries, was characterized by a vexed relationship to domestic labor and this oversimplified Southern ideal of femininity. With the Civil War came the destruction of the South that had created the idealized, iconic “lady,” and while most women never lived free from the burdens of domestic labor, their place in the devastation that followed the war left them redefining their relationship to domesticity, its labors, and traditional feminine roles. Mr. Compson’s striking characterization of the South’s ladies, which foregrounds the drastic change in the lives of women in nineteenthcentury Southern society and the haunting effects that linger into the early twentieth century, is the point of entry for my analysis of Absalom, Absalom!. It also establishes some terminology for an examination of 318 Amanda R. Gradisek how this change connects to domestic labor and an evolving understandingoffemininityinthenovel.Oneamongmanystoriesofthe book, the tale of the displacement of the Southern lady as icon and of the real-life women of the novel is one that appears bleak at first glance. In this context, Mr. Compson’s understanding of the women of the novel as “ghosts” shows not only a pattern of undervaluing and misunderstanding women’s domestic labor, but it also shows the significance of the loss of symbolic value these women experienced after the Civil War. Here, I will specifically consider the displacement of Judith Sutpen and Rosa Coldfield, as represented by their changing relationships to domesticity and clothing. Miss Rosa, the forgotten daughter of a storekeeper, never has female figures in her life to teach her any traditional relationship to womanhood or roles coded as feminine and must learn to participate in domesticity on her own terms. Thomas Sutpen intended for Rosa’s niece, Judith, to be the iconic Southern plantation lady, but this plan’s failure begins long before the Civil War’s destruction of this way of life. As her hands get dirty metaphorically and then literally, Judith’s destruction as a symbol of Old South values is most striking when she can no longer occupy her symbolic pedestal and must take up the domestic labor that defined the existence of her female contemporaries in the lower classes. In his portrayal of Rosa Coldfield’s and Judith Sutpen’s definitional changes, William Faulkner suggests that domestic labor can provide new possibilities for women who undertake a more modern and subjectcentered approach to labor. While tales like Gone with the Wind allow readers to envision a more romantic idyll of the South, Faulkner’s portrayalofthesewomenchallengestheiconicSouthernbelleimageand suggests compelling possibilities for women who move from a life with an ambiguous relationship to domestic labor to a determined involvement in the work of the Southern household. The vexed relationship between modernism and the domestic is central to my understanding of Faulkner’s portrayal of Southern ladies in Absalom, Absalom!. Because the modern man is often defined as the urban individual...


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pp. 317-337
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