William Faulkner was a man of various dispositions and he instilled within his characters the life in its various vicissitudes and disparities. He was born in 1897 after the civil war, the time when Southern part of America was tarnished and devastated by its own historical image. He subtly developed characters within the paradigm of this condition and the complexities people were facing in their social lives.
Females in the eyes of Faulkner possess dual personalities: either they are destructive or they have within them power to influence others in the society and are creative. Females are bestowed by the nature with the motherly care and fertility. They are very beautiful and are very gentle like the mother Earth.
On the other hand, Faulkner also described women as destructive, lacking in the autonomy, speaking very little, described from the point of view of male characters and presented from the man’s image. This destructiveness of women is portrayed with subtlety of words in Absalom! Absalom! Critics also described female characters as just submissive receivers in the male dominated society and as said by Edith Hamilton, they are “volitionless servants of fatality.” (Gladstein, 40)
Heloisa Gomes too said in her essay in Brazilian Feminism, “Woman appears basically as the one who suffers the consequences of action propagated by man and it is she who, frequently, reflects upon such action” (Gomes, 57) This is true for all the female characters of Absalom! Absalom! However, not true for only one character, Miss Rosa Coldfield who certainly contradicted passivity and became a profound narrator to reveal the story of Thomas Sutpen and his activities that affected others in the story.
Though in the story, central character is Sutpen yet it is Rosa's voice that left a deep impression in the minds of the readers. As it is suggestive of Rosa, she all through seemed to be bitter and hysterical in nature and so embittered that she could not complete her story and had to be continued by Compsons, Shreve and Faulkner.
Sutpen was responsible for formation of Rosa’s character of enragement and disillusionment, as he had declined her romantic offer. Sutpen did not reject Rosa but rejected her dreams. Rosa wanted to get married, have children, and live a life of purpose; but what she got in return was the life of a spinster and a bitter woman who has held all these years the story of Sutpen and the tragic consequence of his life in her heart only to pour out later to Charles Bon.
She is depicted as the most powerful woman as compared to the others yet complexity in her nature speaks volume of the woman who in the male dominated society is always ready to struggle for her independent status, yet forced to despise her position. Over all “Absalom! Absalom”! is a story of a man who struggles with the social and economic turbulences and thinks women as mere child bearers.
It is only man whose actions bears the fruit of his own destruction and so the destruction of woman. The woman has to face the consequences of the actions committed by man and has to reveal the same. Women have to subject themselves to the conditions of the society. Though woman never involves herself in the issues concerning the class society and other related matters, yet she thinks and shows her intellectual ability that man himself is unable to depict, yet her position in the society is only as a wife, daughter, or a sister.
For man, woman is his symbol of status to the extent that if he feels his status is in danger she would be despised. It is this feeling of attachment and intensity of the relationship between the two, which gives the thinking power to female more than man could imagine.
Charles Bon had a mistress about which Sutpen came to know in New Orleans. She was what was termed in those days as Octoroon' , a kind of woman who was 1’8 less black and he had son from this relationship. But when Bon introduced this woman to Henry, he found that she was not actually a mistress but helpmate who had been given special training since her childhood to live only to give pleasure to the white men and be his property.
She was a representative of that part of the New Orleans whereby the women of the mixed blood could live their life through their relationship with the white men with comfort. This is yet again a picture of women in the society where she has to live to give sexual pleasures to men and bear his children.
Man superiority over woman begins in the household where both assign their own place. Man makes the space for women to serve and woman provides all comforts to man and gives guarantee for his prosperity and submits her for this role without questioning. It is quite clear in this sentence, “We kept the house, ... we kept the room which Thomas Sutpen would return to ... just as we kept Henry’s room.” (Faulkner, 155) “Iron prohibition” (Faulkner, 156) from generations had made woman live in a house “smaller than its actual size” (Faulkner. 10).
Within the house, sexual hierarchy is explicated itself: “it is the man who names the different parts of the house.” (Faulkner, 7) House, therefore, constitutes the most important component, which has established her place as a dependent member. Power of Faulkner words highlighted the issues of females with great subtlety and with the most powerful story line in the contemporary societal conditions.
The novel built up the importance of male supremacy and woman’s inferiority through the spoken words of male characters: “‘I don’t expect you to understand it’, he said. ‘Because you are a woman.' (Faulkner, 30) Nevertheless, Rosa was a woman of independent mind and thoughts and every speech of hers reflects her rebellious nature.
While telling the story of her childhood, she viciously spoke, “I displaced no air, gave off no betraying sound, from one closed forbidden door to the next and so acquired all I knew of that light and space in which people moved and breathed” (Faulkner, 145). Her speech clearly shows how the fear and hatred can grow in the woman as regards the relationship with her house and with everything that house represents.
Her potentialities and her observant power are always kept under restraint as if fence is created around her. As it was happening with Judith Sutpen whose nature has been compared several times with her father: “They were too much alike.” (Faulkner, 122) Her action and attitude would have been very similar as compared to her father if any body had tried to create hurdle in her path but her actions were restricted.
She has only liberty to deliver her intellectual capabilities to help her man in his decision-making and for his growth and prosperity, else she has to be only a passive receiver. As soon as Ellin married Sutpen, she disappeared herself “into an edifice like Bluebeard’s and there transmogrified into a mask looking back with passive and hopeless grief upon the irrevocable world.” (Faulkner, 60)
Within this drama of social complexities, there also lay a prefix and a dilemma of Thomas Sutpen who failed to established his family dynasty and ended in tragedy. As rightly analyzed by Peter Swiggart, “Failure of Thomas Sutpen to establish the roots of a family dynasty in the South’s fertile soil assumes the status of personal tragedy as well as social allegory” (Swiggart, 149). The roots of the failure of Thomas Sutpen to establish his family also lay in his attitude he adopted towards woman.
He left his wife because she had a black blood and disowned his son only because of the same purpose and neither allowed his daughter Judith to marry Charles Bon on virtue of his black blood. The sequence of events that followed on owing to his decisions led to the downfall of this dynasty. Sutpen’s attitude towards Rosa also was yet another step towards the downfall of his family dynasty.
When he asked Rosa after the engagement, she had to deliver him a boy before marriage and if she could then only he would marry her. This shattered the pride of Rosa and she declined his offer. Quentin’s words too showed his negative connotation about Rosa Coldfield, as he said that her voice would ultimately crush and this attitude continued through out the story. Faulkner never empowered Rosa to exert her position, and allowed Quentin to marginalize her story.
Her physicality and emotional trauma could be felt in the lines, “female old flesh long embattled in virginity.” (Faulkner, 4) It is viewed that Rosa no longer possessed speech as possessed by any other narrator in the novel. Despite of the shortcomings, it is also true that Rosa was a strong woman, who could come out of the contemporary issues related to women. Many critics have ignored Rosa as hysterical and unstable women.
She was a self-independent woman, kept her busy in writing poetry, and her visionary power insisted her to call Quentin and tell him her story. She fitted herself well in the social circle. Through depicting female’s position, Faulkner highlighted the scenario so particular about the society during and after civil war and this he told through Rosa, which she narrated with such a great authority that men could not easily accept.
The civil war turned the characteristic and attitude of men. Faulkner suffixed Woman as ghosts under the subjugation of man. From every aspect of the literary device like plot, surroundings and events, there is a reflection of the feminine touch, which Faulkner criticized with irony but that too amidst the turbulent social and economic environment.
Faulkner, William. “Absalom, Absalom!” New York: Vintage, 1972. Gladstein, Mimi Reisel. “The Indestructible Woman in Faulkner, Hemingway, and Steinbeck”. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1986. Gomes, Heloisa Toller. “The Presence of Cassandra: Women in Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!, and in Jose Lins do Rego’s Fogo Morto.” Brazilian Feminisms. Solange Ribeiro de Oliviera and Judith Still, eds. Nottingham: University of Nottingham Press, 1999. 57-67. Swiggart, Peter. “The Art of Faulkner’s Novels” Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1962.