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THOMAS SUTPEN'S MORALITY AND THE SOUTH IN WILLIAM FAULKNER'S ABSALOM, ABSALOM
- THOMAS SUTPEN'S MORALITY AND THE SOUTH IN WILLIAM FAULKNER'S ABSALOM, ABSALOM
- HPANG, SOOK HEE
- Issue Date
- 대학원 영어영문학과
- Graduate School of Ewha Womans University
- As we have seen in the previous chapter, Faulkner creates in Absalom, Absalom! the tragedy of Sutpen and the South against the background of the two major cultures, Greek and Hebrew, on which Western civilization is founded. The novel examines the malaise that afflicts twentieth century Southerners and the origin of that malaise in the crime of slavery. In the character and history of Thomas Sutpen, Faulkner penetrates to the truth behind the Southern legend to assess the moral responsibility of the pioneer who created a replica in Mississippi of the antebellum sociaty and helped provoke the destruction of that society. The descendants of this pioneer, generation after generation, re-enact their father's crime, and, plagued by guilt, they are shadows of the past, incapable of coping with the reality of the present. The novel, spanning four generations, is an incisive history of the South; it is also a perceptive study of American individualism, and the need of each living being to be recognized as an individual.
Like the Greek heroes, Sutpen embodies the characteristics of his time and his nation. He is the rugged individualist of nineteenth-century America. He possesses those qualities associated with the development of the nation --the fierce ambition, the self-assurance, the iron will, the individualism, the ability and willingness to endure hardship and hard work. In an American setting, Sutpen is the closest possible approximation to the kind of character essential to classical drama. His tragedy, played out against a historical backdrop, is caused by a fatal flaw in his character, a human flaw that gives universal significance to his downfall.
This fatal flaw of Sutpen is the unforgivable sin. He has not only isolated himself from all human commitments, he has committed the worse sin of violating the sanctity of the individual human heart; he has ruined not only himself but the lives and hearts of those around him. The list is infinite: with the blindness both of a man obsessed and of an unthinking child, Sutpen has abandoned his family in Virginia in leaving for Haiti ; he has exploited the Indians, Yoknapatawpha, Ellen and her father; he has repudiated his part-Negro wife and son; he has refused to acknowledge Charles Bon, driven Henry to fratricide, and bent Judith to his ends; he has impelled Rosa to the embittered spinsterhood; he has shattered the trust of Wash, seduced Milly and repudiated her and the child when she bore him a daughter, driving Wash to triple murder; his legacy lives on in Charles Etienne and Jim Bond. These sins of the father are visited upon the children because the children, too, ironically choose again the design, the tradition, that negates or destroys life. Henry, in choosing to kill Charles rather than permit the social sin of miscegenation, chooses, as his father did, the social value above the human value; having accepted the Southern code, Henry could more easily kill his beloved brother than countenance a violation of the Southern morality.
Ultimately, Sutpen's sin is typical of his culture, and his downfall is symbolic of the downfall of that culture. The' South is destroyed because it "erected its economic edifice not on the rock of stern morality but on the shifting sands of opportunism and moral brigandage." As everyone knows, in the Old South the path to virtue and success is clear and simple, and any poor boy may follow it: get land, slaves, a plantation house, and the respectability of an acceptable wife and family. Sutpen, by accepting this standard, commits the sin of inhumanity, breaks God's covenant, and brings his family and the South to ruin. The moral consequences of' his crime extending through time become a part of the heritage of the human race. It means that the familial tragedy of Sutpen becomes the tragedy of the human family. This makes the novel Faulkner's greatest work and surely one of the masterpieces of contemporary literature.
In the light of the Greek, the Hebrew, and the Christian cultures, the characters are pictured with moral codes opposed to the Christian society in which they actually live. It may seem as if Faulkner emphasizes that Sutpen's actions are governed by pagan morality and the creed of the Old Testament; that he has not learnt the message of the New Testament, of grace, charity, love, and pity. To be sure, Christian morality is alien to Sutpen, and Faulkner does stress this, but, of course. he is not simply preaching Christian ethics. By working within the Greek, the Hebrew, and the Christian cultures, Faulkner gains a widely embracing referendum for moral behavior. Against this measuring rod, composed of pre-Christian as well as Christian codes of behavior, he can assess the value of the central character of his novel, Colonel Sutpen. The author is not limited in his estimation, as he perhaps would be if he created the tragedy within the vision of one specific religious or philosophical creed. By fusing in his tragic vision the different values, old and modern, of Western civilization, Faulkner enables the readers to estimate the hero from different points of view. This desire to present a multifaceted picture of Sutpen is also achieved on another level, by letting four narrators tell the story. In using this wide moral framework Faulkner makes clear-- and here is the essence of the novel -- that Sutpen, and all men like him, are condemned no matter what moral code they are measured against. David was punished within the Hebrew culture; Agamemnon within the Greek. The Christian culture, in many way s an assimilation of the two pre-ceding ones, effected the punishment of Sutpen.
As a tragic hero Sutpen evokes pity rather than hatred. Faulkner himself estimates him:
He was not a depraved -- he was amoral, he was ruthless, completely self-centered. To me he is to be pitied, as anyone who ignores man is to be pitied, who does not believe that he belongs as a member of a human family.
Agamemnon, David, Sutpen -- different names for the tragic hero, the man who has admirable traits but who lacks those crucial qualities that Faulkner paid homage to in his Nobel Prize Address: "a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance."
In view of Absalom, Absalom!, we can find that Faulkner has much concern with social, racial, and political problems of his native land. But he is not simply an American who uncovers idiosybcrasies of native provincial character, but a world-embracing writer who speaks of the plight of man everywhere, with compassion and outrage, even with insinuations of tragedy in an old and understandable sense of that word, but conditioned by his humanity to an indomitable, comic, and sorrowful quest toward values necessary for survival: Irving howe calls his work "a moral fable of which the materials derive from Southern life but meanings -- at Fauikner's beat -- are quite without geographical reference or limit..."
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