Narrating the Indeterminate: Shreve McCannon in Absalom, Absalom!

  • Jo Alyson Parker


Like Mrs. Dalloway, William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! deals with a minimal number of plot events. One hot afternoon, Quentin Compson listens to Miss Rosa Coldfield tell the story of the Sutpens; that evening he listens to his father fill in gaps in Miss Rosa’s story; and, six months later at Harvard, he and Shreve McCannon stay up all night piecing together the rest of the puzzle. The only events taking place in the present are instances of storytelling, and the one present-day action scene—Quentin’s journey with Rosa to Sutpen’s Hundred—comes to us only through a flashback. Like Virginia Woolf, however, William Faulkner attempts to convey “everything, everything!” within certain constraints. Instead of a drawing on a roving trajectory of focalization, he focalizes the overall narrative through various internal narrators in turn, and each narrator contributes to the emerging pattern of the Sutpen story.


Chaotic System Attractor Structure Strange Attractor Chaos Theory Narrative Form 
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  1. 3.
    Peter Brooks, 308, 304. For a discussion of the text along the lines of Brooks’s, see also Karen McPherson, “Absalom, Absalom!: Telling Scratches,” Modern Fiction Studies 33 (1987): 431–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Joseph R. Reed, Jr., argues that the text “is a narrative about narrative,” Shreve and Quentin “replac[ing] the facts they are given with assumptions that better fit their developing design.” See Faulkner’s Narative (New Haven: Yale University Press. 1973), 47.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Ian MacKenzie, “Narratology and Thematics,” Modern Fiction Studies 33 (1987): 543, 544.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Susan Sniader Lanser, Fictions of Authority: Women Writers and Narrative Voice (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 4.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Although his overall argument differs from mine, James A. Snead makes a connection between narrative withholding and the suppression of the black blood in “The ‘Joint’ of Racism: Withholding the Black in Absalom, Absalom!,” William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987), 129–41. Applying a chaos-science model to Go Down, Moses, Paul Harris points out that “the elegant balance struck between order and disorder” in Faulkner’s text “is a product and expression of larger historical and ideological forces.” See “Fractal Faulkner: Scaling Time in Go Down, Moses,” Poetics Today 14 (1993): 643.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    James P. Crutchfield, J. Doyne Farmer, Norman H. Packard, and Robert S. Shaw, “Chaos,” Scientific American December 1986: 47–48.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!, The corrected text (1936; 1986; New York: Vintage International, 1990), 211–12. Further references to this edition are included in the text. Italicized words and passages are Faulkner’s unless I indicate otherwise.Google Scholar
  8. 15.
    The definition comes from Hayden White. See “Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” The Content of the Form (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 5.Google Scholar
  9. 16.
    See Faulkner’s Revision of Absalom, Absalom!: A Collation of the Manuscript and the Published Book (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971). Critics often attempt to provide a rational explanation for Quentin’s and Shreve’s apparently sudden accession of knowledge by arguing that Henry Sutpen told Quentin of Bon’s black blood during the visit that Quentin made to Sutpen’s Hundred. See, for example, Michael Millgate, The Achievement of William Faulkner (New York: Random House, 1966), 164.Google Scholar
  10. 21.
    Faulkner admired both Sterne and Proust. In a letter to H. L. Mencken, he mentions that the American Language Supplement is “good reading, like Sterne or Swift.” See William Faulkner, “To H. L. Mencken,” 22 February 1948, Selected Letters of William Faulkner, ed. Joseph Blotner (Franldin Center, PA: Franldin Library, 1976), 324. In his biography of Faulkner, Blotner describes some of the points Faulkner made in an interview with a French doctoral candidate: “When he had read Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, he said, ‘This is it!’ and wished he had written it himself.”Google Scholar
  11. See Joseph Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography(1 vol.) (1974; New York: Vintage, 1984), 562.Google Scholar

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© Jo Alyson Parker 2007

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  • Jo Alyson Parker

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