The events in “Absalom, Absalom” are not portrayed in chronological order, so to present you this summary, we have to rearrange them to form a solid timeline. The shifted order of events is justified - the whole book is a series of flashbacks. Moreover, the flashbacks describe three time periods, not connected with each other. It is the one telling about Sutpen’s family, the period of Rosa and Quentin (September 1909) and the talk of Quentin and Shreve in the dormitory (January 1910). The book starts in September 1909. In a small town of Jefferson, Mississippi, Miss Rosa Coldfield calls a young man named Quentin Compston to come to her house and listen to her story. Rosa is going to tell about her meeting with legendary Thomas Sutpen (though we still don’t know why he is legendary).
Miss Rosa’s life is lonely and quite miserable. She is old and just lives her last days in her damp warm house, just sitting there and looking through the window. Though Quentin has other things to do: he shall prepare for his departure to Harvard, he is very interested to hear the story, so he accepts the invitation. He heard a lot about Sutpen in his childhood and now he has the opportunity to hear the real story from its
Rosa starts her story from the moment of Sutpen’s arrival to the town in 1833. He built his mansion there named Sutpen’s hundred and soon proposed to the older sister of Miss Rosa, a woman named Ellen Coldfield. They had a seemingly happy family life and two children named Judith and Henry. But still, the mansion was a place for all sorts of different and strange events. There were even fights to death sometimes. When the Civil War started, Ellen died and Henry killed Charles Bon soon. We still don’t understand what and who Miss Rosa is talking about, but it all perfectly makes sense for Quentin. After such a prologue, Miss Rosa asks Quentin to return to her in a while, so she will be able to take him to Sutpen’s house and show him something interesting.
Quentin returns home and discusses the story he heard with his father. But Mr. Compson has his own version of the events he heard from his father, General Compson. Also he heard lots of rumors that, though biased and unclear, can add some details to the story. Quentin hears the explanation about Sutpen’s reasons to refuse Charles Bon to marry his daughter Judith and to shoot Charles in front of the gates of his mansion. Mr. Compson also adds some details about Sutpen’s arrival to the town - we will later hear some more versions of it. He finishes the story by telling that General Compson knew Sutpen well. They befriended each other after one case, when Compson helped Sutpen to catch an escapee that belonged to him. Mr. Compson also tells some more about Sutpen’s marriage and family life, saying that all the town inhabitants disliked him, thinking that he is too arrogant, but Sutpen didn’t seem to care.
Mr. Compson, seemingly, said everything he wanted to, but Quentin asks him for more. He doesn’t understand why Miss Rosa feels such an urgent need to tell Sutpen’s story to anyone. As an answer Mr. Compson tells his son the story of Miss Rosa herself, and this story is full of abuse and miseries. Rosa’s mother died in childbirth that affected her daughter’s personality a lot. Rosa was raised by her neglective aunt. Her father, driven mad, locked himself in the attic and died of starvation. Her sister married the most famous man around and Rosa herself didn’t get a proposal in all her life. Still, Rosa was always close to life of Sutpen’s hundred, she knew everything about what was going on there. She learned that Henry went to college and befriended a young man named Charles Bon there. Also she witnessed Ellen turning into shallow lady filled with vanity, obsessed with dressing up herself and her daughter. Ellen wished her daughter to marry the man no less great than her own husband and made it her main life goal.
Quentin seems to be satisfied, but just can’t stop thinking about the story of Miss Rosa. When the night comes, he secretly leaves the house and returns to her to go together to the abandoned mansion. Quentin’s father produces a letter, once written by Bon to his beloved Judith. The style of writing is very eloquent, not similar to the local one. Also, Mr. Compson tells more about the inequality of the relationship between Henry and Charles, because Charles was much more intelligent and educated. Once they befriended each other, Henry invited Charles to celebrate Christmas with his family and Bon agreed, but the next Christmas Henry suddenly and mysteriously renounced his birthright and stormed off his father’s house.
Mr. Compson describes the family quarrel with delight, guessing that the reason of it was the racism of Sutpen Sr. and Bon’s connections with black people. No one knows the truth. Henry comes to New Orlean, to his friend, and immerses himself in luxurious and decadent life Charles shows him. But when he was there, he discovered that Charles had a female slave who was his concubine, prostitute and his wife. This tangled relationship is further complicated with the fact that the marriage is barely legitimate, because in the nineteenth century the woman is considered his property, not the equal partner.
The two friends enlist in the army to participate in the Civil War and go to fight for the South. Even after four years of war, Charles still refuses to abandon his wife, playing with her feelings (she believed that the marriage was legitimate, he didn’t but used her faith to get more sincere feelings from her). So, thinking of himself as of free man, he returned to Sutpen’s Hundred with Henry and asked for Judith’s hand. We suddenly learn that it was Henry who shot him near the gates, fed up with the atrocities his former friend committed to the women and protecting the honor of his sister.
We return to Miss Rosa, who continues her story while she and Quentin are going to the mansion. When she knew that Henry shot his friend, she and her half-nephew Clytie (Sutpen’s daughter from the black slave - he seemed to be quite a hypocrite) went to see Henry and learn what happened. Secretly the women - Ellen, Clytie and Miss Rosa - buried the body of Bon. They had no options but wait for the war to end and for Sutpen Sr. to return and sort the things out.
When he did return, he started to rebuild the plantation. Also Miss Rosa said that she endured his advances - not quite romantic, but rather pragmatic. He needed another heir and thought about impregnating Miss Rosa with one. But when the woman realized his plan, she immediately left the place to never return. Here her story ends, but Miss Rosa adds that she thinks that someone is still living in Sutpen’s Hundred.
The story shifts back to the present day. Quentin is already in Harvard. He gets a letter from his father that tells him that Miss Rosa passed away. His roommate named Shreve is very curious, why Quentin’s mood changed rapidly and Quentin decides to tell him the story of Sutpen and the rest. Shreve interferes, offering his own versions of events, considering it all a big detective story and tangling the plot even more.
Quentin tells the story we already know, but adds the end of it. Sutpen never rebuilt the plantation, started to abuse substances, drowning his sorrows with his servant Wash Jones and finally founded a little store to earn for living. But the idea to get a heir never left his mind: Sutpen slept with young Wash’s granddaughter (who was at least twice as young as him) impregnating her. Learning about that, Wash killed him with a scythe, to avenge the girl.
Quentin remembers the gravestones on the family cemetery and the black wife of Bon bringing her son, Charles Etienne, to see the grave of his father. Charles Etienne was left in the mansion to live with Clytie and Judith, where he lived in secret until he grew up into a troublemaker who was totally into drinking, gambling and getting to prison. Later Charles Etienne married and returned to Sutpen’s Hundred to live there with his new family. Alas, he and Judith soon died because of the illness, but his wife and son survived and his son named Jim Bond grew up.
The story shifts to Shreve’s version of events. He makes theories about who lived in the abandoned mansion after forty-three years. Shreve is sure that Miss Rosa was totally right. He theoretises about it. Mostly the information about Sutpen came from General Compson, who also heard it from Sutpen’s mouth, but didn’t witness the events. We learn that Sutpen was born in a log cabin and soon his family, who were plantation workers, moved from West Virginia to Virginia in search for a work. Sutpen had to work hard from the early childhood, learning all the bad things about racial and class prejudices. Fed up with it, Sutpen ran away and ended up in Haiti, not as a plantation worker, but as an overseer of the whole sugar plantation. He married the beautiful and kind woman there and they had a son, but when Sutpen learned that she had a trace of “negro blood” in her veins, he abandoned his family without any remorse and moved to Mississippi to build his new dynasty there.
He managed to forget about his past, until he learned that Charles Bon, the friend of Henry who came to celebrate Christmas, is his long-lost son he abandoned in Haiti. Sutpen was afraid that the revelation would ruin his life and the hard-earned respect. This very revelation explains Henry who left his house and his family, not wanting to have at least something in common with such a man. We don’t know if Sutpen Sr. told his son only that Charles was black (in nineteenth century even a drop of black blood made a person black) or the whole truth that Charles was Judith’s half-brother, so the marriage between them was impossible. We even don’t know what was worse from the point of view of the people who fought for the South at that time.
Quentin also finishes the story, repeating the part with impregnating the poor Milly, killing Sutpen with a scythe. Then he reveals that Wash Jones also killed Milly, her newborn son and himself with the very same scythe.
Shreve and Quentin become to speculate about the possible life of Charles Bon. They imagine his life in New Orleans and come up with a theory: his mother used him as a tool of revenge, raising Charles with one sole purpose. Charles deliberately married the black prostitute to show off, and then he had to marry Judith to totally disgrace all the family. Of course, Henry shot him, because he was the part of the family either he wanted it or not.
Finally, Quentin remembers one more thing he saw while visiting the abandoned estate with Miss Rosa. They found people there: Clytie, Henry and Jim Bond. Miss Rosa had a violent argument with Clytie who didn’t let her go upstairs. Miss Rosa managed to go there and saw Henry Sutpen, old and broken there. Quentin heard his words. Henry said that he has come home to die there. When, after three months, Rosa (who came several times before to visit Henry) saw him dying, she called the doctors to help him. But seeing the strangers approaching the house, Clytie set the whole mansion on fire. She and Henry died there and Jim Bond, terrified out of his wits, ran away, screaming, to unknown direction.
The novel ends with Shreve’s shocked question to Quentin: “Why do you hate the South?”